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The Big 12 should be an interesting league to follow in 2015. Although the conference was left out of the final four of the college football playoff last season, Baylor and TCU will be back in the mix once again in 2015. And of course, the league should have depth with Oklahoma and Texas looking to rebound, as well as an Oklahoma State team that is set to improve behind sophomore quarterback Mason Rudolph.
With spring practice underway, it’s never too early to take a look at the top returning players in the conference for 2015. The Big 12 has a Heisman candidate in TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, as well as some of the nation’s top linemen in Spencer Drango (OT) and Shawn Oakman (DE).
Here’s a quick primer on the top 15 players in the Big 12 for next season, as well as a few names to watch.
Big 12's Pre-Spring Top 15 Players for 2015
1. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 3,901 yards, 33 TDs, 10 INTs, 707 rush yards, 8 TDs
Boykin was one of the nation’s most-improved players last season and enters 2015 as one of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy.
2. Spencer Drango, OT, Baylor
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
Drango enters 2015 as one of the top offensive linemen in the nation. The Texas native showed no rust from a back injury that sidelined him for the final four games of 2013, as Drango earned first-team All-Big 12 and second-team Walter Camp Football All-America honors.
3. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 1,713 yards, 21 TDs, 15 catches, 108 yards
Perine was one of college football’s top freshman in 2014. He rushed for 1,713 yards, including a single-game record of 427 against Kansas in late November. Perine should be the focal point of Oklahoma’s offense in 2015.
4. Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 51 tackles, 19.5 TFL, 11 sacks, 3 FF
Oakman is a physically imposing figure off the edge at 6-foot-9 and 280 pounds. He registered 11 sacks anchoring Baylor’s defensive line last season, including five over the final four games.
Listen to the Cover 2 Podcast: Early 2015 Big 12 Preview
5. Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Oklahoma State
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 49 tackles, 17 TFL, 11 sacks, 1 FF
Ogbah quickly emerged as one of the Big 12’s top defenders in his first full season as a starter. His 11 sacks ranked second in the Big 12 in 2014. Ogbah delivered in big games, recording two sacks against Florida State, one against Baylor and two against TCU.
6. Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 37 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 2 sacks
Billings is quietly one of the league’s top defenders. At 300 pounds, the Texas native has the size to plug the middle, while also possessing the ability to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines (11.5 TFL in 2014).
7. Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 68 tackles, 17 TFL, 9 sacks, 2 FR
Striker finished 2013 on a tear by recording three sacks against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and the Florida native picked up where he left off in 2014. Striker registered nine sacks and his 17 tackles for a loss ranked third among Big 12 defenders.
8. Le’Raven Clark, OT, Texas Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
Clark is the anchor for an underrated Texas Tech offensive line. The Texas native enters 2015 with 38 consecutive starts and earned first-team All-Big 12 honors in 2014.
9. Cody Whitehair, OT, Kansas State
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
Whitehair shifted from guard to tackle and continued to anchor Kansas State’s offensive line in 2014. The Kansas native earned second-team All-Big 12 honors in each of the last two seasons.
10. Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 92 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU
Joseph and teammate Daryl Worley anchor a secondary that should be near the top of the Big 12 in 2015. Joseph ranked second on West Virginia’s defense with 92 stops in 2014.
11. Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 43 tackles, 6 INT, 8 PBU
Sanchez has started all 26 games in his two years with the Sooners. The Texas native also has eight interceptions in his career and tied for sixth among Big 12 players in 2014 with 14 passes defended.
12. Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 64 receptions, 1,119 yards, 11 TDs
Coleman emerged as Baylor’s No. 1 receiver last season, averaging 17.5 yards per catch in 10 contests. In two years with the Bears, Coleman has 13 touchdown catches and was one of only three receivers in the Big 12 to average at least 100 receiving yards per game in 2014.
13. Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 1,252 yards, 16 TDs
Even though Baylor has one of the nation’s top passing offenses, don’t forget about Linwood’s production. In his first year as the starter, Linwood rushed for 1,252 yards and 16 scores.
14. Pete Robertson, LB, Texas Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 81 tackles, 14.5 TFL, 12 sacks, 3 FF
Robertson is a key piece in new coordinator David Gibbs’ rebuilding effort on defense. The senior earned second-team All-Big 12 honors after leading the conference with 12 sacks in 2014.
15. Dante Barnett, S, Kansas State
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 77 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 INT
Barnett has been a steady presence as a starter in Kansas State’s secondary in each of the last two years. He has seven interceptions in that span and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors in 2014.
Seven Names to Watch This Spring
Dravon Henry, S, West Virginia
Rising star in West Virginia’s secondary recorded 45 tackles and two interceptions as a true freshman last year.
Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
Five-star recruit likely to make an instant impact for a Texas defense losing linebackers Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks.
Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State
Lazard didn’t disappoint as a true freshman, catching 45 passes for 593 yards and three scores.
Elijah Lee, LB, Kansas State
Lee was an impact freshman for K-State last season, recording 4.5 sacks and one forced fumble. He should play an even bigger role in the defense in 2015.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
Tossed 14 scores over the final three games of 2014. Can he beat out Davis Webb for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart?
Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Was a key cog in Oklahoma State’s late-season improvement. Will only get better as a sophomore.
Ranthony Texada, CB, TCU
Started all 13 games as a redshirt freshman last season. Texada is now one of the leaders for a TCU secondary replacing standouts Kevin White (CB), Sam Carter (S) and Chris Hackett (S).
The NBA’s out-of-nowhere big man sensation, Hassan Whiteside, showed us his not-so-bright side last night.
During his Miami Heat’s 100-90 loss to the Boston Celtics, Hassan surprised Celtics center Kelly Olynyk with this nasty elbow to the back of the head:
The incident gave people cause to remember why Whiteside, despite being super talented, flailed around in the minor leagues and abroad for so long: There were major concerns about his personality.
The Heat have him on a minimum salary through next season, so the 25-year-old will have to avoid too many more incidents like this one if he doesn’t want to give fuel to his skeptics and potentially damage his earning power.
Whiteside was also ejected last week, for a fight that he didn’t start — Phoenix Suns sophomore Alex Len was the responsibility party there — but that he did help to escalate.
“It was about the fourth or fifth time I dunked on him and I feel like he was really frustrated,” Whiteside said to the Palm Beach Post, about the Len scuffle. “I shouldn’t have came back and retaliated the way I did because it really hurt my team … but every day is a learning day for me. But that’s what it was – it was just because I just kept dunking on him.”
Teammate Dwyane Wade is not too impressed with the big man’s increasing extra-physical activity — dunks or not. “He’s had enough veteran advice,” Wade said after the loss to Boston. “There comes a time where you have to do it yourself. There’s only so many words people can continue to say to you… You’re part of an organization. We all have our moments, selfish moments. But you can’t continue to keep having them, because you’ve got to be reliable and you’ve got to be able to be counted on. And right now, if he continues to act that way then he’s not reliable.”
— John Wilmes
The sky isn’t falling.
When it comes to running backs, however, that certainly feels like the case in Philadelphia, Dallas and Minnesota.
The NFL’s silly season is underway now that teams are “legally” negotiating free agent contracts and here are the running backs stealing the headlines.
But for the life of me, I can’t figure out why.
One of the first big waves to ripple through the NFL was Chip Kelly’s decision to jettison Eagles running back LeSean McCoy to Buffalo for rising star linebacker Kiko Alonso.
The city of Philadelphia was stunned. How could he give up our best player for a linebacker who didn’t play a down in 2015? After looking at McCoy’s new deal with the Bills, it should be easy to figure it out.
McCoy’s five-year, $40 million contract reportedly includes $26.5 million in guaranteed money. Buffalo will supposedly pay the seven-year veteran $16 million this year.
For a 5-foot-10, 210-pounder who plays the most abusive position in the league, has touched the ball 706 times in the last two seasons and only started two full years due to nagging injuries? No, thanks. Especially, for one who doesn’t get along with the head coach.
Kelly knows what he is doing. It’s a foolish move to invest huge chunks of cap space in an aging running back — no matter how talented.
DeMarco Murray and Adrian Peterson aren’t any different. Murray is coming off a breakout season for the Cowboys but Jerry Jones is making the smart move by letting his tailback test the free agent waters. Let someone else pay for his ’14 season.
Murray is one of just 10 players in NFL history to top 390 carries in a season and the disturbing track record for repeat success is enough to keep even Jones from making a football-crazed decision. Other than freak of nature Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson, who did it twice and lived to tell about it, a 390-carry season all but ensures the end is near for ball carriers.
|Larry Johnson||2006||416||158 att., 559 yds., 3 TD|
|Jamal Anderson||1998||410||19 att., 59 yds., 0 TD|
|James Wilder||1984||407||365 att., 1,300 yds., 10 TD|
|Eddie George||2000||403||315 att., 939 yds., 5 TD|
|Gerald Riggs||1985||397||343 att., 1,327 yds., 9 TD|
|Terrell Davis||1998||392||67 att., 211 yds., 2 TD|
|Ricky Williams||2003||392||168 att., 743 yds., 6 TD|
|Barry Foster||1992||390||177 att., 711 yds., 8 TD|
Note: Dickerson carried 390 times as a rookie in 1983 and 404 times in '86.
Including Dickerson, only three players managed to even top 1,000 yards the following year, but even that success was short-lived. Both Gerald Riggs and James Wilder were never the same despite solid encore showings. Riggs started just 28 games in five seasons after his high-water marks in 1984-85 and Wilder scored just three times and never topped 704 yards in his five final seasons after his two breakout campaign.
No running back since Dickerson in 1986 has carried over 390 times and returned to that same level of production. Not only is NFL history against Murray but so is his own past. This is a player who constantly dealt with injuries at Oklahoma and has managed just one full season in four tries for the Cowboys.
In no way is signing Murray to an absurd free agent contract a smart idea. Jones, shockingly, is allowing someone else to make the foolish decision this time.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Vikings brass is working through a bizarre but familiar situation with Adrian Peterson. Sure, head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman are pitching A.D. on returning to the Twin Cities by taking recruiting visits to his Houston-area home.
But it shouldn’t be the rocky relationship or bad off-the-field publicity that leads the Vikings to punt their star tailback. It’s simply good business.
Peterson is set to make roughly $42 million over the next three seasons with a cap number over $47 million. Peterson is the best running back of this generation, but there is no way to justify paying that amount money for a running back in his 30s who has carried the ball (and been hit hard) over 2,000 times.
It may be tough to swallow because fans bond quicker with running backs than anyone else on the field except the quarterback. But Dallas, Philadelphia and Minnesota are better off parting ways with their beloved star runners in an effort to invest in other areas.
There is a reason no running back has gone in the first round in two consecutive drafts.
Saturday’s slate of regular-season finales finished up what’s been a brutal Big 12 regular season schedule. With just three days until tournament play begins, March Madness is officially here.
Wednesday marks the start of the Big 12 tournament with the play-in games, beginning with Kansas State and TCU.
Wednesday, March 11
No. 8 KSU (15-16, 8-10 Big 12) vs. No. 9 TCU (17-14, 4-14 Big 12), 7 p.m. ET
Kansas State experienced the definition of an up and down season. On the bright side, the unranked Wildcats knocked off two top-25 teams in their last three games of the regular season, including a 70-63 win over Kansas. KSU followed up with a 70-69 win over Iowa State, but fell flat in the regular season finale against Texas.
Kansas State is led by sophomore Marcus Foster, who leads the team with 12.9 points per game. TCU, on the other hand, got the season started on a 13-game win-streak, but struggled in conference play, with the only notable win coming over then-ranked No. 20 Oklahoma State. TCU did manage a season-sweep over Texas Tech and split games with KSU, falling in the first meeting 58-53. The Horned Frogs followed up with a convincing 69-55 win in their second meeting on Feb. 18.
No. 7 Texas (19-12, 8-10 Big 12) vs. No. 10 Texas Tech (13-18, 3-15 Big 12), 9:30 p.m. ET
Two separate four-game losing streaks tarnished an otherwise solid season by the Texas Longhorns. Against ranked opponents this year, the Longhorns managed just two wins, coming against WVU (77-50) and Baylor (61-59). After enduring a second, four-game skid, Texas closed the season with wins over Baylor and Kansas State to pick up a bit of momentum prior to the first-round game of the conference tournament.
Sophomore Isaiah Taylor has been the go-to guy for Texas, averaging over 13 points per game. Texas has also used its inside size advantage with Cameron Ridley to its advantage as well. The Longhorns get the maligned Texas Tech Red Raiders, who managed just three conference wins this season.
In their two previous meetings this season, Texas won in convincing fashion by scores of 70-61 and 56-41. Although the Red Raiders managed just three conference wins this year, the biggest of the season came on Jan. 24 over then-ranked No. 9 ISU.
Thursday, March 12
No. 4 Baylor (23-8, 11-7 Big 12) vs. No. 5 WVU (23-8, 11-7 Big 12), 12:30 p.m. ET
During their first meeting this year, the Baylor Bears exerted their will on WVU and walked out of the Coliseum with an 87-69 win. Baylor completed the sweep over the Mountaineers last weekend, but WVU showed much more promise against Baylor in Waco, especially considering the Mountaineers were without seniors Juwan Staten and most of regulation without Gary Browne.
Three minutes into the game, Browne was injured chasing after a loose ball and has since been diagnosed with a high ankle sprain. Neither have played since Feb. 24. Still, Baylor was able to finish the sweep with a 78-66 victory.
The Bears have built quite the resume for the postseason, entering the Big 12 tournament with a sweep of Iowa State, WVU and season splits with Oklahoma and Texas. In the final two games of the season, Baylor has struggled to finish, with an overtime loss to Texas and a slim 77-74 win over Texas Tech in Saturday’s finale.
For the Mountaineers, it’s been a game of attrition, trying to find ways to stay competitive with no Gary Browne or Juwan Staten. Despite falling in two of the final three games, WVU rebounded with a convincing 81-72 win over Oklahoma State. Filling the void left by Browne (7 ppg, 1.8 reb.) and Staten (14.5 ppg, 2.8 reb.) has been the talent group of youngsters led by Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles Jr. and Tarik Phillip. With both Staten and Browne’s availability still in the air, WVU must be prepared to go forward without the availability of the two senior guards.
No. 1 Kansas (24-7, 13-5 Big 12) vs. KSU/TCU winner, 2:30 p.m. ET
The Jayhawks are used to winning. So it’s no surprise that Kansas locked up its 11th-straight regular season conference title and enter the Big 12 tournament as the undisputed No. 1 seed.
Kansas, like WVU, might potentially have to play without two key cogs in the machine in the postseason.
Cliff Alexander has been sidelined for over a week now while the NCAA investigated reports that said Alexander potentially accepted impermissible benefits. Making matters worse, the Jayhawks saw standout Perry Ellis injure his knee against West Virginia last week. Ellis was eventually diagnosed with a “sprained knee”, but underwent treatment with the hopes of being ready for tournament play. After sitting out Saturday against Oklahoma, coach Bill Self hopes to have Ellis and his 14.2 points per game back on Thursday.
As a team, it was another stellar year for the Jayhawks, but did see losses at Iowa State (86-81), WVU (62-61) and Oklahoma (75-73).
No. 2 Iowa State (22-8, 12-6 Big 12) vs. Texas/Texas Tech winner, 7 p.m. ET
The 2014-2015 season marked another year the Iowa State Cyclones finished hot on the heels of the Kansas Jayhawks in regular season play. The Cyclones average over 79 points per game and picked up key wins along the way throughout some of the conference’s best competition, including a 74-72 win over WVU, a 77-70 win over Oklahoma and an 86-81 win over eventual champion Kansas.
The Cyclones capped off their regular season with wins over Oklahoma and TCU, with the win over Oklahoma giving ISU the No. 2 seed in the tournament. Big 12 Player of the Year contender Georges Niang has been the spark plug for the Cyclones. The junior forward averages over 15 points per game and more than five rebounds a game.
Whichever team wins between Texas and Texas Tech still heavily favors the Cyclones, even away from the Hilton Coliseum.
No. 3 Oklahoma (21-9, 12-7 Big 12) vs. No. 6 Oklahoma State (18-12, 8-10 Big 12), 9:30 p.m. ET
Oklahoma rode the back of its workhorse Buddy Hield to the No. 3 seed in the tournament. Hield, who averaged 17.4 points per game claimed the Big 12 top honor as player of the year.
It’s no shock that Hield is one of the main reasons Oklahoma is now a postseason contender.
Oklahoma stacked an impressive year that saw big victories against Iowa State, Kansas and WVU. The Sooners finished the regular season with a 75-73 win over the Jayhawks on senior day.
Things haven’t been as favorable for the Cowboys this season. In the final stretch of the regular season, the Cowboys posted just a 1-5 record, including losses to Texas Tech and TCU.
Even though the odds are stacked against the Cowboys on Thursday, Oklahoma State does have a top-10 win over the Jayhawks to their credit. Senior Le’Bryan Nash leads the team with nearly 17 points per game. Junior Phil Forte III has been potent for the Cowboys on the offensive end of the floor as well, scoring over 15 points per game as well.
Friday, March 13
Thursday afternoon winners 6 p.m.
Thursday evening winners 8 p.m.
Saturday, March 14
Big 12 Championship 5 p.m.
— Written by Chris Siers for BlueGoldSports.com, a must visit for any and all West Virginia Mountaineer fans and part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow BlueGoldSports.com on Twitter @Blue_GoldSports.
College basketball coaches are always in a process of becoming.
Every coach in the profession is looking for the next milestone. Well, every coach except for Mike Krzyzewski.
If you follow the sport closely, you probably have an opinion on the best coach without a national title, the best coach without a Final Four, the best coach outside of a power conference, the best coach under 40, or whatever the case may be.
If your school is close to making a coaching change, maybe you’re especially interested in the coaches who are on the rise.
For the second part of our college basketball expert survey, we asked a panel of more than two dozen college basketball experts who they believed was in the process of becoming one of the best in the profession.
The results were somewhat surprising from multiple angles. Some of our panelists reached into the low-major ranks to respond. Some reminded us that even coaches who reached the Final Four still have things to accomplish before they reach the top of the mountain.
Athlon Sports College Basketball Expert Poll
Question 2: Which coach is early in his career now but will be considered a top-10 name in the next decade?
|5||Archie Miller, Dayton|
|4||Shaka Smart, VCU|
|3||Tony Bennett, Virginia|
|3||Dan Hurley, Rhode Island|
|2||Chris Holtman, Butler|
|2||Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State|
|2||Sean Miller, Arizona|
|1||Chris Collins, Northwestern|
|1||John Groce, Illinois|
|1||Larry Krystkowiak, Utah|
|1||Matt Langel, Colgate|
|1||Gregg Marshall, Wichita State|
|1||Cuonzo Martin, Cal|
|1||Tim Miles, Nebraska|
|1||Steve Prohm, Murray State|
|1||Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics|
|1||Brad Underwood, Stephen F. Austin|
|1||Will Wade, Chattanooga|
|1||Michael White, Louisiana Tech|
• The nature of the question was up for interpretation for many of our panelists — “early in his career” and “top-10” coach are flexible designations. We have coaches from Colgate and Chattanooga listed here along with three coaches who have already reached a Final Four and a number of coaches already at power programs. Sean Miller has coached for 11 total seasons, six at Arizona. That’s early in a career when compared with lifers like Krzyzewski.
• It’s interesting that Sean Miller wasn’t the top Miller on the list. The younger brother Archie Miller took Dayton to the Elite Eight last season and has the Flyers in NCAA contention despite a ton of in-season roster turnover. That said, don’t read too much into that. In all likelihood, much of our panel either already considered Sean Miller a top-10 coach or a guy who’s not “early” in his career.
• That one vote for Boston Celtics coach and former Butler head man Brad Stevens came with this comment — “when he when he returns to college, as he inevitably will.”
• A number of coaches showed up on both this list and our best coaches in the game today poll — Sean Miller, Tony Bennett, Shaka Smart and Fred Hoiberg.
• Rhode Island’s Dan Hurley received three votes. His name should look familiar — he’s the brother of ex-Duke star Bobby Hurley and son of Hall of Fame high school coach Bob Hurley. Dan Hurley is making his own mark, leading massive rebuilds at Wagner and Rhode Island in just five years as a head coach.
• Think of the journey for Butler coach Chris Holtmann. He wasn’t a full-time head coach until December when his boss, Brandon Miller, officially left his post to deal with health issues.
• Also on the list are a few names that are about to move out of low-major ranks into the mid-majors include Chattanooga’s Will Wade (a former Shaka Smart assistant), Louisiana Tech’s Michael White (who was interviewed for the Tennessee job last season), Stephen F. Austin’s Brad Underwood (who is 59-7 as a head coach) and Murray State’s Steve Prohm.
• The most surprising name on this list? Matt Langel. The 37-year-old has been at Colgate for four seasons, taking over a seven-win team the year before he arrived. The Red Raiders went 12-6 for its first winning record in the Patriot League since 2002-03.
More than two dozen college basketball experts from throughout college basketball media participated in the Athlon Sports survey conducted in late February and early March this year.
All were notified their individual responses to our six questions would not be revealed on AthlonSports.com, but they were free to post their responses to their own sites, on their broadcasts or to their social media outlets.
The panel was comprised of:
Rick Bozich, WDRB Louisville
Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News
Chris Dortch, Blue Ribbon
Wes Durham, ACC Network/Fox Sports Network
Ryan Fagan, Sporting News
John Feinstein, Washington Post/NBC Sports
Pat Forde, Yahoo! Sports
John Gasaway, ESPN
Scott Gleeson, USA Today
Jeff Goodman, ESPN
Seth Greenberg, ESPN
Steve Greenberg, Chicago Sun-Times
Raphielle Johnson, College Basketball Talk
Blair Kerkhoff, Kansas City Star
Will Leitch, Sports on Earth
Mike Lopresti, NCAA.com
Troy Machir, Sporting News
Matt Norlander, CBSSports.com
Jerry Palm, CBSSports.com
Brendan Prunty, SI.com
Joe Rexrode, Detroit Free Press
Lindsay Schnell, SI.com
David Teel, Virginia Daily Press
Jerry Tipton, Lexington (Ky.) Herald Leader
Dick “Hoops” Weiss, Blue Star Media
Luke Winn, SI.com
Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott and teammates Damian Williams and Torrey Dale were attacked during a concert on spring break in Panama City, Fla, but all three players avoided major injuries from the incident. According to SunHerald.com, Prescott does not plan on pressing charges.
Prescott tweeted this on Monday night after news about the incident surfaced:
Thanks for all the Concerns and Prayers! I'm okay and ready to get back to Starkville. Ignorance happens! Be safe on Spring Break!— Dak Prescott (@15_DakP) March 10, 2015
Williams added this on Monday night:
It's all love, don't let anyone try to trick you out of your position because your worth and status is more than theirs #HailState— Damian Williams (@DamianDevon) March 10, 2015
Photos emerged following the incident, which appeared to show Prescott suffering from a few cuts:
There's also video from the incident:
What did Shawn Oakman ever do to the NCAA?
The NCAA Football Rules Committee last week approved rules banning “crop tops” and “non-standard/overbuilt facemasks.” Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman in a few games last season had both.
A player wearing a crop top tucks the bottom of the jersey into his pads, exposing the stomach. The overbuilt facemasks refer to those with four or five bars across and/or several diagonal bars across the front of the facemask.
Players with a crop top will cost their teams a timeout when they leave the game to fix their jerseys.
The NFL banned the same facemasks last season.
In other words, say goodbye to Ezekiel Elliott’s belly button and DeForest Buckner’s Bane look.
This is not allowed...
This is also not allowed.
If there’s a way to make a positive out of an awful situation, University of Oklahoma athletics is doing the work.
The Oklahoma campus was rocked Sunday evening and Monday when a video of fraternity members chanting racial slurs surfaced. The university severed all ties and affiliations with the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter and closed the fraternity house on campus.
Football and basketball players, joined by coaches Bob Stoops and Lon Kruger, demonstrated outside of the athletic facility this morning
“It’s something that should concern everyone,” Kruger told Guerin Emig of the Tulsa World. “It’s not just athletics.”
While the condemnation of such nakedly racist behavior should be expected rather than applauded, let’s give credit to the Sooners for this peaceful show of solidarity. Emotions easily could have spilled over — and to a degree they did in this profane Snapchat from linebacker Eric Striker.
Striker eventually apologized for the outburst via teammate Charles Tapper.
Eric Striker meant no harm by the snap chat.. He was angry and spoke off emotions and he is sorry for the cussing. pic.twitter.com/iKKuiz6lFt— Charles Tapper (@Takeflightchuck) March 9, 2015
Striker joined his teammates for a silent march from the practice facility on campus. Oklahoma athletics posted a video of the protest today on its official web site.
#Sooners stood together, recited Lord's Prayer together, walked out of indoor facility together. That was today's practice.— Guerin Emig (@GuerinEmig) March 9, 2015
I am incredibly proud of how we have come together in a time of crisis to promote real change & encourage solidarity as OU student athletes!— Ty Darlington (@TyDarlington56) March 9, 2015
Extremely proud of our guys right now for the way WE have handled this issue! I love this university and I love this team! #WeAreOne— Trevor Knight (@trevor_knight9) March 9, 2015
The repercussions of this incident are unclear, but at least one recruit announced he would de-commit from Oklahoma. Mesquite (Texas) North Mesquite offensive tackle Jean Delance announced he’d re-open his recruitment.
To all recruits do not take this wrong.. This is not a majority.. Meaning the majority if OU frats and Fans are not like that!! They are— Charles Tapper (@Takeflightchuck) March 9, 2015
Hot Sauce is a legend on the Streetball tour. And after watching this video, you will know why. Hot Sauce's killer crossover leaves the defender in the splits. The defender just stays down while Hot Sauce has the 'this is too easy' face. The crossover was pretty spectacular, but the reactions make the whole video epic.
Fun Fact: Hot Sauce made his film debut in 2006 in the movie Crossover. I guess that fit him pretty well.
This season, NASCAR trumpeted its new rules package as another step toward greater parity within the Cup Series. A driver-adjustable track bar, new pit road officiating and tapered spacers were all designed to bring greater evolution to a sport that’s looking for photo finishes.
Instead? Three races in, what we’ve got is a series of ho-hum endings. Joey Logano won the Daytona 500 when the yellow flag was thrown on the last lap, deflating any hope of a hair-raising finish. Next, Jimmie Johnson dominated Atlanta, a race that showed little difference from how 2014 played out on intermediates. Then came Sunday, a Las Vegas race that Kevin Harvick turned into a long-term runaway. Once the Hendrick Motorsports cars of Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon all received crash damage the coast was clear for last season’s defending champ to run away with the trophy.
In one sense, we have parity with three winners in three races. But what do those drivers have in common? Logano was a finalist for last year’s title, Harvick won it and Johnson has taken six championship trophies since 2006. That’s a whole lot of experience up front, driving for the same chassis (Penske and Hendrick), which took the Cup Series by storm last season.
Clearly, there’s a long way to go this year and plenty of chances for new faces to shine. A few, like Martin Truex Jr. and AJ Allmendinger continue to defy the odds with underdog programs. But so far, despite better television ratings 2015 remains threatened by four words NASCAR doesn’t want to see these days.
More of the same.
Through The Gears we go...
FIRST GEAR: Harvick Humming Right Along
The 2014 Sprint Cup champion, Harvick came into 2015 determined not to skip a beat — and he hasn’t. A second, second, and first so far have him atop the Sprint Cup standings by 9 points, posting a sparkling 1.7 average finish. His 258 laps led top the circuit while Sunday’s Las Vegas victory has him all but assured to make another Chase.
So why is Harvick running scared? He spent the majority of his winner’s press conference explaining the constant fear he has the No. 4 team will never be good enough.
“I have been absolutely terrified that we would never sit up here again, and I think that's the motivation that he and I have talked about, just making sure that you don't let everybody down,” he said. “You want to — you have to figure out ways to motivate yourself and motivate our team, and for us, it's just that motivation of trying to be the best you can in every practice and be the best that you can in qualifying. Friday, you would have thought that the end of the world had come because you looked at everybody on the team and it was like, oh, my gosh, we qualified 18th.”
Of course, they didn’t stay there, marching to the front where Harvick pounced the second Johnson went down with tire problems. The “fear factor” appears to be working, continually pushing a team that gets along within a larger organization falling apart. Don’t forget how Harvick’s three teammates are doing: Tony Stewart (34th! in points), Danica Patrick (spun in practice, been virtually invisible), and Kurt Busch (indefinitely suspended). How this team has been able to bond together, supporting each other with such chaos around them is truly impressive.
SECOND GEAR: Truex, Allmendinger Defying The Odds
Harvick’s Vegas victory, done on cruise control did come with a surprise runner-up finisher. Truex Jr. wound up second, his best result since joining Furniture Row Racing in 2014 along with his third straight top-10 finish. Now fourth in points, that’s the best a No. 78 driver has been in the history of the team since it started on the Cup level in 2005. It’s one of the sport’s big surprises, a shocking recovery after the team led just a single lap all last season. On a personal level, Truex had to watch girlfriend Sherry Pollex undergo treatment for ovarian cancer, meaning the painful moments didn’t stop once the checkered flag flew.
“Last year was — there was days where it was just really hard to even think about racing because it was so miserable,” he said. “But I think at the end of the day, I'm proud of our guys for sticking behind me. I think that there was never a time where I quit on them. I never gave up on them.”
Now, the hard work is paying off. Truex’s team has an alliance with Richard Childress Racing, providing them with chassis and testing information they need to be successful. Both he and Allmendinger, of single-car JTG-Daugherty Racing seem to be using the parts and pieces better than the team that’s providing them; both sit inside the top 5 in Sprint Cup points. For Allmendinger, the good vibes continue with a No. 47 team that made the Chase last year and expects to do so again, this time building the consistency needed to be a contender deeper than just the first round.
THIRD GEAR: Pit Road Problems
No pit road officials? No problem. NASCAR, with its new penalty replay system rather than eyeballing violations doled out 34 total penalties Sunday. Five of them were tire violations, an unusual number that helped cause debris cautions. Another dozen were speeding penalties, affecting big names like Stewart, Logano and Carl Edwards.
Logano and Penske teammate Brad Keselowski (tire) were perhaps affected the worst; lost track position left them 10th and seventh, respectively with otherwise front-running cars. Yet perhaps the biggest problems were “penalties” NASCAR no longer calls. A loose wheel led to an unscheduled green-flag stop for the No. 48 car, with no official eyeballing whether all the lugnuts were tightened. A later tire failure ended the day for Johnson; who knows if NASCAR could have caught either one?
FOURTH GEAR: Gordon Snakebit In Final Season
You’ve got to feel for Gordon, running his final full-time season in the sport. The No. 24 car has been super fast, scoring two poles in the first three races and leading the most laps in February’s Daytona 500. But each weekend, he’s wound up disappointed, the innocent victim in a wreck not of his making. At Las Vegas, it didn’t even take until race time for bad vibes to seep through; Patrick spun in front of him during the final minutes of Saturday’s Happy Hour practice. Forced into a backup car, Gordon had to start from the rear and could only make it up so far before — surprise — another wreck happened in front of him. Trying to avoid teammate Johnson, he slammed into the back of rookie Jeb Burton and wound up a disappointing 18th.
“I thought [Burton] was doing it to let me go by him and I didn’t realize until right at that moment when my spotter said something to me that Jimmie was having a problem; and I ran into the back of him,” he said. “I just can’t believe the way these days are going.”
Edwards and Kahne made contact in a wreck that ruined potential top-5 days for both drivers. Edwards took fault for the incident, one in which he ran the No. 5 car into the turn 4 wall. Both drivers remain without a top-5 finish this season… Brian Vickers was 15th in his first race since returning from offseason heart surgery. That finish alone left him with more points than Stewart has accumulated all year… Subs David Ragan and Regan Smith have yet to record top-10 finishes in substitute roles for the Busch Brothers.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
In a weird spring training moment on Sunday between the Angels and Royals, bees invaded a microphone attached to the net behind home plate at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Fans cleared the first six rows behind home plate and moved to the concourse. The Angels were forced off the field after already completing warm ups, and the start of the game was delayed 10 minutes while a beekeeper arrived to try and take care of the swarm.
The beekeeper was called upon again in the fourth inning when he shook the net and sprayed the bees causing another 10-minute delay. The fire department was called in last year during spring training to take care of the same problem at Tempe Diablo Stadium. But nothing in the past has been quite as dramtic as the swarm this weekend.
Check out some of the pictures of the swarm below.
Here's a video of the swarm:
The American League East is completely up for grabs in 2015. For most teams in the East, scoring runs won’t be much of a problem, but the fact there is not one single, proven, ace in any team’s rotation is telling.
No team in the division can boast about either their benches or bullpens which could make for some high-scoring affairs throughout the summer.
Here are a few storylines to keep you focused on the ailing American League East.
Red Sox Reload
It might feel like the Red Sox are just toying with the emotions of the Fenway faithful. The Sox went from choke in 2011 to worst in '12, to World Series champions in '13, back to worst last season, and are once again gearing up for a major postseason run this season.
General manager Ben Cherington spent this past winter wheeling, dealing and spending, adding major veteran talent to a team that was essentially a conglomerate of prospects late last summer. Cherington used the free agent market to sign a new third baseman and October standout in Pablo Sandoval for $95 million and shortstop Hanley Ramirez for $88 million. Sandoval is not seen as a long-term option at third, but will do for the time being. Ramirez, after adding about 25 pounds of muscle, is leaving the infield and being shifted to play in front of the Green Monster in left field — defensive comedy could ensue as Ramirez has never played outfield in his career.
Adding Ramirez and Sandoval should improve this Red Sox lineup that ranked 18th in runs last season. With a full season of Cuban prospect Rusney Castillo in center, resurgent campaigns from Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli, to go along with the big bat of David Ortiz, the Red Sox lineup should prove to be much more productive in 2015.
After Jon Lester and John Lackey were dealt last summer, holes needed to be filled in the rotation. Cherington sent Yoenis Cespedes, whom he acquired from the A's in the Lester deal, to Detroit for his prized target, Rick Porcello. Porcello is just 26 and coming off his best season ever (3.43 ERA, 204.2 IP, 129 K). Boston is hoping Porcello can mold into the ace of this Red Sox staff.
Behind Porcello, there is plenty of quality depth. Wade Miley, acquired from Arizona, has what it takes to be a top of the rotation arm if he can put it all together for an entire summer. Clay Buchholz has been streaky, but will remain the Sox’ number three arm, followed by veterans Justin Masterson and Joe Kelly.
While the Red Sox might not run away with the AL East crown this summer, they are certainly the most well-rounded team in the division and in prime position to return to the postseason in 2015.
Blue Jays Ready to Take Flight
Blue Jays’ General Manager Alex Anthopoulos has made it quite clear that this Toronto team is ready to win in 2015. The Jays haven’t been to the postseason since 1993 when “touch ‘em all” Joe Carter’s walk-off homer in Game 6 of the World Series locked up back-to-back titles.
Speaking of home runs, the heart of the Jays’ lineup could be the scariest in the American League. Between Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and newcomer Josh Donaldson, the Jays feature 98 home runs and 298 RBIs from 2014 in spots three through five on the lineup card. With shortstop Jose Reyes leading off, and newly acquired catcher Russell Martin in the two hole, the top half of this Blue Jays’ lineup has serious potential — it’s the bottom half that is going to be an issue.
If Toronto is hoping to end its 22-year postseason skid, simply put, their young arms are going to have to deliver in 2015. The raw talent is there, but Toronto is hoping that one or two of these arms grow into an ace while the others develop into quality starters. The Jays have three young righthanders 25 or younger that need to produce in Marcus Stroman (2014: 20 GS, 3.65 ERA, 103.2 IP) Drew Hutchison (32 GS, 184.2 IP, 184 SO), and Aaron Sanchez (24 G, 1.09 ERA, 0.697 WHIP). Waiting in the wings is top prospect and lefty Daniel Norris, who could cut his teeth in the bullpen or spot start this season. The addition of Martin behind the plate adds a fantastic teacher that can lead these young hurlers to take the next step.
At the top of the rotation are veterans R. A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. Buehrle and Dickey had a resurgence in 2014, throwing a combined 417 innings and averaging a 3.55 ERA and 1.29 WHIP —not shabby for 39 and 35 years old. While Dickey and Buehrle both proved they can still be effective in The Show, it's time for the young guns of the Blue Jays to prove they can lead this team to the postseason.
While the Alex Rodriguez circus will be in New York headlines for the foreseeable future, the true story of the 2015 Yankees can be found in the box score under letters DNP — as in Did Not Play. Last season the Yankees were the walking wounded, and this summer probably won’t be any different considering how old this team is.
Ace CC Sabathia claims that he is ready to roll in 2015 after season-ending knee surgery limited him to just eight starts last year. The Yankees' highlight signing of last offseason was Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka to the tune of $155 million. Tanaka didn't disappoint when he was on the mound, posting a 2.77 ERA and striking out 9.3 batters per nine innings. The honeymoon didn't last as Tanaka, however, as he was sidelined for a portion of 2014 with a partially torn UCL. Righty Michael Pineda was only able to start 13 games for the Yanks in 2014 after missing '12 and '13 with shoulder injuries. When Pineda did pitch, he was outstanding, posting a 1.89 ERA over 76 innings, surrendering just 56 hits.
While the pitching staff has a tendency to get beat up, the defense behind them isn’t too much healthier. Carlos Beltran wasn’t able to produce much for the Bronx Bombers in 2014 due to bone spurs in his elbow, causing him to miss 53 games. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury has a long and painful history of not being able to stay fit for duty, playing 140 games or more just four times in his eight-year career. And Mark Teixeira, who played in just 15 games in 2013 before undergoing major wrist surgery, hit just .216 last summer, almost 60 points under his career average.
If the Yankees' roster of full of aging and hurting veterans has any hope at competing in the AL East in 2015, the training staff may want to make sure the players take the field in bubble wrap instead of pinstripes — or just find the nearest time machine.
- By Jake Rose
The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard has been carving out a pretty significant page in the NBA encyclopedia these days. With his seventh triple-double of the season — his fifth in six games — Westbrook pushed the Thunder to a 108-104 home victory against the Toronto Raptors yesterday, and entered some pretty rare air.
"If you can find somebody who has slowed him down, let me know,” said Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan. “But it's definitely tough. You've got to give him credit.”
Russ collected 30 points, 17 assists — tying a career high — 11 rebounds and four steals in the win. With Kevin Durant sidelined with prolonged foot troubles, Westbrook has put OKC on his back, and created a fleeting circumstance: If he continues this fantastic play, he could win the MVP, which Durant won last year. Not since the dominant Boston Celtics of the 1950’s have we seen a team field two different MVP winners in consecutive seasons.
Westbrook was named the Western Conference Player of the Month for February, and also won the MVP nod in the All-Star game in New York City — there’s not much he isn’t doing these days.
More than any statistical achievements, though, Westbrook’s biggest feat has been leading the Thunder through weird times. With KD out and a huge roster shake-up underway in the midst of a playoff run, he’s provided the consistency that’s kept them in the postseason picture.
Regardless of who you’re rooting for, this is a run worth appreciating. We have to reach back more than 25 years and evoke a nascent Michael Jordan to find a streak of performances that can compare to what Westbrook is doing right now. This is one of those “where were you when” stretches in the NBA, and we suggest you get in front of a TV for it.
— John Wilmes
The Nationals’ talented but underachieving roster reached a crossroads this winter, with a slew of critical players heading into their walk years in 2015. The choices were clear: Keep the band together for one more run at a title, even if it meant losing some key pieces at season’s end, or trade a major piece or two for a chance at perpetuating this run of success. The third choice — pony up and re-sign everyone — never appeared to be a viable option. In the end, the Nationals more or less stood pat other than adding another weapon to an already loaded rotation, giving this core one last chance for glory. A quick look at this roster, which changed little from the one that won 96 games in 2014, tells you it should be a World Series contender, but folks have been saying that for a few years now, and the Nationals still haven’t gotten past the Division Series.
Even before signing Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract, this rotation was in fine shape. Jordan Zimmermann is perhaps the most important name on that list of Nationals who will be heading into their final season before free agency in 2015. Though he was the subject of many trade rumors, the team ultimately kept the understated righthander who has been the most consistent member of this high-powered rotation for several years now. With Zimmermann returning, this rotation — also featuring Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister — will rank as the best in the game. Fister, in particular, was a revelation in 2014, his first season in the NL following the trade that brought him to D.C. from Detroit. In most other rotations, he would be a solid No. 1 starter. Here, he either will be the No. 4 or 5 guy option. All told, Nationals starters went 70–49 with a 3.04 ERA in 2014, including Tanner Roark, who has been squeezed out because of the quality arms ahead of him. And now this group adds Scherzer (18-5, 3.15 ERA with the Tigers) to the mix. There’s every reason to believe this quintet can match, if not exceed, those numbers in 2015, as long as everyone stays healthy.
Two winters ago, the Nationals made the surprising move to sign free-agent closer Rafael Soriano, widely interpreted as a sign the team didn’t trust holdover Drew Storen with the ninth inning. Soriano did a decent enough job in 2014, converting 32 of 39 save opportunities. But the Nationals made no effort to keep him, preferring to turn the ninth back over to Storen, who saved 43 games in 2011 and last year was one of the most unhittable relievers in the game. Tyler Clippard, who had handled eighth-inning duties the past few seasons, was traded to Oakland for Yunel Escobar. Casey Janssen, who saved 87 games for Toronto over the past three seasons, signed in early February and will likely take over Clippard’s role. The rest of this highly functional bullpen appears mostly set, with righthanders Craig Stammen and Aaron Barrett and lefties Jerry Blevins and Matt Thornton holding down spots. The seventh spot is up for grabs from among a group that includes righty Blake Treinen, lefties Matt Grace and Xavier Cedeno, as well as veteran Heath Bell, a December minor league free agent signee.
Second base has been the Nationals’ most volatile position the last couple of years, going from Danny Espinosa to Anthony Rendon, then back to Espinosa and — following a trade deadline move last July — to veteran Asdrubal Cabrera. The Nationals acquired Escobar from the A’s in January if anything to give Espinosa competition. Escobar is a career .276 hitter who provides excellent defense when his head is in the right place. However, don’t rule out veteran Dan Uggla, signed to a minor league deal in December. Shortstop is an interesting position for the Nationals, if only because veteran Ian Desmond, a three-time Silver Slugger winner and cornerstone of the clubhouse, is in his final season before free agency. The Nationals can take comfort in penciling him in for 20 homers and 90 RBIs in 2015, but it will be unsettling to not have him signed beyond that.
The long-speculated move of erstwhile third baseman Ryan Zimmerman across the diamond to first base — forced by his shoulder injuries and a decline in his ability to throw — became official when the Nationals declined their 2015 option on Adam LaRoche. The estimable “Face of the Franchise” is still an elite glove man (though he will have a tough act to follow in LaRoche), and the Nationals hope some closure to the inevitable position-switch, which found him mostly in left field in 2014, will help his bat. Third base thus is bequeathed — for good this time — to Rendon, whose first full big-league season produced a dazzling .287/.351/.473 line, a league- leading 111 runs scored and a fifth-place finish in MVP balloting.
Picking up Denard Span’s $9 million club option for 2015 was a no-brainer after a resurgent 2014 in which he set career highs in hits, extra-base hits and stolen bases. As a result, the Nationals return their entire 2014 outfield intact, with Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth at the corners — with their positions expected to be flip-flopped (Harper shifting to right and Werth to left). Though Harper will play the entire year at age 22, this is his fourth big-league season, and the way he closed out 2014, with 10 homers in his final 46 games, portends what could be a monster 2015. That, however, assumes Harper can stay healthy, which has proven to be a problem since he burst on the scene. Werth, meantime, will turn 36 in May — as he enters the fifth year of his seven-year deal with the Nationals — but shows few signs of slowing down, with 2014 numbers more or less in line with his career norms.
Injuries continue to confound Wilson Ramos, who has played more than 90 games in a season only once in a four-plus-year career. But when he is healthy, he is one of the best catchers in the game. His litany of maladies grew in 2014 to include a broken hamate bone suffered on Opening Day and a hamstring strain that nagged him much of the year. In an ideal world, Ramos replicates his breakout 2011 season — 113 games and a .267/.334/.445 line. But that may be more than the Nationals can expect.
The Nationals’ bench situation was clarified by the December trade that sent outfield prospect Steven Souza to the Rays, a move that elevates fellow prospect Michael Taylor into the discussion for a big-league bench job in 2015. Veteran Nate McLouth returns to the primary fourth outfield role, but the Nationals may keep Taylor as well for his combination of speed and power. Otherwise, he would go to Class AAA and stay on the ready. Tyler Moore will also be around as a reserve first baseman/corner outfielder, as will the loser of the second base battle between Escobar and Espinosa, barring a trade. Backup catcher Jose Lobaton is a solid enough replacement for those days (or weeks) when Ramos can’t go.
Matt Williams’ rookie season as the Nats’ manager was a rousing success, producing 96 wins and earning him NL Manager of the Year honors. October, however, was a different story, as the Nationals’ surprising exit in the NLDS pivoted on Williams’s decision to remove Zimmermann with 100 pitches, one out from a complete-game shutout. Despite the Nationals’ loaded roster, this wasn’t as easy a managing job as some would argue, as Williams had to navigate numerous crises and work without his ideal everyday lineup for most of the season. In Year 2, he brings his entire coaching staff back, a significant mark of stability. General manager Mike Rizzo has built the Nationals into a perennial contender, but the move that has defined his tenure — the decision to bench Strasburg due to an innings limit late in the 2012 season — continues to resonate all these years later.
Every season is crucial, of course, but 2015 takes on even more significance for the Nationals, with so many important players about to reach free agency and having made the huge commitment to Scherzer. One does wonder whether they will miss LaRoche, a steady influence in the lineup and clubhouse, more than they anticipated. But on most days of the week, the Nationals will run a starting pitcher to the mound who is significantly better than the guy on the other team. With a roster this loaded, anything short of a trip to the World Series will be considered a disappointment.
2015 Prediction: 1st in NL East
CF Denard Span (L) Led the National League in hits with 184 and hit a sizzling .346/.403/.459 in second half.
3B Anthony Rendon (R) The Nats’ best position player in 2014, with 6.5 WAR and league-leading 111 runs scored.
1B Ryan Zimmerman (R) Injured shoulder has also hurt his power at plate; 42.8 AB/HR was worst ratio of his career.
RF Bryce Harper (L) Nationals believe Harper is due for a 40-homer breakout season if he stays healthy.
LF Jayson Werth (R) At age 35, Werth ranked third in the National League in OBP, eighth in OPS and fifth in walks.
SS Ian Desmond (R) Effort to hit deeper in counts led to career highs in walk rate (7.1%) and K rate (28.2%).
C Wilson Ramos (R) Has played only 191 games last three seasons — 88 in 2014 — due to series of injuries.
2B Yunel Escobar (R) After entering 2014 at plus-46 for his career, cost the Rays 24 runs on defense (Baseball Info Solutions).
C Jose Lobaton (S) Capable backup, but total non-factor (.234/.287/.304) at the plate in 2014.
2B Danny Espinosa (S) Acute strikeout problem (554 in 1,761 career ABs) could be lessened by abandoning switch-hitting.
1B/OF Tyler Moore (R) The Nats’ top bat off the bench back in 2012, Moore had only one pinch-hit (in 14 ABs) in 2014.
OF Nate McLouth (L) Shoulder surgery ended season in August, but expected to be fully healthy for spring training.
OF Michael Taylor (R) Spent most of the 2014 season in Double-A, where he hit .313 and stole 34 bases.
INF Kevin Frandsen (R) Saw time at four different positions in 2014 and had some big hits for Nationals off bench.
RH Stephen Strasburg Once babied, former No. 1 overall pick now horse of the Nationals’ rotation (34 starts, 215 IP in 2014).
RH Max Scherzer The 2013 AL Cy Young winner followed up with another top-five showing (18-5, 3.15 ERA).
RH Jordan Zimmermann Reliable veteran coming off best season of career in terms of ERA, ERA+, WHIP and FIP.
LH Gio Gonzalez His 10 wins, 158.2 IP and 162 strikeouts were all his lowest totals since 2009.
RH Doug Fister In first year in NL, this former Detroit Tiger led a star-studded rotation in wins, ERA and ERA+.
RH Drew Storen (Closer) In dominating season, most important number was 10 straight saves during September fill-in.
RH Casey Janssen Potential Tyler Clippard replacement saved 25 games in 30 chances for Toronto last season.
LH Jerry Blevins Splits tell the story of his 2014: .298/.398/.423 vs. righties, .160/.202/.217 vs. lefties.
RH Aaron Barrett Unheralded rookie from Ole Miss became trusted seventh-inning man by midseason.
LH Matt Thornton August waiver claim pitched brilliantly (0 ER, 11.1 IP) down stretch in first NL tour.
RH Craig Stammen Jack-of-all bullpen roles pitched two-plus innings in 17 of his 49 regular-season appearances.
RH Tanner Roark Squeezed out of loaded starting rotation despite going 15–10 with 2.85 ERA last season.
Beyond the Box Score
Spot secured Tanner Roark may have been the best healthy pitcher ever left off a postseason rotation, getting relegated to bullpen duty last October despite winning 15 games and pitching to a 2.85 ERA. Pressed into relief duty in the 17th inning of the pivotal Game 2 against the Giants in the NLDS, he gave up the winning run in the 18th. A year ago, he had to fight to earn a roster spot, but after his stellar 2014, Roark has a rotation job already locked up this spring.
Trouble in paradise? The relationship between the Nationals and star outfielder Bryce Harper took a contentious turn this winter over a contract grievance regarding Harper’s arbitration eligibility. Although the matter was eventually settled before a hearing, Harper skipped the team’s “NatsFest” fan event, for which GM Mike Rizzo criticized him in some pointed remarks. Harper is eligible for free agency in 2019.
Clean bill of health On a positive note, Harper is expected to enter 2015 completely healthy, after battling a knee injury for much of 2013 and a torn thumb ligament that required surgery in 2014. The latter affected him at the plate even after he returned from the disabled list, but as the thumb improved so did Harper’s production. Over his last 31 games, including the postseason, Harper batted .315 with a .967 OPS — which could portend a huge 2015.
Switch to no-switch? Whether or not he winds up starting the season as the everyday second baseman, Danny Espinosa may be preparing to make a significant change at the plate — by batting exclusively right-handed instead of switch-hitting. Espinosa’s career splits (.213/.284/.362 as a left-handed hitter, .271/.343/.460 as a right-handed hitter) would indicate the move is long overdue.
Player named Turner The Nationals appear to have prepared themselves for Ian Desmond’s eventual departure by acquiring a potential replacement in Trea Turner, a top shortstop prospect and the “player to be named later” in a December three-way trade between the Nationals, Padres and Rays. Because Turner was drafted in 2014, he cannot officially be traded until this June, which has spawned an awkward situation in which Turner must play the first few months of the season for a team that has already traded him. Once he joins the Nationals, he will automatically become the top position player prospect in the organization.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Eric Fedde, RHP
For the second straight year, the Nationals used their top pick on a pitcher who needed Tommy John surgery, hoping to find value in a talented but injured arm. Fedde, taken 18th overall out of UNLV, had his surgery shortly after the draft and started a throwing program in December. If he pitches at all in 2015, it will be minimal, with careful monitoring by the team. Without the injury, Fedde likely would have been a top-10 pick, complementing a hard, sinking, low-90s fastball with a tight slider and a developing changeup. The Nationals have a strong track record in rehabbing pitching prospects, and the team still believes Fedde can develop into a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the big leagues.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Lucas Giolito, RHP (20) Elbow injury dropped him to 16th in 2012 draft, but since surgery he has blossomed into one of best arms in the minors, going 10–2 with a 2.20 ERA at Low-A in 2014.
2. Reynaldo Lopez, RHP (21) Mechanical tweak in 2014 sent him zooming into top echelon of Nats prospects.
3. A.J. Cole, RHP (23) Fourth-round pick in 2010 is on big-league doorstep after going 13–4, 3.16 combined at Class AA/AAA, but Nationals’ loaded rotation has no space for him.
4. Trea Turner, SS (21) The player to be named later in three-way Steve Souza trade, he won’t officially join Nationals organization until June, but his talent already makes him franchise’s top position player prospect.
5. Michael Taylor, OF (24) Former prep shortstop has developed into tools-laden outfielder, with plus power and speed. Appears headed to big leagues to stay in 2015 after impressive 2014 in Class AA/AAA.
6. Erick Fedde, RHP (22) The Nationals took him in first round despite knowing he needed elbow surgery. Could be pitching in minors by midseason.
7. Joe Ross, RHP (21) Brother of Tyson Ross reached Class AA as 21-year-old with Padres in 2014, then dealt to Nationals in Steven Souza deal. Has mid-90s fastball, good slider.
8. Brian Goodwin, OF (24) Saw progress slowed by injuries at Class AAA in 2014, but speed and batting eye make him a possible call-up in 2015.
9. Wilmer Difo, SS/2B (23) Dominican product blossomed at Low-A, hitting .315/.360/.470, staking his claim as Nationals’ future second baseman.
10. Jakson Reetz, C (19) Third-round pick in 2014 has the tools to remain at catcher and the bat to advance quickly through minors.
After several years of hoping to coax one more run out of the rusting frame of the team that won five division titles, two pennants and a World Series from 2007-11, the Phillies have finally given in to a full rebuilding effort. Consecutive 89-loss seasons and the organization’s first last-place finish since 2000 did the trick. “What we have isn’t working,” said embattled general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who started the rebuild by trading franchise pillar Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers. “It’s time to turn the page. We need to get younger and more athletic.”
More changes are coming. Everyone except the Phanatic has a For Sale sign attached to his back as the Phils look to ship out the old (and expensive) and bring in the new. Despite spending more than a half-billion on payroll (only the Yankees and Dodgers spent more), the Phillies have missed the playoffs three straight seasons, and attendance at once-pulsating Citizens Bank Park has dropped by 1.2 million since 2011. Nothing was done this winter to improve a dreadful offense. It will probably be another three years before this team sniffs the playoffs again.
With Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, the Phils have a dynamic duo at the top. However, it remains to be seen how long these guys will be around. Both are available for trade and will be attractive to contenders. Hamels, 31, is signed through 2018 (with an option for 2019), and the Phillies are under no pressure to move him. But come at them with some game-breaking young talent, and they will pull the trigger. Hamels remains one of the game’s best starters. He reached 30 starts for the seventh straight season in 2014 and had a career-best 2.46 ERA, including a glistening 2.06 in his final 27 starts. Lack of run support has dogged Hamels for several years. At 9–9, he was the first pitcher since Orel Hershiser in 1989 to post an ERA under 2.50 and not have a winning record. At 36, Lee is eager to pitch for a winner again. The possibility of being traded last summer might have been the reason he pushed to come back from a strained elbow in July. All signs point to Lee being healthy in 2015 — and if that’s the case, he will be prime trade bait. There’s a big drop-off after Hamels and Lee. Veteran Aaron Harang, signed to a one-year deal in January, is all but assured of a spot in the rotation. Right-handed sinkerballer David Buchanan will look to build on a solid rookie season, and journeyman Jerome Williams is back on a one-year deal. Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, held back by a sore shoulder in 2014, and Chad Billinglsey, the former Dodgers who hasn’t pitched since 2013, also will get chances to impress and possibly win a job in the spring.
This is the one area where there is reason for encouragement. You can hear it in the hiss of Ken Giles’ 100-mph fastball. The 24-year-old righthander overcame health and control issues and turned himself into a cornerstone of the rebuilding effort in 2014. He came up in June and used his fastball and wipeout slider to strike out 64 of the 166 batters he faced. He finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. The emergence of Giles and hard-throwing lefty side-armer Jake Diekman, as well as the consistent work of veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon, helped the Phils’ bullpen record a majors-best 2.41 ERA after Aug. 5. Youngsters Justin De Fratus and Mario Hollands also showed promise in 2014. Giles is clearly the team’s closer of the future, but for now the job belongs to Papelbon, whose outstanding command helped him overcome a dip in velocity. Like Hamels and Lee, Papelbon is a prime trade candidate, and he’d love to be dealt to a contender. However, his big salary and headache-causing antics have scared off closer-needy teams. If the Phils finally find a taker for Papelbon, Giles will be ready to step in and fire.
After serving as Rollins’ double-play mate for 1,187 games, the most in NL history, Chase Utley will break in 25-year-old shortstop Freddy Galvis, a defensive whiz who struggles with the bat. Utley, 36, turned back the clock and played in 155 games in 2014, his most since 2009. While Utley’s across-the-board numbers were good — he led NL second basemen in extra-base hits (53) and RBIs (78) — his second-half decline was alarming. He hit .335 with a .937 OPS in 47 games through May 28 and just .239 with a .657 OPS over 108 games the rest of the season. He enters 2015 mired in a homerless streak of 153 at-bats, the longest of his career. Utley is still a solid defender, but more days off or a move to first base, if circumstances permit, could serve him well.
Age and injury have taken a toll on Ryan Howard, and his production no longer matches his $25 million paycheck. Yeah, Howard drove in 95 runs in 2014, but his .690 OPS ranked 20th among big-league first basemen and 120th overall. Howard is a poor defender and baserunner. He has become the symbol of a once-great team gone stale, and the Phillies are willing to eat a significant amount of the $60 million that remains on his contract to trade him. Across the diamond, Cody Asche returns at third base, but he has much to prove as he tries to hold off Maikel Franco, a top defender with a big bat.
The Phillies unloaded Marlon Byrd, who led the team with 25 homers in 2014, to the Reds for prospect Ben Lively in late December. There wasn’t much pop at the other two spots, and that’s a big reason the Phils ranked 27th in the majors with a .665 OPS last season. Domonic Brown had just 10 homers and a dreadful .634 OPS in 2014, and Ben Revere is the definition of a slap hitter — all but 22 of his NL-high 184 hits were singles in 2014. Both Brown and Revere are poor defenders. Brown could make the move from left field to right field, where he played in the minors. Darin Ruf and Grady Sizemore could be in line for a platoon in left field, though Ruf likely will get some at-bats at first base again. Rule 5 Draft pick Odubel Herrera and Jordan Danks, who was claimed off of waivers from the White Sox, also will get a look.
Carlos Ruiz returns for his ninth season as the starting catcher. Though still a fine receiver, thrower, game-caller and favorite of the pitchers, Ruiz is 36, and nagging injuries have hurt his overall production. A decent backup must emerge from the cast of Cameron Rupp, Koyie Hill and John Hester as Ruiz would be best kept to about 110 games.
After numerous injuries, Sizemore is best suited for a part-time role. Ruf has shown an ability to hit lefties, so he and Sizemore could be a productive platoon in left as well as pinch-hitting options. Ruf could also get time at first base against lefties. Cesar Hernandez will serve as the utility infielder, and veterans Andres Blanco and Chase d’Arnaud will get a look in the spring. Herrera’s speed and bat are attractive for a team looking to get younger and more athletic.
The playing field isn’t the only area where changes are brewing. Longtime club president David Montgomery took medical leave in August, and billionaire investor John Middleton — compared to George Steinbrenner for his big wallet and passion for winning — is taking on a more prominent role. Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick is back in a position of power with lame-duck GM Amaro answering to him. On the field, the jury is still out on low-key skipper Ryne Sandberg. Several players openly disrespected his authority in 2014.
The reconstruction is just beginning. Several older, high-priced vets must still be cleared out, the offensive is feeble, and the farm system, hampered by recent poor drafts, is weak. Another visit to the NL East basement is likely before this thing begins to turn around.
2015 Prediction: 5th in NL East
CF Ben Revere (L) Hit .333 after June 25 and finished at .306, fifth in the National League.
SS Freddy Galvis (S) Good glove, but he went 2-for-42 at the plate to start 2014 and hit .176 for the season.
2B Chase Utley (L) Fans voted him an All-Star starter for the sixth time in 2014.
1B Ryan Howard (L) Led majors with 190 Ks in 2014 and slugged career-worst .380.
C Carlos Ruiz (R) Threw out 27 percent of base-stealers and had team-best .347 OBP in 2014.
LF Grady Sizemore (L) Hit .328 in 14 starts in July, but was 4-for-41 in September.
RF Domonic Brown (L) His .634 OPS ranked 139th in the majors in 2014, and his average dipped to .235.
3B Cody Asche (L) Made 105 starts at third in 2014 and committed team-high 16 errors.
1B/OF Darin Ruf (R) Former 20th-round pick has 20 homers and .805 OPS in 447 big-league plate appearances.
INF Cesar Hernandez (S) He can run and play three positions but has yet to hit consistently in majors.
C Cameron Rupp (R) Could be backup catcher if Phils go homegrown route. Only has 22 MLB games on his résumé.
UT Odubel Herrera (L) Solid minor-league hitter with Texas; recent move to the outfield impressed Phillies.
3B Maikel Franco (R) Dominican native will have a chance to earn everyday job at third and could see time at first.
LH Cole Hamels Had a 1.82 ERA in 16 road starts in 2014 and finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting.
LH Cliff Lee His 3.93 career strikeout-to-walk ratio is second to Dan Haren among active pitchers.
RH Aaron Harang Once led the NL in wins (16 in 2006) and losses (17 in ‘08) in a three-year span. Went 12–12 in Atlanta in ‘14.
RH Jerome Williams Had a 2.83 ERA in nine starts after being claimed on waivers in August.
RH David Buchanan Averaged less than six innings in 20 starts in 2014, but allowed three or fewer earned runs in final 16.
RH Jonathan Papelbon (Closer) First closer to record 200 saves in one league and 100 in the other.
RH Ken Giles Ranked third among NL relievers in WHIP (0.79) and K rate (38.6) in 2014.
LH Jake Diekman Appeared in career-high 73 games and struck out 12.68 per nine in 2014.
LH Mario Hollands Had 19 straight scoreless appearances in 2014, a Phils rookie record.
RH Justin De Fratus Made 50 appearances after late May recall, and 42 were scoreless.
LH Cesar Jimenez Had 1.51 ERA and allowed one homer in 65.2 innings between AAA and the majors in 2014.
RH Luis Garcia Power stuff rates only a tick behind Giles’, but hasn’t carried minor-league success to majors.
Beyond the Box Score
The Papelbon problem When the Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon to the richest contract ever for a reliever (four years, $50 million), they envisioned him closing out postseason wins. Three seasons later, the Phils have not been to the postseason, and Papelbon, with his big contract and volatile ways, has become an albatross that the team has not been able to escape despite repeated efforts to do so. Things could get interesting this season. Papelbon needs to finish just 48 games to guarantee a $13 million option for 2016. With Ken Giles waiting in the wings and the Phils looking to get younger and cheaper, the team would prefer that not happen. Will the Phils try to limit Pap’s finishes in 2015? If they do, they might be in for a fight.
Money is the root … Ryan Howard played with much on his mind in 2014 as he waged a legal battle against his brother and parents over control of his fortune. The matter was settled out of court. Close friend and former teammate Jimmy Rollins later said the painful matter affected Howard’s play. Maybe a clearer head will help Howard in 2015.
Chomp, chomp, chomp Lefty Jake Diekman continued his maturation in 2014. He struck out 100 batters, third most by an NL reliever and most by a Phillies reliever since 1983. Diekman felt more in control on the mound, and for that he credited a performance-enhancing substance — bubble gum. “It makes me think less,” he said. “I think I’m conscious of not chomping on the gum so I don’t look like a horse on TV. It slows everything down for me. At least it feels like it does.”
New top scout Signs of a franchise retooling began to show in June when the Phillies departed from a long-held philosophy of drafting high-upside athletes regardless of experience level. Looking for more polished, projectable players after a number of poor drafts and several first-round flops, the Phils went the college route with 27 of their first 28 picks. The retooling continued in September when longtime scouting director Marti Wolever was let go. Johnny Almaraz, a longtime scout with the Reds and Braves, was hired as the new boss after six years running Atlanta’s Latin American operation. He will be an important cog in the rebuilding effort.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Aaron Nola, RHP
Painfully thin in quality starting pitching at the top of their system, the Phillies were intent on landing an advanced talent with the seventh overall pick. Aaron Nola is just that. Polished. Mature. Poised. A fast-tracker. These are just some of the descriptions that have been attached to the 21-year-old righthander from LSU. Nola backed up his lofty selection with a 2.93 ERA in 55.1 innings at High-A and Double-A last summer. He struck out 45 and walked just 10. Nola made a good showing with a 2.62 ERA in five starts at Double-A and finished the season with five walk-free shutout innings against the Yankees’ club. Rival scouts and club officials rave about Nola’s ability to command three pitches, particularly his fastball. It’s not the Phillies’ style to push prospects too quickly, but this guy has the stuff and the intangibles to be the exception.
Top 10 Prospects
1. J.P. Crawford, SS (20) Team’s top pick in 2013 projects as franchise-type shortstop. More than held his own in the Florida State League in 2014 and should get to Double-A in 2015.
2. Aaron Nola, RHP (21) He should open at Double-A and could be in Philadelphia by season’s end.
3. Maikel Franco, 3B/1B (22) Organization’s top hitting prospect batted .324 with 11 homers, 47 RBIs and a .924 OPS over final two months at Triple-A in 2014.
4. Roman Quinn, OF (21) Switch-hitter with game-changing speed on bases and in center field. Led the Arizona Fall League with 14 steals. He could be ready for Double-A.
5. Zach Eflin, RHP (20) Phillies liked him in the 2012 draft, but he was off the board, going 33rd overall to the Padres. Phils finally got him in the Jimmy Rollins trade with the Dodgers.
6. Tom Windle, LHP (23) The other piece in the Rollins trade, Windle was 56th overall pick in 2013. Throws three pitches, including mid-90s fastball.
7. Dylan Cozens, OF (20) Second-rounder in 2012 is 6'6", 235 with huge power and upside. Struck out a lot, but had 16 HRs, 25 doubles, six triples and 23 steals at Low-A in 2014.
8. Ben Lively, RHP (23) Was Reds’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year after going 13–7 with a 3.04 ERA in 26 starts at Single-A and Double-A in 2014.
9. Matt Imhof, LHP (21) Second-rounder in 2014 out of Cal Poly stands 6'5". Command of three pitches, deception could make him a quick mover.
10. Deivi Grullon, C (19) He hasn’t hit yet in the low minors, but the tools are there. Has a rock-like presence behind the plate and a rocket arm.
After six consecutive losing seasons, tied with Houston for the longest active streak in the majors, the Mets believe they can finally break the .500 mark — and these days, if you do that, you can contend for a wild card. Anything less would be a bitter disappointment for the Mets. Some of their young players made meaningful strides last season, and their veterans should still have enough left to make a positive impact. After a strong September (15–10), and with a rotation on the rise, the Mets are poised to be relevant again.
A dynamic young rotation is the primary strength of this team. Matt Harvey returns after missing a full year following Tommy John surgery. An alpha dog in the mold of Roger Clemens, Harvey is eager to reclaim his role as staff ace and dominant force. He may be rusty, of course, and don’t expect him to throw 230 innings. But the innings he throws should be high quality. Harvey’s sidekick, the hard-throwing Zack Wheeler, finished with a strong second half, and the duo acquired another running mate along the way in Jacob deGrom, who burst onto the scene to win the NL Rookie of the Year award with a 2.69 ERA in 22 starts, with more strikeouts than innings. Noah Syndergaard could join that trio soon enough, but for now there’s a logjam, with lefty Jon Niese and righties Bartolo Colon and Dillon Gee — all solid, if unspectacular pros who combined to make 83 starts last season, going 31–32. Another option, Rafael Montero, was shaky at times but showed that he could hold his own.
In his first three years with the Mets, Terry Collins’ bullpen ranked 28th, 29th and 22nd in the majors in ERA. Last year, though, the Mets’ relief corps jumped to eighth, with a 3.14 mark. Collins found a young closer in Jenrry Mejia, who converted 28 of 31 save chances and made a habit of dancing off the mound after the final out. The four relievers with the most appearances besides Mejia — Carlos Torres, Jeurys Familia, Vic Black and Josh Edgin — all had ERAs below 3.10. Another standout performance, though, is no sure thing, as Mejia, Black and Edgin all dealt with injury problems in the second half and Torres absorbed a heavy workload. Look for former closer Bobby Parnell, who went down to Tommy John surgery after pitching on Opening Day, to return early in the season.
The ever-consistent Daniel Murphy is good for a lot of singles and doubles every year, and an average of roughly .290. Even his error total at second is steady: 15 or 16 in each of the last three years. His double-play partner is a source of frustration for Mets fans, many of whom still pine for the flash of the long-departed Jose Reyes. After a strong September, it’s Wilmer Flores’ turn to get the starting job that Ruben Tejada never really seized. Flores is only 23 and hit better at each level in the minors. He’s had only 375 plate appearances in the majors, and he just might be the Mets’ long-term answer. Now Flores needs a little patience from fans and media to see if he is.
The Mets finally settled their first base quandary early last season, trading Ike Davis to Pittsburgh and giving Lucas Duda the position. The quiet slugger gained confidence and blossomed, smashing 30 home runs. His patient approach at the plate fits with the Mets’ organizational strategy, and the power should only rise now that the walls in center and right are closer to the plate at Citi Field. At 29, Duda should be right in the middle of his prime, and with teams starving for power, his emergence is a big reason the Mets are so optimistic about 2015. They would feel even better if their captain, David Wright, were coming off a better season, but shoulder problems kept Wright from having his usual standout performance. He avoided surgery on his bruised rotator cuff and was cleared to begin baseball activities in December. Barring a setback, Wright, at 32, should resume his place among the game’s best all-around players: about a .300 average with 20 or so homers and 90 or more RBIs, plus about 15 steals and his usual stellar defense.
The Mets’ outfielders will have a bit less ground to cover at Citi Field this season, with portions of the walls in center and right field pulled in from three to 11 feet. Of course, the change had nothing to do with the Mets’ defense and everything to do with their offense. Had these dimensions been in place last season, the Mets say, their hitters would have hit 17 more homers, and their pitchers would have allowed 10 more. The pull-hitting Curtis Granderson should benefit most from the new dimensions, but on defense he’ll have to adjust to left field, where he started eight times last season and 11 times in 2013. Granderson says he is fine with the switch, which accommodates newcomer Michael Cuddyer, who takes over in right. Cuddyer missed most of last season with a fracture to his left shoulder socket, but he passed his physical and should be a solid bat in the middle of the order. Granderson, age 34, and Cuddyer, age 36, will benefit from flanking the majors’ best defensive center fielder, Juan Lagares, who won his first Gold Glove last season while improving his batting average from .242 to .281. Lagares still doesn’t walk much, but his bat is viable enough and his glove is so dazzling that he’s earned the right to start every day.
Travis d’Arnaud was hitting .180 with a meager .544 OPS when he was demoted to Class AAA Las Vegas last June. The hitting coach there, George Greer, told him to try to hit a double every time he came to bat. He learned how to better cover the outer half of the plate, and hit like he always has in the minors, where he is a .290 career hitter with an .838 OPS. d’Arnaud was better after he returned, hitting .270 with an .805 OPS and 10 homers in 69 games. The Mets would gladly take that production for a full year, and at 26, d’Arnaud needs to put together that kind of season — a demand that takes on greater urgency because Kevin Plawecki, a top catching prospect, is coming on fast in AAA. Backup Anthony Recker’s .197 career average obscures his decent power and his skill at working with the pitching staff.
The Mets won’t plan to use many, if any, platoons this season, but their corner outfielders will need a break now and then to stay fresh. Matt den Dekker and Kirk Nieuwenhuis are used to the backup role and play excellent defense when called upon. Eric Campbell can play five positions, and he hit .263 in a part-time role last season. Outfielder John Mayberry Jr. is dangerous against lefties.
The Mets have seen enough progress to give Sandy Alderson and Collins more time. Alderson signed a three-year contract extension in September and said that Collins would return as manager for 2015. The team has a 2016 option for Collins, the majors’ oldest manager at age 65. The Mets failed to meet Alderson’s goal of 90 wins last season, but this offseason Collins spoke optimistically of a playoff run, so both GM and manager are expecting a lot. If Collins fails to deliver, it’s safe to wonder if the Mets will make a change. But in his fifth season, Collins should have his first legitimate chance to make a playoff push.
Teams often follow years of losing with a transition year in which they contend for a while but ultimately fall short, absorbing the lessons of a pennant race and applying them the next season. This could easily happen for the Mets in 2015, and if so, it would ultimately be an improvement over the last few years. But their goals are higher than that, and they should be. This team features a playoff-caliber rotation, and the offense showed real signs of life last season. The Mets will be a legitimate factor in the chase for a spot in the postseason.
2015 Prediction: 3rd in NL East
CF Juan Lagares (R) Gold Glover’s bat came around late, with .323 average from Aug. 22 through end of season.
2B Daniel Murphy (L) Mets’ only All-Star in 2014 has had at least 35 doubles three years in a row.
3B David Wright (R) Rotator cuff problems limited his effectiveness and ended season early. Mets need him to bounce back.
1B Lucas Duda (L) A monster vs. righties, but had just four of his 57 extra-base hits off lefties.
RF Michael Cuddyer (R) Turned down $15.3 million for one year from Rockies to sign with Mets for $21 million over two years.
LF Curtis Granderson (L) Hit just seven HRs at Citi Field, a figure that should rise with fences moved in.
C Travis d’Arnaud (R) Oft-injured catcher had surgery Oct. 1 to remove bone chips from elbow.
SS Wilmer Flores (R) Venezuelan hit four homers and scored team-best 15 runs in September.
C Anthony Recker (R) Since Recker joined team in 2013, Mets are 44–33 (.571) when he starts.
OF Matt den Dekker (L) Strong defender was leading Class AAA PCL in hitting when recalled on Aug. 9.
OF Kirk Nieuwenhuis (L) Oddly, Nieuwenhuis had 18 extra-base hits and only 11 singles.
OF John Mayberry Jr. (R) Free-agent acquisition has strong .857 career OPS against lefties.
UT Eric Campbell (R) Has started games at first, second, third, left field, right field and as a DH.
SS Ruben Tejada (R) Went 778 at-bats without a HR at Citi Field until going deep in final AB of 2014.
RH Matt Harvey Challenge, for player and fans, will be understanding his limits in first year back after Tommy John surgery.
RH Bartolo Colon One of five active pitchers with 2,000 Ks (CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson).
RH Jacob deGrom Former ninth-round pick earned Rookie of the Year honors — and also hit a respectable .217.
RH Zack Wheeler Went 8–3 with a 2.71 ERA from June 30 through end of season.
LH Jon Niese ERA was more than a full run higher on the road (3.96) than at home (2.74).
RH Jenrry Mejia (Closer) Converted last 11 save chances, then had offseason surgery for sports hernia.
RH Jeurys Familia After rocky start, had 1.81 ERA from April 25 through season’s end.
RH Dillon Gee Should wind up in some team’s rotation — Mets or elsewhere — before end of spring training
LH Josh Edgin Did not allow an earned run in 10 innings after Aug. 1, but also battled sore elbow.
RH Vic Black Ended a fine year (26 hits allowed in 34.2 IP) with a strained rotator cuff.
RH Carlos Torres First Met to pitch 90-plus relief innings since Terry Leach in 1988.
Beyond the Box Score
Awesome autograph For most ballplayers, the signature has devolved into a mess of unintelligible lines and squiggles. As long as they include their uniform number, players say, fans can find out who they are. Fortunately, Mets newcomer Michael Cuddyer appreciates quality penmanship. Cuddyer was raised in the Minnesota Twins organization at a time when the late Harmon Killebrew implored young players — sometimes loudly — to take pride in the way they wrote their names, so future generations would always know who they were. Cuddyer took the lesson to heart, with a neat, legible autograph that is a true keepsake for fans. He is such a disciple of Killebrew that he wears his No. 3 to honor him.
No Strasburg scenario In Stephen Strasburg’s first full year after Tommy John surgery, 2012, the Nationals infamously shut him down because of a pre-determined innings limit and did not allow him to pitch in the playoffs, even though he was healthy. Matt Harvey, like Strasburg, is a Scott Boras client, but the Mets will take a different strategy. While general manager Sandy Alderson says the Mets have a “soft” number of innings for Harvey in the regular season, he insists that the workload will be managed so Harvey can pitch in the postseason if the Mets make it there.
Long answer The Mets fired their hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, last May and re-assigned his replacements after the season. In October, they found a solution across town. Kevin Long, who guided the Yankees’ hitters the last eight seasons, makes the move to Citi Field as the new hitting coach for the Mets. Long, a tireless worker with a relentlessly positive approach, is eager to work again with Curtis Granderson, whom he helped with the Yankees, where Granderson twice topped 40 homers.
Silent tweeter Mets general manager Sandy Alderson had fun when he first joined Twitter in 2012, cracking wise about the Mets’ money problems, showing off pictures of his dog, and joking (we think) about giving his wife an IHOP gift card for Valentine’s Day. Alas, Alderson was all business last season. After tweeting about an MLB Network promotion a few times last February, @MetsGM went all season without a single message for his 66,000 followers.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Michael Conforto, OF
Conforto comes from an interesting athletic background. His father, Mike, played football at Penn State. His mother, the former Tracie Ruiz, won two gold medals in synchronized swimming at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and a silver medal at the Seoul Olympics four years later. Michael dove into baseball and has played in the Little League World Series and the College World Series, for Oregon State, where he was the Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2013. A lefty hitter with power, he possesses plate discipline that appealed to the Mets, who stress that trait throughout their farm system. He had a .403 on-base percentage while hitting .331 in his professional debut at Brooklyn, and he projects to have decent power in the major leagues. Conforto is 22, and if he progresses as the Mets hope, he should be ready to take over a corner outfield spot in 2017, after Michael Cuddyer’s contract expires.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Noah Syndergaard, RHP (22) A 6’6” right-hander acquired in the R.A. Dickey trade, Syndergaard had 145 strikeouts and just 43 walks while allowing only 11 homers in a full PCL season.
2. Kevin Plawecki, C (24) He would seem blocked by Travis d’Arnaud, but given d’Arnaud’s injuries and inconsistency, it’s plausible to think that Plawecki, at 24, could make a move up.
3. Brandon Nimmo, OF (22) The athleticism and instincts the Mets saw in him as an amateur in Wyoming started to show at Class AA last season; solid in all five tools.
4. Dominic Smith, 1B (19) Showed excellent strike-zone discipline in first full pro season, but managed just one homer.
5. Michael Conforto, OF (22) First-round pick last June had one of the best power bats in college baseball the last few years.
6. Dilson Herrera, 2B (21) Skipped AAA to go to Mets last season, hitting three HRs in 18 games.
7. Matt Reynolds, SS (24) After hitting .343 at two levels and reaching AAA, Reynolds may force his way into the mix in New York.
8. Rafael Montero, RHP (24) Solid mid-rotation prospect who made eight respectable starts for Mets last season; trade bait?
9. Amed Rosario, SS (19) Excellent defender who hit .289 at age 18 in Brooklyn last season; possible long-term answer at shortstop.
10. Steven Matz, LHP (23) Former second-rounder got the Mets’ attention with a 2.24 ERA in 24 starts between High-A and AA last season.
As Marlins manager Mike Redmond pointed out during the winter meetings, it was difficult to envision a scenario in which his team would be better without right fielder Giancarlo Stanton. The Marlins, in spite of a widely held belief that Stanton’s departure was imminent, locked up the slugger with a 13-year, $325 million contract, the largest in North American professional sports history. In conjunction with the Stanton announcement, the Marlins promised they would surround their superstar with sufficient talent to become a factor in the NL East.
In the team’s estimation, contending for a division title meant building around arguably the best outfield in baseball. Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna excelled both offensively and defensively in 2014. With that trio in place, changes would have to come on the infield. The Marlins replaced three-quarters of that group with first baseman Mike Morse, second baseman Dee Gordon and third baseman Martin Prado.
With ace righthander Jose Fernandez on the shelf until June or July while recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Marlins came to terms with the Reds on a deal for Mat Latos and secured Dan Haren from the Dodgers along with Gordon.
“They want to win,” Morse says. “They’re proving it. They’re showing it right now. … We’re right on the cusp of doing something great.”
Whether the Marlins do something great will hinge on their rotation. That group expects a midseason boost when Fernandez completes his rehab from Tommy John surgery. The 2013 National League Rookie of the Year was limited to eight starts before a torn ulnar collateral ligament ended his sophomore season. With Fernandez on the shelf, several other pitchers stepped up. Henderson Alvarez logged a 2.24 ERA over his final 21 starts. Tom Koehler did not allow more than three earned runs in 15 of his last 18 outings. At the July 31 trade deadline, the Marlins struck a deal with the Astros for Jarred Cosart, and the NL agreed with him, evidenced by his 2.39 ERA. Those who didn’t raise their games in 2014 will be pitching elsewhere in 2015. Nathan Eovaldi, in spite of boasting one of the biggest fastballs in the game, did not blossom, and the Marlins dealt him to the Yankees in the Prado deal. Latos was limited to 16 starts last season with the Reds but has been one of the NL’s top pitchers when healthy. Aaron Crow, acquired from the Royals, has pitched exclusively as a reliever in the majors, but the Marlins may give him a look as a starter. David Phelps, a former Yankee who arrived as part of the Prado deal, also will be in the mix for a back-end rotation spot along with lefthanders Brad Hand and possibly Justin Nicolino. The X-factor is Haren, who after mulling retirement following his trade from the Dodgers to a non-West Coast team has decided to give it a go with the Marlins.
Steve Cishek in 2015 can become the first closer in Marlins history to record 30 or more saves in three consecutive seasons. During his two full seasons on the job, Cishek has converted 73 of 79 chances. The Marlins have an abundance of right-handed power arms to bridge the innings from starter to Cishek. Acquired from the Pirates last season, Bryan Morris did an exceptional job in the setup role. He had a 4–1 record and 0.66 ERA in 39 games with Miami. A.J. Ramos is a bulldog who has had more strikeouts than innings pitched in each of his two full seasons. The Marlins are hoping a healthy Carter Capps fulfills his potential. What the bullpen lacks is a true lefty specialist. Mike Dunn, who retires right-handed hitters as effectively as lefties, fills that role. Rule 5 pick Andrew McKirahan will get a look in spring training, as will Hand and prospects Adam Conley and Grant Dayton.
The Marlins believe shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria is on the verge of winning a Gold Glove. His defensive skills have been as good as advertised, and the bat is catching up. Hechavarria improved his average from .227 in 2013 to .276. Before the 2014 season, the Marlins signed free agent Rafael Furcal to be their everyday second baseman. Injuries limited him to nine games last season, and the team never found a suitable replacement. The Marlins, who won their second of two World Series in 2003 with speedsters Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo atop the order, wanted to recapture that element and targeted Gordon. He stole 64 bases and earned an All-Star selection in 2014. The question with Gordon is whether he can maintain a high enough on-base percentage to remain atop the order.
The Marlins supplanted both of their corner infielders. Signed to a two-year deal before last season, first baseman Garrett Jones struggled defensively and wasn’t a consistent run-producer. They traded him with Eovaldi and pitcher Domingo German to the Yankees for Prado, Phelps and cash. Morse, who hit 16 home runs for the World Series champion Giants last season, was signed to a two-year deal to replace Jones. The Prado acquisition set off alarms for Casey McGehee, whom the Marlins signed to be their third baseman after a 2013 championship-winning season with Rakuten in Japan. McGehee hit cleanup most of 2014 and was NL Comeback Player of the Year, but not long after the Marlins landed Prado they shipped McGehee to the Giants. The Marlins love Prado’s athleticism and ability to hit anywhere in the lineup.
In addition to Stanton, one of the game’s superstars and arguably its top right-handed power hitter, the Marlins feature a pair of homegrown studs in Yelich and Ozuna. The left-handed hitting Yelich is a future three-hole hitter and already has a Gold Glove. Ozuna probably is more suited for right field, but center did not prove a challenge, even in cavernous Marlins Park. He has one of the top arms in the game. MLB Network ranked the Marlins’ trio as the majors’ top outfield in 2014. Miami also signed veteran Ichiro Suzuki, who is 156 hits away from 3,000 in his MLB career, to a one-year deal for depth.
Coming off a World Series-winning season with the Red Sox in 2013, free agent Jarrod Saltalamacchia signed a three-year deal with the Marlins. Year 1 was a fiasco. Saltalamacchia led all NL catchers with 15 errors, and he didn’t make up for the substandard defense with his bat. Saltalamacchia hit .220 with a .362 slugging percentage. Backup Jeff Mathis doesn’t offer much offensively, but he possesses all the physical tools and intangibles.
The Marlins have an array of backup infielders with guys like Donovan Solano, Jeff Baker, Jordany Valdespin, Miguel Rojas and Derek Dietrich and only one established reserve outfielder in Suzuki. The left-handed swinging Justin Bour also will vie for a bench job this spring. He’s a natural first baseman but has logged some time in left.
Redmond returns for his third season as the team’s manager. On the final day of the 2014 season, the club announced it had extended his contract through 2017, giving the Marlins some stability in the manager’s office and coaching ranks. Redmond was a big leaguer as recently as 2010, and his relative youth (43) has allowed him to connect with his players.
Redmond is well aware that going from 77 to 92 wins is much more challenging than the club’s previous jump from 62 to 77. That next big leap could take more than one season, especially without 30-plus starts from Fernandez. Nonetheless, the Marlins have every expectation of playing meaningful games in late September.
2015 Prediction: 2nd in NL East
2B Dee Gordon (L) Speedster acquired from Dodgers stole more bases (64) in 2014 than entire Marlins team (58).
LF Christian Yelich (L) Gold Glove winner in 2014, Yelich could hit third if Marlins opt to slot Martin Prado in two-hole.
RF Giancarlo Stanton (R) Led the National League with 37 homers despite missing final two-and-a-half weeks of season.
1B Mike Morse (R) Fort Lauderdale native will play his best defensive position on hometown team.
3B Martin Prado (R) Hit .316 with .877 OPS in 137 plate appearances after 2014 trade from Diamondbacks to Yankees.
CF Marcell Ozuna (R) Hit 23 homers and knocked in 85 runs, second on club in 2014 behind Stanton’s 37 and 105.
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S) Signed to a three-year deal before last season; looking to rebound offensively and defensively.
SS Adeiny Hechavarria (R) Gold Glove-caliber defender hit 49 points better (.276) in 2014 than he did in 2013.
C Jeff Mathis (R) Makes up for light hitting with gritty play and manner in which he handles young pitchers.
OF Ichiro Suzuki (L) After 2,204 career games with AL teams, Suzuki comes to the NL 156 hits shy of 3,000.
INF Jeff Baker (R) Rebounded well from rough first half with productive second half in 2014, his first season with the Marlins.
INF Donovan Solano (R) Saw extended time at second base in August and September, and can play outfield in a pinch.
INF Miguel Rojas (R) Ex-Dodger played second, short and third during 85-game rookie season in 2014.
RH Henderson Alvarez Pitched like an ace after Jose Fernandez underwent Tommy John surgery in May.
RH Mat Latos Limited to 16 starts with Reds in 2014 due to knee injury and arm trouble, and saw dip in velocity.
RH Jarred Cosart Logged 2.39 ERA in 10 starts after he was acquired from Astros at July 31 trade deadline.
RH Tom Koehler Back-of-the-rotation workhorse finished just shy of 200-inning plateau (191.1).
RH Dan Haren Marlins hoped to convince Haren to pitch for them rather than retire or force trade to West Coast team.
RH Steve Cishek (Closer) Former fifth-round pick struck out 84 in 65.1 innings en route to a career-high 39 saves in 2014.
RH Bryan Morris Logged 1.82 ERA with a 1.275 WHIP in 2014 between 60 appearances with Pirates, Marlins.
RH A.J. Ramos Allowed only 36 hits in 64.0 innings while recording a 7–0 record out of the pen in 2014.
RH Carter Capps Hard thrower limited to 27 appearances between majors and minors in 2014 due to elbow injury.
RH Aaron Crow Ex-Royals reliever may get a look as a starter, but at the least will open season in bullpen.
LH Mike Dunn For his career has held left-handed hitters to a .220 average and righties to .238 mark.
LH Andrew McKirahan Rule 5 pick split 2014 between Cubs’ High-A and Double-A affiliates and recorded a 2.08 ERA.
Beyond the Box Score
Tat man The trade to Miami should afford Mat Latos a chance to meet one of his idols: Heat forward Chris “Birdman” Andersen. If nothing else, the two can find some common ground when it comes to body art; both are heavily tattooed. Latos said he gave serious consideration to sporting his Birdman Heat jersey to his introductory press conference. Asked about a possible photo shoot with the two, Latos added: “That would be embarrassing for me. … I’m not as hardcore as Birdman. He has a neck tattoo. That’s awesome to me.”
Role model While in the Dodgers’ organization, Dee Gordon learned from Maury Wills, one of the top base-stealers in baseball history. With the Marlins, Gordon will work under another ex-Dodgers favorite. Third base coach Brett Butler totaled 179 of his 558 career steals as a member of the Dodgers from 1991-94 and 1995-97. Unlike Gordon, who nabbed 64 in 2014, Butler never totaled more than 52 steals in a season. “From what I’ve seen and heard, our games pretty much match up,” Gordon says. “To be able to pick (Butler’s) brain on a daily basis and learn from him is going to be amazing.”
Native sons Latos and Mike Morse have special ties to the Marlins. Both attended the franchise’s inaugural game on April 5, 1993. Morse, born in Fort Lauderdale, and Latos, a product of Coconut Creek High School and Broward College, both were raised in South Florida.
Early test The Marlins will get an early barometer of how they compare against their division rivals. With the exception of a three-game interleague home series against the Rays, the Marlins play exclusively within the National League East through May 6. Last season, the Marlins were a combined 33-43 versus the Nationals, Braves, Phillies and Mets.
Brothers … and teammates? Marlins infielder Donovan Solano has shared the same major league field with his brother Jhonatan a handful of times. Jhonatan and Donovan may find themselves in the same big-league dugout at some point. After the Nationals released Jhonatan, a catcher, the Marlins signed him to a minor league contract. The Solano brothers are two of 14 native Colombians to appear in the majors and the second set of brothers.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Tyler Kolek, RHP
The last time the Marlins had the second overall pick in the draft, they selected a hard-throwing Texas high school righthander in Josh Beckett. Picking second again in 2014, they went the same route. Kolek is a hulking 6'5", 260-pounder whose fastball touched 102 mph while at Shepherd High School about 60 miles outside of Houston. Kolek received a franchise-record $6 million signing bonus and began his professional career in the rookie Gulf Coast League. A minor back issue limited him to nine appearances. He lost all three decisions and struck out just five more batters (18) than he walked, but the Marlins were pleased with his progress. After the season, Kolek went to the instructional league, where he adjusted his delivery. After Andrew Heaney’s departure via trade, Kolek is now the club’s undisputed top prospect.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Tyler Kolek, RHP (19) The hard-throwing, physically imposing Kolek complements a triple-digit fastball with a hard curve. Among his goals in his first full pro season will be finding a changeup.
2. Jose Urena, RHP (23) Urena had an impressive 2014 season with Double-A Jacksonville. His fastball and changeup ultimately could make him a compelling late-inning reliever.
3. J.T. Realmuto, C (24) A quarterback and shortstop, Realmuto is among the organization’s best athletes. He made his major league debut last season and should open 2015 at Triple-A New Orleans.
4. Justin Nicolino, LHP (23) He was the ace of the Class AA Jacksonville rotation, going 14–4 with a 2.85 ERA, 20 walks and 81 strikeouts in 170.1 IP.
5. Avery Romero, 2B (21) A stocky 5'8", 190 pounds, Romero projects to have above-average power for a middle infielder.
6. Isael Soto, RF (18) The Marlins believe they have a Raul Mondesi-type talent in Soto, who is coming off his first professional season.
7. Austin Dean, LF (21) Drafted in the fourth round as a shortstop in 2012, Dean made the transition to the outfield and is coming off his best pro season.
8. Trevor Williams, RHP (22) He complements a four- and two-seam fastball with a slider, curve and changeup.
9. Matt Ramsey, RHP (25) Last July, the Marlins sent the Rays their second, third and fourth international bonus slots for Ramsey, who at the time was mowing down Southern League hitters.
10. Brian Anderson, 3B (21) In his first pro season, he demonstrated an advanced hitting approach in the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League.
NFL free agency hasn’t even officially started, but the Miami Dolphins are already making waves, reportedly landing former Detroit Lions All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The biggest fish on the market, it’s fitting that Suh ends up with the Dolphins, with the bait being a six-year, $114 million deal with $60 million in guaranteed money.
Give Miami credit. The team made it very clear that Suh was their No. 1 target and the Dolphins went out and got their man. Miami’s defense was 24th against the run last season and adding Suh, who anchored the league’s No. 1 rushing defense, should have an immediate impact in that department.
The Dolphins figure to field one of the strongest defensive lines in the NFL next season with Suh joining Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon, Earl Mitchell and Dion Jordan. Suh and Wake alone give Miami a pair of Pro Bowl defensive linemen who can wreak havoc.
But while the front four of the Dolphins’ defense is in great shape, the same cannot be said for the back seven. Before Miami lured Suh to South Beach, the team cut ties with cornerback Cortland Finnegan and linebacker Philip Wheeler. Dannell Ellerbe, another linebacker, could be next.
It’s not just the defense that’s seen some attrition, as wider receivers Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson were both released. And there’s still a chance that Mike Wallace, the Dolphins’ leading target and big free-agent acquisition two offseasons ago, could end up getting traded.
To put it another way, Miami has 21 current free agents of its own, but its spending spree is probably limited to Suh. The Dolphins were tight against the cap prior to signing Suh, a position that doesn’t look to get any better considering the $60 million he’s slated to get in the first three years of his new deal.
So while the team can scratch off the top thing on its offseason to-do list, there’s still plenty of work left to be done. Between the players that have already been released, the other free agents on their roster and last year’s results, it’s fair to say the Dolphins still have needs at cornerback, safety, linebacker and guard, and possibly even wide receiver and tight end. With limited wiggle room as it relates to the salary cap, most of these holes are going to have to be addressed via the draft. This puts pressure on general manager Dennis Hickey, head coach Joe Philbin and the rest of the coaching and player personnel staff who will be involved in those critical decisions come the end of April.
Ready and willing to make Suh the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, it’s clear Miami is in win-now mode. The Dolphins finished 8-8 last season, two games out of the final Wild Card spot. There’s no question Suh is a game-changer who will have a tremendous impact on the defense, but he’s just one piece to the puzzle Miami’s brain trust is putting together. A playoff berth in 2015 certainly seems possible for the Suh-led Dolphins, although that could depend on how the rest of the team fills out around him.
Athlon Sports has polled 10 experts from around Major League Baseball in an effort to find the best place to watch a game.
Based on criteria like fan support, home-field advantage, amenities, tradition, surrounding area, facilities, gameday atmosphere and more, our 10 experts have ranked all 15 National League parks for 2015.
Remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Tyler Kepner, NY Times
Andy Baggarly, AndrewBaggarly.com
Jeff Wilson, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
John Tomase, WEEI
Juan Rodriguez, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Gordon Wittenmyer, Chicago Sun Times
Bill Plunkett, Orange County Register
C. Trent Rosencrans, Cincinnati Enquirer
Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Jack Magruder, FoxSportsArizona.com
Scoring: A first-place vote is worth one point, a second-place vote is worth two points and a 15th-place vote is worth 15 points. The lowest score is voted the best stadium in the National League.
|1.||AT&T Park||14 (7)|
|2.||PNC Park||32 (1)|
|3.||Dodger Stadium||48 (1)|
|5.||Coors Field||60 (1)|
|7.||Citizens Bank Park||75|
|13.||Great American Ballpark||111|
Much like Fenway in the American League, the clear-cut best place to watch a game in the National League is AT&T Park where the defending World Series champion Giants play ball. A beautiful setting, competitive teams and normally comfortable summers make this West Coast shrine a must-see. San Francisco’s home park got seven of the 10 first-place votes.
Best in the West
The Giants were voted the best park in the NL but Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine also got a first-place vote and finished third. Coors Field in Denver got a first-place vote as well, finishing fifth overall. Not to be outdone, Petco Park in San Diego ranked sixth, giving the West Division four of the top six stadiums in the National League. Which brings us to…
Chase for last place
It wasn’t ranked as poorly as The Trop or O.co Coliseum in the American League, but Arizona’s Chase Field was voted the worst place to watch a game on the senior circuit. It finished just behind Atlanta’s Turner Field — which, of course, is getting replaced by a new stadium on the North side of town very soon. Interestingly enough, the worst two stadiums in the National League are two of the biggest in the majors. The Braves park is fourth with a capacity of 49,586 while the Diamondbacks' home field is seventh at 48,633.
It doesn’t boast the same charm as Fenway, which finished as the No. 1 place to see a game in the AL, but it still is well respected at No. 4 in the NL. This is likely due to the age and much-needed renovations that Wrigley is currently undergoing (Fenway has already gone through its facelift). All I know is, as a Mets fan, I went to Wrigley last summer for the first time as a 32-year-old and nearly cried when I first walked under the marquee.
While the West Division appears to be loaded with great places to watch baseball, the East Division seems to be lacking. The Mets, Marlins, Nationals and Braves all saw their home parks ranked in the bottom six. Only Philadelphia was even moderately respected, finishing seventh in the NL. So much for East Coast bias.
Quarterback battles are easily one of the biggest storylines in any college football offseason. And it’s even more under the microscope in 2015, as the position lost several top performers, including Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Baylor’s Bryce Petty and UCLA’s Brett Hundley.
With spring practice already underway for a handful of teams, it’s time to preview the biggest (and most important) quarterback battles for 2015 spring practice. Ohio State’s battle will garner all of the attention, but because of injuries, it’s unlikely the job will be settled until the fall. Alabama needs a big spring from Jake Coker to replace Blake Sims, while Sean Maguire opens practice at Florida State with an edge on J.J. Cosentino.
College Football's Top 15 QB Battles for Spring Practice
1. Ohio State
Cardale Jones (Junior)
Braxton Miller (Senior)
J.T. Barrett (Sophomore)
Urban Meyer has a good problem on his hands. The Buckeyes have three quarterbacks capable of winning the Heisman Trophy. Injuries to J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller make it unlikely a pecking order is determined this spring.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Jones
Jake Coker (Senior)
Blake Barnett (Freshman)
David Cornwell (Redshirt Freshman)
Alec Morris (Junior)
Cooper Bateman (Sophomore)
Florida State transfer Jake Coker was the favorite to win the job last season but was unable to beat out Blake Sims. It’s Coker’s job to lose again this spring. Freshmen Blake Barnett and David Cornwell might be his biggest challengers.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Coker
3. Florida State
J.J. Cosentino (Redshirt Freshman)
Sean Maguire (Junior)
John Franklin III (Sophomore)
De’Andre Johnson (Freshman)
Deondre Francois (Freshman)
Sean Maguire has one start under his belt, throwing for 304 yards and one touchdown in a 23-17 overtime win over Clemson – arguably the best defense in college football – in 2014. Maguire is the safe pick here, but the upside is with J.J. Cosentino and Deondre Francois.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Maguire
4. Notre Dame
Everett Golson (Senior)
Malik Zaire (Sophomore)
Golson started all 12 of Notre Dame’s regular season matchups, but was passed by Zaire on the depth chart prior to the Music City Bowl. In the upset win over LSU, Zaire passed for 96 yards and added 96 more on the ground. He’s the man to beat in spring practice.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Zaire
Vernon Adams (Senior)
Jeff Lockie (Junior)
Travis Waller (Freshman)
Morgan Mahalak (Redshirt Freshman)
Ty Griffin (Sophomore)
The Ducks make an appearance here in the quarterback battle column, but it would be a major surprise if anyone unseats Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams. The senior has a chance to be one of the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks in 2015.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Adams
Anthony Jennings (Junior)
Brandon Harris (Sophomore)
Justin McMillan (Freshman)
Upgrading the passing attack should be the top priority for LSU this spring. The Tigers completed only 50 percent of their passes and ranked last in the SEC in passing offense. Jennings posted a 48.9 completion percentage, while Harris didn’t get on the field much in the second half of 2015. LSU should know what it has in Jennings. It’s time to see what this team has in Harris.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Harris
Brice Ramsey (Sophomore)
Jacob Park (Redshirt Freshman)
Faton Bauta (Junior)
Georgia’s offense should revolve around running back Nick Chubb, but contending for the SEC title could depend on how quickly this battle is settled. There’s a new play-caller in Brian Schottenheimer, so there’s a clean slate among this group. The upside is with Park. Experience edge goes to Ramsey.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Ramsey
Shane Morris (Junior)
Alex Malzone (Freshman)
Wilton Speight (Sophomore)
Zach Gentry (Freshman)
Michigan’s offense will show improvement under new coach Jim Harbaugh. But how much improvement? That depends on the development of the quarterbacks. Morris has the edge in experience (43 of 87, 389 yards in career), but Zach Gentry and Alex Malzone are both part of Harbaugh’s first signing class in Ann Arbor.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Morris
Trevor Knight (Junior)
Bake Mayfield (Junior)
Cody Thomas (Sophomore)
Justice Hansen (Redshirt Freshman)
Knight appeared poised for a breakout season in 2014, but he never was able to capitalize off of a strong Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama. Mayfield sat out due to transfer rules from Texas Tech, while Thomas started the final three games of the regular season. New coordinator Lincoln Riley is an Air Raid disciple. That may give Mayfield a slight edge for the job.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Mayfield
Josh Rosen (Freshman)
Jerry Neuheisel (Junior)
Asiantii Woulard (Sophomore)
Brett Hundley leaves big shoes to fill at UCLA, and there’s an intriguing battle ahead this offseason. Rosen – the No. 12 prospect in the 247Sports Composite – is battling Jerry Neuheisel – the son of former coach Rick Neuheisel. Rosen has the edge in talent and enrolled in time to compete in spring practice.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Rosen
11. Ole Miss
Chad Kelly (Junior)
Ryan Buchanan (Sophomore)
DeVante Kincade (Sophomore)
This quarterback battle is one of the toughest to project on this list. Kelly – a former Clemson quarterback – has the edge in talent but Kincade and Buchanan have worked in coach Hugh Freeze’s system for the last two years.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Kelly
Treon Harris (Sophomore)
Will Grier (Redshirt Freshman)
New coach Jim McElwain’s background on offense is going to pay dividends for the Gators. Harris threw for 1,019 yards and nine scores in nine games last season, while Grier – the No. 48 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite – spent last year as a redshirt.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Grier
Reggie Bonnafon (Sophomore)
Will Gardner (Junior)
Pat Thomas (Junior)
Lamar Jackson (Freshman)
Kyle Bolin (Sophomore)
Tyler Ferguson (Junior)
Three quarterbacks – Bonnafon, Bolin and Gardner – all made starts for Louisville in 2014. Bonnafon and Gardner suffered knee injuries, which allowed Bolin to start against Georgia in the Belk Bowl. Ferguson is a transfer from Penn State and completed 10 of 15 passes for 155 yards for one score with the Nittany Lions in 2013.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Ferguson
Seth Russell (Junior)
Chris Johnson (Sophomore)
Jarrett Stidham (Freshman)
Technically, there’s a quarterback battle with Bryce Petty departing. However, all signs point to Seth Russell as the favorite. True freshman Jarrett Stidham is a name to watch for the future.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Russell
Jerrod Heard (Redshirt Freshman)
Tyrone Swoopes (Junior)
Kai Locksley (Freshman)
This position is under the spotlight after Texas averaged only 21.4 points per game in 2014. Swoopes had some promising efforts but threw for only 257 yards and five interceptions over the last two games. Heard – the No. 72 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite – is off a redshirt season and ready to push for the starting job.
Who Takes the First Snap of the 2015 Season: Heard
Other Key QB Battles to Watch in Spring Practice
DeMarco Murray led the NFL with 1,845 yards rushing last year, but will the free agent running back re-sign with the Dallas Cowboys? The team used its franchise tag on wide receiver Dez Bryant, which put Murray on the open market with free agency set to kick off on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.
The perceived value of running backs appears to be changing, as evidenced by the recent trade of another former rushing champion, LeSean McCoy. However, Murray is just 27 years old and has rushed for 1,100 yards in back-to-back seasons, so he appears to be the best option in a market that doesn’t lack for options. There are about 30 running backs (and eight fullbacks) that are unrestricted free agents.
Murray does come with some durability questions, as last season was the first in his four-year career that he played in all 16 games, and there are some observers who credit much of his success to Dallas’ outstanding offensive line.
With all of this in mind, here are five possible destinations (in alphabetical order) for Murray and a few other teams that may be interested in adding him to their backfield.
The Cardinals went 11-5 and made the playoffs last season despite dealing with a rash of injuries and getting next-to-nothing from its running game. Arizona was second to last in the NFL with 1,308 yards rushing. Murray led the league with 1,845 by himself. Emmitt Smith went from Big D to the desert, why not Murray?
Even though the Cowboys used the franchise tag on Bryant rather than Murray, I don’t think it’s any secret they want to keep their No. 1 running back too. We’ve already seen what Murray can do behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. It’s just a matter of making the financials work.
The Colts made it to the AFC title game thanks in large part to Andrew Luck’s right arm. As talented as Luck is, he can’t do it alone (Exhibit A: AFC Championship Game vs. New England), and beefing up the running game would certainly help. Not only would it make Luck that much more dangerous in the pocket, it also would likely mean less punishment from opposing pass rushers. Luck already has been sacked 100 times in just three seasons.
The Jaguars haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2011. The offensive line is a work in progress, but the Jaguars are in position to do something that other teams are becoming less and less willing to do – pay big money for a running back. If it’s all about the money for Murray, than Jacksonville could be his destination.
The Raiders have a new head coach in Jack Del Rio, who has a ton of cap space to use to overhaul his roster. Derek Carr is a young quarterback who may be the long-term answer under center and what better way to help him develop than to give him plenty of ground support? Oh there’s also the intrigue of Oakland going with a Murray & Murray running back tandem in DeMarco and Latavius.
Other Teams to Watch
The Atlanta Falcons have plenty of cap space to add Murray to the mix, but I think other areas on the roster are more of a priority. The Falcons seem content to see how Devonta Freeman, last year’s fourth-round pick out of Florida State, fares with a larger workload… Adrian Peterson is still a member of the Minnesota Vikings, but for how long? Going from Peterson to Murray doesn’t seem like that much of a drop off, if that’s the direction the team chooses to go… The San Diego Chargers also appear to have a need with Ryan Mathews a free agent, Danny Woodhead coming back from a broken leg and second-year back Branden Oliver unproven. The Chargers were 30th in rushing last season.
Although plenty of teams need a running back the caliber of Murray, I’m just not sure how many are willing to pay him accordingly. Unless the Colts or Jaguars or Raiders decide to break the bank, I think the offers will be close enough that Murray will decide to stay put. The benefits of being a Cowboy, such as running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, outweigh the potential financial windfall he can make elsewhere. It will take some work as it relates to the salary cap, but in the end, Dallas gets to keep its No. 1 wide receiver and running back, which makes Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett and especially Tony Romo happy.
Coming off of back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, Julius Thomas is looking to cash in as the top tight end in this year’s free agent class. Unheralded when Denver drafted him in the fourth round in 2011, the former Portland State football and basketball player has developed into one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL.
Thomas played in just nine games in his first two seasons with the Broncos before breaking through in a big way in 2013. The season Peyton Manning also came to town, Thomas exploded for 65 catches for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. He followed that up this past season with another 12 scores, although an ankle injury limited him to just 13 games and his other numbers went down (43, 489).
An athletic target with outstanding hands making him one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the league, Thomas could be a difference-maker for a team looking to upgrade at tight end. A return to Denver looks unlikely, so the question must be asked – how will Thomas fare without Manning throwing passes to him?
Here are five potential landing spots (in alphabetical order) for Thomas, whether it’s based on need or available cap space or both, as well as a few other teams to keep an eye on with free agency set to officially begin on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.
Everyone knows how good the Falcons’ offense was with Tony Gonzalez a part of it. I’m not saying Thomas is a future Hall of Famer like Gonzalez, but he would have to be considered an upgrade over Levine Toilolo. Atlanta has plenty of cap space to give Matt Ryan another weapon in the passing game.
Jordan Cameron is a free agent, but I think both he and the Browns are ready to move on. Tight end isn’t Cleveland’s biggest need, but the Browns have plenty of cap space and an uncertain situation at quarterback. Whomever ends up under center, he will need targets to throw to and Thomas would fit the bill, especially in the red zone.
Green Bay Packers
As good as the Packers’ offense is, can you imagine what it would be like if it added Thomas to the mix? Green Bay has other positions to address (including trying to re-sign Randall Cobb), so tight end may be more of a luxury than need right now. But oh what a potential luxury it could be for Aaron Rodgers if Thomas were to sign with the Packers.
The Jaguars can pretty much be considered an option for any big free agent because of two things – 1) they have plenty of holes to fill and 2) they have plenty of cap space. That said, Thomas also makes a lot of sense because of what his presence could mean to the development of second-year quarterback Blake Bortles. Call it a win-win for both the team and player.
With Marshawn Lynch back in the fold, the Seahawks’ focus this offseason will shift to signing Russell Wilson and other key players to long-term contracts. However, that doesn’t mean the team won’t look at adding some new pieces too. Thomas would definitely give Seattle’s passing game a different element.
Other Teams to Watch
Rex Ryan has his running back in LeSean McCoy, but Thomas could be the next Pro Bowler to join the new-look Buffalo Bills. Adding Thomas to the offense would make things easier on both the quarterback and the likes of McCoy and wide receiver Sammy Waktins … With Andre Johnson seemingly on his way out, the Houston Texans probably need a wide receiver more than a tight end. However, that doesn’t mean that Thomas wouldn’t fit nicely in head coach Bill O’Brien’s offense… The Oakland Raiders already have a young tight end in Mychal Rivera and much bigger holes to fill elsewhere. But since they have so much cap space and apparently are itching to spend it, they at least need to be mentioned here.
The Packers are certainly intriguing, given the quarterback similarities, but I don’t think they can offer Thomas enough money to make it worth his while. And if it’s all about the money, then it’s a two-horse race between the Jaguars and Raiders. However, I also like the Falcons’ and Seahawks’ chances. Seattle would give Thomas a chance to play for a legitimate Super Bowl contender not far from where he played his college ball, while Atlanta has been a good place for tight ends to thrive. In the end, I think the Jaguars will simply present Thomas with an offer he can’t refuse.
Recent talk has suggested that even more rest could soon be in line for the league, but without losing any games. With the year’s spate of injuries to superstars and role players alike, it’s hard to argue that stretching the schedule out and giving some more relief to basketball bodies is a bad idea.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, though, doesn’t like the concept. "If there is a game in July, count me out," Popovich said last week. "Count me out. Count me out. Life is too short… I think the season is long enough," Popovich said. "I will not come to work in July.”
The Spurs, quite famously, have gotten their rest through alternative means over the years: by simply taking it. Popovich and Co. were once fined $250,000 for sitting Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green for a nationally televised game in December of 2012, but they’ve continued to employ such strategies anyway.
For teams without as strong of a culture, though — the kind that kind win regular season games even with the back of their bench in the starting lineup — no such luxury exists. The New Orleans Pelicans can’t beat too many teams without Anthony Davis; the Los Angeles Clippers face similarly poor odds without Chris Paul… the list goes on and on. Rest is not an option for most of the NBA playoff-starved NBA, and exhausting back-to-back arrangements are a fact of life.
Reducing the total number of games, while being a smart idea, is probably the least probable solution of all, because less television time less means less revenue for everyone involved. So either we’ll see Popovich’s least favorite notion come to life, or we’ll likely keep seeing ragged bodies fall to the injured reserve at unfortunate rates.
— John Wilmes
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 23: Hunter Mahan
Born: May 17, 1982, Orange, Calif. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 6 | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $3,097,983 (22nd) | World Ranking: 30
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Mahan has not finished worse than 30th on the money list in the last nine years and is the only player in the world who has made it to the season-ending 30-man Tour Championship every year since the FedExCup’s inception in 2007. That being said, neither has he ever finished higher than 9th on the money list nor higher than 6th in the FEC. His highs are restricted by an inability to save shots around the green, and his lows are minimized by an almost unmatched repetitive game from tee to green. With top 10s in all four majors, he is a threat on any course and under any circumstances, but he needs one great week around the greens to become a major winner, something that was predicted of him over a decade ago as the country’s best amateur.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - T26
U.S. Open - Cut
British Open - T32
PGA Championship - T7
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - T8 (2010)
U.S. Open - T4 (2013)
British Open - T6 (2007)
PGA Championship - T7 (2014)
Top-10 Finishes: 7
Top-25 Finishes: 14
Missed Cuts: 13
Athlon's 2015 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Billy Horschel, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.
The ACC is losing some significant star power with the departure of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley, Louisville safety Gerod Holliman and Miami running back Duke Johnson (just to name a few).
All 14 teams in the ACC will be busy this spring filling key personnel question marks for 2015, and the loss of several star players shows why most preseason rankings have Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech all outside of the playoff picture.
As spring practice begins around the ACC, it’s never too early to take a peek at what’s ahead in 2015. Here’s a quick primer on the top 15 players in the ACC for next season, as well as a few names to watch.
ACC's Pre-Spring Top 15 Players for 2015
1. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 1,765 yards, 26 TDs
Conner was the ACC’s Player of the Year in 2014 and will remain the centerpiece of Pittsburgh’s offense in 2015.
2. Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 79 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 INT, 12 PBU
Ramsey’s all-around ability is a huge asset for Florida State’s defense. He led the team with 12 pass breakups last season and could slide to cornerback to help replace the production lost by P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby.
3. Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 54 tackles, 2 INT, 15 PBU
Fuller has a variety of accolades in just two seasons with the Hokies. The Baltimore native was the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013 and earned All-America honors last year. He should lead a tough Virginia Tech defense in 2015.
4. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 78 receptions, 1,261 yards, 8 TDs
Boyd has started his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and has grabbed 15 touchdown receptions in two years. The Pennsylvania native will be the ACC’s No. 1 receiver in 2015.
5. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 1,008 yards, 8 TDs, 22 rec., 203 yards
Cook is primed for a monster season as Florida State’s go-to back. As a true freshman in 2014, Cook led the team with 1,008 yards. All-America honors in 2015 would not be a surprise.
6. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 93 of 137, 1,466 yards, 14 TDs, 2 INTs
Watson could be the No. 1 player on this list by the end of the 2015 season. He’s recovering from ACL surgery, but the sophomore lived up to his recruiting hype by throwing for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns in limited action last year.
7. Justin Thomas, QB, Georgia Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
2014 Stats: 1,719 passing yards, 18 TDs, 6 INTs, 1,086 rush yards, 8 TDs
Thomas is the perfect fit as the catalyst in Georgia Tech’s option offense. The Alabama native led the team with 1,086 rushing yards last season and connected on 14 pass plays of 30 yards or more.
8. Dadi Nicolas, DE, Virginia Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 72 tackles, 18.5 TFL, 9 sacks
Nicolas had a breakout season in his first full year as a starter. After recording four sacks in 2013, Nicolas upped that total to nine and ranked second among ACC defenders with 18.5 tackles for a loss.
9. Marquise Williams, QB, North Carolina
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 270 of 428, 3,068 yards, 21 TDs, 9 INTs, 788 rush yards, 13 TDs
Williams will miss spring practice due to a hip injury, but the senior isn’t expected to miss any snaps in the fall. He ranked second among ACC quarterbacks (conference-only games) by completing 62.9 passes last year. Williams ranked second in the ACC by averaging 296.6 total yards per game.
10. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 221 of 378, 3,198 yards, 26 TDs, 12 INTs
Kaaya started all 13 games as a true freshman and guided Miami's offense to an average of 29.2 points per game. The California native is only going to get better as a sophomore, which is critical for a team dealing with key losses on defense (Denzel Perryman), at running back (Duke Johnson) and on the offensive line.
11. Jeremy Cash, S, Duke
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 111 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 2 INT, 7 PBU, 4 FF
Cash sat out spring ball due to knee injury, but the senior is expected to be at full strength by the fall. He’s one of the top defensive playmakers in the ACC after recording four forced fumbles and two picks last season.
12. Jacoby Brissett, QB, NC State
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 2,606 yards, 23 TD, 5 INTs, 529 rush yards, 3 TDs
Brissett turned in a solid all-around in his debut at NC State, and bigger and better things should be coming for the senior in 2015. The Florida transfer did not throw an interception over the last three games of 2014.
13. Quin Blanding, S, Virginia
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 123 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 3 INT, 6 PBU
Blanding certainly lived up to his five-star recruiting hype coming out of high school. On his way to earning second-team All-ACC honors, Blanding led the team with 123 tackles and tied for first on the defense with three interceptions.
14. Luther Maddy, DT, Virginia Tech
2015 Year of Eligibility: Senior
2014 Stats: 9 tackles
Maddy missed nearly all of 2014 due to a knee injury. In 2013, he recorded 55 tackles (13.5 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks. If Maddy is healthy, he will rank higher on this list in the fall.
15. Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
2014 Stats: 21 tackles, 2 TFL, 6 PBU
It’s a little bit of a projection to put Alexander here, but he’s poised for a breakout year after starting all 13 games last season. According to Clemson’s game notes, Alexander ranks first in school history in snaps by a freshman.
Six Names to Watch in Spring Practice
KeShun Freeman, DE, Georgia Tech
As a true freshman, Freeman’s emerged as one of Georgia Tech’s top defensive linemen in 2014. He should make an even bigger impact in 2015.
Rod Johnson, OT, Florida State
Rising star anchored the left side of Florida State’s line for the final five games of 2014 - as a true freshman.
Artavis Scott/Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
This duo combined for 133 catches for 1,995 yards and 14 scores last season. It’s a good bet one of these receivers rank on the top 15 players for the ACC at the end of 2015.
Cam Serigne, TE, Wake Forest
Serigne was a bright spot for a struggling Wake Forest offense last season. He caught 54 passes for 531 yards and five scores.
Wyatt Teller, OL, Virginia Tech
Teller moved from the defensive line to the offensive line in 2013 and started the last six games in his redshirt freshman season. Virginia Tech’s offensive line is a huge question mark entering 2015. Teller is one of the few certainties heading into this season.
Joseph Yearby, RB, Miami
Duke Johnson leaves big shoes to fill, but Yearby is capable of handling the starting role in 2015.