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Spring training is underway, and the 2015 Major League Baseball is less than a month way. With the first pitch of 2015 fast approaching, Athlon Sports is taking a look at some of the key storylines for the upcoming season. The AL Central produced last year’s World Series’ runner-up in the Royals, and another playoff team in the Tigers. Kansas City lost starting pitcher James Shields to the Padres and has to recapture the magic from the postseason. Detroit is the favorite to win this division, but manager Brad Ausmus needs healthy years from Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera.

 

New Look White Sox, New Central Favorites?

The Chicago White Sox front office made it crystal clear this past winter that the combined 188 loses of the past two seasons weren’t happening again. President of baseball operations Kenny Williams and general manager Rick Hahn broke out the check book and have completely remolded this Sox team into what should be an instant division contender.

 

This winter the Sox made numerous big moves to shore up all aspects of the team. Budding ace and former Cub, Jeff Samardzija, was traded from Oakland for prospects to give the White Sox another top of the rotation arm to complement Chris Sale. Samardzija is now 30 and is slated to be a free agent after the season, so there is quite a lot to be gained for the pitcher who grew up in Northwest Indiana not far from the South Side of Chicago. Samardzija’s addition also brings a much-needed right arm to a rotation that features three lefties including 200-inning hurler Jose Quintana and veteran John Danks.

 

The White Sox traded for lefty reliever Dan Jennings, who posted a sparking 1.34 ERA in 47 appearances for the Marlins last summer, giving up just six earned runs in 40.1 innings of work. The Sox kept adding to their 'pen with the addition of former starter turned reliever Zach Duke. Duke, now on his sixth team in 10 seasons, is looking to continue his resurgence coming out of the ‘pen, as he struck out 74 batters and surrendered just three home runs in 58.2 innings of work for the Brewers in 2014. However, the big bullpen signing was former Yankee closer David Robertson, who inked a four-year, $46 million contract in December. The 2015 Sox bullpen will be a much-improved group compared to the 2014 crowd that ranked 28th in ERA (4.38), 25th in saves (36), third in runs surrendered (251) and first in walks (236).

 

The South Siders’ offense wasn't much to brag about in 2014 either, outside of Jose Abreu, of course. That issue was addressed with several swoops of the pen this offseason. Williams and Hahn were able to sign lefty first basemen Adam LaRoche and the 26 home runs and 92 RBIs he contributed with Washington last season. LaRoche will likely see most of his time as the full-time DH batting behind incumbent first baseman Abreu. Perhaps the best winter signing was that of left fielder Melky Cabrera. Cabrera isn’t without his warts from the Biogenesis case, but on the field he has the potential to be one of the game’s best switch-hitters with a knack for getting on base. The Sox also signed journeyman Emilio Bonifacio to a one-year deal. Bonafacio will be seen all over the Sox lineup and in the field, as he is capable of playing almost every position except pitcher or catcher.

 

All of the big moves this offseason have put the Sox in fantastic position to overthrow Detroit as division champs. If outfielders Adam Eaton and Avail Garcia can remain healthy and produce as they were projected to in 2014, the White Sox could once again be the toast of the Windy City.

 

Motor City Uncertainty

The past four seasons, the Detroit Tigers have owned the AL Central, but are still looking for the elusive World Series title that seems to become more evasive with the passing of time. Last year’s team that won 90 games and a division title was a disappointment after getting swept by the Orioles in the ALDS. For the first time in years, the Tigers have more questions than answers as spring training heats up.

 

The key to the Tigers' lineup will always be Miguel Cabrera. Miggy’s 2014 was impressive especially for being hampered by throbbing pain in his ankle, noticeably inhibiting his footwork and running ability. Cabrera was still able to hit .313/.371/.524 with 51 doubles, 25 homers, and 109 RBIs in 2014, even with the constant discomfort in his lower leg. Cabrera had offseason surgery to remove bone spurs and fix a fracture in his right ankle. Currently, Miggy is not 100 percent but is recovering quickly as he is taking batting practice and preparing to run on flat ground according to the Detroit Free Press.

 

The other half of the Tigers' one-two punch also is coming off surgery this winter. Victor Martinez underwent surgery on Feb. 10 to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. The switch-hitting DH was an MVP candidate in 2014, and certainly had an argument for winning after posting a slash line of .339/.409/.565 with 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 33 doubles, and a league-leading .974 OPS. After his stellar campaign, Martinez inked a four-year deal to stay in Detroit. Questions certainly have to be arising within the Tigers' front office about his long-term health, he is 36 after all, and knees don't heal as quickly for players in their mid-30s like they do for players in the early 20s.

 

After Torii Hunter signed with the Twins, the Tigers sent Rick Porcello to Boston for Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes. Detroit is hoping Cespedes’ raw power can blossom with All-Star bats Cabrera and Martinez to protect him in the lineup.

 

The biggest concern, the starting rotation, is a new issue for the Tigers. Lefty ace David Price was acquired last July and will be the go-to guy for Detroit in 2015. The fall off last season for former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander was scary. The fastball that regularly topped 98 mph was noticeably slower, as his ERA ballooned to 4.54, two full runs higher than his 2011 MVP season, as he gave up a league-leading 104 earned runs.

 

Verlander isn’t the only uncertainty in the Tigers’ rotation, as veteran Anibal Sanchez looks to rebound from his injury-plagued 2014 after a career year in '13. New to the rotation is righty Shane Greene, who pitched admirably in his rookie campaign for the Yankees with a 3.78 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 78.2 innings. To complicate matters, the 2015 Tigers essentially have the same bullpen from '14 that imploded down the stretch and had a whopping 4.29 ERA.

 

If the Tigers want to keep a chokehold on the AL Central for a fifth consecutive season, their core group of veterans are going to have to produce like never before in order to keep pace with the more youthful teams in the division.

 

Do The Royals Have Enough Magic For a Second Straight World Series Run?

The Kansas City Royals were the biggest story of the 2014 baseball calendar, and for all the right reasons. Their unexpected run to the World Series was built on great defense, stealing bases, and lights-out pitching. This season will be much of the same for the Royals, as almost everyone is back from their 2014 run.

 

James Shields is now in San Diego and Norichika Aoki is now ironically a San Francisco Giant. With the departure of Shields, the Royals turned to free agent signee Edinson Volquez to round out the rotation. Volquez is looking to continue the career renaissance that began last season in Pittsburgh. With the addition of Volquez, the Royals' brass is looking for second-year flamethrower Yordano “Ace” Ventura to morph into the team’s actual ace this summer. Ventura’s fastball regularly reaches triple digits and could be the train that he rides all the way into the Cy Young conversation at season’s end.

 

For as solid as the Royals' rotation was in 2014, it was their bullpen that took them deep into October. The trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland was untouchable in 2014 with a record of 65-4 after the 6th inning. With youngster Brandon Finnegan mixed in along with vets Luke Hochevar and Jason Frasor, the Royals' bullpen looks to be the best in the game again in 2015.

 

Ned Yost’s World Series lineup card remains largely intact. Plug in Alex Rios in right field for the departed Aoki and Kendrys Morales for former DH and current Oakland A, Billy Butler, and that is it.

 

If the Royals hope to repeat their 2014 success this summer, they are going to need more from their lineup cornerstones Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. Both “Moose” and Hosmer can flash the leather and had fantastic postseasons in 2014, but it is time for both to produce on a more regular and large-scale basis.

 

This Royals team that was 14th in runs scored (651) and last in home runs (95) in 2014 will need as much offensive firepower it can muster to keep up with the likes of the White Sox and Tigers. Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain are two of the best gloves there are in any outfield, but they too will have to step up offensively in 2015. Cain had a coming out party last summer in which he had a slash line of .301/.339/.412 with 29 doubles and 28 stolen bases, and will be counted upon to be the table-setter for much of this Royals offense.

 

Another player devleoping into a star before our eyes is catcher Salvador Perez. Perez is just 24 but already turning into one of the top catchers in baseball both at the plate and behind it.

 

With young fire-ballers in the rotation and bullpen, and experienced youth that is still growing in the field and at the plate, the Royals look to be more than just a feel-good story from a year ago. The boys from Kansas City have what it takes to make another run in October by following the same blueprint from a season ago.

 

- by Jake Rose

Teaser:
AL Central's Top Storylines to Watch in 2015
Post date: Friday, March 6, 2015 - 13:19
All taxonomy terms: AL West, American League, Seattle Mariners, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/texas-rangers-2015-preview-and-prediction
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The last place the Texas Rangers expected to find themselves in 2014 was last place. But that’s where they finished after injuries conspired to knock them from favorites in the American League West to a 95-loss season and sole occupancy of the AL basement. It wasn’t all injuries, as the Rangers’ lack of depth after a series of past July deadline trades finally bit them. In June, management was convinced to turn the season into a tryout camp. Some players emerged, and they have a chance to make the roster this year after the Rangers did little in the offseason. But their No. 1 offseason goal was to get injured players healthy. The belief is that they are, for the most part, and the Rangers expect to contend in 2015. They gave themselves a better chance after acquiring Yovani Gallardo to bolster the rotation, but offensively they need several hitters to either rebound from down seasons or perform at the next level.

 

Rotation

The good news is that each of the five starters expected to be in the rotation went through a normal, healthy offseason, most notably staff ace Yu Darvish. He finished the season on the 60-day disabled list with an elbow strain, but the Rangers’ cautious approach allowed Darvish to start throwing in December. When Darvish is on, he’s a strikeout machine and could be the next pitcher to throw a no-hitter. Lefthander Derek Holland’s strong September (2–0, 1.46 ERA, 37 innings), after missing the first five months following knee surgery, left some talking about him getting the Opening Day start over Darvish. The two new faces are former Brewer Gallardo and former National Ross Detwiler. Milwaukee’s one-time ace, Gallardo was shipped to the Rangers for three players in January. The Brewers also are paying $4 million towards Gallardo’s $14 million salary. Detwiler meanwhile hasn’t started a game since 2013, as he was pushed out of the crowded Washington rotation. Both Gallardo and Detwiler are slated to be free agents after this season. Righty Colby Lewis is probably the front-runner for the final spot, although Nick Tepesch and lefty Matt Harrison, who is on the rebound from another back surgery, could end up factoring into the mix at some point. Another lefty, Martin Perez, should be back on the mound by the All-Star break. He was one of the league’s best pitchers in April but had Tommy John surgery in May. 


Bullpen

Neftali Feliz finished 2014 as the closer after a long recovery from Tommy John surgery. He flashed the velocity and effective slider that made him an All-Star in 2010. The biggest questions about Feliz have been his desire and work ethic. Those questions haven’t gone away. If Feliz falters, Tanner Scheppers will be the first option to replace him. Scheppers, derailed by an elbow injury last spring, will open in the eighth-inning role in which he blossomed into a top-flight reliever in 2013. The Rangers added another righty, Kyuji Fujikawa, to give the bullpen a shot of experience. Also coming off Tommy John, the 34-year-old returned last season with the Cubs. The Rangers believe they are getting a pitcher they coveted two years ago at the right time following his surgery. Shawn Tolleson, who had the best 2014 season among Rangers relievers, will bridge the sixth and seventh innings, and hard-throwing Roman Mendez was the best of the rookies who were showcased last season. The Rangers might have room for only one lefty, which could be rookie Alex Claudio. Tepesch or whomever doesn’t make the starting rotation figures to be the long man, with Nick Martinez and Anthony Bass other candidates.

 

Middle Infield

The Rangers believe that shortstop Elvis Andrus is primed for a big year after one of the worst of his career. He started fast but then became a double-play machine and, at times, a liability on the bases. Andrus took it upon himself to train harder in the offseason after doing very little before last season. Andrus’ double-play partner will be Rougned Odor, who is firmly entrenched at second base thanks to Jurickson Profar’s persistent shoulder issues. Odor was one of the best rookies in the American League in 2014, though his aggressiveness worked against him more than it worked in his favor. More patience at the plate will serve him and the Rangers well.

 

Corners

On paper, only a handful of teams should be as stout offensively on the corners as the Rangers’ duo of first baseman Prince Fielder and third baseman Adrian Beltre. But there are questions about how effective Fielder will be after cervical fusion surgery in May. Fielder, one of the game’s top power hitters, swatted only three homers and repeatedly bounced into infield shifts as weakness in his left arm, caused by a herniated disc, slowed his bat and kept him from getting the same lift on balls. Beltre again was the Rangers’ best player and led them in the Triple Crown categories. But he had only 19 homers, in large part because he didn’t have any protection, and teams pitched around him. But when he did get pitches to hit, he did so at a .324 clip. Beltre also had a rebound year defensively.

 

Outfield

A vacancy was created when the Rangers bought out a club option on Alex Rios, who played right field and forced Shin-Soo Choo to left field to begin his seven-year, $130 million deal. Choo was lousy defensively but will move to more familiar territory in right with Rios gone. Choo was one of the league’s best players for about six weeks, but an ankle injury and a lingering elbow injury sent him spiraling. He must be productive in the middle of the lineup. Leonys Martin also needs to have a big year and will start in the leadoff spot after batting .295 with a .340 on-base percentage over the final 21 games atop the order. He has never been a consistent hitter, but his speed can be a game-changer. Martin is blessed with perhaps the strongest arm in the game, but he can get in trouble by taking poor routes to balls. Left field is a toss up with veterans Nate Schierholtz and Ryan Ludwick, along with younger guys like Ryan Rua, Michael Choice and Jake Smolinski among the candidates. The winner also could find himself in a platoon with the left-handed-hitting Mitch Moreland, unless it’s Schierholtz. Despite a lousy 2014, Choice has more upside than Rua or Smolinski.

 

Catching

Robinson Chirinos established himself as the No. 1 catcher for 2015. He’s worked to improve his footwork behind the plate and has turned himself into one of the best throwers in the game. Chirinos will also hit the ball out of the park on occasion. The Rangers are weary of his concussion history, which is why they acquired switch-hitter Carlos Corporan from the Astros.

 

DH/Bench

Moreland will be the primary DH but could end up in a platoon with an extra right-handed-hitting outfielder. Moreland is coming off ankle surgery, fixing a problem that has bothered him for years. He has dealt with various injuries and has never realized the potential the Rangers thought he had. Delino DeShields Jr. gives the Rangers an interesting piece. He’s a left-handed hitter who can fly but lacks experience in the majors.

 

Management

Jeff Banister begins his first season as a big-league manager after four years in Pittsburgh as bench coach under Clint Hurdle, whom Rangers executives love. In Pittsburgh, all voices are welcomed, and scouts and front-office execs are routinely involved. That appeals to Rangers GM Jon Daniels, who is entering his 10th season and occasionally met resistance from Ron Washington when making suggestions. Pitching coach Mike Maddux is one of four holdovers from Washington’s staff, and former Rangers third baseman Steve Buechele joins as bench coach.

 

Final Analysis

The Rangers have a fair share of questions, namely in the back end of their rotation. The bullpen and lineup aren’t perfect, either. Texas needs key contributors to stay healthy and produce either at levels that made them stars or at levels that could make them stars. That’s too many ifs for this team to be considered a serious contender for the postseason.

 

2015 Prediction: 3rd in AL West

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Leonys Martin (L)     Showed over final 22 games that he could be a capable leadoff man. Will get chance to show it over 162.

SS       Elvis Andrus (R)       Disappointing year all around for Andrus, whose eight-year, $120 million extension takes effect this season.

RF       Shin-Soo Choo (L)  A hot start was derailed by ankle and elbow injuries, and he lacked instincts on the bases and in left field.

3B       Adrian Beltre (R)      The best player on the team and one of the best in the game, Beltre took on more of a leadership role in 2014.

1B       Prince Fielder (L)     The Rangers hope Fielder still has elite power after neck surgery.

DH      Mitch Moreland (L)   Texas has been waiting on Moreland to produce since 2011, but injuries keep popping up.

C         Robinson Chirinos (R)       The Rangers found a catcher amid all their injuries. He has pop and has developed into a good thrower.

2B       Rougned Odor (L)   Now entrenched at a position thought to belong to Jurickson Profar.

LF       Ryan Rua (R)           He has hit at every level, and he will work extensively on his defense in spring training to get the starting job.

 

Bench

SS       Adam Rosales (R)  Another fringe player who took advantage of his opportunity, Rosales brings energy and versatility.

OF       Delino DeShields Jr. (R)    Former first-rounder needs to show improved work ethic to make the club.

C         Carlos Corporan (S)           Started 99 games behind the plate for the Astros the past two seasons, but hit just .230 during that span.

OF       Nate Schierholtz (L)            The eight-year veteran could have leg up on last bench spot because of need for a left-handed bat.

 

Rotation

RH      Yu Darvish    Stuff so good that it seems like a no-hitter is possible each start, except vs. the A’s (1–8 lifetime).

LH       Derek Holland          2014 was all but lost to a freakish knee injury, but his strong September should be a springboard into 2015.

RH      Yovani Gallardo       Had a solid campaign in 2014 statistically, although his record didn’t show it.

LH       Ross Detwiler          Pushed out of the Nationals’ rotation, he hasn’t started since 2013 but believes he can log 200 innings.

RH      Colby Lewis A strong second half, thanks to “hip resurfacing” surgery, helped him earn a one-year contract for 2015.

 

Bullpen

RH      Neftali Feliz  (Closer)          The closer finished strong, flashing his pre-Tommy John velocity and effectiveness; desire can be fickle.

RH      Tanner Scheppers A move to the rotation resulted in a season-ending elbow injury. He’s back where he belongs.

RH      Kyuji Fujikawa          The Rangers scouted him extensively in Japan and liked him … before two disastrous years with the Cubs.

RH      Shawn Tolleson      The bullpen’s bright spot in 2014, Tolleson needs to be more efficient when called upon.

RH      Roman Mendez       He was the best of the young crop of relievers in 2014, and can be better with better mechanics.

LH       Alex Claudio The Rangers need a southpaw in the ‘pen and this rookie’s multiple arm angels and quality secondary pitchers make him deceptive against lefty hitters.

RH      Nick Martinez            Started much of 2014, but showed well early as a multi-inning reliever.

 

Beyond the Box Score

First-timer Jeff Banister is a manager for the first time in his career, and he’s with a team other than the Pirates for the first time. Banister was drafted by Pittsburgh in 1986, became a player/coach in 1993 and a full-time coach in 1994. But the fact that he had a career in baseball is remarkable after he was diagnosed with two cancerous cysts in his ankle while in high school and after he suffered temporary paralysis and a broken neck following a collision at home-plate while he was in junior college. Banister is active on Twitter (@Bannyrooster28) and ends each tweet with #nevereverquit. He knows what can happen when someone never quits.

Stating his case Adrian Beltre continues to build his résumé for the Hall of Fame. The third baseman, who has two years left on his contract, is tied for 39th all-time in doubles (528), 56th all-time in homers (395) and 79th all-time in hits (2,604). The homer total is fifth all-time among primary third basemen behind Mike Schmidt (548), Eddie Mathews (512), Chipper Jones (468) and Darrell Evans (414). Beltre, George Brett and Jones are the three third basemen in MLB history with 300 homers and 2,500 hits. Beltre also has four career Gold Gloves.

All-Star assistants The Rangers are collecting an impressive stable of special assistants to GM Jon Daniels. The club added another in November with the hiring of Michael Young, a seven-time All-Star and the club’s all-time leader in most offensive categories. Young hopes to work extensively with minor leaguers during spring training and the regular season. He joins Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, 14-time All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez and 20-year veteran reliever Darren Oliver in the Rangers’ front office.

Unhappy reunion The acquisition of outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. in the Rule 5 Draft could make for a few awkward moments in spring training. DeShields is now teammates with right-handed reliever Phil Klein, who plunked DeShields in the cheek during a Double-A game last May, producing gruesome swelling and an infamous selfie that DeShields tweeted. DeShields, then in the Astros’ system, was out only a couple weeks, and Klein would reach the majors in August as injuries riddled the Rangers’ roster.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Luis Ortiz, RHP

The stuff that comes out of Luis Ortiz’s right arm is obvious to any scout. The fastball that can touch 96 mph. A slider that darts down and is an out pitch. The ability to command his two plus pitches. But the Rangers also saw something in Ortiz that told them he was their type of player — a self-made first-round pick who had very little coaching growing up and who lost weight to become more attractive to big-league teams. Ortiz was the 30th overall pick in the June draft, signing for $1.75 million and passing on an opportunity to play collegiately at Fresno State. The Sanger, Calif., native passed his first pro test over a handful of innings at Low-A Hickory. That’s pretty impressive for an 18-year-old, and Ortiz, now 19, could be vying for a Rangers rotation spot after only a few seasons in the minors.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Joey Gallo, 3B (21) Power like this doesn’t come along often. If Gallo can stick to the right approach, he could hit 40 homers a season.

2. Nomar Mazara, OF (20) The son of an officer in the Dominican Republic navy, Mazara has discipline and maturity. He could make a rapid climb to the majors.

3. Jorge Alfaro, C (21) The Rangers are waiting for his mental side to catch up to his physical tools. If that happens, watch out.

4. Alex Gonzalez, RHP (23) The pitcher nicknamed “Chi Chi” could crack the Rangers’ rotation this spring. Some scouts believe he will.

5. Jake Thompson, RHP (21) He’s still young, and it shows occasionally on the mound and in his preparation. He needs more polish, but has talent.

6. Nick Williams, OF (21) Oh, that bat speed. If he tightens up his discipline and plate approach, the Rangers could have a Carlos Gonzalez on their hands.

7. Luis Ortiz, RHP (19) The 2014 first-rounder attacks the strike zone with a plus fastball and plus slider. He could be a quick mover.

8. Ryan Rua, INF/OF (25) He should be in the Rangers’ mix in left field, a position he is still learning. The Rangers like his athletic ability and power.

9. Luke Jackson, RHP (23) A rocky first taste at Triple-A Round Rock kept him from his big-league debut, but he says he knows what needs to be fixed.

10. Josh Morgan, SS (19) A third-round pick in 2014, Morgan is an on-base machine who hits to all fields and defends and runs capably. Power will be the question.

 

— Written by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Jeff Wilson (@JeffWilson_FWST) for Athlon Sports' 2015 MLB Preview magazine.

Teaser:
Texas Rangers 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Friday, March 6, 2015 - 12:30
All taxonomy terms: AL West, American League, Seattle Mariners, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/seattle-mariners-2015-preview-and-prediction
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This shapes up as a season of hope — and expectation — in Seattle after last year’s 16-game turnaround and the addition of the major leagues’ home run champion. The Mariners fell one game short a year ago of ending a postseason drought that extends to 2001 despite leading the American League in ERA and conjuring up the majors’ best bullpen from a collection of leftover parts that fell into place once free-agent closer Fernando Rodney arrived. The Achilles heel was an attack that finished 14th, 15th and 12th, respectively, among AL clubs in the offensive slash categories. Further, the Mariners sported a lefty-heavy lineup that left them vulnerable to matchup problems in the late innings. Their solution: Sign free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz, who hit 40 homers last season while playing in Baltimore. They also swung trades for outfielders Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano, who add a veteran left-right presence in right field.

 

Rotation

Felix Hernandez was the best pitcher in the American League in balloting by his peers (the Players’ Choice Awards) and league executives (The Sporting News) even if the BBWAA chose Cleveland’s Corey Kluber as the Cy Young Award recipient. Hernandez, who turns 29 in April, is at the height of his powers and heads what might be the league’s best and deepest rotation. Hisashi Iwakuma is a legitimate No. 2 starter who won 15 games last season despite missing a month because of a finger injury. Now add three (possibly four) talented young arms in James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Roenis Elias and (possibly) Danny Hultzen. The Mariners also acquired veteran lefty J.A. Happ from Toronto to replace departed free agent Chris Young, who resurrected his career a year ago. Manager Lloyd McClendon says Happ will be the No. 3 or No. 4 starter, which means (barring injuries) that two of those young arms will open the season at Triple-A. Hultzen, the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, will almost certainly start in the minors after missing all of last season while recovering from shoulder surgery. Paxton is a near-certainty to make the big-league staff, possibly as the No. 2 guy, to position a lefty between Hernandez and Iwakuma. That sets up Walker and Elias for a spring battle.


Bullpen

Kansas City’s bullpen grabbed the headlines last season, but the Mariners had the majors’ best overall unit by a wide margin in terms of ERA (2.59). Rodney led the majors with a franchise-record 48 saves (in 51 opportunities), and his presence allowed the rest of the pen to fall into place. Yoervis Medina and former closer Danny Farquhar generally shared the eighth inning; Charlie Furbush and Joe Beimel handled lefties; rookie Dominic Leone won eight games by pitching well in middle relief. Former closer Tom Wilhelmsen was invaluable, compiling a 2.27 ERA as a long reliever. The offseason saw Brandon Maurer dispatched to San Diego in the trade for Smith, and Beimel depart as a free agent. No problem. The Mariners have Carson Smith, who sparkled in September, ready to step in for Maurer, while Beimel’s replacement should come from a pool of three candidates: Lucas Luetge, Edgar Olmos and Rule 5-selection David Rollins. There’s no reason this shouldn’t again be a dominant unit.

 

Middle Infield

Robinson Cano remains one of the game’s premier players, but the general sense is that his numbers slipped a bit from what he produced over the previous nine years with the Yankees. You judge: He had a .314/.382/.454 slash last season after averaging .309/.355/.504 in New York. His power took an expected dip in the move to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, but the bigger factor was likely a lack of lineup protection. Opposing pitchers simply had no reason to challenge him, particularly with the game on the line. It will be interesting to see if that changes this season with Cruz hitting behind him. Shortstop shapes up as a spring battle between Brad Miller and Chris Taylor, who offer a contrast. Miller is generally viewed as a hitter with legit power whose defense is somewhat suspect. He got off to dreadful start last year, but his slash numbers after the break closely mirrored Kyle Seager’s year-long production. Miller’s early slump prompted a July 24 promotion for Taylor, who is seen as a steadier defensive player but lacks Miller’s pop. The Mariners signed free agent Rickie Weeks before the start of spring training. If he makes the team, Weeks can back up Cano as well as fill in at several other spots, including the outfield.

 

Corners

Seager blossomed last season into an All-Star third baseman and a Gold Glove winner, which led to a seven-year deal in the offseason for $100 million. McClendon contends that Seager’s bat still has at least another 20 points in it (after batting .268) along with a corresponding jump in production (he had 27 doubles, 25 homers and 96 RBIs). First base appears to belong to Logan Morrison, who batted .321 over his final 51 games after missing two months earlier in the season because of a severe hamstring injury. That injury is part of a troublesome history, however. Morrison has played fewer than 100 games in each of the last three seasons, and as the new year began, the Mariners didn’t have an obvious backup.

 

Outfield

The Mariners want Cruz to serve primarily as a designated hitter, which meant the trade that sent Michael Saunders to Toronto for Happ created a hole in right field. Enter Smith and Ruggiano who, if nothing else, provide a veteran platoon tandem. Either or both could win full-time jobs, particularly if left fielder Dustin Ackley plays to his pre-break struggles (.225/.282/.335) more than his post-break surge (.269/.307/.467). Much depends on center fielder Austin Jackson, who was a huge disappointment after arriving in a July 31 trade from Detroit. That Jackson is in his walk year to free agency should only goose his motivation for a bounce-back season.

 

Catching

Mike Zunino displayed skill in handling a diversified staff in his first full season and showed pop in collecting 44 extra-base hits. But he also batted .199 with a .254 on-base percentage while striking out 158 times in 438 at-bats. Even a marginal improvement in strike-zone recognition would pay dividends in overall production. Backup Jesus Sucre is a solid catch-and-throw receiver, which is how scouts view John Hicks, who figures to open the season at Tacoma.

 

DH/Bench

Cruz, fresh off 40 home runs with Baltimore, will be expected to get most of his at-bats as the DH. Veteran Willie Bloomquist, assuming he is fully recovered from knee surgery, is the ideal utilityman who permits the Mariners, if they choose, to get by with a three-man bench. The others project as Sucre and the non-playing portion of the right field platoon, along with Weeks if the team decides to go with four reserves. Former top prospect Jesus Montero will get a long look.

 

Management

General manager Jack Zduriencik’s top offseason priority was to acquire an impact right-handed bat (preferably two) for the middle of the lineup. He signed Cruz to a four-year deal for $57 million before acquiring Ruggiano. Both should help balance a lefty-heavy lineup. Priority No. 2 was to find a veteran starting pitcher to replace Young, and Zduriencik came up with Happ from Toronto for Saunders. Zduriencik then replaced Saunders’ lefty bat by getting Smith from San Diego. All boxes checked.

 

Final Analysis

The big-picture hope a year ago was that signing Cano to a 10-year deal for $240 million would serve to reset the franchise. One year later, it’s possible to view the Mariners as a viable division favorite and a strong postseason contender. That’s a pretty effective reset.

 

2015 Prediction: 2nd in AL West (Wild Card)

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Austin Jackson (R) Looking to rebound in free-agent walk year from his 2014 struggles.

SS       Brad Miller (L)           Will battle Chris Taylor during spring training for the starting job.

2B       Robinson Cano (L) Just stay healthy; that’s all Mariners want for last season’s big addition.

DH      Nelson Cruz (R)       He’s unlikely to hit 40 homers again, but 25-plus will be fine with the Mariners.

3B       Kyle Seager (L)        Can the new $100 million man keep improving at the plate?

RF       Seth Smith (L)          Disciplined hitter acquired from the Padres;  likely will platoon with Justin Ruggiano.

1B       Logan Morrison (L)             He was productive last season once he got healthy, but can he stay healthy?

C         Mike Zunino (R)       Lots to like with this young catcher, but the Mariners can’t live with a .199 average again.

LF       Dustin Ackley (L)      Can he finally put a full year together after a solid second half of 2014?

 

Bench

C         Jesus Sucre (R)      Doesn’t hit much, but the club is content with him as Zunino’s backup.

UT       Willie Bloomquist (R)         Veteran is invaluable for his ability to play everywhere on the diamond.

OF       Justin Ruggiano (R)           Should draw duty against left-handed pitchers; hit .305 vs. lefties in 2014.

2B       Rickie Weeks (R)    Went from averaging 23 home runs from 2010-12 for the Brewers to just 18 in the last two seasons combined.

 

Rotation

RH      Felix Hernandez       Had a career-high 248 strikeouts and career-lows in ERA (2.14) and WHIP (0.915) but didn’t win Cy Young.

LH       James Paxton          Former Kentucky Wildcat could slot second in the Mariners rotation to provide right-left mix.

RH      Hisashi Iwakuma    Check out his numbers (1.086 career WHIP) and then tell us who is more underrated.

LH       J.A. Happ       Veteran acquisition from Toronto should be a good fit in spacious Safeco Field.

RH      Taijuan Walker         Possesses high-end stuff but must beat out Roenis Elias for spot in the rotation.

 

Bullpen

RH      Fernando Rodney (Closer)           Often a thrill ride but was 48-for-51 in saves in his first season with the Mariners.

RH      Carson Smith           Funky delivery makes him especially tough on right-handed hitters (.133 average).

RH      Yoervis Medina        Big Venezuelan righty was a dominant setup man for much of last season.

RH      Danny Farquhar       Fearless reliever struck out 81 and only allowed 58 hits in 71.0 innings.

LH       Charlie Furbush      Gets the call in late-inning clutch situations vs. lefthanders.

RH      Tom Wilhelmsen     Ability to go multiple innings makes him a key piece in Mariners’ pen.

LH       Lucas Luetge           Pitched 77.2 innings for Mariners in 2012-13 but spent most of ’14 in Class AAA.

 

Beyond the Box Score

King’s streak  Felix Hernandez set an MLB record by making 16 consecutive starts (May 18 to Aug. 11) in which he pitched at least seven innings while allowing two or fewer earned runs. The previous record of 13 such starts belonged to Tom Seaver of the 1971 New York Mets. The previous American League record of 12 belonged to Chief Bender of the 1907 Philadelphia Athletics.

Nine and counting Hernandez has recorded at least 150 strikeouts in each of his first nine full big-league seasons. The only other pitchers to achieve that feat are in the Hall of Fame: Walter Johnson, who had an 11-year streak; and Bert Blyleven, who did it in his first 10 full seasons.

For openers  The Mariners carry an eight-game winning streak on Opening Day into their 2015 opener on April 6 against the Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field. The Angels were the last team to beat the Mariners in a season opener. That was back on April 3, 2006, when Orlando Cabrera’s two-run single in the ninth inning against J.J. Putz produced a 5–4 victory at Safeco.

Double trouble Robinson Cano finished with a club-leading 37 doubles and became only the second player in big-league history to hit at least 30 doubles in each of his first 10 seasons. The other player is Albert Pujols, whose streak ended at 10 years when he finished with 29 in 2011. Cano has 412 doubles in his first 10 seasons. Only three players in history had more: Pujols (426), Joe Medwick (416) and Todd Helton (413).

Beating the best The Mariners posted a winning record against postseason teams (34–27) and against teams that finished with a winning record (45–35). They also had a winning record against each of the American League’s three divisions — 41–35 vs. the West; 19–14 vs. the Central; and 18–15 vs. the East.

Elite company  All-Star closer Fernando Rodney became only the sixth player in history to record at least 48 saves in two different seasons. No pitcher has ever done it three times. The 48-times-two club: Dennis Eckersley (1990, 1992), Rod Beck (1993, 1998), Mariano Rivera (2001, 2004), Eric Gagne (2002, 2003), Jim Johnson (2012, 2013) and Rodney (2012, 2014).

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Alex Jackson, OF

Generally viewed as the best prep player in last year’s draft, Jackson, 19, landed a $4.2 million signing bonus as the No. 6 overall pick and immediately shifted positions — from catcher to right fielder — in order to accelerate his rise through the farm system. The Southern California native missed a month after he was hit in the face after losing a fly ball in the lights but showed no lingering effects when he returned for a few late games in the Arizona Rookie League. When he played, Jackson (6'2", 215) didn’t disappoint. Baseball America tagged him as the best prospect in the AZL and also at No. 1 in the Mariners’ system. Club officials hesitate to identify a probable launching point this season for Jackson. He figures to open the season at Low-A Clinton in the Midwest League.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Alex Jackson, OF (19) Team’s No. 1 pick in 2014 is already considered the best prospect in the organization.

2. D.J. Peterson, 3B/1B (23) A right-handed power hitter who should get a look in spring training before opening in the minors. Figures to shift this season to first base.

3. Danny Hultzen, LHP (25) The second overall pick in the 2011 draft appears fully healthy after missing last season while recovering from major shoulder surgery.

4. Carson Smith, RHP (25) Wowed club officials in nine scoreless September appearances and seems likely to win a spot in the big-league bullpen.

5. Ketel Marte, SS (21) Currently slotted behind Brad Miller and Chris Taylor in the organization’s shortstop depth chart. But it wouldn’t be a shock if he were starting in the big leagues in 2016.

6. Patrick Kivlehan, INF (25) A versatile player with an unconventional batting style that somehow works. Scouts love the way he peppers line drives.

7. Austin Wilson, OF (23) Still longer on potential than proven performance in part because of injuries. He missed time last year because of Achilles and elbow problems.

8. Gabby Guerrero, OF (21) His always-attack approach at the plate is, no surprise, reminiscent of his uncle, former MVP Vladimir Guerrero.

9. Edwin Diaz, RHP (21) Oozes potential because of an ability to command three pitches. If he adds some weight, he could easily pitch in the mid-90s.

10. Jordy Lara, OF/1B (23) Scouts are mixed on Lara, who put up big numbers last season (primarily) at the High-A High Desert launching pad.

Teaser:
Seattle Mariners 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Friday, March 6, 2015 - 12:00
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You can no longer tell the A’s without a scorecard. Quite a change from the team that won the American League West in 2012 and ‘13. A three-peat was expected last season, but the A’s crawled through the wild card door after owning the majors’ best record much of the summer. Their postseason lasted one game, a crushing loss to Kansas City despite holding a four-run lead in the eighth inning, so general manager Billy Beane changed the team’s complexion. Josh Donaldson, gone. Brandon Moss, gone. Jon Lester, gone. Jeff Samardzija, gone. Jed Lowrie, gone. Derek Norris, gone. Welcome Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard. That stunning Yoenis Cespedes trade on July 31 was a mere prelude to Beane’s laundry list of offseason moves, and some of the 2015 rotation and lineup will be occupied by a group of newcomers. As a result, the A’s are getting little love among prognosticators. Not that it matters to Beane, who relishes the underdog angle.

 

Rotation

Lester and Samardzija made 27 combined starts with the A’s and produced a 2.82 ERA in 188.1 innings, and Jason Hammel, acquired in the Samardzija deal, made another 12 starts. They’ve dispersed, but not before making an impact on Sonny Gray, a 25-year-old from Vanderbilt who’s alone atop the rotation and entering his second full season after going 14–10 with a 3.08 ERA. Gray’s sidekick is lefty Scott Kazmir, who signed a two-year, $22 million contract and won 15 games in his first A’s season. From there, it’s the great unknown. Jesse Chavez had a sub-3.00 ERA through June but fell out of favor in July and was removed from the rotation in August. Lefty Drew Pomeranz, who forfeited his rotation spot in mid-June when he broke his hand punching a chair, is a candidate. Either way, the A’s need production from a newcomer or two from a list that includes Jesse Hahn (from the Padres in the Norris trade), Chris Bassitt (from the White Sox in the Samardzija trade), and Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin (from the Blue Jays in the Donaldson trade). Help is on the way: Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, who combined for 397 innings in 2013 but didn’t throw a pitch in 2014, are due to return from Tommy John surgery at midseason.


Bullpen

Unlike the rotation and lineup, the bullpen has several familiar faces. Sean Doolittle snatched the closer’s role in May (thanks for the memories, Jim Johnson), converted his first 10 save chances and hardly missed a beat — well, at least until his blown save in the Kansas City playoff game. Doolittle set an A’s record for saves by a lefty (22) after entering the season with three in his career. His 11.13 strikeout-to-walk ratio, tops among big-league relievers, was third best in A’s history. Setup man Luke Gregerson, who was last seen struggling in the KC playoff game after replacing Lester, is gone. To replace Gregerson, Beane acquired Tyler Clippard from the Nationals. Clippard joins fellow righties Ryan Cook and Dan Otero as well as lefties Eric O’Flaherty and Fernando Abad to make up the bulk of the relief corps. O’Flaherty was signed to a two-year deal coming off Tommy John surgery and made his A’s debut on Independence Day.

 

Middle Infield

Zobrist brings versatility and steady production and figures to get the majority of his playing time at second. It’s uncertain who’ll play shortstop, though Marcus Semien (Samardzija deal) is a good bet. Beane says Semien, who can play multiple positions, is capable of 20-plus homers and will get a chance to play every day. Defensive-minded Eric Sogard, who prompts fans to rally around “nerd power,” hit .267 with a .346 on-base percentage in the second half after struggling at .186 in the first half. He will serve as the primary backup, as the other choices (Andy Parrino, Tyler Ladendorf) have minimal big-league experience.

 

Corners

The absences of Donaldson and Moss left big holes at the corners. For now, they’ll be filled by third baseman Brett Lawrie and first baseman Ike Davis, both of whom have issues. Lawrie hasn’t been able to stay healthy and peaked at 125 games in 2012. He hopes the grass surface at O.co Coliseum will do wonders for his body after he got banged up on Toronto’s artificial turf. Davis hasn’t been the same since hitting 32 homers for the 2012 Mets. The past two years, he homered a combined 20 times. As always, the A’s will mix and match across the diamond, so another newcomer, Billy Butler, will get time at first base. Rule 5 draftee Mark Canha played a lot of first and a little third in the minors.

 

Outfield

When the A’s dealt Cespedes in July, they planned for a left-field platoon of Stephen Vogt and Jonny Gomes. That hardly lasted. Now the A’s need a solution. They’ve got Sam Fuld, but he hit just .209 in two stints with Oakland. They’ve got Craig Gentry, a plus defender and baserunner who batted .254, his lowest average in four years. Fuld and Gentry could platoon — Canha could be in the mix, too — and take turns filling in for valuable but oft-injured center fielder Coco Crisp. Right fielder Josh Reddick missed a lot of time again, thanks to a knee ailment, and hit 12 homers for the second straight year after pumping 32 in 2012. On the flip side, he was one of Oakland’s few productive hitters in the second half, batting .302 after July 22. Speedy Billy Burns, who stole 54 bases in 60 attempts before his September call-up, is a possible backup.

 

Catching

The A’s went from having the majors’ best catching depth late last season to lacking catchers, thanks to John Jaso’s latest concussion and nagging injuries to Norris and Vogt. On Aug. 24, the A’s obtained Geovany Soto, who started the playoff game but got hurt himself and left after two innings. Josh Phegley has replaced Norris as the right-handed-hitting complement in any platoon. The left-handed Vogt, whose foot injury turned him into a first baseman and corner outfielder, had offseason surgery and is expected to be ready for the season.

 

DH/Bench

Manager Bob Melvin mixes and matches. He goes deep into his roster. So bench players get used a lot. That might be especially true with so many newcomers playing their way in and out of the lineup. Few players are locks for everyday jobs: Crisp, Reddick, Zobrist, Lawrie and Butler, whose three-year, $30 million contract was consummated before several core players were traded. That leaves a lot of folks vying for playing time, including Gentry, Fuld and Burns in the outfield, Davis, Sogard, Semien and Canha on the infield and Phegley and Vogt behind the plate. Butler should handle DH duties.

 

Management

With a limited budget and decrepit ballpark, Beane conducts business differently from other GMs and often sells high. That was the case with the Donaldson trade, moving someone at his peak value for younger players who come on the cheap. The system creates financial flexibility, and A’s fans can only hope the latest trades pay off as well as Beane’s moves have historically. Meantime, they’ll continue second-guessing.

 

Final Analysis

It’s a redesign. The A’s went for it in 2014, trading Cespedes for Lester and trading two elite prospects (including Addison Russell, their former shortstop of the future) for Samardzija and Hammel. But once the Royals eliminated the A’s, Beane quickly went to work. Instead of putting all the focus on 2015, it’s about succeeding the next three years or so. The A’s might take some lumps in the short term, but Beane believes long-term health is achievable with periodic makeovers, and this certainly was that.

 

2015 Prediction: 5th in AL West

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Coco Crisp (S)         Batting average and SLG were lowest in his five A’s seasons, but had 66 walks to boost OBP to .336.

2B       Ben Zobrist (S)         One of three players (Andrew McCutchen, Hanley Ramirez) with double-digit HRs, SBs every year since ’09.

DH      Billy Butler (R)          Helps fill the right-handed power void left by Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson.

RF       Josh Reddick (L)     Struggles against lefties but hit .280 with all 12 of his homers and 46 of his 54 RBIs against righties.

3B       Brett Lawrie (R)        Replacing Donaldson at third base is a lot to ask. A’s hope he can finally enjoy an injury-free season.

1B       Ike Davis (L)             His stock has plummeted, but A’s still believe he has upside.

SS       Marcus Semien (R)             Could be answer as Jed Lowrie’s replacement though he has started just four big-league games at short.

LF       Sam Fuld (L)            Valuable on defense and on basepaths but batted .209 in two stints with the A’s.

C/1B   Stephen Vogt (L)     Started at four positions in the field but limited to eight starts at catcher because of foot injury.

 

Bench

OF       Craig Gentry (R)       No power but plenty of speed: Stole 20 of 22 bags, and 14 of the steals came with a lefty on the mound.

INF      Andy Parrino (S)       Fine defender who can play three infield positions but batted just .152 in three Oakland stints.

C         Josh Phegley (R)     Replaces Derek Norris as right-handed-hitting platoon catcher.

2B       Eric Sogard (L)         Management tried to replace him before trade deadline; one of few offensive bright spots in second half.

 

Rotation

RH      Sonny Gray   Undisputed ace won 14 games with a 3.08 ERA in first full season; led staff in starts, innings and strikeouts.

LH       Scott Kazmir             Tale of two halves: 9–2 with a 2.08 ERA his first 15 starts but 6–7 with a 5.00 ERA his final 17.

RH      Jesse Chavez          Moved to rotation after six seasons in the bullpen, enjoyed career year even though he returned to relieving.

RH      Jesse Hahn Went 7–4 with a 3.07 ERA as a Padres rookie, a big enough sample size to pique Oakland’s interest.

RH      Chris Bassitt            Made five starts for White Sox in 2014, one against the A’s in which he surrendered one run in six innings.

 

Bullpen

LH       Sean Doolittle (Closer)      Solidified closer’s role after Jim Johnson lost the gig, and batters posted a .197 OBP against him.

RH      Tyler Clippard           Two-time All-Star with wipe-out stuff would be hands-down closer on most other teams.

RH      Ryan Cook    Hopes for bounce-back year after an inconsistent season (too many walks) caused in part by arm injuries.

RH      Dan Otero     His 86.2 innings were most by an A’s reliever since Justin Duchscherer’s 96.1 in 2004.

LH       Eric O’Flaherty          Returned from Tommy John surgery July 4 and produced a 2.25 ERA in 21 games.

LH       Fernando Abad        Emerged as lefty setup man after Doolittle became the closer.

LH       Drew Pomeranz       Succeeded in both roles: 1.62 ERA in 10 relief appearances, 2.58 ERA in 10 starts.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Diminished returns Of Oakland’s six All-Stars — eight if you count Jeff Samardzija, who arrived shortly before the All-Star break, and Jon Lester, who arrived from Boston after the break — only two were still with the A’s as of Jan. 1: Sean Doolittle and Scott Kazmir.

Statistical oddity In 38 plate appearances with the White Sox, Josh Phegley had a higher batting average (.216) than on-base percentage (.211). How so? He drew zero walks and got hit by zero pitches. But he hit one sacrifice fly, which counts against OBP but not average. Billy Beane, of all people, had a higher average than OBP in his final season as a player.

College rivals The A’s lost Jed Lowrie and are down to one Stanford product, Sam Fuld. He’ll be outnumbered in spring training by two former Cal players, Marcus Semien and Mark Canha. Three if you count manager Bob Melvin.

Switch pitcher The whole world loves an ambidextrous pitcher, and that’s righty/lefty Pat Venditte, 29, who was signed to a minor league contract with an invite to big-league camp. His ERA is 2.46 ERA in seven seasons, most recently in the Yankees system, and he’ll throw with whichever arm he thinks will benefit him. Hey, it’s the new Moneyball.

The collapse On Aug. 9, the A’s were a majors-best 28 games above .500 and had a four-game lead in the AL West and 11-game lead over the third-place team in the wild card race. They went 16–30 the rest of the way, finishing 10 games behind the first-place Angels and one game ahead of Seattle for the final wild card.

Adoring child Perhaps no one took Brett Lawrie’s departure from Toronto harder than a 6-year-old named Amelia, whose crying outburst over his trade to the A’s was captured on video and went viral. Lawrie saw it, visited the girl, took her out for pizza and posed for pictures that he posted on his Twitter account.

Still here When the A’s signed Yoenis Cespedes, they promoted Ariel Prieto to be an extra coach and interpreter for the Cuban outfielder. With Cespedes gone, the A’s assigned Prieto to their rookie league team to work with pitchers. He’ll also help coordinate the team’s operations in the Dominican Republic.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Matt Chapman, 3B

When Chapman worked out with the A’s shortly after receiving a $1.75 million bonus as the 25th overall pick, his arm stood out. “He’s got a cannon. I don’t want to take groundballs with him and have him show me up,” quipped All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson. Chapman’s arm is so strong that the former Cal State Fullerton star actually pitched out of the bullpen for Team USA, but he’s strictly a position player with the A’s, whose director of scouting, Eric Kubota, says he sees a little Donaldson in Chapman: “When I sit back and dream, that’s kind of what we envision three, four, five years down the road.”

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Matt Olson, 1B (21) Bat is easily his best tool. He collected 37 homers and 97 RBIs at Stockton, and the A’s love his OBP: .404, thanks to 117 walks.

2. Kendall Graveman ,RHP (24) Made a quick rise through the Blue Jays’ system last season, going from A-ball all the way to the majors.

3. Raul Alcantara, RHP (22) He was the A’s top pitching prospect before undergoing Tommy John surgery. In 2013, he had a 3.11 ERA and 1.158 WHIP.

4. Renato Nunez, 3B (20) Part of Stockton’s all-prospect infield, Nunez collected 29 homers and 96 RBIs. It would help if he improved his plate discipline. He struck out 113 times, walked 34 times.

5. Matt Chapman, 3B (21) In three minor league stops in his first pro season, including one game at Double-A, Chapman hit .246 with a .291 on-base percentage, five homers and 20 RBIs.

6. Chris Bassitt, RHP (26) Has a 2.97 ERA in the minors, got his first taste of the bigs last season (with the White Sox) and has a chance to slip into the back end of the A’s season-opening rotation.

7. Franklin Barreto, SS (19) Venezuelan is showing maturity on both defense and offense, thanks to quick hands and a powerful, yet short, build.

8. Mark Canha, 1B/3B/LF (26) Acquired from the Rockies, who took him from the Marlins in the Rule 5 draft. If he doesn’t stick in the majors all season, he must be offered back to Miami.

9. Joe Wendle, 2B (24) Acquired from Cleveland in the Brandon Moss trade, Wendle is expected to open the season in Triple-A and projects as an everyday player in the majors.

10. Sean Nolin, LHP (25)   Part of the Josh Donaldson trade with Toronto, has a 27.00 ERA in 2.1 innings in the majors.

Teaser:
Oakland A's 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Friday, March 6, 2015 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: Brooks Koepka, Golf
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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. 24: Brooks Koepka

 

Born: May 3, 1990, West Palm Beach, Fla. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 1 (1 on European Tour) | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $1,043.115 (98th) World Ranking: 19

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Koepka earned his first Masters invitation with his play in 2014, finishing fourth in the U.S. Open and climbing the world rankings. Of all the new faces at Augusta, none will have a better chance of becoming just the fourth first-time competitor to win in Masters history. He has the power of Bubba Watson, the bravado of youth, a great wedge game and the experience of having played the European Tour, where he won in Turkey late last year. Participation on the European Tour is rare for a player from the U.S., and the experience of the unpredictable conditions and courses on that tour could serve him well in his career. The uniformity of courses and conditions on the PGA Tour leads to a certain illiteracy among young professionals that keeps them from connecting the dots to their dreams.

 

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 6
Wins: 0

2014 Performance:
Masters - DNP
U.S. Open - T4
British Open - T67
PGA Championship - T15

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - n/a
U.S. Open - T4 (2014)
British Open - T67 (2014)
PGA Championship - T15 (2014)
Top-10 Finishes: 1
Top-25 Finishes: 2
Missed Cuts: 2

 

—Brandel Chamblee is lead analyst for the Golf Channel. Be sure to follow him @ChambleeBrandel on Twitter.

 

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.

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Post date: Friday, March 6, 2015 - 10:38
Path: /mlb/los-angeles-angels-2015-preview-and-prediction
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The investments took a bit longer to pay off than expected, but the Angels finally justified the free-agent expenditures of recent winters and returned to the playoffs in 2014. They announced their return to championship contention with unexpected authority, riding Mike Trout’s first MVP season to the best record in baseball (98–64) despite the devastating late-season loss of emerging star Garrett Richards to a knee injury.

 

A disappointing first-round playoff flop against Kansas City took the shine off the Angels’ season. The concern now is whether those big-money investments in declining stars Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton and one of the most fallow farm systems in baseball threaten to slam the window shut in the next few years. Trout offers a franchise cornerstone, and GM Jerry Dipoto has tried to keep the window open by retooling the pitching staff with younger, affordable arms.

 

Rotation

Nothing is more valuable in baseball than young, cost-controlled pitching. Dipoto has collected enough of it behind veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson that a rotation that was once a problem area could grow into a strength in the next few years. Much of that hinges on the two young righthanders who emerged in 2014 — Richards and Matt Shoemaker. The hard-throwing Richards looks like a future ace. He went 13–4 with a 2.61 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 26 starts before a torn patellar tendon in his left knee ended his season in late August. Richards, 26, might not be ready to go at the start of the 2015 season but is expected to make a full recovery. Shoemaker, meanwhile, was one of the most pleasant surprises in recent memory for the Angels. He rose through the Angels’ system with barely a ripple on the prospect watch lists then stepped into the Angels’ depleted rotation last year, going 16–4 with a 3.04 ERA. With little else coming from within, Dipoto has managed to pluck young starters off the trade market each of the past two offseasons. He added lefthanders Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago to the rotation mix a year ago. Skaggs is likely to miss all of 2015 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. This past winter, Dipoto made two more trades for another pair of young pitchers with upsides — righthander Nick Tropeano from the Astros (in a deal for catcher Hank Conger) and lefthander Andrew Heaney (in a deal for second baseman Howie Kendrick). Tropeano and Heaney will compete for a spot in the back of the rotation with the potential to move up.


Bullpen

Dipoto did a remarkable job last year rebuilding the Angels’ bullpen on the fly. Gone from the 2014 pen are Ernesto Frieri, Kevin Jepsen, Michael Kohn and Scott Downs, not to mention failed free-agent pickups Sean Burnett and Ryan Madson. In their place is a more reliable group led by closer Huston Street (acquired from the Padres last July) and setup man Joe Smith (signed as a free agent) with options like Fernando Salas (acquired in a trade with the Cardinals), veteran Vinnie Pestano (another trade pickup), Mike Morin, lefthander Cesar Ramos and former first-round draft picks Cam Bedrosian and Cory Rasmus.

 

Middle Infield

For the first time since 2007, Kendrick and Erick Aybar will not be the Angels’ men in the middle infield. Aybar remains a defensive anchor at shortstop and complementary piece of the Angels’ offense. The 31-year-old has never turned into the top-of-the-order performer his speed would imply, due to a lagging on-base percentage. But manager Mike Scioscia has used him all around the lineup, and Aybar knocked in a respectable 68 runs in 2014. But the deal for Heaney cost the Angels Kendrick and leaves them looking for Josh Rutledge (acquired from the Rockies), Johnny Giavotella (acquired in a trade with the Royals) and/or Grant Green (a former first-round pick whose luster dimmed in the A’s organization) to fill what could be a significant void.

 

Corners

It’s a measure of how far the three-time NL MVP has sunk that last year was considered a bounce-back year for Pujols. The Angels knew they would be getting the worst years of his Hall of Fame career when they signed him as a free agent three winters ago. But they probably didn’t realize they would be getting them at the front end of his massive, 10-year contract. Pujols turned 35 in January, and the Angels are faced with paying him another $189 million as he continues to age — and most likely not age well — over the next seven seasons. His legs were healthier in 2014 and his numbers improved over the previous season. Still, his .272 average and .790 OPS were far cries from the numbers that made him the best hitter in baseball during the 11 years he spent in St. Louis. Across the diamond, the Angels will cross their fingers and hope for better from third baseman David Freese, who continues to decline from his 2011 World Series MVP and 2012 All-Star peak.

 

Outfield

After two years as runner-up, Trout won the AL MVP award for the first time in 2014 — with a season that was the worst of his first three. His average dropped nearly 40 points (to .287), his OPS nearly 50 (.939), and he led the American League with a troubling 184 strikeouts. Nonetheless, his status as the best player in the game at age 23 is almost universally accepted. When he disappeared in the ALDS against the Royals (1-for-12), so did the Angels. On one side of Trout, left fielder Kole Calhoun emerged as a catalyst in 2014, batting .272 and scoring 90 runs in just 127 games. On the other, the mystery of Hamilton’s disappearance remains unsolved. In two years with the Angels, Hamilton has looked lost, batting .255 with only 31 home runs and 123 RBIs. And Hamilton’s woes don’t stop there. Not only is he recovering from shoulder surgery in February, he could be facing discipline from MLB due to a reported relapse involving substance abuse.

 

Catching

It is not easy satisfying Scioscia’s defensive demands of his catchers and still contributing offensively. Chris Iannetta has done it as well as anyone since Bengie Molina left town. His .252 average and seven home runs in 2014 don’t sound like much. But his .373 on-base percentage is critical to turning over a lineup. Backing him up this year will be veteran Drew Butera, who offers little offensively or defensively. But the Angels gave up on Conger, shipping him to Houston in the deal for Tropeano that also brought Carlos Perez (the Angels’ new catcher of the future).

 

DH/Bench

When Dipoto acquired Matt Joyce from the Rays in December, he proclaimed him the Angels’ primary DH for 2015 — a label that should be slapped on Pujols soon. C.J. Cron figures to be a right-handed complement at DH and first-base relief for Pujols. He offers more offensive upside than Joyce and provides hope for an infusion of youth to the every-day lineup in the near future. Joyce and Collin Cowgill will see more time in left field, depending on Hamilton’s timetable for his return.

 

Management

Following a disappointing 2013 season, both Dipoto and Scioscia had little job security with impatient owner Arte Moreno, and there was talk of a lack of shared vision between the two. However, Dipoto and Scioscia have developed a better working relationship, the coaching staff was rebuilt, and Moreno seems to have stepped back, allowing Dipoto more of a free hand to make over the roster. A successful 2014 has reinforced the wisdom of that structure.

 

Final Analysis

Their first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Royals was disturbing. But the Angels returned to prominence in 2014 with their sixth division title in the past 11 years. They are once again the best in the AL West and should stay that way for some time if the young pitchers acquired over the past two years can be supplemented by a reborn farm system.

 

2015 Prediction: 1st in AL West

 

Projected Lineup

LF       Kole Calhoun (L)     Had a .281 average and .336 on-base percentage after settling in to the leadoff spot at the start of June.

SS       Erick Aybar (S)          Did his best work lower in the lineup last year, but Angels might try this again in order to bat Trout third.

CF       Mike Trout (R)           Trout, Mickey Mantle only two to have finished MVP runner-up in consecutive seasons, won it in the third.

1B       Albert Pujols (R)      Managed to drive in 105 runs last year despite a career-low .256 average with runners in scoring position.

RF       Josh Hamilton (L)   Angels led baseball with 773 runs in 2014. Imagine what the offense could do with 2012 vintage Hamilton.

3B       David Freese (R)     With Howie Kendrick gone, the Angels will look to Freese to turn around a three-year slide.

DH      Matt Joyce (L)           The DH spot figures to be a revolving door with Joyce getting most of the at-bats.

C         Chris Iannetta (R)    His batting average (.252) and OPS (.765) last season were the best of his three years with the Angels.

2B       Josh Rutledge (R)   Lost the starting 2B job in Colorado in 2013 but should get another chance to be an every-day player.

 

Bench

C         Drew Butera (R)       Made strong case as worst hitter in NL last year — .188 average, more strikeouts (41) than base hits (32).

1B       C.J. Cron (R)            8 HRs in first 40 games last year were followed by .216 average from July on.

INF      Grant Green (R)       Opportunity for 13th player taken in 2009 draft to show why he was so highly regarded coming out of USC.

OF       Collin Cowgill (R)    Fractured his right thumb and nose on the same play in mid-July when he was hit in the face by a pitch.

1B/OF   Marc Krauss (L)     Waiver pickup was Jerry Dipoto’s second-round draft pick as GM in Arizona five years ago.

 

Rotation

RH      Jered Weaver           Has been a constant at the front of the Angels’ rotation for almost a decade.

RH      Garrett Richards      Torn patellar tendon in late August ended his breakout season, but power stuff points to bright future.

RH      Matt Shoemaker      Strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.17 was seventh-best in the American League

LH       C.J. Wilson   Down year ended with a dismal showing in the ALDS against the Royals when he lasted only six batters.

LH       Andrew Heaney       Ninth overall pick in 2012 was the 18th-ranked prospect in baseball last year, according to MLB.com.

 

Bullpen

RH      Huston Street (Closer)       Converted 17 of 19 save situations after trade from Padres.

RH      Joe Smith      Set or tied career-bests in ERA (1.81), wins (seven), innings (74.2) and strikeouts (68).

RH      Fernando Salas       Held lefties to .188 average, .510 OPS in 2014 — very valuable in a bullpen that leaned to the right.

RH      Vinnie Pestano        Nearly unhittable after the Angels acquired him in August — five hits and 13 strikeouts in 12 appearances.

LH       Cesar Ramos          Was a college teammate of Jered Weaver and former Angels pitcher Jason Vargas at Long Beach State.

RH      Mike Morin     Is there such a thing as a righty specialist? Held right-handers to a .181 average last season, lefties hit .283.

 

Beyond the Box Score

The babysitter Josh Hamilton’s well-chronicled troubles with drug addiction led the Texas Rangers to hire an “accountability coach” to help Hamilton stay clean during his days with the Rangers. Johnny Narron served in that role for Hamilton’s first four years in Texas before moving on to become hitting coach with the Milwaukee Brewers. Shayne Kelley was Hamilton’s “accountability coach” during his last season in Texas (2012) and first season in Anaheim. Hamilton lacked that support in 2014, but Narron is now back in the same organization with him. The Angels hired Narron as the hitting coach at Triple-A Salt Lake for 2015.

Tough break Of all the injuries suffered on major league fields in 2014, none was more bizarre than the fractured right femur suffered by Angels hitting coach Don Baylor before the home opener at Angel Stadium on March 31. Baylor went into a crouch to receive a ceremonial first pitch from Vladimir Guerrero. Baylor’s leg snapped as he tried to handle Guerrero’s pitch and rise from his crouch. In 2003, Baylor was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer that weakens the bones. He returned to the Angels in midseason.

The right Carlos When the Angels traded catcher Hank Conger to the Houston Astros, they got right-handed pitcher Nick Tropeano and a catching prospect named Carlos Perez in return. But they had better make sure they got the Carlos Perez they really wanted. Perez, 24, played at Triple-A Oklahoma City last year. But he has a younger brother, also named Carlos Perez, who is a catcher in the Chicago White Sox system — and an older brother, also named Carlos Perez, who was a catcher in the Chicago Cubs system.

Stadium talk On the eve of the Angels’ Division Series against the Kansas City Royals, owner Arte Moreno broke off talks with the city of Anaheim over a new stadium lease. An Angels spokesman says the team has not eliminated Anaheim as its long-term home but is exploring “all of our options.” That apparently includes the nearby city of Tustin. Tustin officials have had numerous meetings with team officials. The Angels can opt out of their current lease as soon as 2016 with a three-year window to make that decision.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Sean Newcomb, LHP

The Angels had a first-round pick for the first time since 2011 and grabbed Newcomb out of the University of Hartford with the 15th pick. Newcomb, 21, immediately shot to the top of the Angels’ prospect list in a system ranked last by most evaluators. The sturdy lefthander (6’5”, 240) is expected to justify that ranking with a fastball that touches 98 mph and a pitch mix scouts have compared to Jon Lester’s. Newcomb’s pro debut consisted of a combined six starts at the Arizona Rookie League and Low-A. He went 0–1 with a combined 6.14 ERA but struck out 18 and walked only six in 14.2 innings. He is expected to move quickly through a depleted farm system.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Andrew Heaney, LHP (23) Cost the Angels their second baseman (Howie Kendrick) in a trade, so look for him to spend the summer in the Angels’ starting rotation.

2. Sean Newcomb, LHP (21) Was the highest draft pick out of the University of Hartford since Jeff Bagwell was taken by the Red Sox in the fourth round of the 1989 draft.

3. Nick Tropeano, RHP (24) Had a 4.57 ERA in four big-league starts for the Astros last season and could open 2015 in the Angels’ rotation with Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs injured.

4. Ricardo Sanchez, LHP (17) Top international talent out of Venezuela signed for $580,000 and made his pro debut in the Arizona Summer League just two months after his 17th birthday.

5. Cam Bedrosian, RHP (23) The only one of the Angels’ three first-round picks in 2010 to be heard from since, Bedrosian touched the big leagues last year and could be back at some point in 2015.

6. Alex Yarbrough, 2B (23) A natural hitter, Yarbrough was the Texas League MVP in 2014 and led the Double-A league in hits (155) and doubles (38) while finishing second in RBIs (77).

7. Carlos Perez, C (24) With his third organization after trades from Toronto to Houston to the Angels, but future could be bright with Chris Iannetta headed to free agency next winter.

8. Victor Alcantara, RHP (21) Tamed control issues in Low-A enough last summer to earn a trip to the All-Star Futures Game in Minnesota.

9. Chris Ellis, RHP (22) Helped pitch Ole Miss to the College World Series last year, then taken in third round by the Angels.

10. Joe Gatto, RHP (19) It took a $1.2 million signing bonus to convince him to pass up on his commitment to the University of North Carolina.

 

— Written by Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) for Athlon Sports' 2015 MLB Preview magazine. Plunkett covers baseball for the Orange County Register.

Teaser:
Los Angeles Angels 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Friday, March 6, 2015 - 10:30
Path: /nba/steve-kerr-and-daryl-morey-heat-rockets-warriors-beef
Body:
You can call Daryl Morey the beef master.

 

The Houston Rockets’ general manager is more outspoken — and more well-known — than most men of his profession. A contrarian innovator with a mouth to make you know about it, he’s already inspired the ire of Charles Barkley this season.

 

Now, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has some choice words for Morey. In reference to the Rockets’ somewhat relentless organizational campaign for James Harden’s MVP consideration, Kerr recently said "I don't think it's our job to promote it,” to reporters after a Golden State practice.

 

“We're trying to win games,” Kerr went on. “We've got a lot of work to do. So, if Daryl Morey wants to run his own one-man campaign for James Harden, he can do that. That's fine. But we're focused on other stuff.”

 

Kerr was responding to questions of whether he or the Warriors would embark on a similar sort of platform, in the name of Steph Curry’s MVP viability. Obviously, Curry’s coach believes such campaigning is for the birds.

 

What really brings the anvil down, though, is what’s happened on the court between these teams. It’s tempting to call the bad blood between Houston and Golden State a rivalry, but it’s a been a one-sided one so far, to say the least. Kerr’s Warriors have won all four contests against the Rockets this season, with a cushy double-digit margin in each of them.

 

On January 17, the Warriors trounced Houston, 131-106, in Texas. Curry dropped the cherry atop the blowout sundae with this outrageously skillful pass toward the end of the contest:

 

The Rockets, in their defense, were without Dwight Howard for two of those games, and have been for about half of the season. But there’s no denying that Golden State holds their kryptonite.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, March 6, 2015 - 10:28
All taxonomy terms: AL West, American League, Houston Astros, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/houston-astros-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

You could argue that the Astros had nowhere to go but up in 2014. After all, they won just 51 games the year before and couldn’t afford another 100-loss season. But the Astros wound up making one of the biggest turnarounds in baseball last year, improving by 19 games and injecting some enthusiasm and promise into a franchise that sorely needed it.

 

The challenge now for the Astros under first-year manager A.J. Hinch is to take another giant leap forward and perhaps even flirt with a winning record. They addressed their biggest need by signing veteran relievers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson to bolster the back end of the bullpen, and they re-signed shortstop Jed Lowrie, who had spent the previous two seasons in Oakland after coming to the Astros in a trade prior to the 2012 season. The team also addressed their lineup by trading with the Braves for slugging catcher/outfielder Evan Gattis, signing free-agent outfielder Colby Rasmus, and acquiring third baseman Luis Valbuena along with pitcher Dan Straily from the Cubs for center fielder Dexter Fowler. Houston’s lineup still has a few holes, and the starting rotation could use another veteran arm to go along with Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Scott Feldman, but this team should be more competitive than it has been in years — especially if some of the highly touted youngsters, led by high-flying outfielder George Springer and slugging first baseman Jon Singleton, live up to their potential.

 

The pieces are slowly falling into place in Houston, where 100-loss seasons are in the rearview mirror and playoff contention could soon be on the horizon. 

 

Rotation

The Astros’ rotation lacks a true ace, though it has some depth. Keuchel emerged as one of the better lefthanders in the league last year, and righthander McHugh came out of nowhere and had a terrific rookie season. Then there’s Feldman, who pitched well when healthy and has stabilized the rotation. Keuchel and McHugh both had career years and will be asked to do it again. Keuchel went 12–9 with a 2.93 ERA in 29 starts, leading the team in wins, innings (200), complete games (five) and quality starts. McHugh, meanwhile, went 11–9 with a 2.73 ERA in 25 starts and finished fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Lefty Brett Oberholtzer likely has the fourth spot in the rotation locked up, though he’ll have to pitch more consistently. The final spot in the rotation figures to be a free-for-all, but could end up going to Straily.


Bullpen

GM Jeff Luhnow set out in the winter to upgrade a bullpen that has blown 74 saves the past three seasons. He made a run at high-priced closers Andrew Miller and David Robertson and wound up with a pair of quality arms in veterans Gregerson and Neshek, who will combine with Chad Qualls in a formidable late-inning combo. Luhnow hinted that Gregerson would get his first chance to close games, but Qualls has quite a bit of closing experience, too. There is depth in the bullpen, with Josh Fields, who had periods last year when he was nearly unhittable, and lefthander Tony Sipp, who was a great pickup early in the season. Young lefty Kevin Chapman also returns, and the Astros picked up righthander Will Harris off waivers.

 

Middle Infield

The Astros feel great about their middle infield with All-Star and 2014 MLB batting champion Jose Altuve at second base and newcomer Lowrie at shortstop. Altuve and Lowrie are familiar with each other, having played the entire 2012 season together in Houston, so there will be very little learning curve. Altuve isn’t headed for any Gold Gloves, but he’s an above-average fielder who isn’t fazed by his lack of size. And his incredible ability to put the bat on the ball — he hit .341 last year with a club-record 225 hits — puts him in the upper echelon of second basemen. Lowrie lacks range and arm strength, but he’s a steady hand when healthy and brings some veteran leadership the clubhouse was lacking.

 

Corners

The Astros had the majors’ worst output from the corner infield spots last year as third baseman Matt Dominguez regressed at the plate and rookie first baseman Singleton scuffled in his big-league debut. The Astros added Valbuena, who hit 16 home runs and posted an OBP of .341 with the Cubs last season. Valbuena figures to platoon with Dominguez if not replace him in the starting lineup. There’s plenty to like with the slugging Singleton, who hit 13 homers and had 44 RBIs in 95 games last year despite hitting just .168. He struck out a whopping 134 times in 310 at-bats, though, and was lost at the plate by season’s end. A contract extension was offered to Dominguez after he hit .241 with 21 homers and 77 RBIs in his first full season in the majors in 2013, but he slumped last year across the board.

 

Outfield

Springer could blossom into a superstar in his first full season — assuming he remains healthy. He made his long-awaited debut last year and hit 20 homers and drove in 51 runs in just 78 games (he missed the final two-and-a-half months with a quad injury). Springer is capable of playing in center, but he will likely remain in right field with the addition of Rasmus. A career .246 hitter, Rasmus is capable of hitting 25 home runs if he stays healthy. The Astros are kicking themselves for releasing J.D. Martinez last spring after what he did for the Tigers. However, Houston is hoping it has solved this problem by acquiring Gattis. While he’s still a work in progress with the glove in the outfield, the Astros are hoping he will take dead aim at the Crawford Boxes with a swing that has produced 43 home runs the past two seasons. Alex Presley, Jake Marisnick, Robbie Grossman, Domingo Santana and L.J. Hoes are in the mix for one or two bench spots.

 

Catching

Despite a couple of years of trade rumors, Jason Castro remains the starter. He didn’t have a good season at the plate, and considering he’s approaching free agency, it remains to be seen whether the Astros make a long-term commitment to the former first-round pick. The Astros acquired Hank Conger to serve as the backup, a role that switch-hitting Carlos Corporan (traded to Texas in January) served in last year. Conger is a master at framing pitches. Gattis also is capable of getting behind the plate if need be.

 

DH/Bench

Chris Carter blossomed into one of the most feared sluggers in the AL last year, finishing second in the league with 37 homers. Most of his damage came in a two-month span when he put up MVP-type numbers, hitting .296 with 23 homers and 55 RBIs from July 3-Sept. 5. The rest of the season, however, he was a strikeout machine. Marwin Gonzalez can play all over the infield, but he’s more suited to play shortstop and second. Valbuena can handle third, second and even shortstop in a pinch. Presley can play all over the outfield and has surprising pop for his size.

 

Management

The Astros have restocked their farm system, which is now one of the best in the game. Much of that was done, however, at the expense of the major league club, but things are starting to turn around on that end, too. And after butting heads last year with former manager Bo Porter, GM Jeff Luhnow tabbed A.J. Hinch to take the club to the next level. Hinch has done practically everything in the game and works very much in lockstep with Luhnow, which was Porter’s undoing.

 

Final Analysis

If the Astros get solid contributions from young players like Springer and Singleton, some added thump from additions Gattis and Rasmus,  and bounce-back seasons from Castro and Dominguez, the lineup isn’t bad. There are still a few holes and question marks, but having players like Altuve and Springer at the top isn’t a bad place to start. And Carter and Lowrie have shown that they can be productive everyday players as well. The rotation is one starter away from being pretty good, but that’s assuming Keuchel and McHugh weren’t one-hit wonders. If nothing else, there is finally some hope in Houston.

 

2015 Prediction: 4th in AL West

 

Projected Lineup

2B       Jose Altuve (R)         Coming off a season in which he led MLB in hitting, Altuve has emerged as one of the game’s top bats.

SS       Jed Lowrie (S)          Lowrie, who started at shortstop for the Astros in 2012, signed a three-year deal to return to Houston.

RF       George Springer (R)           Springer could be a superstar in waiting after hitting 20 homers and driving in 51 runs in 78 games last year.

LF       Evan Gattis (R)         His glove may be suspect, but there’s no doubt about the power he could bring, especially at home.

DH      Chris Carter (R)       For two months last year, Carter was the most feared slugger in baseball. Can he do it for an entire season?

CF       Colby Rasmus (L)   Has hit 20-plus home runs three different times, but also has trouble staying healthy.

1B       Jon Singleton (L)     The Astros are committed to Singleton, who showed power flashes last year but struck out too much.

C         Jason Castro (L)     The veteran catcher slumped at the plate last year and will be aiming at a bounce-back season offensively.

3B       Matt Dominguez (R)            Dominguez fell off offensively last year, but the Astros still see some promise in a bat that’s shown some pop.

 

Bench

C         Hank Conger (S)     The Astros traded for Conger and raved about his ability to frame pitches and handle pitchers.

OF       Alex Presley (L)        Presley is a versatile bat with some power, which is why the Astros signed him to a $1 million deal.

3B       Luis Valbuena (L)    Acquired from Cubs as part of Dexter Fowler trade, could platoon with Dominguez or seize starting job outright.

INF      Marwin Gonzalez (S)           Gonzalez did a nice job filling in at shortstop last year, but he’s better suited as a versatile backup.

OF       Jake Marisnick (R)  Marisnick is one of the most athletic players on the team, but where will he play in a crowded outfield?

 

Rotation

LH       Dallas Keuchel        After barely making the rotation out of spring camp, Keuchel emerged as one of game’s top lefties.

RH      Scott Feldman          The veteran provided leadership off the field and pitched well on the mound when he was healthy.

RH      Collin McHugh         The waiver pickup came out of nowhere last year and emerged as one of the top rookie arms in the AL.

LH       Brett Oberholtzer      Oberholtzer’s career has been up and down, but he’s shown enough potential to earn a rotation spot.

RH      Dan Straily    Went 1-3 in 14 games (8 starts) with A’s and Cubs last season.

 

Bullpen

LH       Luke Gregerson (Closer)  Should get his first chance to be the closer after being behind Heath Bell, Huston Street and Sean Doolittle.

RH      Chad Qualls Qualls did a pretty nice job as the Astros’ closer last year, but he’s probably a better fit in the eighth inning.

RH      Pat Neshek   Signed a multi-year deal with the Astros after begging for a job a year ago, eventually landing with Cardinals.

RH      Josh Fields   Hard thrower had some very impressive stretches last year, but he still has to put it all together.

LH       Kevin Chapman       Had three stints in Houston last year and was scoreless in 12 of his final 13 outings.

LH       Tony Sipp      Veteran finished third among Astros relievers in ERA and had a .138 batting average vs. left-handed bats.

RH      Will Harris     Struck out 35 batters in 29.0 innings working out of Arizona’s bullpen in 2014.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Most valuable Jose Altuve had one of the most prolific seasons at the plate in club history in 2014. The 5'6" second baseman became the first Astros player to win a batting title by leading the majors with a .341 batting average. He led baseball and smashed Craig Biggio’s club record with 225 hits, and he also led the American League with 56 stolen bases en route to being named the team’s Most Valuable Player for the second time in three years.

Lone Star supremacy The Astros took the season series from their in-state rival Texas Rangers last year for the first time since 2006, and that enabled them to finally finish somewhere other than last place. Houston finished in fourth place in the AL West, three games ahead of the Rangers. The Astros, who went 2–17 against Texas in 2013, were 11–8 against the Rangers last year and took home the Silver Boot Trophy.

At home at the top For the third consecutive year, the Astros had the No. 1 pick in the MLB Draft, but they failed to sign their 2014 top selection. Houston took lefthander Brady Aiken with the first pick but couldn’t sign him after concerns cropped up about his elbow in a physical after he had agreed to terms. As a result, the Astros will receive an extra pick (No. 2 overall) in the 2015 draft, giving them two of the first five picks.

Flashing leather Lefthander Dallas Keuchel became the first Astros pitcher to win a Gold Glove in 2014. Keuchel led all pitchers in total chances (66) and assists (47), while ranking fourth among AL pitchers in putouts (18). He made just one error all season for a .985 fielding percentage, which ranked sixth among AL pitchers. Keuchel was one of only 12 qualifying AL pitchers to make one error or fewer, and one of four to do so in at least 200 innings, joining Corey Kluber, Mark Buehrle and Felix Hernandez.

Hack attack The Astros were the victim of an embarrassing hacking episode last year when confidential internal correspondence between team officials regarding trade talks with other clubs was made public on the website Deadspin.com in May. The Astros worked with MLB and the FBI to investigate the leaks. The information was released through a website in which users can anonymously share hacked information, and it was then picked up by Deadspin.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Derek Fisher, OF

The Astros took California high school lefthander Brady Aiken with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft but failed to sign him after elbow concerns emerged in his physical with the club. With the 37th overall pick (competitive balance round A), a pick the Astros acquired in the 2013 Bud Norris trade with the Orioles, they took Fisher. After hitting .281 with 17 homers and 127 RBIs in his three-year college career — and helping Virginia to the College World Series as the everyday left fielder — Fisher spent most of his first professional season at short-season Tri-City and hit .303 with a .378 on-base percentage with two homers, 18 RBIs and 17 stolen bases in 41 games. The Astros believe his speed-power combo could mean a quick move through the minor leagues.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Carlos Correa, SS (20) The former No. 1 overall pick was probably days away from being promoted to Double-A when he broke his leg after a great season at High-A Lancaster.

2. Mark Appel, RHP (23) Appel’s first full professional season was nothing short of a roller coaster, but he finished with strong showings at Double-A and the Arizona Fall League.

3. Josh Hader, LHP (20) The Astros stole Hader from the Orioles in the 2013 Bud Norris trade, and he dominated last year in a hitter-friendly environment at High-A Lancaster.

4. Colin Moran, 3B (22) Moran was taken five spots behind No. 1 pick Appel in the 2013 draft and was traded to Houston last year as part of the Jarred Cosart deal with the Marlins.

5. Vincent Velasquez, RHP (22) A favorite in the organization, the hard-throwing Velasquez has the tools and the makeup to be a successful pitcher if he figures out a way to stay healthy.

6. Michael Feliz, RHP (21) Fared well in his first full season in the U.S. last year, going 8–6 with a 4.03 ERA at Class A Quad Cities.

7. Brett Phillips, OF (20) A left-handed bat, he hit .310 in 130 games between Class A Quad Cities and Lancaster with 29 doubles, 14 triples, 17 home runs, 68 RBIs and 23 stolen bases.

8. Lance McCullers Jr., RHP (21) Secondary stuff still trying to catch up with his power fastball.

9. Teoscar Hernandez, OF (22) Hernandez, who stands 6'2", is bursting with athleticism and has 20-homer power potential in the big leagues.

10. Domingo Santana, OF (22) Hit .296 with 16 home runs at Class AAA Oklahoma City and went hitless in brief stint (17 AB) with big-league club. 

Teaser:
Houston Astros 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Friday, March 6, 2015 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: Atlanta Hawks, NBA
Path: /nba/bidding-atlanta-hawks-sale-has-begun
Body:

 

The Atlanta Hawks are having a terrific season—everyone’s noticed that by now.

 

What we sometimes forget is that they’re for sale. That development was announced before the season, following a flurry of terrible press and a latent admission from the organization that they had failed to properly market the team to their city.

 

The latest news, from ESPN’s Marc Stein, reveals a number of potential buyers for the team. This list includes Mark Rachesky (chairman of Lionsgate Entertainment), a group including legendary Braves slugger Hank Aaron, another featuring Grant Hill and Bryan and Jerry Colangelo, and with yet another expected bid coming from Hawks icon — and current television announcer — Dominique Wilkins.

 

Stein also reports that the price range for the Hawks has entered some pretty high-up air: at least one of the parties is said to be prepared to drop $900 million for the franchise.

 

This, of course, follows the trend of NBA team sales — the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks both sold for figures that were surprising and eye-popping at the time. The last Forbes valuation of the Hawks had them at $425 million (in 2014), but that was before any NBA franchises had been sold in a while. The Bucks sale, and especially the Clippers sale, have set a new, soaring precedent for the worth of teams.

 

Stein’s report also suggests that the team might find a new arena, potentially one in the Atlanta suburbs. This would be in line with the Braves also eyeing a move out of the city proper, in 2017.

 

The elephant in the room when all these monstrous numbers emerge is what the players, and their union leader Michele Roberts, must think. Owners are clearly raking it in, and you can expect the players to remind them of that when the current collective bargaining agreement is up for renegotiation in 2017.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, March 5, 2015 - 14:45
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2015-fantasy-baseball-rankings-second-basemen
Body:

Opening Day of the 2015 MLB season is less than a month away, which means fantasy baseball is just around the corner. For some leagues, drafts have already begun or will soon begin and Athlon Sports is here to help.

 

Besides providing our comprehensive Fantasy Baseball Big Board, we also have our positional rankings, courtesy of Bruce Herman. These are pulled straight from this year’s 2015 MLB Preview magazine, which is available at newsstands everywhere and for purchase online.

 

Rankings Key

A: FRANCHISE PLAYER — You need one to compete, two to win, three to dominate.

B: CAREER YEAR — Veteran with a strong possibility of delivering his best season.

C: SLEEPER — Could be a great acquisition at a price or draft slot below his true value.

D: ROADBLOCKED — Rank has been lowered because there is no current opportunity to play regularly.

E: DECLINER — Expect moderately to significantly worse stats than in 2014.

F: INJURY RISK — Has had a recent injury that could affect performance.

G: INVESTOR’S SPECIAL — Top prospect whose immediate impact may be minimal.

 

Batting stats are expressed AVG-HR-RBI-R-SB. Positional eligibility for specific players may vary depending on league, as well as other Web sites and resources.

 

2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Second Basemen

 

TIER 1

1. Jose Altuve, Astros (A)

By some post-mortems, Altuve was the most valuable fantasy commodity of 2014. Hard to argue that point when you’re talking about the only guy other than Ty Cobb, Willie Keeler and Ichiro with 225 hits, 55 RBIs, 55 SBs and 85 runs in a season.

2. Robinson Cano, Mariners

Cano moved from a ballpark where he’s averaged one HR per 21 PAs to one where his rate is one per 37. He could recover from 14 into the low 20s, and his AVG consistency is uncanny — the first player in history to swat between .302 and .320 six straight times.

3. Ian Kinsler, Tigers

A one-time 30/30 man, he’s just 15/15 now, but 2014 included Kinsler’s fifth 100-run season and a personal-best 92 RBIs. Because he’s 32 and his walks have curiously plummeted from 89 to 29 over the course of three seasons, he engenders more risk than Altuve or Cano.

 

TIER 2

4. Jason Kipnis, Indians (F)

Kipnis’ 2014 season didn’t go sideways; it made a severe u-turn. His average fly ball distance dropped by 20 feet, and he chased pitches like he was swatting mosquitoes. A reasonable expectation of a return to 2012-13 looks like: .270-16-80-86-30.

5. Daniel Murphy, Mets

Time for him to get the roto-respect he deserves. Since 2012, he’s among the top five keystoners in AVG, runs and SBs. Line drive percentage of 28.2 was third in the majors last year. Murphy’s never going to have that one monster season, but they’re all going to be good.

6. Howie Kendrick, Dodgers

A similar player to Murphy in his discreet dependability, but just a tick behind in most columns. Now in his 10th season, Kendrick’s never hit below .279. In 2014, he knocked in 75 runs and scored 85, which is something only one other second sacker (Kinsler) could say.

7. Brian Dozier, Twins

Dan Uggla (the old Dan Uggla) with speed? Dozier’s .241 AVG ranks 251st among active players with 1,500 career PAs, but he topped 20 HRs and thefts in 2014. Doubtful that he can duplicate his 112 runs, since somehow he scored 46% of the time he reached base.

8. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (F)

Pedroia is a slowly devolving player who’s down to single digits in HRs and SBs, and is coming off back-to-back years with hand surgeries. He’ll still hit for a decent average, score runs and drive in a respectable sum.

9. Kolten Wong, Cardinals

Wong’s postseason pyrotechnics were a tad off (make that over) the wall, but they were indicative of his promise beyond what was an otherwise humdrum rookie year. Both the bat speed and foot speed are there for a Kinsler-like future, but he’ll need to hike that 4.9% walk rate.

10. Neil Walker, Pirates (E)

Pulled some real pop out of his bat bag, as his 23 HRs were nine more than his (more credible) previous four-year standard. Limited by being merely a ping hitter from the right side.

11. Dee Gordon, Marlins

Gordon’s .289 AVG was a bit rich since 62 of his 176 hits never left the infield, but even if he’s just a two-category player, he carries great targeted value. His 92 runs led NL second basemen by 13, and his 64 SBs represented one of every 3.5 in the league at that position.

 

TIER 3

12. Ben Zobrist, A’s

Zobrist’s AVGs have wafted between .269 and .275 for four straight seasons, but his HR and SB totals have been halved in that same period. A 1-for-43 stretch with RISP decimated his RBIs, and it remains to be seen what the switch from the Rays to the A’s will do to his numbers.

13. Javier Baez, Cubs

He’s going to be a headache — a guy you can’t take out of your lineup (HRs and potential) and a guy you loathe to put into it (AVG). Set a record for the highest SO rate (1 per 2.4 PAs) in a season of 200-plus PAs.

14. Scooter Gennett, Brewers

A .300 hitter in his two seasons, albeit .323 against righties and .128 versus lefties. Ron Roenicke feels he’s ready to swing both ways, which would create more playing time and a bump into the 12-HR/65-R/65-RBI range.

15. Aaron Hill, Diamondbacks

One of the most mercurial players one can own. Hill’s 100-game season AVGs have oscillated from .205 to .302, and his HRs from three to 36. His last two seasons have been similar enough to tepidly project .260-12-55-55-3.

 

16. Jonathan Schoop, Orioles (C)

17. Chase Utley, Phillies

18. Brandon Phillips, Reds

19. Asdrubal Cabrera, Rays (E)

20. Josh Rutledge, Angels (B,C)

21. Rougned Odor, Rangers

22. Jedd Gyorko, Padres

23. Danny Espinosa, Nationals

24. Joe Panik, Giants

25. Omar Infante, Royals

26. DJ Lemahieu, Rockies

 

TIER 4

27. Emilio Bonifacio, White Sox

28. Jose Pirela, Yankees

29. Micah Johnson, White Sox (C,G)

30. Rob Refsnyder, Yankees

31. Alberto Callaspo, Braves

32. Alex Guerrero, Dodgers (D)

33. Brock Holt, Red Sox

34. Eric Sogard, A’s

35. Dilson Herrera, Mets (G)

36. Nick Franklin, Rays (D,G)

37. Grant Green, Angels

38. Ryan Goins, Blue Jays

39. Carlos Sanchez, White Sox

40. Jose Peraza, Braves (G)

Teaser:
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Second Basemen
Post date: Thursday, March 5, 2015 - 09:30
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2015-fantasy-baseball-rankings-first-basemen
Body:

Opening Day of the 2015 MLB season is less than a month away, which means fantasy baseball is just around the corner. For some leagues, drafts have already begun or will soon begin and Athlon Sports is here to help.

 

Besides providing our comprehensive Fantasy Baseball Big Board, we also have our positional rankings, courtesy of Bruce Herman. These are pulled straight from this year’s 2015 MLB Preview magazine, which is available at newsstands everywhere and for purchase online.

 

Rankings Key

A: FRANCHISE PLAYER — You need one to compete, two to win, three to dominate.

B: CAREER YEAR — Veteran with a strong possibility of delivering his best season.

C: SLEEPER — Could be a great acquisition at a price or draft slot below his true value.

D: ROADBLOCKED — Rank has been lowered because there is no current opportunity to play regularly.

E: DECLINER — Expect moderately to significantly worse stats than in 2014.

F: INJURY RISK — Has had a recent injury that could affect performance.

G: INVESTOR’S SPECIAL — Top prospect whose immediate impact may be minimal.

 

Batting stats are expressed AVG-HR-RBI-R-SB. Positional eligibility for specific players may vary depending on league, as well as other Web sites and resources.

 

2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: First Basemen

 

TIER 1

1. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks (A,F)

A broken hand stifled Goldschmidt’s MVP run, but he should be fine. Between June 1, 2012 and Aug. 1, 2014, no player matched his array of totals in the five fantasy categories, and only one (Mike Trout) equaled him in four.

2. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (A,F)

Cabrera’s body of work speaks for itself, but for the first time it comes with an asterisk: ankle surgery. He soldiered through much of 2014 in pain, posting a .313-25-109-101-1 line that pales only when compared to his decade-long average of .324-35-120-102-4.

 

TIER 2

3. Freddie Freeman, Braves (B)

The bust-out season we envisioned for Freeman never materialized. Still, he led the majors in such arcane but instructive stats as line drive percentage (31.0), times on base (273) and foul balls (583). His next-level prospects remain bright.

4. Jose Abreu, White Sox

The White Sox called in the cavalry (Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera) to provide some cover for Abreu, whose one-man show in 2014 made him the first rookie ever to rank among a league’s top five in all the triple crown stats (.317-36-107).

5. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs

Rizzo, just 25, up-shifted his ranks among first basemen from 21st to seventh in AVG (.286) and from ninth to third in HRs (32). A combination of 22 missed games and the ineptitude around him are factors that may dissipate in 2015, lifting him out of pedestrian RBI-land.

6. Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers

His ranges of runs (69 to 108), HRs (18 to 40) and AVG (.276 to .338) can be gonzo, but he’s been fused to a tight radius just above 100 RBIs for eight years now. A precipitous decline in walk rate over the years has taken its toll overall, but he sure can de-duck the pond.

7. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays

Extended his streak of big seasons to the magic number of three, so we’re officially on board with the out-of-nowhere career revival. Only Cabrera has hit more HRs in that span (113 to 112), and his 4.9 ABs/RBI led baseball last year.

8. Joey Votto, Reds (F)

Votto raises love-hate hackles for rotisserians who detect triple crown potential defused by a passive approach. So it’s a matter if you see the glass half-full (one of three players to hit .310 with 150 HRs from 2008-13) or half-empty (a mere 57 RBIs per 550 PAs since 2012).

9. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals (F)

The long-time third base stalwart’s status in the fantasy environment has been clouded by injuries and position fluidity. He should set up camp at the other corner this year. High-impact 2009-10 OPS of .893 eroded to medium-impact .809 from 2011-14.

10. Albert Pujols, Angels

Pujols is the only player in history to lead the majors in all triple crown stats over two different 10-year spans, but he’s in the wind-down phase. His .272-28-105-89-5 last year is a representative snapshot of where he’s at.

11. Carlos Santana, Indians (B)

Santana was atrocious for 57 games last year (.175-7-22), then finished .264-20-63 in his last 95. That postponed, but has not precluded, the breakout he’s been teetering on. On one hand, he’s a .248 career hitter with an RBI peak of 85; on the other, he’s a high-homer, high-walk, 29-year-old switch-hitter in a favorable park.

12. Prince Fielder, Rangers (F)

Including the playoffs, Fielder (who once had 141 RBIs in a season) has driven in 16 runs in his last 227 PAs. That’s Ruben Tejada production. And now he’s coming off neck surgery. Prince has built up enough equity to keep him in Tier 2, but just barely.

 

TIER 3

13. Eric Hosmer, Royals (B)

Hosmer’s season was uneven and, on the whole, disappointing, although he averted a total disaster with a few late surges. Although his .270-9-58-54-4 was unacceptable for a first baseman, his swing looked back in synch during the playoffs.

14. Brandon Belt, Giants (B)

Belt was knocked off course by a thumb injury and a concussion, but his power continued to unfold, as his 12 HRs in 61 games projected to 30 over 150. He’s Hosmer with less of a track record, and with just as much potential to bust out.

15. Chris Davis, Orioles

Davis “Crushed” little beyond fantasy team prospects in 2014. The captain of the I’m Too Stubborn To Adjust To The Shift Club paid a steep price: a 90-point AVG decay, HRs cut in half, a 48% RBI decline and outs in 70% of his PAs.

 

16. Justin Morneau, Rockies

17. Matt Adams, Cardinals

18. Ryan Howard, Phillies

19. Lucas Duda, Mets

 

TIER 4

20. Joe Mauer, Twins

21. James Loney, Rays

22. Pedro Alvarez, Pirates (F)

23. Mark Teixeira, Yankees

24. Adam Lind, Brewers

25. Mike Morse, Marlins

26. Logan Morrison, Mariners (C)

27. Jon Singleton, Astros

28. Mike Napoli, Red Sox

29. Yonder Alonso, Padres (C, F)

30. Ike Davis, A’s

 

TIER 5

31. Garrett Jones, Yankees

32. Mark Reynolds, Cardinals (E)

33. Darin Ruf, Phillies

34. Gaby Sanchez, Free Agent (E)

35. Travis Ishikawa, Giants

36. Nate Freiman, A’s

37. Justin Smoak, Blue Jays

38. J.P. Arencibia, Free Agent

39. Kyle Parker, Rockies (G)

40. Chris Colabello, Blue Jays

Teaser:
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: First Basemen
Post date: Thursday, March 5, 2015 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: Chris Kirk, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2015-majors-no-25-chris-kirk
Body:

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. 25: Chris Kirk

Born: May 8, 1985, Knoxville, Tenn. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 3 | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $4,854,777 (6th) World Ranking: 22

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Year in and year out, Kirk is one of the best all-around players statistically on the Tour, but he has flown under the radar for the most part. He had won twice going into 2014, until his run in the FedExCup playoffs last year took him all the way to second place in the final standings. In 28 events, he only missed two cuts, and his eleventh-hour win at Deutsche Bank made him a controversial omission from the Ryder Cup team. He makes up for his lack of great length with some of the best long irons and hybrids in the game to go with his great scrambling, evidenced by his 14 consecutive sand saves at one point last year, which was the longest such streak in 2014. Solid finishes in the three of the four majors prove he has breakout potential, and this year’s success should put him on the Presidents Cup team, which will have Ryder Cup implications for next year.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 8
Wins: 0

2014 Performance:
Masters - T20
U.S. Open - T28
British Open - T19
PGA Championship - T34

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T20 (2014)
U.S. Open - T28 (2014)
British Open - T19 (2014)
PGA Championship - T34 (2014)
Top-10 Finishes: 0
Top-25 Finishes: 2
Missed Cuts: 2

—Brandel Chamblee is lead analyst for the Golf Channel. Be sure to follow him @ChambleeBrandel on Twitter.

 

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.

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 16:30
Path: /nba/tony-allen-fights-grizzlies-teammate-utah%E2%80%99s-rudy-gobert-monster
Body:
Tony Allen is one of the best defenders in the game, and one of the NBA’s best energy men. The Memphis Grizzlies simply wouldn’t be who they are without their Grindfather, who acts as a flag for their singularly plodding, crunching identity.

 

But Tony’s fire doesn’t come without a tax. Allen was suspended for the Grizzlies’ 93-82 loss to the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night, under the vague umbrella of “violating team policy.”

 

Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal brought new information about the missed game today, though. He reports that Allen was told to take the night off because a heated altercation with reserve guard Nick Calathes. The spat did not become physical, but apparently it was bad enough for Memphis to take punitive measures.

 

This isn’t the first time Allen has gotten into it with a teammate. He famously punched O.J. Mayo in the face on the team plane, years ago, over a gambling debt.

 

The game against Utah also gave us a look at one of the league’s brightest rising stars: Jazz center Rudy Gobert, a sophomore from France. The 7’2” Gobert collected 24 rebounds in the game, utilizing his record-setting wingspan to make Memphis center Marc Gasol look bad.

 

With Enes Kanter gone in a trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Rudy has seen his minutes rise, and he’s blossomed even more than his biggest optimists had anticipated he could. He now seems like the linchpin to what could be one of the NBA’s best defenses as soon as next season.

 

Utah fans can delight even further about their Frenchman, referred to by some as the Stifle Tower, knowing that he was an absolute steal at No. 27 in the 2013 draft class. If the quickly rising Jazz compete for a playoff spot in the Western Conference in 2016, it should surprise no one.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 15:04
Path: /mlb/minnesota-twins-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

When Phil Hughes signed a three-year, $42 million contract extension just before Christmas, the veteran righthander insisted he could see signs of hope for a Twins franchise that has fallen on hard times.

 

It’s not just the prospects, highlighted by Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, who are on the way as the franchise transitions in the dugout from Ron Gardenhire to Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. It’s also the fact that the Twins bumped their 2015 payroll back up over $100 million. “A lot of times you look at clubs and they just kind of sit stagnant and don’t really make the moves that I think are necessary,” Hughes says. “I think as an organization we could just sit back and just kind of wait for the prospect (surge) to happen. To kind of complement that, going out and signing guys like (Ervin) Santana and (Torii) Hunter and providing some leadership and spending a little money to go along with those young guys, I think is the right formula. I think we’re on the right path.”

 

Rotation

The Twins bought low on Hughes after 2013, and general manager Terry Ryan was shrewd in locking up the workhorse and pinpoint-control artist through 2019. After going 16–10 and setting career marks for innings and strikeouts in his Twins debut, which included an all-time mark for strikeout/walk rate (11.63), the ex-Yankee appears poised to take off at age 28. Joining him at the top of the revamped rotation is Santana, a 32-year-old righthander signed to a four-year, $55 million deal that was the richest for any free agent in club history. Now on his fourth team in as many seasons, Santana has posted five straight years of 30-plus starts, averaging 207 innings in that span while bringing his usual quirky energy to the mound and the clubhouse. Santana’s deal topped the one Ricky Nolasco signed a year earlier (four years, $49 million) before flopping through a highly disappointing debut. So durable over his previous six seasons, Nolasco unwisely pitched through intermittent elbow pain in the first half and spent six weeks on the disabled list before returning to post a 2.93 ERA in five September starts. Former first-rounder Kyle Gibson, just 16 months younger than Hughes, enjoyed a 13-win breakthrough and started to miss more bats down the stretch with his heavy sinker/slider combination. Finesse lefthander Tommy Milone has a good chance to break up an otherwise all-righty rotation.


Bullpen

Bullpen salaries are skyrocketing around the game, but the Twins have two-time All-Star closer Glen Perkins locked up through 2018 (via club option) at a maximum salary of $6.5 million per season. The native Minnesotan pitched through a forearm strain over the final two months, but the hope is he will return to form after uncharacteristically blowing seven saves in 2014. Journeyman righthander Casey Fien returns as the primary setup man, with free-agent righthander Tim Stauffer, signed away from the San Diego Padres for $2.2 million, bidding to replace Jared Burton, whose option was bought out. Southpaws Brian Duensing and Caleb Thielbar are durable and have the ability to work out of trouble. Aaron Thompson is another lefty who showed promise in September. Young guns Michael Tonkin and Ryan Pressly also figure to bid for time in a bullpen that lost long-man Anthony Swarzak before his first crack at arbitration. Mike Pelfrey, in the final year of his $11 million deal, could bounce into a long-relief role.

 

Middle Infield

Brian Dozier has remade himself into a power-hitting second baseman over the past season-and-a-half. He also gets high marks for his defense, baserunning and competitive fire. How good has Dozier been? Twins fans no longer pine for sweet-swinging prospect Eddie Rosario to replace him at the earliest opportunity. Shortstop is trickier. Eduardo Escobar enjoyed a 35-double breakout last season while providing above-average defense, but Molitor has made it clear he would prefer to return Danny Santana from center field to his natural position. Santana proved as a rookie he could hit big-league pitching, but his loose defensive history at shortstop leaves him with plenty to prove this spring. 

 

Corners

Coming off a career-altering concussion and a long-discussed position change, Joe Mauer had a rare down year at first base. He missed six weeks with an oblique strain and also banged up his left shoulder in the field after returning in August. Heading into his age-32 season and playing for the first time under Molitor, his St. Paul progenitor, the three-time batting champion has something to prove. Four years and $92 million remain on Mauer’s contract. At third base, Trevor Plouffe enjoyed a huge defensive improvement, even as the Twins markedly increased their use of the shift. Far more than a placeholder until Sano arrives, Plouffe did a better job of using the whole field and ranked third on the team in slugging percentage. 

 

Outfield

Hunter, a 39-year-old nine-time Gold Glove winner, insists he has plenty left in the tank. The Twins certainly hope he’s right after paying $10.5 million to fund this one-year reunion that includes a full no-trade clause. Hunter’s bat remains potent, and his situational chops should come in handy. Young slugger Oswaldo Arcia moves from right to left, where he made 54 starts as a rookie in 2013. He has a strong arm, but his routes remain an adventure, as does his daily ability to avoid nagging injuries. In center, former first-rounder Aaron Hicks should get a third crack in as many seasons at seizing the everyday job. Hunter was his childhood idol, so the daily inspiration could give him a push. If not, glove-first speedster Jordan Schafer returns as a possible platoon option (or more). There’s also the Santana option should Escobar refuse to relinquish shortstop duties.

 

Catching

Not only did the Twins sign veteran Kurt Suzuki on the cheap, but they also managed to bring him under control through 2017 (club option) with a modest contract extension ($6 million per year) that came two weeks after his first All-Star appearance. Suzuki, 31, made 115 starts in his Twins debut despite taking enough backstop abuse to topple a redwood. Pitch-framing stats aside, he brings all the Twins could have imagined after Mauer’s forced position switch. Bat-first bopper Josmil Pinto will get another shot at backing up Suzuki after struggling to polish his defensive skills. 

 

DH/Bench

Kennys Vargas went more than a month between walks at one point late in his rookie year, so it was highly encouraging for the Twins to see him pile up more walks than strikeouts in the Puerto Rican Winter League. A protégé of David Ortiz, Vargas brings the same huge frame and outgoing personality to the park every day. Plus, Vargas has big-time power from both sides of the plate. Eduardo Nunez and potentially Escobar, if he loses the shortstop battle, offer versatility and energy off the bench.

 

Management

Owner Jim Pohlad and team president Dave St. Peter authorized a payroll bump of nearly 25 percent after absorbing a fourth straight losing season amid multiplying empty seats at Target Field. Ryan, after undergoing cancer treatments that limited his 2014 schedule for months, has returned more motivated than ever to restore his organization to its former heights.

 

Final Analysis

At a projected $105.5 million, the Twins are looking at the second-highest payroll in franchise history. Whether that will be enough to make them competitive again this season is debatable. What seems clear, however, is that at least the Twins are trying.

 

2015 Prediction: 5th in AL Central

 

Projected Lineup

SS       Danny Santana (S) Only Jose Abreu outproduced him among AL rookies last season (.824 OPS for Twins).

2B       Brian Dozier (R)       Since late May 2013, Dozier’s power has been undeniable: 40 homers in 264 games.

1B       Joe Mauer (L)           Strained oblique cost him six weeks; poor season cost him spot in hometown All-Star Game.

DH      Kennys Vargas (S)  Mammoth slugger went more than a month without a walk but showed better patience in winter league.

RF       Torii Hunter (R)        Veteran is back where it all started after leaving via free agency seven years ago.

LF       Oswaldo Arcia (L)    Shows massive power when healthy, but poor defense, nagging injuries have slowed his progress.

3B       Trevor Plouffe (R)    Quietly improved his defense to the point where advanced metrics like him better than Adrian Beltre.

C         Kurt Suzuki (R)         Big first half landed him first All-Star nod and, soon, a two-year, $12 million contract extension.

CF       Aaron Hicks (S)        Former first-rounder keeps flopping, but a platoon arrangement (.410 OBP vs. lefties) might work.

 

Bench

UT       Eduardo Escobar (S)          Made the most of his opportunity, outslugging Mauer by 35 points while starting 86 games at shortstop.

OF       Jordan Schafer (L)  Waiver-wire pickup swiped a career-best 30 bases between Atlanta and Minnesota.

UT       Eduardo Nunez (R) Versatile and energetic, this ex-Yankee was once viewed as Derek Jeter’s potential successor.

C         Josmil Pinto (R)       Lots of pop in that bat, but still too much lead in his glove to merit regular playing time.

 

Rotation

RH      Phil Hughes             Move to Midwest agreed with ex-Yankee; extended through 2019 after first season with Twins.

RH      Ervin Santana           Well-traveled righty has had a sub-4.00 ERA in four of the past five seasons.

RH      Ricky Nolasco          Unwisely pitched through intermittent elbow pain after signing a then-club record, $49 million free-agent deal.

RH      Kyle Gibson             Former first-rounder, Tommy John survivor won 13 games and piled up nearly 180 innings.

LH       Tommy Milone         Finesse lefty won 31 games for Oakland in two-plus seasons before arriving in Sam Fuld trade.

 

Bullpen

LH       Glen Perkins (Closer)        Two-time All-Star pitched through forearm strain while blowing seven saves in 2014.

RH      Casey Fien     Durable setup man saw his nine-inning strikeout rate drop from 10.6 to 7.2 last season.

LH       Brian Duensing       League-adjusted ERA was 20 percent above average, best among all Twins with 30-plus innings.

LH       Caleb Thielbar         Lefty batters slugged .433 against him, almost 60 points higher than righties.

RH      Tim Stauffer         Former No. 4 overall pick has reinvented himself as a middle reliever following shoulder, elbow surgeries.

RH      Ryan Pressly            Former Rule 5 pick has career nine-inning strikeout rate of just 5.4 in 105 innings.

RH      Mike Pelfrey        Last chance for the former No. 9 overall pick who has one year at $5.5 million left on his deal.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Streak continues In the end, Ron Gardenhire wasn’t able to overcome history. With a fourth straight season of 92 or more losses, the media-friendly manager found himself on the chopping block after 13 seasons, giving way to Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. That left Twins legend Tom Kelly, who survived a mild stroke in the 2014 season’s final days, as the only manager to leave on his own terms after suffering at least three straight 90-loss seasons since World War II. 

Pinpoint Across the first seven seasons of his big-league career, all with the Yankees, Phil Hughes walked 2.80 batters per nine innings and posted a strikeout/walk rate of 2.68. In his first home start with the Twins, Hughes walked the first two batters in a four-run first inning and then walked Eric Sogard leading off the second. At that point something clicked. The durable righty would walk just 13 more batters (one intentionally) the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Hughes’ strikeout rate jumped to 8.0, as he broke Bret Saberhagen’s 20-year-old mark for the best strikeout/walk rate (11.63) for any qualifying pitcher since 1900.

Long wait Between July 18, 2012 and Sept. 13, 2014 — nearly 26 full calendar months — Twins pitchers waited in vain for something taken for granted in most modern quarters: a double-digit strikeout game. The drought reached a majors-high 379 games, dating to Francisco Liriano’s penultimate start in a Twins uniform, before Hughes finally ended the madness with an 11-strikeout performance at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field. The following day, rookie righthander Trevor May, an earnest Hughes protégé, went out and struck out 10 batters of his own.

Catch a whiff While waiting for a suitable offer as a free agent in the spring of 2014, veteran righthander Ervin Santana coined a catchphrase on his popular Twitter account: #SmellBaseball. It took off, and soon the bubbly Dominican was printing up T-shirts with the slogan and even holding baseballs to his nose on the mound. What does it mean? “It’s what he loves. He loves baseball,” says Amy Santana, his wife since 2009. “Anytime you go anywhere, certain smells remind you of something. For him it’s the smell of a dirty baseball, rubbing it in his hands.”

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Nick Gordon, SS

The bloodlines are there. Taken fifth overall out of an Orlando-area high school, Gordon is the son of three-time All-Star pitcher Tom Gordon and the younger brother of All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon. Nick Gordon showed mound potential during his high school days, but he always wanted to play shortstop like his hero Derek Jeter. Gordon has soft hands and a plus arm to go with at least average range. At the plate, his left-handed swing can get a little long, but he hits for average and power with the ability to drive the ball to all fields. His raw speed is above average but needs refinement. A broken index finger on his left hand kept him from completing the Appalachian League playoffs and slowed him at his first instructional league as well. He should start 2015 at Low-A Cedar Rapids in the Midwest League.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Byron Buxton, CF (21) Injuries keep dogging the player many consider the No. 1 prospect in the minors. The latest was a fractured finger that ended his Arizona Fall League season.

2. Miguel Sano, 3B (21) After missing all of 2014 following Tommy John surgery, the gifted power hitter is eager to make up for lost time.

3. Jose Berrios, RHP (20) The former supplemental first-round pick reached Double-A and earned the starting assignment for the World team in the All-Star Futures Game at Target Field.

4. Kohl Stewart, RHP (20) Taken fourth overall out of a Houston high school in 2013, the former quarterback signee (Texas A&M) has been slowed by minor shoulder issues.

5. Alex Meyer, RHP (25) Towering in stature and potential; was set to make big-league debut in September until shoulder fatigue scuttled that plan.

6. Nick Gordon, SS (19) Sure, he’s tooled-up, but Gordon is a baseball player who loves the game, has outstanding instincts and impressive makeup.

7. Nick Burdi, RHP (22) A former Louisville All-American with a triple-digit fastball, Burdi posted a 0.72 ERA from July 1 forward.

8. Jorge Polanco, SS (21) A switch-hitter with a live body and bat, Polanco has drawn comparisons to fellow Dominican Tony Fernandez. 

9. Eddie Rosario, OF/2B (23) A 50-game suspension wrecked his 2014, but high-average gap threat had strong showing in the Arizona Fall League.

10. Lewis Thorpe, LHP (19) Surgery wasn’t necessary for a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in fast-improving Aussie’s throwing elbow.

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Minnesota Twins 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 12:00
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The Kansas City Royals awoke from a 29-year playoff slumber in 2014 and became baseball’s darlings during a postseason run that started with a record eight consecutive wins and ended one shy of a World Series title. Ace and clubhouse leader James Shields moved on, and the Royals let designated hitter Billy Butler walk, but a still-young core of players — including first baseman Eric Hosmer and catcher Salvador Perez — return. The hope is that the centerpieces of general manager Dayton Moore’s nine-year rebuilding effort, a group that also includes third baseman Mike Moustakas, will blossom into the consistent and productive nucleus for another run. Augmented with a trio of affordable free-agent signings — DH Kendrys Morales, right fielder Alex Rios and pitcher Edinson Volquez — the Royals have unfinished business and will rely on a familiar blend of speed, defense and a dominant bullpen in the quest for another pennant.

 

Rotation

Without Shields, the rotation is less imposing, but Kansas City returns its other four starters and is banking that Volquez, who signed a two-year deal for $20 million, won’t represent too steep of a drop-off. Volquez was terrific for Pittsburgh last year, but it was his first season with an ERA below 4.10 and second with double-digit wins since 2008. He’ll slot at the back of the rotation with Jeremy Guthrie, who has won 28 games the last two years and regularly tops 200 innings. Jason Vargas exceeded expectations in his first season with Kansas City. The Royals happily would take another 187 innings with a 3.71 ERA from Vargas with the hope Yordano Ventura or Danny Duffy emerges as an ace. Both Ventura, a slender flame-thrower who finished sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting and shined in two World Series starts, and Duffy proved capable last season. Both also have durability concerns and must stay healthy. Moore added insurance by signing Kris Medlen to a two-year deal worth $8.5 million, but he’s coming off a second Tommy John surgery and won’t be a factor until at least midseason.


Bullpen

The Royals had baseball’s best bullpen last season, going 65–4 when leading after six innings, but it might be better in 2015. Setup men Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis — another piece of the Shields trade — lead off a late-inning relay of dominance. Closer Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star who converted 46 of 48 save chances and won the inaugural Mariano Rivera Award as the AL’s best reliever, serves as the anchor. The trio generated considerable trade interest, especially after combining for 51 strikeouts and allowing only 23 hits and 14 walks with a 1.12 ERA in 40.1 innings during the playoffs, but Moore kept HDH intact. Bolstering the bullpen, Luke Hochevar re-signed on a two-year deal for $10 million despite missing last season (Tommy John surgery), and Jason Frasor, who arrived midseason via trade with Texas, re-signed for one year at $1.8 million. Both would be primary setup men in almost any other bullpen. Veteran Tim Collins might be the only lefty in the bullpen to start the season, though Brian Flynn — acquired in a trade that sent Aaron Crow to Miami — could force his way into the mix. The Royals’ preference would be for Brandon Finnegan to develop as a starter, making him likely to begin the season in the minors, though he showed value out of the bullpen after his September call-up.

 

Middle Infield

Up the middle, the Royals’ infield is anchored by shortstop Alcides Escobar and second baseman Omar Infante. Infante filled a glaring need when he was signed before last season, but he disappointed at the plate while battling a variety of injuries, including back and shoulder issues. The Royals need Infante to improve last season’s .252/.295/.337 slash. Offensive production from Escobar is a bonus. His glove represents his most value, but the Royals need him to boost a career .299 on-base percentage, especially if he’s asked to bat leadoff given the dearth of options.

 

Corners

Hosmer and Moustakas, both former top-three picks, remain the homegrown linchpins of the Royals’ offense. Neither has become the perennial All-Star the Royals envisioned, but both showed flashes during the postseason. The Royals hope it’s a harbinger of things to come in 2015. Hosmer has won two straight Gold Gloves, but he’s yet to match the 19 home runs he hit as a rookie in 2011. Last season, he only hit nine home runs, with a rising strikeout rate and a declining walk rate. Moustakas clubbed five home runs in the postseason, but his batting average, on-base and slugging percentages have declined the last two seasons. He bottomed out at .212/.271/.361 last season but did hit 15 home runs.

 

Outfield

The Royals boast arguably the best defensive outfield in baseball. Left fielder Alex Gordon is the team’s most established and consistent player. He’s batted .283 with an OPS of .749 or higher and averaged 19 home runs, 39 doubles and 79 RBIs the last four seasons. Gordon also won a Gold Glove each year. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain shook off the oft-injured label and enjoyed a breakout 2014 season. A superb defender, he set career highs in almost every offensive category. To replace Nori Aoki, the Royals turn to Rios, who signed a one-year deal for $11 million. He’ll need to rebound from an injury-filled 2014 season. Rios upgrades the Royals’ top-notch defense in spacious Kauffman Stadium. He has averaged 22 steals during an 11-year career and averaged 18 homers from 2005-13. 

 

Catching

Perez, a two-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, is rapidly emerging as one of the AL’s best catchers. Pitchers raves about Perez’s game-calling, but he caught nearly 1,250 innings last season, prompting manager Ned Yost to pledge a lighter workload in 2015. Perez was great during the first 101 games last season, but his numbers dipped from .276/.314/.422 to .225/.234/.364 after Aug. 5. Backup Erik Kratz is sturdy and serviceable.

 

DH/Bench

The Royals declined Butler’s $12.5 million club option, deciding it was too much money for a player with declining production. Enter Morales, a switch-hitter who signed an incentive-laden, two-year deal worth $17 million. He only batted .218 with eight home runs in 98 games for Minnesota and Seattle last season after sitting out until mid-June in a contract ploy. Kansas City expects a rebound. Jarrod Dyson remains the fourth outfielder — and a valuable weapon as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner with 100 steals in the last three seasons. Christian Colon and Ryan Jackson, acquired from the Dodgers, are the most likely infield candidates for the bench.

 

Management

Building a winner took time, but Moore found a formula for success, and owner David Glass continues to buck the miserly reputation he earned during his first decade overseeing the Royals. The team had a productive offseason and plugged the roster’s deficiencies. Moore’s track record earns him the benefit of the doubt, but the franchise risks losing momentum if the Morales, Rios and Volquez signings don’t pan out.

 

Final Analysis

Unseating the four-time reigning AL Central champion Tigers won’t be easy. Counting on bounce-back seasons from Morales and Rios is a bit hopeful, but the Royals will rely as much on progress from their youthful core as production from their free agents. Last season proved what’s possible in Kansas City, which is eager for another crack at the postseason after leaving the tying run 90 feet from home in the seventh game of the World Series.

 

2015 Prediction: 3rd in AL Central

 

Projected Lineup

SS       Alcides Escobar (R)            Slick fielder batted .362 in a 16-game audition as the leadoff hitter in September.

1B       Eric Hosmer (L)       WAR dipped from 3.6 to 0.8 last season. Missed 30 games with broken hand. Repeat Gold Glove winner.

DH      Kendrys Morales (S)           Missed spring training in 2014 and only hit .218 with eight HRs. Averaged more than 22 HRs from 2009-13.

LF       Alex Gordon (L)        Two-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glover is face of franchise. Was in MVP conversation through August.

C         Salvador Perez (R)  Wore down while catching club-record 146 regular-season games. Rest should help .289 OBP rebound.

RF       Alex Rios (R)            Hit four home runs during injury-plagued 2014, but showed pop with 30 doubles and eight triples.

3B       Mike Moustakas (L) Still more potential than production, but hit 15 home runs — plus five more during postseason.

CF       Lorenzo Cain (R)     Exceptional defender finally stayed relatively healthy and won ALCS MVP.

2B       Omar Infante (R)      Disappointing debut season marred by injury. Must rebound from batting .252 with .632 OPS.

 

Bench

OF       Jarrod Dyson (L)      Fantastic fourth outfielder, both as a late-inning defensive replacement and spot starter.

C         Erik Kratz (R)            Showed power in limited action last season after arrival via trade from Toronto.

UT       Christian Colon (R) Socked five doubles and a triple in 21 games last season. Primarily provides depth at third and second.

INF      Ryan Jackson (R)    Career .268 minor league hitter can play shortstop, third and second base.

 

Rotation

LH       Jason Vargas           Posted career-best 3.71 ERA and 2.0 walks per nine innings ratio. Royals would love a repeat.

RH      Yordano Ventura      Ventura, known as “Ace” in Kansas City, has been compared to his idol, Pedro Martinez.

LH       Danny Duffy  Durability remains a concern after 2012 Tommy John surgery and a rib-cage injury last season.

RH      Edinson Volquez     Has thrown 170-plus innings in three straight seasons. Declining strikeout rate is a concern.

RH      Jeremy Guthrie        Surpassed expectations with 28 wins in first two years of a three-year deal. Club has 2016 option.

 

Bullpen

RH      Greg Holland (Closer)        Two-time All-Star wasn’t as dominant in 2014. Still posted 1.44 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 62.1 innings.

RH      Wade Davis  Would close for most teams. Struck out 109 while allowing 38 hits and 23 walks in 72 innings.

RH      Kelvin Herrera          Posted a 1.16 ERA, scattering 45 hits and 24 walks with 52 strikeouts in 62 innings after April 23.

RH      Luke Hochevar         Former No. 1 overall pick missed 2014 after Tommy John surgery. Established himself in setup role in ’13.

RH      Jason Frasor            Reliable middle reliever went 3–0 with a 1.53 ERA in 23 games after midseason arrival via trade from Texas.

RH      Jandel Gustave        Royals will try to stash the flame-throwing righty in the pen after acquiring the Rule 5 Draft pick by trade.

LH       Tim Collins   Spent half of 2014 in Class AAA. Command remains an issue, but he’s the most experienced southpaw reliever.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Power outage Relievers Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera didn’t allow any home runs in 142 combined innings. Davis only allowed five extra-base hits (three doubles and two triples), and Herrera gave up just 13 extra-base hits (all doubles).

More bullpen brilliance During the last 45 years, there have been 52 relievers who have thrown 60-plus innings with an ERA under 1.50 in a season, but there had never been two on the same team until last season when the Royals had three — Herrera (1.41 ERA in 70 IP with 59 strikeouts), Davis (1.00 ERA in 72 IP with 109 strikeouts) and Greg Holland (1.44 ERA in 62.1 IP with 90 strikeouts). They also became the first trio of teammates in history to post a sub-1.50 ERA with at least 50 strikeouts in the same season.

Disciplined or not By one measure, the Royals were baseball’s least disciplined team at the plate, walking an MLB-worst 380 times — or roughly once every 16 plate appearances — in 2014. The major league average was roughly one walk every 13 plate appearances. On the other hand, the Royals also were the toughest team to strike out, fanning only 985 times. The Oakland A’s had the second-fewest strikeouts at 1,104.

Thievin’ Royals Kansas City led baseball in stolen bases for the second straight season with 153 — 15 more than the Dodgers, who led the NL. The Royals were the only team with three players who stole at least 25 bases, a first for the franchise since 1983. Part-time outfielder Jarrod Dyson led the way with a career-high 36 steals, while Alcides Escobar (31) and Lorenzo Cain (28) proved to be prolific base thieves as well.

Speaking of steals Kansas City signed righthander Kris Medlen to a two-year deal worth $8.5 million. It’s a gamble, because Medlen missed most of the 2011 season after Tommy John surgery and had a second ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery that cost him the 2014 season. It also could be a brilliant move if Medlen regains the form he flashed going 25–13 with a 2.47 ERA in 335 innings with Atlanta from 2012-13.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Brandon Finnegan, LHP

Finnegan became the first pitcher to appear in the College World Series and the actual World Series in the same season. Selected 17th overall in the 2014 draft, Finnegan led TCU to the CWS then breezed through the lower levels of the Royals’ minor league system, posting a 1.33 ERA with 26 strikeouts and only four walks in 27 innings during stops at Class A Wilmington and Class AA Northwest Arkansas. During a September call-up, Finnegan went 0–1 with a 1.29 ERA, striking out 10 with only one walk during seven appearances, which earned him a spot on the club’s postseason roster. He sparkled in his first six postseason outings before a hiccup in the fourth game of the World Series. Finnegan is a candidate for the Royals’ bullpen, but is more likely to start the season in the minors as he’s groomed to be a starter.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Raul Adalberto Mondesi, SS (19) Batted .211 with eight homers at Class A Wilmington, but scouts rave about his defense, see power potential.

2. Brandon Finnegan, LHP (21) A proven winner who showed his makeup during the AL wild card game, pitching 2.1 critical innings.

3. Kyle Zimmer, RHP (23) Durability concerns plague the 2012 first-round pick, who was limited to six games by shoulder issues.

4. Sean Manaea, LHP (23) Bounced back from a hip injury to throw 121.2 innings for Class A Wilmington, going 7–8 with a 3.11 ERA and 146 strikeouts against 54 walks.

5. Hunter Dozier, 3B (23) The 2013 first-round pick reached Class AA after batting .295 with 18 doubles and four home runs in 66 games at Class A.

6. Miguel Almonte, RHP (22) Displays excellent command, especially with his mid-90s fastball, and could move quickly.

7. Foster Griffin, LHP (19) The sturdy-framed southpaw has a reputation for throwing strikes with his three-pitch arsenal, including a low-90s fastball and improving changeup and slider.

8. Jorge Bonifacio, OF (21) Entering his sixth year with the Royals organization and looking to rebound after batting .230 with only four home runs in first full season at Class AA Northwest Arkansas.

9. Scott Blewett, RHP (18) The 6'6" 2014 second-round pick went 1–2 with a 4.82 ERA in eight appearances (28 IP) in rookie league.

10. Christian Colon, SS/2B (25) Batted .333 with five doubles in 21 games with the Royals last season. Poised to break in the big leagues as a full-time bench player in 2015.

Teaser:
Kansas City Royals 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 11:30
Path: /mlb/detroit-tigers-2015-preview-and-prediction
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Despite winning a fourth straight AL Central crown, the Tigers took a small step backward in 2014, getting swept by the Orioles in the Division Series and falling short of the ALCS for the first time since 2010. The chief culprit was easy to spot — a bullpen that, by October, lacked even one shutdown arm, leaving rookie manager Brad Ausmus completely exposed in late-inning situations. On the surface, the 2015 edition of this roster is not terribly different than the 2014 Tigers. The big changes have come in the rotation — which loses Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello while adding Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene, not exactly an upgrade — and in right field, where Yoenis Cespedes replaces departing free agent Torii Hunter, essentially a wash in terms of production. But the addition of center fielder Anthony Gose and the return of shortstop Jose Iglesias signal an emphasis on up-the-middle defense, and the middle of the lineup — now with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Cespedes and J.D. Martinez — remains as scary as any in the game. 

 

Rotation

The rotation remains the foundation — spiritually and financially — of the Tigers. Lefty David Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young winner, slides into Scherzer’s ace role without much of a drop-off, but the rest of the rotation is now chock-full of questions. Was Justin Verlander’s rough 2014 an aberration or a sign of permanent decline? Can Anibal Sanchez remain healthy after an injury-shortened 2014? Was Simon’s 2014 breakthrough with the Cincinnati Reds more than a fluke? And is Greene more like the pitcher who went 29–43 with a 4.39 ERA as a minor leaguer, or the one who posted a solid 5–4 and 3.78 as a big league rookie last year in the Bronx? 


Bullpen

To be fair, GM Dave Dombrowski tried valiantly to shore up the 2014 Tigers’ bullpen, adding closer Joe Nathan last offseason, trading for promising young lefty Ian Krol, then adding Joakim Soria as a setup man in July. But none of them could prevent the ugly collapse. And nearly everyone is back in 2015, including Joba Chamberlain who signed a one-year deal at the start of training camp. The Tigers believed enough in a Soria bounce-back to pick up his 2015 option, so he will return as Nathan’s top setup man. But the best things that can happen for this unit are for hard-throwing righthander Bruce Rondon to make a full recovery from 2014 elbow surgery, for Krol to make a big leap from last year’s disaster and for a couple of youngsters to emerge as dependable middle-inning solutions.

 

Middle Infield

The Tigers have yet to see their projected double-play combination together, as shortstop Jose Iglesias, runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 2013, missed all of ’14 with stress fractures in his shins, just as All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler was arriving from Texas. Iglesias’s expected return will be a boost both offensively and defensively. Kinsler was exactly what the Tigers expected. You can pencil him in for 150 games, 15 homers, 80 RBIs and 15 stolen bases — as well as exceptional defense — in 2015.

 

Corners

The monumental November 2013 trade that sent Prince Fielder to Texas for Kinsler allowed the Tigers to shift Cabrera back across the diamond to first base — where he had another great 2014 while not killing the team too much with his glove — and perhaps more important, opened up third base for top prospect Nick Castellanos. At the plate, Castellanos’s 2014 rookie season was encouraging, as he produced a respectable .259/.306/.394 slash line at age 22, but he was disappointing on the other side of the ball, with advanced defensive metrics measuring his performance somewhere between dismal and abysmal. Part of that could be attributed to his shift from shortstop (where he played primarily in high school) to third base (after being drafted) to left field (after the signing of Fielder) then back to third. Perhaps the stability of remaining at one position will help.

 

Outfield

The Tigers are replacing two-thirds of their 2014 outfield. With Hunter’s departure, the Tigers went out and acquired a statistical clone who is a decade younger in Cespedes — a move that pushes Rajai Davis to the bench, or into a platoon in center field. That platoon would be shared with Gose, a top defender who was acquired from Toronto over the winter. Gose has never played more than 94 games in a season, and it remains to be seen whether the Tigers can live with a hitter who slugged .293 in 274 plate appearances in 2014. Returning in left is J.D. Martinez, who was merely one of the best surprises in baseball in 2014. Released by the Astros in spring training, he signed with the Tigers two days later and spent the season shedding his underachiever label with a dazzling .315/.358/.553 line.

 

Catching

Alex Avila seemed poised to take his place as one of the top young catchers in the game following his breakout season of 2011, but a series of concussions and a steady decline in production have followed. Nonetheless, his numbers are still decent enough for a catcher, and his performance behind the plate is brilliant enough that the Tigers wasted little time in exercising his $5.4 million option for 2015. Still, whoever the Tigers have as backup — James McCann, a rookie who made a big-league cameo in 2014, is the top choice — may get more time behind the plate and more at-bats than the typical backup catcher.

 

DH/Bench

Thank heaven for Victor Martinez. The venerable DH had the best season of his illustrious career, leading the league with a .974 OPS, bashing a career-high 32 homers and finishing second in MVP balloting. Martinez tore the meniscus in his left knee and underwent surgery in early February, but the team is optimistic that he will be ready to play come Opening Day. While Martinez is not a huge concern at this point, the Tigers’ bench, however, is another story, as it was exposed in the three-game sweep at the hands of the Orioles in the ALDS. Getting Iglesias back at shortstop will help with depth, allowing Andrew Romine, who saw the bulk of the playing time there last year, to slide into a utility job, where he probably belongs. But outside of Davis, who got bumped by the Cespedes acquisition, this looks to be a dangerously inexperienced bench for such an established team. Youngster Tyler Collins is in line to be the fifth outfielder, and McCann is the top choice as backup catcher.

 

Management

Dombrowski is regarded as one of the top GMs in the game, and deservedly so, but he appears to have made a rare misstep with the pivotal Doug Fister deal of December 2013. Of the three players acquired from Washington in the trade, only Krol remains — a weak return for one of the most consistent pitchers in the game. To his credit, Dombrowski checked off the major items on his list in 2015 — re-signing Martinez, finding a center fielder and replacing departed free agents Scherzer and Hunter — but you have to wonder why he didn’t do more to beef up a bullpen that was exposed last October. As for Ausmus, 90 wins and an AL Central title would qualify as a successful rookie season in the dugout, but he was overmatched against counterpart Buck Showalter in the ALDS.

 

Final Analysis

By acquiring Gose for center field, picking up Avila’s option and keeping shortstop open for Iglesias, the Tigers, long known as the home of power arms and power bats, appear to be trying to build around defense. They will still be a formidable team in 2015, but with major questions concerning the bullpen and the impact of the loss of Scherzer — not to mention the rise of the Royals as a tireless challenger and the radical offseason improvement of the White Sox — the path to a fifth straight Central title appears more difficult than ever, and this Cabrera-Verlander-Martinez-Kinsler core may only have a few more seasons to try to capture that elusive World Series title.

 

2015 Prediction: 1st in AL Central

 

Projected Lineup

2B       Ian Kinsler (R)          At least 13 homers, 15 stolen bases and 70 RBIs in six of the last seven seasons.

C         Alex Avila (L) OPS has declined average of 70 points per season since 2011 breakout (.895).

1B       Miguel Cabrera (R) Still managed 25 homers, 109 RBIs, .895 OPS in injury-plagued “down” season.

DH      Victor Martinez (S)    Had best season of his career last year at age 35; signed new four-year deal.

RF       Yoenis Cespedes   His 2014 slash line: .260/.301/.450. Torii Hunter’s 2014 slash line: .286/.319/.446.

LF       J.D. Martinez (R)      From spring training release with Houston to .912 OPS with Detroit in eight months.

3B       Nick Castellanos (R)          Despite high strikeout total, low OBP, his 2014 rookie season was encouraging.

SS       Jose Iglesias (R)     Injury kept him sidelined all of 2014; Tigers missed his glove more than his bat.

CF       Anthony Gose (L)     Career OPS+ is just 76, but Tigers traded for him to shore up outfield defense.

 

Bench

OF       Rajai Davis (R)        His 2014 splits define platoon player: .617 OPS vs. RHPs, .939 vs. LHPs.

OF       Tyler Collins (L)       Corner outfielder showed knack for pinch-hitting during September call-up.

C         James McCann (R) Second-round pick in 2011 had breakout year at Triple-A in 2014 and is top candidate to back up Avila.

INF      Andrew Romine (S)            Started nearly half Tigers’ games at shortstop last year; moves to utility role in 2015.

 

Rotation

LH       David Price   Career-high 248.1 regular-season innings pitched in 2014, most by AL pitcher in four years.

RH      Justin Verlander      Three straight years of rising ERA and WHIP, declining IP and K/9 IP.

RH      Anibal Sanchez        Injury, inconsistency in 2014 resulted in step back after career year in 2013.

RH      Alfredo Simon          13 of 22 HRs allowed in 2014 came in Cincinnati; deep Comerica fences should help.

RH      Shane Greene         Two of his five wins in 2014 rookie campaign with the Yankees came against Tigers.

 

Bullpen

RH      Joe Nathan (Closer)           Tigers hope for bounce-back year in 2015, but he’s 40 and coming off career-worst season.

RH      Joakim Soria            July trade acquisition failed to stop bullpen’s bleeding, but team picked up 2015 option.

RH      Joba Chamberlain  Big righty is back after going 2-5 with a 3.57 ERA in 69 games last season.

RH      Al Alburquerque       Most consistent member of 2014 Tigers pen, but manager Brad Ausmus stayed away from him in October.

RH      Bruce Rondon          Promising career as future closer interrupted by elbow surgery that cost him all of 2014.

LH       Ian Krol          Last man standing from Doug Fister trade gets another chance after dismal 2014.

LH       Kyle Lobstein           Respectable as a spot-starter in 2014, he may get first crack at long man in 2015 bullpen.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Who’s up first? It appears as if the Tigers will be without a true, everyday leadoff man again in 2015, with Ian Kinsler expected to be pressed into duty, as he was for much of 2014. Rajai Davis, a speedster who has stolen 25 or more bases in seven straight seasons, would seemingly be a natural leadoff man — and against lefties, he is — but his splits against righthanders (.247/.290/.327 in 2014) have been awful, which is why he likely will find himself on the bench.

Take a walk Kinsler’s walk rate took a precipitous fall, dropping to 4.0 percent of his plate appearances, less than half his 2013 rate of 8.3 percent. In a league-leading 726 plate appearances, Kinsler walked 29 times, the first time since ’08 that he walked fewer than 50 times. His OBP dipped to a career-low .307.

Is the Price right? In letting ace Max Scherzer walk, the Tigers may have been setting the stage to re-sign lefty David Price, a free agent after 2015, to a long-term deal, using the money that otherwise would have gone to Scherzer. Price is slightly younger and left-handed, and he throws with a less violent delivery that should make him less prone to an arm injury.

Top Tiger Although Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez draw the most attention, Kinsler was the Tigers’ best player in 2014, as measured in WAR. Kinsler measured 5.4 WAR in the Fangraphs.com model and 5.5 in the Baseball-Reference.com model.

Trending down Justin Verlander’s numbers are trending in the wrong direction. Since his Cy Young season of 2011, his ERA has risen in three straight seasons, nearly doubling from 2.40 in 2011 to 4.54 in 2014, and his WHIP has seen a similar rise. What has been dropping? Namely, Verlander’s average fastball velocity, which has fallen from 95.0 in 2011 to just 92.3 last season — perhaps one reason he has come to rely much more frequently on sliders (8.4 percent of his pitches in 2011, 15.1 percent in 2014).

Bullpen woes How bad was the Tigers’ bullpen in 2014? Despite being called upon to throw the third-fewest innings of any pen in baseball (447 innings), it posted the fourth-worst ERA (4.29) and FIP (4.09) and the third-worst BB/9 IP rate (3.87). Take out Joba Chamberlain’s 0.8 WAR, and the rest of the Tigers’ relievers combined to pitch below replacement-level.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Derek Hill, OF

After picking Hill, a center fielder out of Elk Grove (Calif.) High School, with the 23rd overall pick, the Tigers went slightly above the slot figure to sign him for $2 million and keep him from his commitment to the University of Oregon. Hill is a 6'2", 190-pound speedster who graded as an 80 for speed on the standard 20-80 scouting scale. He advanced out of rookie ball to short-season Class A in 2014, and stole 11 bases in 13 tries, but he hit only .208/.296/.295 combined. It will be a few years, at least, before Hill ever appears in a Tigers uniform, but his pure speed and a body that should fill out over time give him a high ceiling as a prospect.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Steven Moya, OF (23) In a farm system depleted by trades, he is the closest thing to a high-impact prospect. Bashed 35 home runs with 105 RBIs in Double-A.

2. Buck Farmer, RHP (24) Former Georgia Tech star climbed all the way from Class A to the majors last September — he started two games — and has shot to make 2015 team.

3. Derek Hill, OF (19) Speedy center fielder was Detroit’s 2014 top draft pick. He will be in Class A this season.

4. Kevin Ziomek, LHP (23) Second-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2013 went 10–6 with a 2.27 ERA in full-season pro debut (Class A). He lacks plus stuff and projects to be no more than a middle-of-the-rotation starter.

5. Austin Kubitza, RHP (23) Former Pirate draft pick went 10–2, 2.34 as a starter at High-A, but the lack of a dependable third pitch may send him to bullpen.

6. Hernan Perez, INF (24) The Tigers thought enough of Perez that they put him on 2014 postseason roster and worked him out as an outfielder this winter.

7. Tyler Collins, OF (24) Had two short stints in big leagues in 2014 — appearing in 18 games — and bench job is his to lose this spring.

8. Spencer Turnbull, RHP (22) Struggled in short-season Class A, but strong build and mid-90s fastball put him on this list.

9. Jose Valdez, RHP (25) Hard-throwing reliever struggled a bit in Class AA, but team encouraged by declining walk rate.

10. Drew VerHagen, RHP (24) Big, hard-throwing righthander spent nearly all of 2014 in Class AAA, but got spot-start for Tigers in July and could be back in 2015.

Teaser:
Detroit Tigers 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: Denver Nuggets, NBA
Path: /nba/denver-nuggets-have-fired-head-coach-brian-shaw
Body:
In one of the least surprising firings of recent years, the Denver Nuggets have dropped head coach Brian Shaw, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.

 

The relationship between Shaw and his 20-39 team has been bad since he took the helm last fall. Often, it was comically so — reports eventually came out that he tried to relate to his team by reading books about the millennial generation. Even more cringeworthy was his attempt to win over the Nuggets by performing scouting reports by way of rapping them.

 

That would all be okay if the results on the floor were good, but they weren’t. Shaw collected a 56-85 record, good for just a .400 winning percentage. To be sure, the Nuggets have had a bad roster of mismatched parts and middling talent since general Masai Ujiri skipped town for the Toronto Raptors in 2013, so Denver’s mediocrity shouldn’t all fall on their departed coach’s shoulders.

 

David West of the Indiana Pacers (where Shaw was previously an assistant) had this to say when he heard of the news:

 

West is at least partly right — whoever replaces Shaw in Denver won’t have much better results unless Denver goes all-in on a player mixup. They started one by trading Arron Afflalo, Nate Robinson, Timofey Mozgov and JaVale McGee before the deadline — mostly for draft assets — but the Nuggets are still rich with misdirected talent.

Assistant Melvin Hunt will replace Shaw on an interim basis, while Sam Amick of USA Today reports that Mike D’Antoni has interest in the job for next season.

 

Shaw didn’t do a great job, but his experience also proved that the job in the Rockies isn’t exactly the most desirable one around. The Nuggets are in need of a lot more than one new face on the bench.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 10:44
Path: /mlb/cleveland-indians-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

The Indians have the pitching to make a run at the postseason this year despite the new muscle that has been added to the AL Central. Led by AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, the starting rotation posted a 2.95 ERA after the All-Star break, second lowest in the big leagues last year. Emerging closer Cody Allen and a fleet of talented arms form a solid bullpen that manager Terry Francona used a league-record 573 times in 2014.

 

The factors that will determine whether they are able to return to the postseason will be how well they hit and how well they field. Nick Swisher (knees), Michael Bourn (hamstring), Jason Kipnis (oblique, hamstring, finger) and Ryan Raburn (knee, wrist) must bounce back from injuries. Newcomer Brandon Moss is coming off right hip surgery.

 

Defensively, the Indians led the big leagues in errors. Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, catcher Yan Gomes, departed shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, a range-challenged Kipnis at second base and an immobile Swisher at first made every ground ball an adventure in 2014.

 

If injured Indians hitters can return to full strength, and a revamped defense can catch the ball, this team has a chance to do some damage in October. Despite an offense that barely averaged three runs per game after the All-Star break, the Indians pitched so well that they were not eliminated from wild card contention until game No. 159 last season. 

 

Rotation

Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, T.J. House, Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin give the Indians as talented a group of young starters as they’ve had in several years. GM Chris Antonetti added depth to the rotation by signing veteran righthander Gavin Floyd to a one-year $4 million deal. If Floyd makes it through spring training healthy after experiencing two big right elbow injuries over the last three years, Antonetti has promised him a spot in the Opening Day rotation, along with Kluber, Carrasco and Bauer. Salazar, House, McAllister and Tomlin will compete for the fifth spot. McAllister, Carrasco and Bauer are out of options. If McAllister doesn’t make the rotation, he could open the season in the bullpen. 


Bullpen

With Francona, the road to victory runs straight through the pen. He had eight relievers at his disposal through much of last season, and sometimes more because of the flexibility of his position players. Allen stepped in as the closer when John Axford faltered in May, and Francona didn’t hesitate to use him before the ninth inning. Francona expertly manipulated Allen and setup man Bryan Shaw, along with Scott Atchison and Marc Rzepczynski in the late innings. Shaw led the majors with 80 appearances, while Allen (76) and Rzepczynski (73) ranked in the top five in the AL. Lefties Nick Hagadone and Kyle Crockett and righty C.C. Lee are emerging as bridge builders from the starters to the late-inning relievers. Veteran lefty Scott Downs will be in camp on a minor league deal.

 

Middle Infield

When Cabrera was traded to Washington on July 31, rookie Jose Ramirez replaced him and almost immediately improved a bad defense. Behind Ramirez, the Indians have top prospect Francisco Lindor with another shortstop in Erik Gonzalez looming. Ramirez is expected to open the season at short with Kipnis at second, but the Indians’ depth could force a change if Kipnis doesn’t rebound from last season. Kipnis injured the ring finger on his left hand in November while lifting weights. While Kipnis is expected to be ready for the season opener on April 6, he won’t be able to swing a bat in the early parts of spring training.

 

Corners

When last season ended, the Indians talked about moving Chisenhall or Kipnis to the outfield, a direct reflection on how poorly they played defensively. Such talk was shelved, but it’s clear the Indians are expecting better play from Chisenhall at third. Offensively, Chisenhall showed the same inconsistency, hitting .393 (66-for-168) through June 11, but .219 (68-for-310) for the rest of the season. Carlos Santana will open at first base, his third different Opening Day position in as many years. He was the starting catcher in 2013 and starting third baseman last year. Offensively, the move from third to first helped Santana, who led the Indians in homers with 27. Swisher and Moss are also expected to see time at first.

 

Outfield

In a crowded outfield, Michael Brantley is expected to start in left field following his breakout season. Bourn, who made three trips to the disabled list last year because of his left hamstring, will be in center. There is a logjam in right field with Moss, Raburn, David Murphy, Tyler Holt and Zach Walters all looking for playing time. Swisher, depending on the condition of his knees, could compete for time as well. Moss, who played left and right field last year for the A’s, is not expected to be able to swing a bat early in camp, but he should be ready to open the regular season.

 

Catching

Gomes emerged from his first full season behind the plate as one of the best catchers in the big leagues. After overcoming some throwing problems early in the season, he led AL catchers in average (.278), OPS (.785) and extra-base hits (49). He handled the pitching staff well, drawing raves from Kluber. Gomes threw out 32 percent of the baserunners he faced and drew good grades as a pitch framer. Roberto Perez joined the Indians from the minors in July and proved to be an excellent backup. Indians pitchers had a 2.61 ERA when Perez was behind the plate.

 

DH/Bench

Swisher, in the third year of a four-year $56 million deal, is expected to be the primary DH. He did not play after Aug. 9 and underwent surgery on both knees on Aug. 20. The Indians won’t know how much Swisher can play until he gets to spring training, but they could definitely use a dose of the guy who averaged 25 homers and 80 RBIs per season from 2005-13. Utility man Mike Aviles, with his ability to play every position but catcher and pitcher, has allowed Francona to carry an extra reliever for most of the last two seasons. Raburn has been the right-handed bat off the bench the last two years, but after a disappointing 2014, he’s going to need a big spring training to win a job even though his 2015 salary is guaranteed. Walters and Holt will challenge him for that role. Perez will be the backup catcher.

 

Management

Under Antonetti and Francona, the Indians won 92 games in 2013 and 85 in 2014. It is a team that has been one or two big moves away from becoming a serious contender, but those big moves have yet to be made. Perhaps ownership is still smarting because of the lack of production from Swisher and Bourn, the team’s last two forays into the big-money side of free agency. The Indians have shown an interest in keeping the core of the club together by signing Kipnis, Brantley, Gomes and Santana to multiyear deals. Kluber could be in line for such a deal before the start of the 2015 season.

 

Final Analysis

The Indians watched AL Central foes Detroit and Kansas City prosper last year as the Tigers won their fourth straight division title and the Royals made it all the way to the World Series as a wild card. The White Sox and Twins, the Tribe’s other Central rivals, spent this offseason making several free-agent signings. The Indians, meanwhile, continued to show confidence in their young position players and deep pitching staff. Their only big additions were Moss and Floyd, who are both coming off injuries. It will be interesting to see how far that strategy takes them in what might be the best division in baseball.

 

2015 Prediction: 4th in AL Central

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Michael Bourn (L)    Former National League stolen base king has swiped only 33 in two years with Indians.

SS       Jose Ramirez (S)    He hit .299 with 20 runs in 42 starts while batting in the No. 2 spot in 2014.

LF       Michael Brantley (L)            Led the American League with a .376 average with runners in scoring position.

1B       Carlos Santana (S) Selective slugger walked 113 times last season and has 394 walks in last four seasons.

RF       Brandon Moss (L)   Last season, he hit 21 of his 25 homers before the All-Star break with Oakland.

DH      Nick Swisher (S)      He played 97 games last season, fewest since his 131 with A’s in 2005.

2B       Jason Kipnis (L)      Did not homer after July 31 last season, a streak of 48 games and 183 at-bats.

C         Yan Gomes (R)        Native of Brazil ranked third among AL catchers last year with 21 homers.

3B       Lonnie Chisenhall (L)        Ranked eighth among MLB third basemen with a .770 OPS in 2014; defense needs to improve.

 

Bench

UT       Mike Aviles (R)         He played six different positions last season, making his debut in right and center field.

C         Roberto Perez (R)   Threw out 36 percent (8 of 22) of the runners who tried to steal on him.

OF       David Murphy (L)      Hit .326 with runners on base and .360 with runners in scoring position.

OF       Ryan Raburn (R)     Injured his wrist and knee running into an outfield wall in spring training and struggled at the plate.

 

Rotation

RH      Corey Kluber            His 269 strikeouts in 2014 ranked sixth highest in team history for a single season.

RH      Carlos Carrasco      Posted a 1.30 ERA with 78 strikeouts in 69 innings over his last 10 starts of the season.

RH      Trevor Bauer Averaged 8.41 strikeouts per nine innings, third-highest ratio ever among Indians rookie pitchers.

RH      Gavin Floyd   Coming off a fractured right elbow last year and Tommy John surgery in 2013.

RH      Danny Salazar          Struck out 10 White Sox hitters in 3.2 innings on April 10, most ever by a pitcher in fewer than four innings.

 

Bullpen

RH      Cody Allen (Closer) Workhorse closer has made 153 appearances over the last two seasons.

RH      Bryan Shaw  First Indians reliever to lead to the big leagues in appearances since the 1950s.

RH      Scott Atchison          He set career highs last season in appearances (70), innings (72) and strikeouts (49).

LH       Marc Rzepczynski    Allowed only 11 of 57 inherited runners (19.3 percent) to score last season.

LH       Kyle Crockett            Fourth-round pick in 2013 posted a 1.35 ERA in his last 33 games of his rookie season.

LH       Nick Hagadone        Lefties hit .217 and righties hit .211 in Hagadone’s four trips to the big leagues last season.

RH      Zach McAllister         Made seven late-season relief appearances, striking out 14 in 13 IP, in moving from the rotation to the pen.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Triple double On July 1 at Dodger Stadium, the Indians turned a triple play that withstood two replay reviews. Kyle Crockett faced the Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez with no outs, Dee Gordon on third and Yasiel Puig on first. Gonzalez hit a fly ball to left fielder Michael Brantley. Brantley made the catch for the first out and threw home to Yan Gomes to get Gordon for the second out. Gomes saw Puig heading for second and threw to Jason Kipnis, but Puig was called safe. Manager Terry Francona challenged the play and Puig was called out to complete the triple play. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly then challenged the play at the plate. That play was reviewed and the call on the field stood.

Son bests father On April 29 at Angel Stadium, Indians righthander Corey Kluber walked off the mound in the fifth inning thinking J.B. Shuck had just hit into an inning-ending double play. Shuck’s out at first base was overturned after a replay challenge and the Angels went on to score two more runs on the way to a 6–4 victory. The Angels replay coordinator was Nick Francona, son of Indians manager Terry Francona. He gave manager Mike Scioscia the heads-up to challenge the call. “I thought that was kind of weak on Nick’s part,” said Francona with a smile after the game. “He may work for Scioscia, but he’s my son.”

Don’t blame me Francona went through the entire 2014 season without being ejected. But on one occasion he had to do some fast talking to stay in the game. He went out to challenge a call at third base made by Joe West. Francona was stalling for time until he got a signal from bench coach Brad Mills as to whether the Indians would challenge the call. “I told Joe, ‘Hey, I think you got the call right,’” said Francona. “It’s Millsie who thinks you got it wrong.”

Deke of dekes David Murphy was on first base on Aug. 5 against Cincinnati when Gomes doubled to the wall, right in front of the Reds bullpen. Lonnie Chisenhall scored from second and Murphy slid into third. As the relay on Gomes’ double was thrown back into second base, an errant toss by Reds reliever Jumbo Diaz sailed out of the bullpen and landed in the same area as the relay throw. Murphy saw the stray ball and broke for home. Reds shortstop Zack Cozart, who had the ball that was in play, threw Murphy out.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Bradley Zimmer, CF

The Indians drafted Zimmer out of the University of San Francisco with the 21st pick in the first round. They paid him a $1.9 million signing bonus and sent the 6'4", 185-pound left-handed hitter to Class A Mahoning Valley of the New York-Penn League. In 45 games, he hit .304 (51-168) with 11 doubles, four homers and 30 RBIs. Zimmer, whose brother Kyle was Kansas City’s No. 1 pick in 2012, hit .372 against lefties. The Indians promoted him to Class A Lake County for the postseason, and he hit two homers in three games. Zimmer hasn’t shown a lot of power in his career, but the Indians believe his power will improve as he gets older and stronger.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Francisco Lindor, SS (21) Lindor is a top-of-the-order switch-hitter and above-average defender. He reached Class AAA Columbus last season and should make his big-league debut this year.

2. Jesus Aguilar, 1B (24) The 6'3", 250-pound Aguilar is a right-handed hitter with big power that he’s shown at every level except the big leagues.

3. Tyler Naquin, CF (23) The Indians’ No. 1 pick in 2012, this left-handed hitter had his 2014 season derailed at Class AA Akron when he suffered a broken left hand after being hit by a pitch.

4. Erik Gonzalez, SS (23) Gonzalez hit .289 (89-308) with 24 extra base hits last season at Class A Carolina. The right-handed hitter moved up to Class AA Akron and hit .357 (46-129).

5. Clint Frazier, CF (20) Frazier, a right-handed hitter, was the Indians’ No. 1 pick in 2013. Last season, he hit .266 (126-474) with 18 doubles, 13 homers and 50 RBIs at Class A Lake County.

6. Giovanny Urshela, 3B (23) If the Indians need help at third base, Urshela is their guy. He’s their top defensive third baseman and had a breakout year offensively last season.

7. Justus Sheffield, LHP (18) Sheffield was headed to Vanderbilt before the Indians paid him $1.6 million to turn pro. He went 3–1 with 29 strikeouts in 20.2 innings in the Arizona Rookie League.

8. Bradley Zimmer, CF, (22) Brad Grant, Indians’ director of amateur scouting, had this to say: “Bradley is a really good combination of speed, defense, power and hitting ability.”

9. Bobby Bradley, 1B (18) The Indians’ third-round pick in 2014 won the Arizona Rookie League batting title, hitting .361 with 50 RBIs in 39 games.

10. Francisco Mejia, C (19) The switch-hitting Mejia hit .282 (70-for-248) with 17 doubles at Class A Mahoning Valley. He made 11 errors.

Teaser:
Cleveland Indians 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 10:30
All taxonomy terms: Paul Casey, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2015-majors-no-26-paul-casey
Body:

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. 26: Paul Casey

Born: July 21, 1977, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England | Career PGA Tour Wins: 1 (13 on European Tour) | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $877,968 (112th) World Ranking: 45

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Casey finished 2014 ranked 75th in the world, down from his highest position of third in 2009. Off-course distractions and a few nagging injuries have kept him from maintaining world-class form over the last few years. But he is healthy now and seems to have his personal life in fine order, which should give him the peace of mind to climb back up toward the top 10 in the world. In 2010 he played in the final group on Sunday at St. Andrews and eventually finished third, his best finish in a major to date. And it is that kind of golf that has made him a 13-time winner in Europe and a winner on the PGA Tour — and why I think he will do much more in his career before he is through.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 43
Wins: 0

2014 Performance:
Masters - DNP
U.S. Open - T56
British Open - T47
PGA Championship - Cut

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T6 (2004)
U.S. Open - T10 (2007)
British Open - T3 (2010)
PGA Championship - T12 (2010)
Top-10 Finishes: 5
Top-25 Finishes: 11
Missed Cuts: 16

—Brandel Chamblee is lead analyst for the Golf Channel. Be sure to follow him @ChambleeBrandel on Twitter.

 

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.

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 10:27
Path: /mlb/chicago-white-sox-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

White Sox management started the offseason by saying they wanted the team’s fans to dream again. After watching the Sox lose 188 games the last two seasons, fans wondered how optimistic their dreams should be. Management spoke with its checkbook. The Sox added at least six significant pieces through free agency or trades — starter Jeff Samardzija, closer David Robertson, relievers Zach Duke and Dan Jennings, outfielder Melky Cabrera and DH/first baseman Adam LaRoche. That group should enable the Sox to press the Tigers and Royals in the AL Central, especially with Chris Sale, third in AL Cy Young voting, and Jose Abreu, fourth in MVP voting, serving as the team’s foundation.

 

Rotation

With three consecutive appearances in the All-Star game, Sale has confirmed his status as one of the game’s most overpowering lefthanders. Sale might have won his first Cy Young but finished with only 12 wins because of meager offensive support. He also missed six starts with an injury. Jose Quintana, another lefty, cannot match Sale’s ability to miss bats, but he’s been more durable, delivering 200 solid innings in back-to-back seasons. John Danks, the rotation’s third lefty, took another step forward after his 2012 shoulder surgery. Danks must slash his high walk total because he allowed 205 hits (25 home runs) in 193.2 innings. Enter Samardzija, the former Cubs’ righthander who pitched the second half of last season for the As. Samardzija will be highly motivated by two things: He’s a free agent after the 2015 season, and he pitched in terrible luck last year, winning only seven of 20 decisions despite a combined ERA of 2.99. Sale and Samardzija gives the Sox two potential No. 1 starters. The fifth spot likely belongs to Hector Noesi, who thrived under pitching coach Don Cooper, winning eight games and giving the Sox 166 innings in 2014. But Carlos Rodon, the team’s first-round draft pick last summer, pitched his way to AAA and has the stuff and makeup to become a top-of-the-rotation guy. 


Bullpen

During the winter meetings, whenever a questioner would ask Sox general manager Rick Hahn about his bullpen moves, Hahn had a quick reply: “If you saw our bullpen last season, I apologize for that.” Enter Robertson, who followed Mariano Rivera as the Yankees’ closer and converted 39 of 44 save opportunities. For most of last season, the Sox lacked a trustworthy left-handed specialist. Now they have two — Duke, who arrives as a free agent from Milwaukee, and Jennings, acquired in a trade with the Marlins. The rest of the bullpen will be tweaked. Jake Petricka saved 14 games, but he’ll likely be a seventh-inning guy who needs to improve his control. Ditto for Daniel Webb, who walked 42 guys in 67 innings. Zach Putnam, Javy Guerra and Maikel Cleto showed flashes but not enough consistency. They are all right-handed. Eric Surkamp is the other lefty with a chance.

 

Middle Infield

Alexei Ramirez, 33, has been the Sox shortstop since 2009 and delivered his most consistent season, regaining his power while reducing his errors. Ramirez only sits once a month. Although he’s back with the team after being traded to the Angels in August, former first-round pick Gordon Beckham is now a reserve instead of the starting second baseman. That opens up the job for solid prospects Micah Johnson and Carlos Sanchez. Sanchez has a better glove and a decent bat. He does many things well, but nothing spectacularly. He can also fill in at short. Johnson stole 84 bases in the minors in 2013 and has a more lively bat. But he might need more seasoning.

 

Corners

Some questioned the Sox’ six-year, $68 million commitment to Abreu off workouts and video from Cuba. The questions stopped when he contributed 10 home runs and 32 RBIs before May 1. Abreu cooled slightly in the second half of the season but still finished with 36 and 107. Third baseman Conor Gillaspie showed improvement in his second big-league season, adding 37 points to his batting average (.282) and 31 to his on-base percentage (.336). But with only seven home runs, he lacks the power of a top corner infielder.

 

Outfield

The Sox finished last season convinced they had their leadoff man in center fielder Adam Eaton and a power hitter in right fielder Avisail Garcia. Left field was the hole that neither the now-departed Alejandro De Aza nor Dayan Viciedo filled. Enter Cabrera, who earned a three-year, $42 million contract because the Sox want him to hit between Eaton and Abreu. Cabrera can hit, get on base and advance runners. The offense and energy were upgraded whenever Eaton played because he contributed speed (36 doubles and triples) and the ability to get on base (.362). He made two trips to the disabled list and missed 39 games but still finished second on the team with 76 runs. A more significant injury stopped Garcia. He tore the labrum in his left shoulder while diving for a catch on April 9. He refused to accept the diagnosis that his season was over, rehabbing his way back on the field in August. Garcia struggled with a .244 average and 44 strikeouts in 172 at-bats. But he reported to the Venezuelan League and performed well, hitting five home runs in 34 games while batting .312.

 

Catching

The Sox are convinced that Tyler Flowers took a major step forward last season, contributing 15 home runs with 50 RBIs. Flowers, however, is prone to slumps and struck out in nearly 40 percent of his at-bats. Cooper, the pitching coach, says the staff loves Flowers’ ability to call the game and frame pitches.

 

DH/Bench

The White Sox are trying to fill their designated hitter hole with a left-handed hitter named Adam who played in Washington. But they hope they have more luck with LaRoche than they did with Adam Dunn, whose strikeouts and salary were a drain on the roster. LaRoche cannot match Dunn’s ability to walk or hit mammoth home runs, but he’s a more polished hitter. The Sox signed veteran infielder Emilio Bonifacio to a one-year deal in January. He is a candidate to platoon with Gillaspie at third base and could also see significant time at second and can fill in the outfield too. The White Sox were short-handed with backup catcher Adrian Nieto in the major leagues all season because he was acquired in the Rule 5 Draft. He figures to return to the minor leagues in 2015 with Geovany Soto, Rob Brantly and George Kottaras battling for the backup job.

 

Management

Robin Ventura faces multiple challenges in his fourth season as Ozzie Guillen’s replacement. His last two teams have finished fourth (2014) and fifth (2013), a combined 52 games below .500. Ventura escaped intense criticism because the teams lacked pitching and suffered injuries. Over the last two seasons, Hahn has shed the hefty contracts carried by Jake Peavy, Alex Rios and Dunn, while making the team younger and more dynamic. Attendance in 2014 was the lowest since 1999. Ventura’s low-key personality won’t stir much excitement with Joe Maddon working across town at Wrigley Field, so he needs to win to sell tickets.

 

Final Analysis

Hahn has added a left-handed power bat (LaRoche), a No. 2 hitter (Cabrera), a closer (Robertson), a right-handed starter (Samardzija) and two left-handed relievers (Duke and Jennings). The Sox could use another bat (catcher or third base) and another starter. But the Sox have added enough to push past Cleveland for third — and if all goes well, this team has the pieces to press the Tigers and Royals at the top of an intensely competitive AL Central.

 

2015 Prediction: 2nd in AL Central

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Adam Eaton (L)        Feisty leadoff man (.362 OBP) makes things happen but needs to avoid injuries.

LF       Melky Cabrera (S)    Seeking another table-setter for Jose Abreu, the Sox outbid the Mariners and others for Cabrera.

1B       Jose Abreu (R)         Finished in the top five in the AL in batting (.317, fifth), HRs (36, tied for third) and RBIs (107, fourth).

DH      Adam LaRoche (L) His solid power numbers (26 HRs, 92 RBIs) should improve at U.S. Cellular Field.

RF       Avisail Garcia (R)     Made a rapid recovery from labrum surgery in less than four months but needs to improve his .305 OBP.

SS       Alexei Ramirez (R) Mr. Durability has played at least 156 games for five straight seasons.

3B       Conor Gillaspie (L)             His .300 average against righties suggests he’d be a great candidate for a platoon situation.

C         Tyler Flowers (R)     Added glasses after the All-Star break and hit .280 in the second half after hitting .218 in the first half.

2B       Micah Johnson (L) Young speedster could be a factor, provided he can get on base and not be a defensive liability.

 

Bench

UT       Emilio Bonifacio (S)            Verstaile veteran could platoon with Gillaspie at third, fill in at second or in the outfield.

2B       Carlos Sanchez (S)             His glove gives him a chance to play regularly, especially if Johnson falters.

2B/3B Gordon Beckham (R)         Former first-round pick back with White Sox after brief stint with Angels following August trade.

C         Geovany Soto           2008 NL Rookie of the Year with the Cubs played just 24 games least season with Rangers and A’s.

 

Rotation

LH       Chris Sale     Third in the Cy Young voting, Sale delivered eight games with 10 strikeouts or more.

RH      Jeff Samardzija        Picked for the NL All-Star team before he was traded to Oakland. Struck out a combined 202 batters.

LH       Jose Quintana         Has quietly given the Sox back-to-back 200-inning seasons and cut his HRs allowed from 23 to 10.

LH       John Danks His velocity has not returned from 2012 shoulder surgery, but he managed to split 22 decisions in 2014.

RH      Hector Noesi            Discarded by the Mariners and Rangers, set career highs in wins (eight), innings (172.1), strikeouts (123).

 

Bullpen

RH      David Robertson (Closer) Saved 39 games in his first season as Mariano Rivera’s replacement with the Yankees.

RH      Jake Petricka            Saved 14 games as part of the Sox closer-by-committee but figures to move to the seventh inning.

RH      Zach Putnam            Rode his split-finger fastball to become the surprise success of the Sox bullpen.

RH      Daniel Webb            Possesses stuff to close, but he might have to return to the minors if he doesn’t improve his control.

RH      Javy Guerra   A former closer with the Dodgers, Guerra has the power arm to deliver strikeouts (38 in 46.1 IP).

LH       Zach Duke    Lowered his arm slot and brightened his career, striking out 74 in 58.2 innings in Milwaukee.

LH       Dan Jennings          Acquired from the Marlins, Jennings was tougher on righties (.265) than lefties (.299) last season.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Boos to cheers Two seasons ago White Sox fans booed Jeff Samardzija after he hit Paul Konerko in the face with a fastball. The boos were more vigorous than usual because Samardzija pitched for the Cubs. Now, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Samardzija will become the 175th player to play for both the Cubs and White Sox. Acquired in a trade with Oakland, Samardzija immediately endeared himself to Sox fans by telling general manager Rick Hahn that coming to the Sox was a “dream come true.” Samardzija grew up about 50 miles southeast of U.S. Cellular Field in Valparaiso, Ind. — as a White Sox fan.

Favorite son Adam LaRoche, a DH and first baseman, also has White Sox connections. LaRoche’s father, Dave, is a former relief pitcher who served as the Sox bullpen coach from 1989-91. Adam remembered his connection to the White Sox third baseman — current manager Robin Ventura. “Getting ready for a big-league game, you have 10- and 11-year-old punks hanging around, and he took the time to treat us the way he did and hang out with us …” LaRoche says. “I always had respect for that.”

Hawk’s on board The first response to the Sox’ aggressive re-tooling came in the broadcast booth. Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, the team’s long-time TV voice, is 73 and makes a four-hour round-trip commute from Granger, Ind. As the Sox stumbled to a fourth-place finish in the AL Central, Harrelson said he was considering shaving at least 40 games off his schedule to spend more time with his family. That thinking stopped after Hahn acquired Samardzija, LaRoche, closer David Robertson, reliever Zach Duke, outfield Melky Cabrera and others. “(The moves) sort of convinced me,” Harrelson told The Chicago Tribune. “Now with this thing, it’s going to be a fun year.”

Anniversary The White Sox plan to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their 2005 World Series victory over Houston during the summer. With the retirement of Paul Konerko, no players from that team remain with the Sox. In fact, only five members of the champs figure to remain in the majors — pitchers Mark Buehrle (Blue Jays), Brandon McCarty (Dodgers) and Neal Cotts (Brewers), catcher A.J. Pierzynski (Braves) and infielder Juan Uribe (Dodgers).

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Carlos Rodon, LHP

The Sox were surprised — and thrilled — when Rodon was available with the third pick of the 2014 draft. Projected as the lock first overall selection before the 2014 season, Rodon slipped behind two prep pitchers after a puzzling 6–7 junior season for NC State, which missed the NCAA Tournament after playing in the 2013 College World Series. The Sox were not concerned by Rodon’s college stats. They love his plus-fastball and wipeout slider and are working to improve his changeup. “We watched the progression over several years and thought he was the consensus best guy on the board,” says Doug Laumann, the White Sox amateur scouting director. Rodon struck out 38 in 24.2 innings at three levels of the Sox system, finishing his first professional season in Class AAA.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Carlos Rodon, LHP (22) The Sox did not promote Rodon to the majors in September, perhaps to be conservative starting his service time. He’s a Scott Boras client.

2. Micah Johnson, 2B (24) Hamstring issues cut Johnson’s stolen bases from 84 to 22 last season, but he hit .294 while splitting time in AA and AAA. His glove needs polish but he should plenty of chances to secure the starting job in spring training.

3. Tim Anderson, SS (21) Taken in the first round by the Sox in the 2013 draft, Anderson should start the season in AA, where he hit .364 in 10 games after batting .297 in High-A.

4. Frank Montas, RHP (22) Montas’ fastball was clocked at 102 mph in the Arizona Fall League.

5. Courtney Hawkins, LF (21) Asked to repeat High-A, Hawkins reduced his strikeouts and increased his power, finishing second in the Carolina League with 19 home runs.

6. Spencer Adams, RHP (18) The Sox were surprised he was available in the second round of the 2014 draft. Adams pitched like a first-rounder in the Arizona League.

7. Tyler Danish, RHP (20) Some compare his delivery to Jake Peavy’s motion. Drafted in the second round in 2013, Danish projects as a potential closer.

8. Jacob May, CF (23) May’s game features his glove and speed. He impressed last season with 31 doubles and 37 stolen bases in High-A.

9. Micker Adolfo, RF (18) The Sox invested $1.6 million in the Dominican native in 2013. They’ve been conservative with his development.

10. Trey Michalczewski, 3B (20) He drove in 70 runs in the South Atlantic League, but will need to curb his 140 strikeouts.

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1. Golden State Warriors (46-12)

Despite some recent displays of vulnerability, the Warriors are still the NBA’s top dog. The looming possibility of a healthy Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs is a fear, as the Thunder’s teeming athleticism has been an issue for Golden State. But everyone else in Western Conference — aside from potential Conference Finals opponent Memphis — appears eminently beatable.

 

2. Atlanta Hawks (47-12)

Like the Warriors, the Hawks have chilled a bit from their torrid winning pace of the first half, but they still haven’t looked any less than superior. The true test of their mettle will come Friday night, though, when LeBron and his streaking Cavaliers come to town.

 

3. Memphis Grizzlies (42-16)

Memphis remains the contrarian contender of the league, eschewing the pace-and-space trend of the game for a retro half-court version of NBA basketball that depends on plodding two-way execution. The scary thing about it for the rest of the West is that in the Grizzlies’ hands, this style is no nostalgia act — they’ve got enough conviction in their ways to make you bend to them.

 

4. Houston Rockets (41-18)

The trail to the MVP trophy is covered in clippings of James Harden’s beard. The Rockets are dark horse contenders because of him, but even more so because a healthy Dwight Howard looms, and because the Rockets now have perhaps the deepest assemblage of wing defenders in basketball.

 

5. Cleveland Cavaliers (37-24)

The hype about these Cavaliers no longer looks all that wasted, as Cleveland has emerged as clear contenders for the Eastern Conference title behind a rejuvenated, freight-train version of LeBron. But the playoffs will tell us whether their unseasoned pieces are ready for the limelight yet.

 

6. Portland Trail Blazers (39-19)

The Blazers have regained form and health after some expected winter malaise, and the addition of Arron Afflalo as sixth man makes them a considerably more potent playoff foe. The biggest question mark facing them: Whether LaMarcus Aldridge is going to pay for playing with an injured thumb.

 

7. Los Angeles Clippers (40-21)

Blake Griffin’s injury has been rich with the silver linings for the Clippers, with the best of them being the improved play of DeAndre Jordan. A monstrous February has him in the lead for Defensive Player of the Year considerations, and his rebounding numbers have been ridiculously high — he had four games with twenty-plus boards in the month.

 

8. Oklahoma City Thunder (33-27)

No Kevin Durant? No problem. Russell Westbrook’s MVP campaign has been aided by new Thunder guns in Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and D.J. Augustin, and OKC has become something rare: a low-seeded playoff team with real championship potential.

 

9. Toronto Raptors (38-22)

Given Kyle Lowry’s terrible February play, the Raptors are lucky to still be the two seed in the East. If he can turn it around in time for the playoffs, Toronto might be a sleeper team to make some postseason noise.

 

10. Chicago Bulls (37-23)

Injuries, injuries, injuries. What else? Injuries. The Bulls are singing a sad, familiar tune, but they can still potentially get Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler back and ready before playoff time. All hope is not lost.

 

11. Dallas Mavericks (40-22)

The decay of Rajon Rondo’s game has been an alarming sight in Dallas, where the Mavericks have been a worse team since they made the blockbuster trade. Once a stealth title contender, the Mavs are now fighting for mere respect.

 

12. San Antonio Spurs (36-23)

Obituaries have been written about Tim Duncan’s Spurs before. And, time and time again, they’ve been wrong. We shouldn’t fall for the same trick again… or should we? San Antonio looks tired, uninspired and done this season.

 

13. Washington Wizards (34-26)

Nothing is holding the Wizards back more than their coach. Randy Wittman lives in a nostalgic bubble, in which the three-point line and fast break hardly exist — and that might even be fine if he had different personnel. But John Wall is one of the best, quickest point guards in the game, and Washington needs a more modern leader to let them thrive, and to break out of their slump.

 

14. Milwaukee Bucks (32-27)

Formerly a dark horse playoff contender, Jason Kidd’s Bucks reset the program at the trade deadline by shipping out Brandon Knight for Michael Carter-Williams. Whether they actually raised their ceiling down the road, though, definitely remains to be seen.

 

15. Indiana Pacers (25-34)

The Pacers’ record doesn’t look good, but February saw them collect the best winning percentage in the league. And with George Hill back in the lineup and playing the best ball of his life with Paul George possibly around the corner, Indy looks like a surprise Eastern Conference playoff fighter.

 

16. Phoenix Suns (31-30)

The Suns’ shocking blowup at the trade deadline, instigated by an unhappy Goran Dragic, certainly could have turned out worse. Brandon Knight is a welcome addition to the backcourt with Eric Bledsoe, and they got him without giving up promising young frontcourt pieces in Markieff Morris and Alex Len. There’s an exciting road ahead for a Suns team that’s already scary.

 

17. New Orleans Pelicans (32-28)

The Pelicans have done surprisingly well without Anthony Davis in the lineup, but they’re still unlikely to make the playoffs with the Thunder ahead of them and surging. It’s time to start thinking about a crucial offseason in New Orleans.

 

18. Miami Heat (26-33)

Luck has hit the post-LeBron Heat hard. Just as they looked to be emerging as playoff contenders in the East when they traded for Goran Dragic and with Hassan Whiteside on the rise, Chris Bosh was sidelined for the season. Perhaps next year will bring better juju.

 

19. Charlotte Hornets (24-33)

Without top scorer Kemba Walker, the Hornets have survived with an extra helping of defense, and they’ve stayed in the hunt for the East’s final playoff spot. But if they get it, is it even worth anything more than a sweep at the hand of the Hawks?

 

20. Boston Celtics (23-34)

Isaiah Thomas is a neat fit for the Celtics, who badly needed the offense he’s more than happy to provide. Next to Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley — and under the tutelage of Brad Stevens — Thomas and Boston have reason to hope together.

 

21. Detroit Pistons (23-36)

The Pistons are contending for a playoff spot in the East this year, but their vision seems oriented more toward future seasons with the acquisition of Reggie Jackson. And news of Greg Monroe’s increased willingness to re-sign has to be encouraging to Stan Van Gundy.

 

22. Utah Jazz (23-35)

Sending Enes Kanter out has created more room for Frenchman Rudy Gobert to make an impression in, and that’s a good thing. Early signs have the lengthy center looking like one of the best rim-protectors in basketball.

 

23. Sacramento Kings (20-37)

George Karl’s new team has some interesting pieces for him to work with, aside from the obvious benefit of having DeMarcus Cousins around. Ben McLemore, in particular, should benefit from Karl’s presence — but we won’t see a demonstrable difference in anything Kings-wise until next season.

 

24. Brooklyn Nets (25-33)

The Nets are more stalled than any franchise in the league. They’re another team in the East’s sad race for the final playoff spot, but the mission from on high in Brooklyn has clearly shifted: It’s about getting back some poorly spent money, not about winning NBA games.

 

25. Denver Nuggets (20-39)

Brian Shaw is out the door, and it hardly seems like a solution for Denver. Shaw’s meandering, often embarrassing tenure probably did need to come to an end, but whoever takes his place is unlikely to have much better results with a sloppily constructed roster, in a very tough conference.

 

26. Orlando Magic (19-42)

What’s next for the Magic? Finding the right new coach, to make sense of their young, developing roster. The post-Jacque Vaughn offseason looms large in Orlando.

 

27. Minnesota Timberwolves (13-46)

Kevin Garnett’s return to Minny means some extra warm fuzzies, and maybe some advanced tutelage for what’s one of the most promising young cores in the game.

 

28. Philadelphia 76ers (13-47)

More of the same in Philly: losing, losing, and losing to go with some asset-based trickery from the front office. We’re still waiting to see if their long view comes to life on a basketball court.

 

29. Los Angeles Lakers (16-42)

Is there a plan in place for the stalled Lakers? It doesn’t look that way. They just have to hope free agents really like the weather, and want to play with Kobe.

 

30. New York Knicks (12-46)

Phil Jackson has a lot left to prove in New York. If there isn’t a sense of direction by this time next year — and if the team is still terrible — his skeptics will start seeming like sages.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

 

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The American League West is chalked full of A-list characters that make the cast of "Birdmanlook like a B-movie. King Felix’s kingdom in Seattle, MVP Mike Trout in Southern Cal, Billy Beane wheeling and dealing in the Bay Area, Prince, Yu and Choo revamping for a revolution in Texas, and a group of hard-swinging youngsters in Houston that are poised for takeoff make the AL West a must-watch division this summer.

 

Here are the top storylines to watch in the American League West in 2015.

 

 

Angels' Time Running Out?

Is it possible that a team can win its division by 10 games, have this generation’s best player, own the best record in baseball and be considered a disappointment? With a payroll that exceeded $154 million and a roster built for October, the 2014 Angels were absolutely disappointing. Expectations will only continue to grow in 2015 as high-priced players like Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson grow in age and fail to deliver consistently.

 

The Angels are on the hook for $189 million over the next seven years for Pujols, who just turned 35, and is coming off a “rebound year” in which he hit 45 points below his career batting average. Hamilton, impending suspension aside, hasn’t been worth the $25 million he’s due in 2015, hitting just .255/.316/.426 with 31 homers and an OPS of .741 since moving to Anaheim in '13. Wilson made $16 million in 2014 and is due another $18 million this season, has an ERA close to 3.90 and WHIP of 1.374. In his lone start in the AL Division Series against the Royals last October, Wilson didn’t make it out of the first frame, giving up three runs in just two-thirds of an inning.

 

The Halos will be looking for a bounce back at the plate from third baseman and former All-Star David Freese, who has yet to live up to his 2011 World Series heroics in California. Kole Calhoun put together a solid year in 2014, hitting 17 homers and 31 doubles batting mostly leadoff and newcomer Matt Joyce has the ability to add much-needed depth to Scioscia’s lineup in the DH spot.

 

The biggest riddle will be the re-vamped bullpen that features many new young arms and veteran closer Huston Street. The rotation should be a bright spot for Anaheim, especially if Wilson can keep it together for an entire summer and as well as the postseason. Being without budding ace Garret Richards until late April seems to be a minor hiccup for this staff that also includes veteran All-Star Jered Weaver, and up-and-coming righty Matt Shoemaker.

 

The biggest question for this Angels team is — how much longer does GM Jerry Dipoto have until it's time to move major contracts in order to replenish a fledging farm system and plan for the future? 2015 could be the last great opportunity Anaheim has before the World Series window is no more.

 

 

Seattle Reign

After an impressive 2014 that saw a 16-game swing from 2013, the Seattle Mariners are the team to watch in the AL West in 2015. Championship teams are built on superior pitching, reliable defense, and timely hitting. The Mariners have all three.

 

Pitching has been and will be the M’s trademark in 2015. Any rotation that features Felix Hernandez is going to be good, but throw in Hisashi Iwakuma as the number two, with a mix of young, live arms waiting in the wings like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton and that rotation becomes deadly. If lefty J.A. Happ can find his 2009 form that almost won him NL Rookie of the Year honors with the Phillies, this Mariners rotation could be untouchable.

 

The only thing more dangerous in the AL West than the M’s starting rotation could be their bullpen. The majority of the relief corps that allowed just 157 runs in 500 innings and had a combined ERA of 2.59 last season is back for 2015. Fernando Rodney, with his bow and arrow, crooked hat, and 48 saves from are back, along with even more young arms, including last year’s rookie studs Dominic Leone and Carson Smith, each of whom could be thrown in the mix as the season progresses.

 

The Mariners struggled last season at the plate, finishing 2014 ranked 27th in doubles, 22nd in total bases, 19th in RBIs, and 15th in homers. Signing Nelson Cruz, last season's home run leader, to a four-year deal surely will help remedy that issue. Asking Cruz to hit another 40 dingers in Safeco is a tall order, but adding his big bat will surely allow for better pitches for Robinson Cano and budding star third baseman Kyle Seager. Seager, a first time All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 2014, hit 27 doubles and 25 homers last season and was rewarded with a seven-year deal worth approximately $100 million.

 

The addition of Cruz and locking up Seager long term will definitely be helpful for the M’s in 2015, but several questions still linger for a team looking to take the next step. First baseman Logan Morrison finished 2014 on a nice pace, but in large part has been a shell of the player he was becoming in Miami.

 

Since his breakout 2009 season (25 2B, 23 HR, 72 RBI), Morrison hasn’t topped 20 doubles, 11 homers, or 38 RBIs, as injuries have been a nuisance throughout his career. Waiting in the wings in case Morrison’s struggles continue is last year’s minor league RBI champion, D.J. Peterson, who is expected to make the move to first this spring.

 

Seth Smith, who was acquired from the Padres, and Justin Ruggiano are expected to platoon in right field, as outfielders Dustin Ackley and Austin Jackson are aiming to rebound from lackluster 2014 showings.

 

If the outfield can’t produce to GM Jack Zduriencik’s liking, he has plenty of young pitchers to use as trade bait to find the needed help at the plate. Keep your eye on the Emerald City this summer as this could be the year the Mariners snap their 14-year postseason skid and march into October as favorites.

 

 

Houston’s Big Leap?

The Houston Astros might be the most entertaining team to watch in 2015. Yeah, they are going to swing and miss — a lot, but they are also going to hit a ton of home runs. Last season, the ‘Stros were truly feast or famine, ranking fourth in homers and second in strikeouts. Developing superstars Chris Carter, Jon Singleton, and George Springer combined for 430 strikeouts in 2014 — but they also combined for 158 homers with Springer and Singleton playing roughly half their seasons in The Show.

 

The Astros are looking to new manager A. J. Hinch to be a vital influence for their young sluggers, hoping he can teach patience at the plate. In addition to a new skipper, the Houston front office made moves to bring in several veteran lineup pieces, including Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus in the outfield and Luis Valbuena at third. Rasmus, Valbuena and Gattis have big pop capabilities, but are also rather strikeout-prone. All three should add a welcomed veteran presence in the clubhouse and on the lineup card for Hinch.

 

The Houston lineup wasn’t the only thing that received a minor facelift this offseason, as veteran hurlers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson were signed to bolster a bullpen that ranked dead last in ERA during 2014 (4.80). Neshek and Gregerson were nice pick ups, but the Astros still lack a true closer after missing out on David Robertson this past winter.

 

The rotation for the Astros could prove to be formidable with last season’s surprises in Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. Keuchel and McHugh both posted sub-3.00 ERAs in 2014, as McHugh struck out 157 batters in 154.2 innings of work, and Keuchel developed into the Astros' most reliable starter, throwing 200 innings. While the long-term jury is still deliberating on Keuchel and McHugh, the Astros are still without a true ace. But that ace could be within the Astros organization already in 2013 No. 1 overall pick, Mark Appel. Appel was inconsistent in his first full minor league season, but has reportedly already been turning heads at Astros camp.

 

Make no doubt about it, the future is bright in Houston, especially with pieces like reigning AL batting champion Jose Altuve manning second base long term, and a cabinet full of hard-swinging youngsters whose upside is almost infinite. The Astros are ready to start winning, and winning soon. While a postseason run this summer is a bit too ambitious, certainly a .500 record is well within reach.

 

- by Jake Rose

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Opening Day of the 2015 MLB season is less than a month away, which means fantasy baseball is just around the corner. For some leagues, drafts have already begun or will soon begin and Athlon Sports is here to help.

 

Besides providing our comprehensive Fantasy Baseball Big Board, we also have our positional rankings, courtesy of Bruce Herman. These are pulled straight from this year’s 2015 MLB Preview magazine, which is available at newsstands everywhere and for purchase online.

 

Rankings Key

A: FRANCHISE PLAYER — You need one to compete, two to win, three to dominate.

B: CAREER YEAR — Veteran with a strong possibility of delivering his best season.

C: SLEEPER — Could be a great acquisition at a price or draft slot below his true value.

D: ROADBLOCKED — Rank has been lowered because there is no current opportunity to play regularly.

E: DECLINER — Expect moderately to significantly worse stats than in 2014.

F: INJURY RISK — Has had a recent injury that could affect performance.

G: INVESTOR’S SPECIAL — Top prospect whose immediate impact may be minimal.

 

Batting stats are expressed AVG-HR-RBI-R-SB. Positional eligibility for specific players may vary depending on league, as well as other Web sites and resources.

 

2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Catchers

 

TIER 1

1. Buster Posey, Giants (A)

Posey has had two torrid Junes and frosty Julys in a row, with the latter separating him from the MVP form we saw in 2012. He’s one slumpbuster pill away from being that guy again (.336-24-103-78-1) instead of the still-formidable .303-18-80-66-1 of the last two years.

2. Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers

Lucroy’s incremental progression into the catching gentry has been in lockstep with his full-season SO/BB ratios: 3.4, 2.0, 1.4, 1.1. His 2014 OPS of .837 may have been short of Posey’s, but no other qualifying backstop was within 52 points of it — hence the abbreviated Tier 1.

 

TIER 2

3. Salvador Perez, Royals

Perez’s AVG was .298 on June 30, but just .230 afterwards (including playoffs). He wore down from catching 91% of KC’s games, saw his swing compromised (MLB-high 17.3 infield pop-up rate) and flailed at anything with seams. Homers are on pace to settle in the 20s.

4. Devin Mesoraco, Reds

Dusty Baker jacked him around, but Bryan Price trusted Mesoraco, whose response was to enact the largest OPS increase in the National League (min. 300 PAs), from .649 to .893. Led all catchers with 25 HRs, but the .273 AVG is at the upper end of his capability.

5. Yan Gomes, Indians

We pointed out that Gomes would be a Tier 2er if Carlos Santana changed positions. That came to pass, and Yan’s year was a dead ringer for Perez’s. His lack of judgment is equally as dicey, but then again, Brazilians love this dish called feijoada that contains pigs’ ears.

6. Yadier Molina, Cardinals

Molina wasn’t quite the usual automaton in 2014, as he dipped to his lowest OPS since 2010. His career highs of a .319 AVG, 22 HRs and 80 RBIs will likely remain so in perpetuity, but he’s a safe option at a position with few.

 

TIER 3

7. Russell Martin, Blue Jays

The .290 AVG — up from .234 the previous five seasons — was a quirk, but a move to Rogers Centre and better health should inch the homers back into the high teens. John Gibbons has him penciled in as a No. 2 hitter, though, which would menace his RBI chances.

8. Matt Wieters, Orioles (F)

Wieters was swatting 53 points above his career AVG when he was derailed by an elbow injury and eventually Tommy Johned. He’ll be lucky to hit .260 over a full season, but 20 homers and 70 RBIs are even bets, recognizing that his workload may be reduced.

9. Wilson Ramos, Nationals (B, F)

In Ramos’ case, the term “full season” is as meaningful as it was to “Osbournes Reloaded.” He’s been sidetracked by everything from gossamer hamstrings to being kidnapped. Based on his three-year numbers, a 500-AB season would look like this: .268-21-82-51-0.

10. Jason Castro, Astros

The position’s next great offensive hope fell into a quagmire of strikeouts (one every 3.4 PAs), precipitating a 54-point AVG fall to .222. Homers in the teens, RBIs in the 50s are plausible.

11. Travis d’Arnaud, Mets (B, F)

Quietly but dramatically pulled out of a halting career launch to go .271-7-22 in his final 54 games. Had bone chips removed from his elbow in October.

12. Brian McCann, Yankees

McCann is fortunate to be playing in one of the few ballparks that keeps him roto-relevant; 19 of his 23 homers were at Yankee Stadium. Acute pull proclivities beat down his AVG to a shift-stymied .232.

13. Miguel Montero, Cubs

Made a considerable regression from his first three 400-AB seasons (.287-16-78-64-1, on average) to .237-12-57-42-0 in 2013-14. Moves to Wrigley, where’s he’s done well.

14. Wilin Rosario, Rockies (F)

Like many catchers, Rosario can only tell a ball from a strike while wearing a mask. That, the burden of his defensive struggles, and the seeming inevitability of his departure from Coors threaten to eat into the lofty power ceiling he erected with 49 homers in 2012-13.

15. Mike Zunino, Mariners

First player in history to bat below .200 with at least 150 SOs and fewer than 20 BBs while hitting more than 20 HRs. The hooks on which to hang a fantasy hat are that last stat and his perceived potential.

 

TIER 4

18. John Jaso, Rays (F)

17. Derek Norris, Padres

16. Stephen Vogt, A’s (F)

19. Francisco Cervelli, Pirates (B)

20. Yasmani Grandal, Dodgers

21. Alex Avila, Tigers (F)

22. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Marlins

23. Tyler Flowers, White Sox

24. Nick Hundley, Rockies

25. Rene Rivera, Rays

 

TIER 5

26. Kurt Suzuki, Twins (E)

27. Josmil Pinto, Twins (C)

28. Chris Iannetta, Angels

29. Robinson Chirinos, Rangers

30. Christian Bethancourt, Braves

31. Blake Swihart, Red Sox (G)

32. Welington Castillo, Cubs (D)

33. Brayan Pena, Reds

34. Ryan Hanigan, Red Sox

35. A.J. Pierzynski, Braves

36. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies

37. Hank Conger, Astros (D)

38. Peter O’Brien, Diamondbacks (G)

39. Christian Vazquez, Red Sox

40. A.J. Ellis, Dodgers (E)

Teaser:
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Catcher
Post date: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2015-fantasy-baseball-rankings-designated-hitters
Body:

Opening Day of the 2015 MLB season is less than a month away, which means fantasy baseball is just around the corner. For some leagues, drafts have already begun or will soon begin and Athlon Sports is here to help.

 

Besides providing our comprehensive Fantasy Baseball Big Board, we also have our positional rankings, courtesy of Bruce Herman. These are pulled straight from this year’s 2015 MLB Preview magazine, which is available at newsstands everywhere and for purchase online.

 

Rankings Key

A: FRANCHISE PLAYER — You need one to compete, two to win, three to dominate.

B: CAREER YEAR — Veteran with a strong possibility of delivering his best season.

C: SLEEPER — Could be a great acquisition at a price or draft slot below his true value.

D: ROADBLOCKED — Rank has been lowered because there is no current opportunity to play regularly.

E: DECLINER — Expect moderately to significantly worse stats than in 2014.

F: INJURY RISK — Has had a recent injury that could affect performance.

G: INVESTOR’S SPECIAL — Top prospect whose immediate impact may be minimal.

 

Batting stats are expressed AVG-HR-RBI-R-SB. Positional eligibility for specific players may vary depending on league, as well as other Web sites and resources.

 

2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Designated Hitters

 

1. Victor Martinez, Tigers (A)

Martinez had an astonishing season for a two-tool player, striking out 40 fewer times than any other 30-HR hitter and becoming the third-oldest first-time member of the 30-HR/100-RBI club. Lightning won’t strike twice, but he’s still the class of the DHs. Also be wary of a slow start, as Martinez underwent surgery in early February to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.

 

2. Nelson Cruz, Mariners (E)

The reliable gravity of baseball will work against another 40-HR/108-RBI bombshell by Cruz. Or maybe pitchers will just figure out that his OPS on non-fastballs was .720. More realistic is his 2009-13 average of 27/81.

 

3. David Ortiz, Red Sox (E)

Ortiz pulled off the rare feat of hitting 35 jacks and driving in 100 runs after his 35th birthday. Papi is more of an all-or-nothing sort now, since shifts are throwing up obstacles.

 

4. Adam LaRoche, White Sox

LaRoche, underappreciated from a power standpoint, has come up with 20-plus HRs in all nine of his 120-game seasons. A five-year AVG of .252 takes the edge off, though.

 

5. Billy Butler, Athletics

The A’s 21st century version of Billy Ball (general manager Beane and designated hitter Butler) will be measured at least in part on how this provocative signing works out. Career OPS in KC: .849; in Oakland: .759.

 

6. Chris Carter, Astros

They don’t come more entertaining than Carter, who (a) led the majors in HRs/AB (.073) and was fourth in percentage of batted balls that were infield pops (16.0); (b) had stretches of 15 HRs in 31 games, as well as none in 18 and one in 19; and (c) set a record for fewest career RBIs with 85 or more HRs.

 

7. Kendrys Morales, Royals

Kauffman Stadium doesn’t seem like the best place to resurrect the career of a 32-year-old, high-flyball/high-strikeout power hitter, but Kendrys will give it a go.

 

8. Kennys Vargas, Twins

The current game’s largest human, Vargas was, in 2014, the most recent player with at least 43 hits and 31 RBIs in his first 32 major league contests. The previous two were Albert Pujols and Joe DiMaggio. (We’ll wait while you go clean out your ears with a Q-tip.)

 

9. Mitch Moreland, Rangers (F)

A .250-ish hitter whose 20-HR possibilities (if his surgically repaired ankle is OK) have some value in AL-only leagues.

 

10. Nick Swisher, Indians (F)

Bad year, worse knees. If he can snap back from the August surgeries on both, Swisher might salvage a 10th 20-HR season, but without many trimmings.

Teaser:
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Designated Hitters
Post date: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: Luke Donald, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2015-majors-no-27-luke-donald
Body:

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. 27: Luke Donald

Born: Dec. 7, 1977, Hemel Hempstead, England | Career PGA Tour Wins: 5 (7 on European Tour) | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 0 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $1,451,440 (72nd) World Ranking: 44

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Donald was once the number one player in the world and in 2011 was the first player to lead both the PGA and the European Tour money lists, but in spite of all the success he had and money he won, he met criticism for never having a chance to win a major late on Sunday. Perhaps it was that criticism, or maybe it was his desire to get longer off the tee, but Luke jettisoned his long-time teacher Pat Goss for Jason Dufner’s teacher Chuck Cook, but the changes never took, so Luke is back working on familiar ideas and as such should return to his winning ways. At his best he possesses one of the top three deadliest combinations of wedge play and putting of this era to go with an elegant golf swing that will make him a winner once again in 2015.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 41
Wins: 0

2014 Performance:
Masters - Cut
U.S. Open - Cut
British Open - T64
PGA Championship - T40

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T3 (2005)
U.S. Open - T8 (2013)
British Open - T5 (2009, 2012)
PGA Championship - T3 (2006)
Top-10 Finishes: 8
Top-25 Finishes: 15
Missed Cuts: 16

—Brandel Chamblee is lead analyst for the Golf Channel. Be sure to follow him @ChambleeBrandel on Twitter.

 

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.

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Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 17:11

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