Articles By Athlon Sports
March, the month when football’s fully asleep and baseball is still reaching for the alarm clock, is when the NBA really starts to take off.
James Harden seemed to understand that yesterday, delivering a sizziing, MVP-caliber performance as his Houston Rockets beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, 105-103, in a Texas overtime thriller on national television.
Through The Beard’s 35-point performance — including eight assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocks — there was a lot of his usual hypnotic power games in the half-court. But Harden, as he has all season, showed an extra amount of swagger in this game, like when he did this to LeBron:
And, oh yeah — he also made a little wine when he (accidentally?) kicked James in his grapes:
LeBron, for his part, was no scrub. He dropped 37 points and tallied eight of his own assists, to go with three blocks and three steals. But Houston got the win, and the glory, for the day. They also probably got a little ahead of themselves in the P.R. department, and celebrated the victory with this doozy of a tweet:
While both players are strong MVP candidates, Harden might have earned himself a lead over Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the pack with this iconic showing. While LeBron is still the best player in the game, no one has done as much for a contending team as Harden has for the Rockets this year. at 41-18, they’re the league’s fourth-best team despite Dwight Howard missing about half the season to injury.
A lot of that has to do with a much-improved defense, featuring versatile wing athletes like Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza and Josh Smith. But the Houston offense would be lost without Harden, their superstar, who has been the engine for virtually every possession he’s on the floor.
— John Wilmes
Just like that, they were gone — David Price, Andrew Friedman, Joe Maddon and Wil Myers, a fab four who, seems like yesterday, were considered the pillars of the franchise. The ace, the architect, the skipper, the hotshot — all departed in five months’ time as the Rays reeled from their first substandard season since 2007. And the upheaval didn’t stop there, as the double-play combo of Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar were shipped to Oakland in January.
GM Friedman’s departure to the Dodgers in October, followed by Maddon’s stunning contractual opt-out as manager 10 days later, altered the trajectory of the financially stressed franchise. Its fate now lies chiefly in the hands of former team president Matt Silverman and one-time Tampa Bay catcher Kevin Cash. Silverman, as GM/president of baseball operations, says he’s simply assuming the controls of a “well-oiled machine.” Tasked with sparking an on-field mechanism that sputtered and stalled last season is Cash, the majors’ youngest manager at 37. Lacking both impact bats and the speed to manufacture runs, he must find a way to slam it back into gear with one of the game’s five best rotations, a passable bullpen and an expectation that the defensive pendulum will swing back from dreadful to decent.
The Rays have used only 23 different starting pitchers since 2008 (10 fewer than any other AL team), and they’re well positioned to sustain that stability. Even with the ace (Price) dealt off the top of the deck, there’s talent in spades. Last spring’s Tommy John surgery for Matt Moore (who was being groomed to replace Price), plus the regression and subsequent trade of Jeremy Hellickson, further thinned the herd, but the vacuum has been filled. Alex Cobb is the new, and deserved, rotation-topper. Flinging “The Thing” — his splitter-changeup hybrid — he’s posted two sub-3.00 ERAs in a row. With more run support and without two extended trips to the DL, he’d be a household name by now. Quirky Chris Archer has the best stuff and highest ceiling on the staff. “I’m not even close to my potential,” is his accurate self-assessment despite a fine 3.32 ERA in 59 career starts. The Rays found themselves a ringer in the Price trade, landing Drew Smyly, who was the better pitcher after the deal — 3–1, 1.70 ERA to Price’s 4–4, 3.59. Jake Odorizzi ran hot and cold as rookie, though he reinforced expectations of a bright future. He’s a flyball pitcher who thrived at commodious Tropicana Field (2.62 ERA there, 6.32 on the road). Moore is expected back in June, by which time the club hopes that either Nate Karns or Alex Colome will have established himself firmly enough to pose a positive dilemma.
There was a shocking development in December, when it was revealed that closer Jake McGee had undergone surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow. There are a lot of bodies on the loose trying to replace him. The favorite is Brad Boxberger, who mixes a 93 mph fastball with a hard cutter and a 13 mph-slower change-up. Doing masterful bridge work in 2014, he would have set the AL record (min. 50 IP) for strikeouts per nine innings at 14.47 had not Andrew Miller averaged 0.4 more. McGee’s return circa May will give the Rays the lone reliever last year to have thrown 1,000 pitches at 95 mph-plus. The rest of the pen is a jumble to be sorted out in March. Aspirants include deposed closer Grant Balfour, three former Angels (Kevin Jepsen, Ernesto Frieri and Steve Geltz), two young hopefuls (Kirby Yates and Burch Smith), the loser of the No. 5 starter derby and a pair of LOOGYs (Jeff Beliveau and C.J. Riefenhauser).
The Rays were in full see-what-sticks-to-the-wall mode after signing Asdrubal Cabrera just before New Year’s and then trading Zobrist and Escobar to the A’s a few weeks later. Cabrera now is tasked with filling the big shoes of the steady and reliable Zobrist, whose multi-positional versatility also will be missed. A two-time All-Star, Tampa Bay is hoping there’s some more juice left in Cabrera’s bat, although his numbers over the past few seasons say otherwise. At shortstop, while being a high-maintenance guy who sometimes has motivational issues, Escobar provided good defense. Now the Rays will turn to a committee that includes Nick Franklin, jack-of-all-trades Logan Forysthe and star-crossed former No. 1 overall draft pick Tim Beckham as Escobar’s replacement. Clearly, there’s housekeeping to be done.
Third baseman Evan Longoria and first sacker James Loney are the team’s two best hitters and among the cream of their craft defensively. Although Longo is coming off his sketchiest season, he looks positively Ruthian in a lineup that includes no other player who hit more than 10 home runs last year. Loney is well defined as a reliable wellspring of hard-hit balls, few of which threaten fences. He was the only major league qualifier in 2014 who didn’t have a hitless streak of more than 10 at-bats.
Two years ago, Myers was supposed to be the missing mid-order thumper. He was found deficient in both thump and makeup, and moved in an 11-player blockbuster that yielded Steven Souza — he of the ridiculous diving catch for the final out of Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter. The late-to-blossom 25-year-old tore through four minor league levels the last two years, showing an array of average-to-plus tools — a potential 20-20 man if he makes enough contact. Souza and Kevin Kiermaier will most often staff the corners. The latter has few peers with the glove but batted only .224 in his last 39 games. Desmond Jennings starts in center for a fourth season, still showing no signs of being anything more than serviceable.
The Rays bit on Rene Rivera’s career year, getting him in the Myers deal after he compiled a .751 OPS (230 points above his previous career level) as a 30-year-old in San Diego. He’s excellent defensively, and whatever he hits will amount to more than the embarrassing black hole of 2014 co-starters Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan. Tampa Bay also acquired John Jaso in the Zobrist-Escobar deal with Oakland to not only provide a left-handed option behind the plate and insurance in case Rivera’s 2014 offensive showing was a fluke, but also to see plenty of time at DH.
The Rays’ DH options include Jaso, who is more than capable of getting on base (career OBP of .359), as well as excess corner outfielders David DeJesus and Brandon Guyer). DeJesus is more “pro” than productive, while Guyer is a tweener who does most things fairly well, but nothing well enough to play every day. The rest of the depth chart can be deciphered only after the expected trade or two, though it wouldn’t be a Rays bench without a cache of interchangeable parts.
A once-archetypal administration drifted away from its formula in recent years, misevaluating prospects, misappropriating salary by overpaying replacement-level vets and wasting a windfall of high draft picks. When the ship began taking on water in 2014, nine-year partners Friedman and Maddon bailed, replaced by Silverman and Cash, respectively. There will be no seismic shift in the team’s small-market business plan, but the Rays have lost ground. In the face of abysmal attendance and a freshly eviscerated payroll, it will be an intricate challenge for the young button-pushers to reclaim relevance and refurbish the farm system.
A roster with a lot of moving parts is usually an objective for the versatility-obsessed Rays, but the term took on a different meaning this past offseason as the team scrambled to fill holes without digging even more. The frenetic winter smelled like an effort to reposition the organization for the future while hoping for no worse than a zero-sum impact on the field. The offensive outage went unrectified, and the bullpen had been thinned by injury and inexperience. A last-place finish in the AL East would be less surprising than a first, but no other team has exactly cornered the division. Such parity could find Tampa Bay orbiting the .500 mark.
2015 Prediction: 5th in AL East
CF Desmond Jennings (R) One of two players in 2014 to toil 1,000 or more defensive innings without committing an error.
DH/C John Jaso (L) Only major-leaguer acquired in the Zobrist-Escobar deal with Oakland, carries a career OBP of .359.
3B Evan Longoria (R) Tied for the major league lead in OPS against curveballs at 1.135.
1B James Loney (L) Ranked third in the American League with a 26.6 line drive percentage.
LF Steven Souza (R) 20th player to be named International League MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season.
RF Kevin Kiermaier (L) Set a club record for most extra-base hits (12) in a player’s first 21 major league contests.
C Rene Rivera (R) In only 89 defensive games at catcher, threw out the second-most runners (33) in the NL with the Padres.
2B Asdrubal Cabrera (S) Leads active second basemen (200+ games) with a .994 fielding percentage.
SS Nick Franklin (S) Homered 12 times in his first 279 major league at-bats, but only once in 171 trips since.
OF David DeJesus (L) Owns career stolen base percentage of 51.2 — easily the lowest among active players with 100 attempts.
INF Logan Forsythe (R) Only player in 2014 to start at five positions and in all nine spots of the batting order.
OF Brandon Guyer (R) Despite just 259 at-bats, got down a team-leading seven of the Rays’ 20 bunt singles in 2014.
INF Tim Beckham (R) No. 1 overall pick in 2008 has eight career major-league plate appearances on his resume.
RH Alex Cobb Made 12 straight starts of two or fewer runs, matching the third-longest AL streak of the past century.
RH Chris Archer Allowed fewest HRs per 9 IP (0.55) ever by a qualifying Rays pitcher.
LH Drew Smyly Owns 6–0 ledger with 1.47 ERA in 20 career games versus other teams in the AL East.
RH Jake Odorizzi Led major league qualifiers with 4.21 pitches thrown per plate appearance and 18.0 per inning.
RH Nate Karns Tied for the strikeout lead (153) among all Triple-A pitchers in 2014.
RH Brad Boxberger (Closer) Established Tampa Bay record with 104 relief strikeouts last year.
RH Kevin Jepsen Finished second in the American League with 65 scoreless appearances in 2014.
RH Grant Balfour Has appeared in more games (448) than any other AL hurler since 2008.
RH Alex Colome Owns Rays-record 1.30 ERA in his first six major league starts (2013-14).
RH Ernesto Frieri Ranked 10th in the majors with 71 saves between May 23, 2012, and June 9, 2014.
LH Jeff Beliveau Limited left-handed hitters to six hits in 41 at-bats for a .146 average.
Beyond the Box Score
Cash is money New skipper Kevin Cash is no stranger to the World Series — at lower levels. He played in the College World Series for Florida State and as Tampa Northside’s second baseman in the Little League World Series. “It was like riding this gigantic wave,” he recalls of the latter. “You wish it lasted forever.”
Bad medicine Rays fans will miss Joe Maddon’s shenanigans — such as when he summoned a medicine man to expel the evil spirits from Tropicana Field last June. With the team having sunk to the worst record in baseball, Maddon brought in Bobby Henry — a Seminole Tribal elder known as The Rainmaker — to reverse the voodoo. “I don’t think it’s real bad,” was the 77-year-old’s verdict after patrolling the premises. But in fact, it got worse; the team dropped its next two games to make it 14 defeats in 15 tries. Maddon kept an open mind. “If it rains in the Trop I’ll be really impressed,” he told the Tampa Tribune. “That will be his best moment ever.”
Wrong number Desperate for runs in July, Maddon tried another gambit. Playing in Detroit on the third, the eccentric skipper fielded his “Tommy Tutone” lineup, ordering his batters by their defensive positions: 867-5309. Tampa Bay managed two hits in an 8–1 loss.
Roc star The Rays could have been much different over the past decade had Rocco Baldelli’s immensely promising career not been undermined by a disease that caused rapid-onset, severe fatigue. After two seasons of looking like a five-tool, potential 30-30 guy, the “Woonsocket Rocket” spent six more years mustering aborted comebacks. In 2015, after four years of serving the organization in various capacities, he will be — at 33 — the team’s first base coach.
Gag order There’s an ongoing debate among baseball’s number-crunchers as to whether “clutch” hitting really exists. Real or random, it did not exist in Tampa Bay last year. The Rays led the majors with 1,193 runners left on base, 13 of whom were stranded in scoring position as the potential tying/winning run in the ninth inning of home games. They scored a runner from third base with less than two outs less than half the time, and hit the fewest home runs (eight) in “close-and-late” situations by any team in 22 years.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Casey Gillaspie, 1B
The Rays attempted to halt a long string of draft whiffs by selecting a presumably safe college bat in Gillaspie at 20th overall. The brother of Conor Gillaspie, he’s a different animal than the contact-focused White Sox third baseman. Far more oriented toward the home run and the walk, he ranked fifth in the NCAA with 15 of the former and led with 58 of the latter for Wichita State in 2014. “He’s made the way you want a big-leaguer to be made,” says scouting director R.J. Harrison. Gillaspie made a sound first impression at short-season Hudson Valley with seven homers and 42 walks in 71 games, but his .262 batting average and 65 strikeouts illumined the holes in his swing. The switch-hitter is expected to be stationed at an A-ball outpost this season.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Daniel Robertson, SS (21) The key piece in the Ben Zobirst-Yunel Escobar trade with Oakland, Robertson immediately becomes Rays’ No. 1 prospect. At Class A Stockton last season, he hit .310 with 15 homers and 60 RBIs.
2. Willy Adames, SS (19) By the time the Rays got him in the David Price trade, Adames had surfaced as an elite prospect. “The capability to play in an All-Star Game,” said Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski.
3. Steven Souza, OF (25) Shredded Triple-A pitching with an 1.022 OPS last year while stealing 26 bases and playing plus defense.
4. Adrian Rondon, SS (16) The most highly ranked (No. 1 in 2014 by some accounts) and most expensive international prospect club has ever signed. His ceiling: Hanley Ramirez with a better glove.
5. Justin O’Conner, C (23) Might have the best arm strength/pop time parlay in the minors. Bat caught up last year (35 doubles in 399 ABs), but there’s too much swing-and-miss to hit for average.
6. Brent Honeywell, RHP (20) Drafted 72nd out of a junior college in 2014. Used a mid-90s fastball, a screwball, deception and a head for his trade to flummox rookie league hitters.
7. Alex Colome, RHP (26) Stuff plays at the upper end of the system, but has yet to prove he has the fastball command and durability to start every fifth day. May make the staff as a reliever.
8. Casey Gillaspie, 1B (22) One of only three college hitters the club coveted with its No. 1 pick last summer. Has plus power; would have led the NCAA Division I in OBP if HBPs didn’t count.
9. Andrew Velazquez, 2B (20) Set minor league record by reaching base in 74 straight games before arriving from Arizona in the Jeremy Hellickson deal.
10. Ryan Brett, 2B (23) Pedroia-like size and bat-to-ball skills, and is faster, but with nowhere near the strike zone discrimination or hands.
When the Kansas City Royals reached the playoffs last season after a 29-year absence, it put Toronto on the clock. The Jays’ postseason drought, at 21 years, is now the longest in the four major North American sports leagues. The Jays acted aggressively to stop it two years ago, without success, but this winter they doubled down on their core, adding to it with a five-year deal for catcher Russell Martin and an inspired trade for All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson. There’s no excuse for the Blue Jays to miss the party again.
The Blue Jays’ rotation was expected to be a weakness last season, but it turned out to be a source of stability. They do not have a true ace, but they had five starters who earned at least 11 victories apiece, and by trading J.A. Happ to Seattle in December, they opened a spot for top prospect Aaron Sanchez. In Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison and Sanchez, they seem to have found long-term building blocks, with Daniel Norris coming up right behind. The Blue Jays valued their young pitchers so highly that they passed on the chance to trade them for more obvious veteran upgrades at the trading deadline. As it turns out, they need those pitchers now, to slot in behind — or eventually, perhaps, in front of — veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. Dickey is the majors’ reigning knuckleball master, and while he’s unlikely ever to repeat his 2012 Cy Young Award season with the Mets, he’s still durable at 40, and nobody likes to face him. Buehrle, 36, is the epitome of consistency; he started fast last season, but by the end, his stats wound up where they always do.
Toronto had one of the worst bullpens in the majors last season, with a 4.09 ERA that ranked 25th in the major leagues. The left side, though, is fairly settled, with Aaron Loup and former All-Star Brett Cecil, who averaged 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings last season. The right side is less settled, with Todd Redmond and Marco Estrada capable of giving length, although Estrada is prone to surrendering the long ball. Manager John Gibbons said in December that righty Steve Delabar, like Cecil a 2013 All-Star, remained in the mix despite spending much of last season back in the minors. Chad Jenkins pitches to contact, a risky approach, but managed a 2.56 ERA in 21 games last season.
Jose Reyes returns for his third season with the Jays, and while he’ll never be as electric as he was for the Mets, he remains, at 31, one of the game’s best shortstops. Reyes had a .726 OPS last season, the highest of all qualifying AL shortstops. Ryan Goins is in position to take over at second base, but his lackluster 2014 major league performance (.188 average) gives an opportunity to Devon Travis, 24, who came over from the Tigers. The Blue Jays think highly of Travis, who had an .817 OPS at Class AA Erie. Veteran Maicer Izturis, coming off knee surgery, also has a shot.
It’s no coincidence that Toronto’s season turned when Edwin Encarnacion hurt his right quadriceps on July 5. The Blue Jays were just a half-game out of first then, and when Encarnacion returned on Aug. 15, they were seven-and-a-half back. Encarnacion is perhaps the majors’ most obscure elite hitter, a monster power threat who also finds a way to put the bat on the ball consistently in an era of high strikeouts. He split his time last season between DH and first base, where he started 78 games. With Adam Lind gone now, Encarnacion will share time with Justin Smoak, the former Seattle first baseman who gets another chance to harness the power that never really broke out with the Mariners. Across the diamond is Donaldson, a skilled defender with power who replaces the talented but injury-prone Brett Lawrie in a trade with the A’s. The Jays have four years of contractual control over Donaldson, who is 29 and blossomed as a hitter with the A’s after studying film of the Jays’ Jose Bautista. Donaldson’s WAR has ranked second only to Mike Trout over the last two seasons.
The Blue Jays swallowed hard in February 2011 when they committed $64 million through 2015 (plus a 2016 option) to Bautista, who had failed to distinguish himself with four other teams and had enjoyed just one strong season. Now, the deal looks like a steal, because Bautista has become a consistent offensive machine, with the combination of power and plate discipline that every team craves. His modest (for a superstar) salary has also made it easier for the Blue Jays to add around him, although mostly in areas other than the outfield. Toronto plans to try the untested Dalton Pompey in center. Pompey, who rocketed from Class A to the big leagues last season, will be expected to show excellent range in center field. Pompey was expected to complement Michael Saunders, who was acquired in a left trade from Seattle. But Saunders tore cartilage in his knee after stepping on a sprinkler head shagging fly balls in spring training and is expected to miss at the first few weeks of the season, at minimum. Following Saunders' injury, the Blue Jays signed Dayan Viciedo, who hit 21 home runs with the White Sox last season, as insurance.
The Blue Jays struck early in free agency, elbowing out the Dodgers and the Cubs for the services of Martin, who agreed to a five-year, $82 million contract to play in his home country. The Blue Jays’ marketing department loves the fact that Martin is Canadian, but for the baseball operations folks, the move was all about the player. The Jays targeted Martin for his skills behind the plate — framing borderline pitches, blocking balls in the dirt — but also for his leadership, which will be pivotal. The Jays believe Martin has gotten back to the hitter he was in his early years with the Dodgers, with a swing that sprays balls to all fields and refined plate discipline that led to a .402 on-base percentage last season. Josh Thole is a backup with the important asset of familiarity with Dickey’s knuckleball.
Dioner Navarro, displaced at catcher, could fit as the primary DH as a switch-hitter who batted .274 last season and had a .365 OBP for the Cubs in 2012. The Blue Jays could also use Smoak, after claiming him on waivers, non-tendering him but then quickly re-signing him for $1 million. Izturis, who can play second, short and third, was limited to 11 games in 2014 due to injury. Kevin Pillar, who hit .323 in the minors last year, could be the fourth outfielder.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos enters his sixth season with the Blue Jays, and fans can’t question his desire to build a winner. Anthopoulos has used a solid farm system to build a team that is relevant again, but he kept an eye on the future last summer by holding onto his best prospects. The signing of Martin shows that Anthopoulos still believes in this core, and the trade for Donaldson was another go-for-it move that could help the Jays this year and beyond. Gibbons, a popular players’ manager, returns for the third season of his second dugout tour with the team. Gibbons has always had a close bond with Anthopoulos, but without a contract for 2016, it would be good for his job security to guide an improved roster to the playoffs.
With most teams struggling to score these days, the Blue Jays’ deep and powerful offense should set them apart from the pack. They improved it over the winter while managing to strengthen their shaky defense in several spots. The Jays’ staff lacks many in-their-prime performers, but the rotation has some pitchers with youthful promise. If one or two break out as stars, and the bullpen does its job, it’s reasonable to expect the Blue Jays’ first AL East championship since 1993.
2015 Prediction: 2nd in AL East (Wild Card)
SS Jose Reyes (S) Led big-league shortstops in hits (175) and times on base (214).
C Russell Martin (R) Blue Jays love his leadership, pitch-framing and all-fields swing.
RF Jose Bautista (R) Only one active player, Alex Rios, has more career games without a postseason appearance.
1B Edwin Encarnacion (R) Only player to hit 30 homers while striking out fewer than 85 times in each of last two seasons.
3B Josh Donaldson (R) Top 10 in MVP voting two years in a row; he brings power and defense to Jays.
DH Justin Smoak (L) For a player with one tool, power, his slugging percentage was a meager .339 for Seattle in 2014.
LF Michael Saunders (L) Prone to injury, but hit 19 homers with 21 steals as recently as 2012.
2B Ryan Goins (L) Just one error in 241 chances last season, but didn’t hit at all.
CF Dalton Pompey (S) Jays hope to ease in the speedy Ontario native in the No. 9 spot in the order.
C Dioner Navarro (S) Hit .301 in DH role for Jays last season; will see time there if not traded.
C Josh Thole (L) Adept at catching R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball, and he hit a solid .248.
2B Devon Travis (R) Turns 24 in spring, so time is right to bring power/speed combo to majors.
INF Maicer Izturis (S) Missed nearly all season after surgery to repair torn ligament in left knee.
OF Kevin Pillar (R) May compete with Pompey for the job in center, though he’s spent most of his big-league time in left.
RH R.A. Dickey Veteran knuckleballer went 6.0 innings or more in 19 of last 20 starts.
LH Mark Buehrle Durable southpaw is the fastest-working pitcher in MLB at 17.3 seconds between pitches.
RH Marcus Stroman Allowed a 53.8 percent ground ball rate and just six home runs in 20 starts.
RH Drew Hutchison Only American League pitcher to beat division-champ Orioles three times.
RH Aaron Sanchez Will get a chance to start, but Jays know he can be an asset in pen, too.
LH Brett Cecil (Closer) Ended season with longest scoreless streak of any AL pitcher (19.2 IP).
LH Aaron Loup Led the major leagues in inherited runners, with 66, and stranded 51.
RH Steve Delabar The 2013 All-Star struggled with control and split season between Class AAA and majors.
RH Todd Redmond His 75 innings led all Jays who pitched only in relief last season.
RH Chad Jenkins Fractured his right hand during batting practice in September.
RH Marco Estrada Prone to the home run ball; profiles as long man/spot starter/trade bait.
Beyond the Box Score
Wins, but no playoffs If you think it’s rare for a non-playoff team to have five pitchers with double-digit victories, you’re correct. The 2014 Blue Jays became the first team with that dubious distinction since the 2006 Chicago White Sox. The sting couldn’t have felt quite so bad for that Sox team, because it had won the World Series the year before.
Oh, Canada! The Blue Jays announced their signing of Russell Martin with a press release written in English and French. Martin, of course, went to high school in Montreal and will have broad national appeal to Blue Jays fans. And he’s not alone — Michael Saunders was acquired to play left field, and Dalton Pompey has a chance to win the job in center this year, which would give the Jays by far their most Canadian-flavored lineup ever. Other Canadians who have played for the team include Matt Stairs, Paul Quantrill, Corey Koskie, Rob Ducey and the departed Brett Lawrie.
The shortstop of steel Jose Reyes wears a cutoff Superman T-shirt under his uniform most games, and he showed up last season with a more permanent salute to his favorite superhero: a Superman logo tattooed high up on his chest, right at the base of his neck. The tattoo is in full color — red S, yellow background, red border. Reyes has also been known to wear Batman and Spider-Man gear if the mood strikes.
Buehrle and Cy Mark Buehrle is known for consistency, durability and control. He’s never won a Cy Young Award (in fact, he’s received votes in only one season, 2005), but he has a streak that is almost unmatched in baseball history. Buehrle has gone 14 seasons in a row with more than 200 innings and 61 walks or fewer. The only other pitcher in history with a streak that comes close to those criteria is Cy Young himself, who did it from 1897-1909.
New hitting coach After losing Kevin Seitzer to the Braves, the Blue Jays hired another 1980s third baseman, Brook Jacoby, to be their hitting coach. Jacoby, who made two All-Star teams for Cleveland, was the Reds’ hitting coach from 2007-13 and a minor league instructor for the Rangers in 2014. He is the Jays’ fourth hitting coach in four years and says, “I’m not going to try to make a big splash in the water. Just let the guys know that I’m here for them.”
2014 Top Draft Pick
Jeff Hoffman, RHP
Hoffman’s career at East Carolina ended last spring when he needed Tommy John surgery, but his confidence remained intact. “Whatever team takes the so-called risk and drafts me is going to get the best player in the draft,” he told the New York Times, a few days before Toronto scooped up him up with the ninth overall pick. A 6’4” righthander, he has a drop-and-drive delivery and profiles as a top-of-the-rotation starter. Hoffman’s fastball has touched 98, and he adds a heavy sinker, a decent slider and improving changeup. The surgery kept him out last summer, but he was throwing off flat ground in the fall and should be back in action by midseason. Hoffman would seem to be on track to make an impact in Toronto in 2016.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Daniel Norris, LHP (21) He had a 5.40 career ERA before a breakout 2014 that ended in Toronto. In the minors, he struck out nearly 12 per nine innings with mid-90s fastball and sharp slider.
2. Aaron Sanchez, RHP (22) Offered tantalizing glimpse of the future with strong bullpen cameo for Jays (1.09 ERA in 33 innings), but he’s a starter for the long term.
3. Dalton Pompey, OF (22) Has made a dramatic improvement in recent seasons and will have a chance to play every day in 2015.
4. Roberto Osuna, RHP (20) Returned to action last summer after Tommy John surgery; Jays hope he regains mid-90s fastball and feel for changeup.
5. Jeff Hoffman, RHP (22) Dominated in the Cape Cod League before his junior season at East Carolina. Still went No. 9 overall after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
6. Max Pentecost, C (22) Drafted two slots behind Hoffman in the first round in 2014; hit over .300 in two minor league stops but needed labrum surgery in October.
7. Franklin Barreto, SS (19) Jays gave him a $1.45 million bonus out of Venezuela in 2012, and he hit .311 with 29 steals at short-season Vancouver last year.
8. Devon Travis, 2B (24) Acquired from Detroit for Anthony Gose, he’s a good contact hitter with some power and speed who could easily win starting job at second base.
9. Richard Urena, SS (19) Toolsy athlete and lefty bat who hit .318 for rookie-level Bluefield last season.
10. Miguel Castro, RHP (20) Generates strikeouts and groundballs consistently, and will work on secondary pitches at High-A this season.
Fear not baseball fans — Sunshine and warmer weather are on their way, and spring training is knocking on Old Man Winter’s door. Thankfully, it is almost time for baseball, as camps are in full gear in Arizona and Florida.
Many players are getting acclimated to new spring training surroundings, as these past few months proved to be busy for general managers, agents and players alike. Between blockbuster trades and free agents signing robust contracts with new teams, there has been no lack of player movement this offseason.
Lucky for you, Athlon Sports has kept a close watch on the MLB Hot Stove while you’ve been shoveling snow. So get your pencils and scorebooks ready as we list the Five American League Players on New Teams to Watch in 2015.
Hanley Ramirez, OF, Boston Red Sox
Yes, you read that correctly — Hanley Ramirez, outfielder. Fenway Park’s Green Monster in left field is now Ramirez’s responsibility, which is somewhat perplexing since Hanley has never played outfield — ever. The Boston Globe reports that Hanley has bulked up to 240 pounds, which seems excessive for his slender 6’2 frame, but whatever keeps Ramirez in the lineup will certainly be welcomed by the Red Sox.
Ramirez has struggled to stay healthy in recent years, playing in over 150 games just once in the past four seasons. When Ramirez has been healthy, he’s been outstanding. In just 86 games in 2013, Ramirez hit .345/.402/.638 with 20 homers and 25 doubles. With the Marlins in 2009, Hanley was second in MVP voting as he led the NL in batting, posting a robust .342/.410/.543 slash line, hitting 24 homers, 42 doubles, with 106 RBIs.
The Red Sox have made Ramirez a key ingredient in their rebuild after their 2014 first-to-worst slide, signing the Dominican native to a four-year, $88 million contract. Ramirez is just one the fresh faces in Boston that also includes new additions Pablo Sandoval, Wade Miley and Rick Porcello. The Sox hope that with Ramirez’s new, fine-tuned figure, he’s able to return to the player he was for the Marlins, a three-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, MVP candidate, and 2006 NL Rookie of the Year.
If HanRam can remain fit for duty, look for him to park a few long balls over the Monster in left field — and then have no clue how to play the giant green wall on defense.
Nelson Cruz, DH/OF, Seattle Mariners
Cruz was the steal of last winter when he signed a one-year deal with the Orioles for $8 million. Cruz went on to have a career year, hitting 40 homers, 32 doubles, and knocking in 108, as the O’s clinched their first AL East title since 1997.
Cruz was seen to be a risky signing in 2014 as he was coming off his suspension for his connection with the Biogenesis scandal. Since the suspension, Cruz has shown contrition and done well for himself, signing a four-year, $57 million dollar free-agent contract with the Mariners this winter. The M’s desperately needed a bat in a lineup that ranked 27th in doubles, 19th in runs scored, 19th in RBIs, and 15th in home runs in 2014.
Cruz spent a lot of his time in Texas (2006-13) splitting time between corner outfield spots and DH. Similar to his time in Baltimore, Cruz won’t be playing in the field. Cruz’ job will be simple, drive in runs and hit the ball out of Safeco Field — no easy task.
The Mariners know what they are getting in Cruz, as his career numbers have been generally consistent over his 10-year career. The question is how will the rest of Seattle’s lineup develop around Cruz’ big bat? The addition of Cruz could very easily help All-Star third baseman Kyle Seager reach yet another level and lead to more pitches for Robinson Cano to crush into the short porch in right field. Our eyes will be locked on the Emerald City this summer as the Mariners push for their first AL West crown since 2001.
Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Detroit Tigers
The last nine months have been a wild ride for Cespedes.
Last July, Cespedes won his second straight Home Run Derby crown and was becoming a household name for his cannon throws from left field, gunning down runners at the plate from the depths of O.co Coliseum. On the July 31 trade deadline, A’s GM Billy Beane shocked the baseball world by trading the Cuban outfielder to the Red Sox for Jon Lester — typical Beane.
Cespedes put up marginal numbers in Boston, including a .240/.296/.423 slash line and only five homers and 33 RBIs in 51 games, making him expendable during the Red Sox' facelift this past winter. On Dec. 11, Red Sox GM Ben Cherington pulled the trigger on a trade with the Tigers, landing starting pitcher Rick Porcello and sending Cespedes to Motown.
Cespedes is now part of a Tigers lineup that features aging stars Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera, both of whom are recovering from offseason surgery, a starting rotation that lost Max Scherzer and Porcello, and also is banking on Justin Verlander to return to 2011 form, and a Tigers bullpen that ranked 27th in ERA in 2014.
This 2015 Tigers team is not the same squad that won four straight AL Central titles. Unless names like Nick Castellanos, Anthony Gose, and J.D. Martinez can produce, the Tigers will have a hard time competing with the likes of the Royals and White Sox later in the summer. If for some reason the Tigers are once again in the postseason hunt come September, Cespedes will be a major reason why.
Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Chicago White Sox
If you are still debating whether or not Samardzija should have picked the NFL over playing baseball, you've missed his transition into a certifiable top of the rotation hurler.
The righthander known as Shark was traded to the A’s last July along with fellow Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel, as part of Billy Beane’s effort to make a deep October run. The trade between Oakland and the Cubs sent A’s top prospect and Athlon’s No. 4 overall prospect, Addison Russell, to the Windy City.
Since Theo Epstein & Co. took over the Cubs' front office four seasons ago, there was always a disconnect between Samardzija and the brass. Shark wanted a long-term deal worth top-end money, while the Cubs liked Samardzija but were hesitant to sign him long term.
After being traded to Oakland, Samardzija pitched admirably. In 16 starts for the A's, Samardzija had a 3.14 ERA with 99 strikeouts and a 0.931 WHIP. Beane, in his constant state of wheeling and dealing, dealt Samardzija back to the place where his major-league career began — Chicago. But this time, Shark would be pitching on the Southside. Samardzija became an integral part of Chicago’s Executive VP/President of Baseball Operations, Kenny Williams’, personal episode of Extreme Makeover: White Sox Edition.
Samardzija is now featured at the top of a Sox staff that includes ace lefty stud Chris Sale and newly acquired closer David Robertson, along with new faces in the field: Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche to complement Cuban sensation Jose Abreu. The White Sox are now in prime position to overthrow the Tigers as kings of the AL Central and Shark is a big reason why.
Didi Gregorius, SS, New York Yankees
The one person in all the world that is genuinely excited about Alex Rodriguez back in Yankee pinstripes is Didi Gregorius. You might be asking yourself — who is Didi Gregorius?
And why is he happy A-Rod is back?
Gregorius is the shortstop replacing Derek Jeter, and he is really, really happy A-Rod is back. Rodriguez’s return means less spotlight on the Captain’s replacement as he gets antiquated to baseball’s biggest stage, Yankee Stadium — which probably makes skipper Joe Girardi happy too.
Once all the Rodriguez hoopla dies down, all eyes in New York will be on Gregorius. Every at-bat, every ground ball to short, every strikeout, error, and base hit will be compared to that of Jeter. It’s unfair, but also inevitable.
Gregorius was originally signed by the Reds in 2007 as a free agent from Amsterdam — yes, baseball is played in the Netherlands, too. He spent the previous two seasons in the Diamondbacks' organization where he appeared in 183 games. Gregorius’ bat is a work in progress. His best year was in 2013 where he appeared in 108 games, batting .256/.313/.366 with 16 doubles, 28 RBIs, 7 HRs, and 37 walks. Defensively, Gregorius is considered average to below average in terms of defensive runs saved or prevented — but that’s okay, so was Derek Jeter.
What Gregorius does have going for him (maybe), is his age and he is inexpensive. At 26, he is four years younger than the second-youngest player expected to be a regular for the Yanks (Chase Headley) and is making approximately $500K this season. Maybe that is enough to save him from the New York media on a Yankee team that is a long shot to make the postseason — but probably not.
Welcome to the Bronx Zoo, Didi.
- by Jake Rose
Now Van Gundy is all but retired from coaching, working color commentary for ESPN and ABC. But his ire for Chicago’s basketball club doesn’t seem to have changed as his job has.
Among swirling rumors of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau — a former assistant to Van Gundy with the Knicks and Houston Rockets — potentially being on the hot seat, JVG let loose on the Bulls’ front office on a January 23, ESPN telecast of a Bulls game against the Dallas Mavericks.
“I think right now, it’s almost criminal … what [Thibodeau is] having to endure with some of the fringe media,” Van Gundy said. “Attacking his job status, attacking his personality. This isn’t new to Chicago Bulls basketball, all the way back to Phil Jackson. The team has publicly supported their coach while privately, oftentimes, undermining that same person. You saw it with Vinny Del Negro, Scott Skiles. Think about it, they ran Phil Jackson out after winning all those championships.
“Listen, I read every Chicago story and there is no doubt that the Bulls organization has the media, with a few exceptions, in their hip pocket. And for whatever reason, they have taken their sights on Thibodeau when all he’s done is deliver greatness here in his five years.”
Van Gundy has been told to cool it by Thibodeau’s agent, among others, but he’s apparently not getting the message. During the Bulls’ 98-86 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on ABC yesterday, Jeff poured some salt in Bulls general manager John Paxson’s wounds.
"John was really mad at me,” Van Gundy said. “I mean, it's not like I traded LaMarcus Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas.”
Cruelly bringing up bad moves of management past? This sounds eerily similar to the way our president recently ripped on Michael Jordan…
The Yankees committed almost $500 million to new players before 2014, yet their record actually got worse. Their first multi-year playoff drought of the wild card era seems likely to stretch to three years in 2015. The Yankees, as usual, have the flashy names and the gaudy payroll, but they again won’t have the elite-level production to go with it. Almost all of their important players are over 30, making them prone to injury and increasingly less likely to rediscover their youthful primes all at once.
The Yankees have two starters on contracts worth more than $150 million, and neither is a safe bet to hold up all season. CC Sabathia, 34, made only eight starts last season because of knee injuries, and it could be that the traits that made him such a highly respected ace — always taking the ball, willing himself deep into games — have irreparably worn him down. With Masahiro Tanaka, it’s all a matter of his elbow: Tanaka, 26, was every bit as good as advertised last season, until a partial UCL tear cost him most of the second half. Uncertainty clouds his immediate future. Michael Pineda has been prone to injury, but with his lethal slider, he’s overpowering when available. As the Yankees await Ivan Nova’s return from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent last April, they will see what they get from Nathan Eovaldi, the hard-throwing righthander they acquired from Miami in December. Eovaldi’s high-octane fastballs have yet to match his production, but he’s only 25 and worth a long look. The veteran Chris Capuano is his opposite in every way: a lefthander who relies on guile.
The Yankees have spent the last few years trying to hit Andrew Miller in the American League East, and they gave up on solving him when they signed the former first-round pick to a four-year, $36 million contract. It was a smart way for the Yankees to use their payroll advantage on a mid-level star who carries less risk but can still make a major impact. Miller and All-Star Dellin Betances both struck out over 100 hitters last season and will form a nasty bullpen endgame for the Yankees, no matter which one ultimately ends up as the closer. Justin Wilson, a hard-throwing lefty with control issues, joins the middle relief corps with right-handed strikeout specialists David Carpenter Adam Warren and versatile long man Esmil Rogers. The swing-and-miss stuff of the Yankees’ relievers will make the bullpen the team’s strength.
The good thing about Derek Jeter’s replacement at shortstop, Didi Gregorius, is that he is only 25 years old and is a high-impact defender with a strong arm and the kind of range Jeter never had. The bad thing is that he’s already with his third team and could not stick as the starter for the woeful 2014 Diamondbacks. Gregorius is a left-handed hitter with decent pop, but he struggles to hit lefties and projects to be, at best, a .240-.250 hitter. Brendan Ryan, another smooth defensive player, is also a light hitter but will start for Gregorius against lefthanders, at least sometimes. At second base, the Yankees brought back Stephen Drew on a one-year deal to solidify the position after trading Martin Prado to Miami. The team also will try and determine if prospects Jose Pirela or Rob Refsnyder can be the long-term answer. Pirela, 25, has played every position but catcher and pitcher in the minors, but he has played second more than any other spot and hit .305 with 42 extra-base hits and 15 steals at Class AAA last season. Refsnyder, 24, had never played above Class A before last season but hit .318 at the two highest minor league levels.
Mark Teixeira started his Yankees career by finishing as the runner-up for the AL Most Valuable Player Award and making the final putout of a World Series championship. That seems like a long time ago. Minor injuries nag at Teixeira, who turns 35 in April, but he still managed to come back from a serious wrist injury and make 508 plate appearances. The Yankees’ best hope is that the further removed Teixeira gets from his wrist trouble, the more closely he’ll resemble the feared slugger of old. But just in case, they have Garrett Jones to help out. Jones, the former Pirate and Marlin whose power will play well at Yankee Stadium, will play first base when Teixeira needs a rest or a day at DH. Across the diamond, the Yankees brought back Chase Headley on a four-year contract. They loved him in the field, at the plate and in the clubhouse last summer, and if Headley can match his Yankees on-base percentage (.371) with decent power and solid play in the field, that’s enough. His switch-hitting is also appealing to the Yankees. On Headley’s days off, Alex Rodriguez could spend some time at third. The Yankees won’t over-expose Rodriguez in the field, though, so he’ll get most of his playing time at designated hitter and some at first base.
While Jacoby Ellsbury’s on-base percentage slid to an unacceptable .298 in the second half, the Yankees were mostly pleased with the first season of his extravagant seven-year, $153 million contract. Ellsbury excelled in center field and teamed with left fielder Brett Gardner to form a dangerous slashing tandem atop the order, with respectable power and game-changing speed. Right fielder Carlos Beltran, however, was a bust in his first season in the Bronx, unable to perform as he did in St. Louis because of a bone spur in his elbow that required surgery on Sept. 30. Beltran should be healthy now, but he turns 38 in April, and the rigors of everyday duty in right field might be too much to withstand, especially for a player the Yankees signed through 2016. The Yankees need to play him at DH as much as possible, but other creaky veterans need time there, too.
The Yankees like to perpetuate the narrative that Brian McCann figured things out in the second half, but the numbers don’t back that up. He had a better slugging percentage after the All-Star break, but he hit just .221 with a pitiful .274 on-base percentage — both figures even worse than they were in the first half. The Yankees plainly need a lot more to justify their five-year, $85 million investment. It paid off with a steady hand behind the plate and a team-leading 23 homers, but the .286 OBP made McCann, on the whole, an offensive liability.
If only the Yankees could use three or four players at DH, they’d have a much better chance of holding up through the season. Teixeira still has value in the field, although his body could use the occasional rest at DH. Beltran, with his surgically repaired elbow, could also use more time here. But as long as Rodriguez is on the team, he should get the bulk of the playing time at DH. If A-Rod stays away from performance-enhancing drugs, he’s going to need a natural way to heal that crumbling body every day. Beating it up by playing in the field won’t help, so DH looks like his best spot.
Joe Girardi usually knows how to juggle a roster of veterans, but he hasn’t been able to cajole a successful playoff push since 2012. That’s hardly his fault, though, since neither of his last two teams had any right to produce a winning record, given their meager statistics. Even so, a third straight year out of the playoffs can’t be good for Girardi’s job security, even in the more rational world of Hal Steinbrenner. General manager Brian Cashman made deft deadline moves last summer, proving his worth to Steinbrenner, but the Yankees’ biggest organizational advantage remains their ability to spend on free agents or afford to take on other teams’ unwanted contracts.
The Yankees always have hope, because most of their players have, at one point in their careers, ranked among the game’s best. The question is whether they can do it again. Don’t bet on it. It’s increasingly a young man’s game, and if the Yankees continue to rely on the overpaid and over-the-hill, they could be stuck on 27 championships for a long time.
2015 Prediction: 4th in AL East
CF Jacoby Ellsbury (L) Success rate of 84.6 percent on steals is second among active players, trailing only Carlos Beltran.
LF Brett Gardner (L) His 17 HRs were a career high, but .327 OBP was lowest since 2008 rookie season.
RF Carlos Beltran (S) With 373 HRs, trails only Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones among switch-hitters.
C Brian McCann (L) Hit only four of his 23 homers on the road in unimpressive Yankee debut.
1B Mark Teixeira (S) Still owed $45 million for next two seasons after batting just .216.
3B Chase Headley (S) Has just 26 HRs, 99 RBIs since his 2012 breakout (31 HRs, 115 RBIs) with Padres.
DH Alex Rodriguez (R) Will collect $6 million when he hits sixth HR of the season to tie Willie Mays on career list, with 660.
2B Stephen Drew (L) Back with Yankees after hitting just .150 in 46 games following July 31 trade from Red Sox.
SS Didi Gregorius (L) Substantial upgrade over Derek Jeter in the field, he must learn to hit lefties to fulfill offensive potential.
2B Rob Refsnyder (R) Should get a shot to play after a .297/.389/.444 slash line in three season in the minors.
C John Ryan Murphy (R) Strong second half at AAA gives the 2009 second-round pick from Princeton the inside edge for backup job.
OF Chris Young (R) Small sample, but Yanks loved what they saw after he flopped with Mets.
SS Brendan Ryan (R) Great glove, but bat was worse than Yankees expected, at .167.
1B Garrett Jones (L) Veteran has hit at least 15 homers in each of his last six seasons, including 27 with Pittsburgh in 2012.
RH Masahiro Tanaka Two-start cameo in September wasn’t enough to quell fears about troublesome elbow.
LH CC Sabathia Has a 4.87 ERA in last two seasons, but expects to be healthy after knee surgery.
RH Michael Pineda Fragile but dominant, with a .208 opponents’ average in 41 career starts.
RH Nathan Eovaldi MLB hitters can handle his heat; he led National League in hits allowed last season (223 with Miami).
LH Chris Capuano Veteran had six quality starts in 12 tries for the Yankees late last season.
RH Dellin Betances (Closer) Exactly 50 percent of his outs came via strikeout (135 of 270).
LH Andrew Miller Fastball and wipeout slider make him a devastating late-inning weapon.
RH David Carpenter Acquired in early January, Carpenter gives the Yankees another strikeout specialist in the bullpen.
LH Justin Wilson Durable and tough on lefties, but high walk rate is worrisome.
RH Adam Warren Full-time relief role suited Warren, who held lefties to .178 average.
RH Esmil Rogers Before he was hit hard in season finale — four ER in 0.1 IP — had a 3.28 ERA for Yanks.
Beyond the Box Score
MVP shutout One way to measure the Yankees’ lack of 2014 impact was in the voting for the AL Most Valuable Player. Not a single Yankee got even so much as a 10th place vote from 30 members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The last time the Yankees were completely shut out of the MVP vote was 1992, their last losing season. The Yankees also had no pitchers listed on any Cy Young Award ballots.
Stability at the top Only two general managers have been in their current jobs longer than the Yankees’ Brian Cashman — Brian Sabean of the Giants (1996) and Billy Beane of the A’s (1997). Cashman, who took over as GM in 1998, isn’t going anywhere soon. Despite missing the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, the Yankees re-signed Cashman to a three-year contract in October. “We know from our fan base’s perspective that we need to do better than we’ve done for the past two years,” Cashman says. “I say that for myself as well. Being in my chair, I’m responsible for it all — offense, defense and pitching. I’ve got to find a way to get our fan base back to enjoying October sooner than later.”
International spending bonanza The Yankees were assigned a $2.19 million bonus pool for international signings last summer, but with their farm system struggling, they blew past that limit. The Yankees spent more than $14 million to sign nine of the top 25 international free agents on MLB.com’s list. As a result, the Yankees will pay a 100 percent tax on their pool overage, and they must wait two years before giving more than $300,000 to another amateur on the international market.
Filling up fast The Yankees staged four promotions last season to honor their past, giving plaques in Monument Park to Goose Gossage, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill and Joe Torre. The team also retired Torre’s No. 6. The Yankees have no set criteria for whom they honor, or how, leading to a somewhat haphazard process in which many stalwarts, including Hall of Famers like Waite Hoyt and Joe Gordon, are not represented at all. Bernie Williams is not a Hall of Famer, but he spent many more years in pinstripes than Gossage, Martinez, O’Neill and Torre, and will be honored with a plaque in 2015.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Jacob Lindgren, LHP
The Yankees’ free-agent shopping binge cost them their first-round draft choice in 2014, and they did not make a selection until No. 55 overall. But they were thrilled to land Lindgren, a left-handed reliever from Mississippi State who led the nation in strikeouts per nine innings as a junior, with 16.3. Lindgren played at four levels in his professional debut season, ending up at Class AA Trenton, where he fanned 18 in 11.2 innings. Lindgren could make an impact this season, and possibly even land on the Opening Day roster in a setup role. Lindgren has a deceptive delivery, his slider may be the best in the Yankees’ farm system, and his fastball can hit 94 mph with sink.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Luis Severino, RHP (21) A 6'0" righthander from the Dominican Republic with a high-90s fastball and a baffling changeup, Severino pitched in the Futures Game and reached Class AA Trenton, where he had a 2.52 ERA in six starts. He could make an impact as soon as this season.
2 . Gary Sanchez, C (22) Still highly regarded, but the Yankees’ commitment to Brian McCann blocks him behind the plate, where he’s shown a strong arm and improving defense. Decent power is a plus, off-field disciplinary issues a minus.
3 . Greg Bird, 1B (22) Led the minors in walks in 2013 with 107 and was the 2014 MVP of the Arizona Fall League, with a .313 average and six homers in 26 games.
4. Aaron Judge, OF (22) The 32nd overall pick in 2013, this Fresno State product hit 17 homers with 78 RBIs and reached High-A last season. He had a lot of walks, but also lots of strikeouts.
5. Rob Refsnyder, 2B (24) With a .300 average, a .389 OBP and decent power at Class AAA, line-drive hitter should have a chance to make an impact very soon.
6. Ian Clarkin, LHP (20) Added a cutter to low-90s fastball and curve last season, but has pitched only one game above Low-A.
7. Jacob Lindgren, LHP (22) Versatile southpaw was dominant as both a starter and reliever during his time at Mississippi State.
8. Eric Jagielo, 3B (22) Notre Dame product hit 16 homers with strong .354 OBP at High-A Tampa.
9. Luis Torrens, C (18) Signed for $1.3 million as a shortstop from Venezuela in 2012, he’s shown good skills behind the plate in low minors.
10. Domingo German, RHP (22) Aquired from the Marlins in the Martin Pardo deal, German is a strike thrower who has tremendous upside.
With all due respect to Space Mountain, Goliath and the Viper, the wildest roller coaster in the United States currently resides in Fenway Park. From worst to first to worst to … first again? — the Red Sox have put their fans through a stomach-churning wringer, sandwiching the elation of the 2013 World Series between a pair of lost seasons, not to mention an epic collapse in 2011. The Red Sox can only hope that this is the dawn of a new age of stability, however. They recognized the error of relying on too many youngsters simultaneously last year and imported a number of veterans this winter. They’ve remade much of the roster and virtually all of their rotation and have built the best lineup in the division. In what projects to be a down year for the AL East, that should be enough to return to contention, where the coaster can perhaps once again provide thrills instead of dread.
This group will ultimately determine the team’s fate. Stalwarts Jon Lester and John Lackey are gone, and the Red Sox chose to replace them with pitchers they hope are about to make the ascension to ace. Their primary offseason target was Detroit’s Rick Porcello, 26, a six-year veteran coming off his best season (15–13, 3.43), and a pitcher the Red Sox believe is ready to take the next step. In a similar boat is 28-year-old Wade Miley, a former All-Star who struggled last year with Arizona (8–12, 4.34) but struck out a career high 183, suggesting the stuff is there. If either fails to emerge as a No. 1, there’s always old friend Clay Buchholz, a true Jekyll-and-Hyde performer, or Justin Masterson, who is expected to improve after battling injuries (7–9, 5.88). All three newcomers are groundball pitchers. Joe Kelly rounds things out.
The first move of the winter flew largely under the radar. The Red Sox re-signed closer Koji Uehara for two years and $18 million. Because Uehara doesn’t rely on power, the Sox believe he will remain effective into his 40s, a la Trevor Hoffman. The rest of the pen is a bit muddled. Junichi Tazawa returns as the primary setup man, even though his fastball has lost just enough steam to leave him as a borderline power pitcher. The Red Sox also retained lefty Craig Breslow, who never seemed to recover from his workload in 2013 en route to a horrible 2014 (2–4, 5.96). Virtually every other spot will be up for grabs in spring training, with veteran Edward Mujica looking to rebound, newly acquired Anthony Varvaro and Robbie Ross trying to find a home, youngsters Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes doing battle, and a lefthander like Tommy Layne perhaps claiming a specialist role. Former All-Star Alexi Ogando also could factor into the mix if he’s able to show he’s recovered from the elbow inflammation that limited him to just 27 appearances last season with the Rangers.
Maybe this is the year Dustin Pedroia stays healthy. His will and determination remain beyond reproach, but he has undergone hand or wrist surgery in three straight offseasons. All that slicing and dicing has cut into his power, with his OPS falling in each of the last four seasons (from .861 to .797 to .787 to .712). He’s still a Gold Glover, but the Red Sox need his pop, too. Meanwhile, double-play partner Xander Bogaerts will be manning one of the most pivotal positions on the field. He’s not only coming off a down season offensively, but his defense also often appeared shaky, and the Red Sox have left him with no safety net after signing a trio of groundball starters. The team believes the 22-year-old will eventually be a star — for now it’s simply asking him to make routine plays in the field. And speaking of stars, Boston hopes it has found its next one in Yoan Moncada. The Red Sox signed the 19-year-old Cuban free agent in late February, committing $63 million ($31.5 as a signing bonus to Moncada, $31.5 to MLB as a 100 percent overage tax for exceeding their allotment of international bonus money) to the switch-hitting shortstop who could end up at second or third or even in the outfield by the time he arrives in the majors.
Say hello to the Panda. The arrival of Pablo Sandoval should solve the vexing problem of wildly subpar third base production the last two seasons. Sandoval is everything the Red Sox seek — a durable hitter in his prime with a flare for the dramatic, a slightly above-average fielder, and a high-energy leader who should light up the clubhouse. He’s also one of the best low-ball hitters in the game, an area of emphasis with the strike zone dropping precipitously over the last three years. The solid Mike Napoli returns at first base, presumably recovered from the injuries that slowed him last year, with his 25-homer potential and clubhouse leadership intact.
The arrival of All-Star Hanley Ramirez positions the Red Sox with one of the deepest lineups in the American League. The deal wouldn’t have been possible without Ramirez volunteering to forgo a career as an infielder to take a stab at left field. Ramirez hits lefties (.307) and righties (.298) and will play every day. Center likely will go to Cuban import Rusney Castillo, who tore up the Puerto Rican winter league after impressively hitting .333 with two homers in a brief September call-up. Right field is up for grabs, although it’s hard to see the Red Sox going in any direction other than with Mookie Betts, who has all the skills to be an All-Star leadoff hitter. Betts carries himself with a swagger that has earned him the immediate respect of the team’s veterans.
The Red Sox have proclaimed a willingness to hand things over to strong-armed Christian Vazquez, an advanced game-caller and pitch-framer who must answer major questions about his bat. Perhaps the Red Sox will be able to carry a .200 hitter if the rest of the lineup mashes, because the feeling is that Vazquez is only a one- or two-year stopgap until prospect Blake Swihart arrives. Ryan Hanigan fills the David Ross role of veteran who can play more than the typical backup if needed. He hits lefties well (.762 lifetime OPS), though he was better against righties last year.
The name of the game here is flexibility. Brock Holt can play anywhere and would pull on catching gear if asked. His surprising ability to hit lefties from the left side last year (.293) helped fuel an eighth-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. Daniel Nava’s skills against right-handed pitching will find him some playing time in either the outfield or at first. Ramirez, a former shortstop and third baseman, provides options in an emergency. The interesting decision will be finding a role for either Shane Victorino or Allen Craig. The remade roster likely squeezes out one, if not both. Victorino, if he heals from back surgery, has the higher upside and is the more battle-tested player.
A year after pushing all the right buttons, manager John Farrell and general manager Ben Cherington took a step back, along with the rest of the organization. Cherington’s relative inaction left the 2014 team with too many holes, and Farrell never figured out how to make the right moves with an offense that ranked in the middle of the pack in on-base percentage but bottom of the barrel in runs scored. That was last year, however. In the big picture, the team remains in good hands. Cherington is at his best when juggling a complicated offseason, and this past one certainly qualifies, with Castillo (signed in August), Sandoval, Ramirez, Porcello, Miley and Masterson coming aboard, to name a few. Farrell, meanwhile, is a proven leader who has already helmed a World Series winner.
The Red Sox are right where they want to be — as $200 million underdogs, if that’s possible. They’ve built a roster in the spirit of the out-of-nowhere 2013 World Series winners, although they’ve gambled a bit more, since their buy-low acquisitions are primarily in the starting rotation. One of last year’s biggest problems — a lack of depth up and down the roster — is no longer an issue. The lineup is deep, with Betts ready to step forward and the projected seven-eight hitters possible stars in Castillo and Bogaerts. While the jury very reasonably remains out on whether the Red Sox are built to win in October, there’s no question they’re at least constructed to get there.
2015 Prediction: 1st in AL East
RF Mookie Betts (R) Betts has potential star written all over him. The Sox love his combination of on-base, speed and swagger.
2B Dustin Pedroia (R) Are Pedroia’s hands/wrists a time bomb? We’ll find out. He has vowed to return stronger than ever.
DH David Ortiz (L) Time keeps on ticking, and Ortiz keeps on slugging. The ageless DH seeks his third straight 30-100 season.
LF Hanley Ramirez (R) Ramirez has agreed to move to the outfield, where his bat still profiles as one of the best in the game.
3B Pablo Sandoval (S) Get ready for the Panda. The Red Sox expect that Sandoval will plug their gaping hole at third.
1B Mike Napoli (R) It’s easy to forget that before badly dislocating his finger last year, he appeared capable of a career year.
CF Rusney Castillo (R) Was signed to hit leadoff, but with that job likely going to Betts, the $72.5 Million Man can ease into things.
SS Xander Bogaerts (R) Bogaerts shouldn’t feel the pressure to be a star hitting at the bottom of the lineup.
C Christian Vazquez (R) The Red Sox have built a deep lineup, but the rifle-armed Vazquez is the one potential hole.
OF Shane Victorino (R) Coming off back surgery, Victorino is a man without a position and could be moved.
OF Daniel Nava (S) Provides real value from the left side of the plate on a roster that is otherwise heavily right-handed.
UT Brock Holt (L) One of last year’s few bright spots is Holt, who’s not an everyday player, but could excel in a super-utility role.
C Ryan Hanigan (R) Hanigan was acquired for Will Middlebrooks and could play regularly if Vazquez struggles.
RH Rick Porcello The Red Sox hope Porcello can continue to build off a strong 2014 and become an ace.
LH Wade Miley Miley had career-highs in ERA (4.34) and WHIP (1.401) in his final season in Arizona.
RH Clay Buchholz There’s no more enigmatic player on the team than the wildly talented, equally inconsistent Buchholz.
RH Justin Masterson The Red Sox believe Masterson’s struggles last year (7–9, 5.88) were purely injury-related.
RH Joe Kelly Kelly impressed during his two months, featuring a 95 mph fastball and winning four of his final five starts.
RH Koji Uehara (Closer) The indomitable closer turns 40 in April, but the Red Sox don’t expect him to slow down anytime soon.
RH Junichi Tazawa Tazawa has settled in as a strikeout-an-inning arm in the eighth, and will continue to fill that role.
LH Craig Breslow Breslow returned on a one-year deal after a brutal season that saw his ERA soar to a career-worst 5.96.
RH Edward Mujica Mujica lost 1 mph off his fastball (to 91 mph) and saw his walk rate climb to 2.1/9 IP last season.
RH Anthony Varvaro Acquired from the Braves, Varvaro posted a career-low walk rate (2.1) last year while posting a 2.63 ERA.
RH Brandon Workman He’s fearless and has an attacking mentality, but his stuff isn’t overpowering, and he can be taken deep.
LH Tommy Layne Layne impressed in 30 games (0.95 ERA) and could join Breslow as the second lefty in the pen.
Beyond the Box Score
Memorable debut Red Sox fans will never forget Rick Porcello’s first start at Fenway Park, in 2009, when the 20-year-old rookie drilled Kevin Youkilis and incited a bench-clearing brawl. After Porcello signed, he wasted little time when asked for his most memorable Fenway moment: “Getting thrown out in the second inning my rookie year. Getting charged by Kevin Youkilis.” It should be noted that Porcello stood his ground and body slammed the enraged Youk.
Native son Catcher Ryan Hanigan will become the fifth Massachusetts native to play for the Red Sox in the last decade. The Andover native joins Chris Capuano (Springfield), Alex Hassan (Quincy), Rich Hill (Milton) and Manny Delcarmen (West Roxbury).
No love lost Oh, what might have been. When the Red Sox signed Hanley Ramirez in free agency, it opened the possibility of reuniting Ramirez with former minor league teammate Jon Lester, who made no secret of his dislike for the then-shortstop at the 2010 All-Star Game. “I’d have a better chance of being struck by lightning than me and him getting a pizza together,” Lester said at the time.
Big-time bowler Where does Mookie Betts get his incredible hand-eye coordination and ability to perform under pressure? It might have something to do with bowling. Betts is a tremendous bowler who took up the sport as a child and still rolls regularly. He has bowled a 300 game and an 800 series and was good enough to turn pro, had he so desired. Also, take heart Red Sox fans — he’s named after Mookie Blaylock, the former NBA All-Star, not Mookie Wilson.
Fun fact Random fact about manager John Farrell — he ended Paul Molitor’s 39-game hitting streak in just his second big league start in 1987, taking a no-decision against Teddy Higuera in a 1–0 loss to the Brewers. The game ended with Molitor on deck. “Rick Manning drove in the winning run in the 10th,” Farrell said, “and got booed off the field.”
King of gluten Wade Miley did not take kindly to friction with the Diamondbacks over the composition of his diet. His former team’s biggest complaint? That he ate too much gluten. The 6'0", 220-pounder is not having any of it, telling WEEI in Boston that, “You can’t tell me Babe Ruth ever stopped eating gluten.”
2014 Top Draft Pick
Michael Chavis, SS
The Red Sox used their first pick on one of the more intriguing power prospects in the draft. Chavis, a product of Georgia’s East Cobb baseball factory, isn’t huge (5'10", 190), but he owns tremendous bat speed and serious pop. He won a Perfect Game home run derby as a high school senior, and after a slow start to his pro career, finished with a .425 slugging percentage in the Gulf Coast League. He hit .379 with a homer and 1.057 OPS over his final 15 games. A shortstop at Sprayberry High School, Chavis will probably end up at third base in the long run. While Chavis has a big swing capable of producing loft, the Red Sox liked him because he’s calm and controlled at the plate. Another plus: His makeup and work ethic drew raves from rival scouts in the lead up to the draft.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Blake Swihart, C (23) Swihart has all the tools to be a star, with athleticism that reminds more than one observer of the Giants’ perennial MVP candidate Buster Posey.
2. Henry Owens, LHP (22) While there are questions over how Owens’ fastball (92 mph) will play in the big leagues, there’s no questioning his secondary stuff, which includes a plus changeup.
3. Yoan Moncada, IF (19) The switch-hitting Cuban is probably at least a year or two away from the majors, but the Red Sox hope their patience, not to mention the total of $63 million they invested to sign him, will pay off in a big way.
4. Rafael Devers, 3B (18) Remember how hyped Xander Bogaerts was when he arrived stateside? Devers has outperformed him at a similar age/level thus far and is the organization’s Next Big Thing.
5. Manuel Margot, OF (20) He posted one of the most tantalizing seasons in the minors as a teen, batting .293 with 12 homers and 42 steals between two levels of Class A.
6. Brian Johnson, LHP (24) Johnson’s pure stuff isn’t jaw-dropping, but he effectively mixes four pitches in the style of a crafty lefty.
7. Eduardo Rodriguez, LHP (22) Rodriguez has a changeup that rivals Owens’, but he pairs it with a fastball that regularly reaches 97 mph.
8. Matt Barnes, RHP (24) Barnes’ 2014 season ended in the big leagues, where he passed fellow pitching prospects Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo (traded to Texas in January).
9. Deven Marrero, SS (24) Marrero may never hit, but there’s no doubting his glove. He has a strong arm and tremendous instincts.
10. Sean Coyle, 2B (23) Mildly reminiscent of former Sox prospect Jed Lowrie, Coyle’s a similarly undersized infielder with surprising pop.
After posting a winning record in three consecutive seasons, the Orioles could be challenged to finish above .500 in 2015 due to a lack of significant activity over the winter. They re-signed Delmon Young shortly before Christmas, but he’s more of a DH-type and not a suitable replacement for outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis, two important bats that departed via free agency. There’s no Cruz to fall into their laps this spring, as he did last year before leading the majors with 40 home runs. The Orioles should benefit from the return of catcher Matt Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado from season-ending surgeries, but making the playoffs for the third time in four seasons looks like a longer shot than it did in October.
The Orioles will rely heavily on their starting pitching and depth to stay in the playoff picture. They’re carrying six starters for five spots — Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez, Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez — and are reluctant to part with an arm in order to improve in another area. They’re not going with a six-man rotation, so someone will move to the bullpen or Gausman will be optioned. Jimenez was a bust after signing a four-year, $50 million deal, but Chen won 16 games and Norris 15 to establish career highs. Gonzalez posted a 2.19 ERA in his last 11 starts. Top prospect Dylan Bundy, recovered from Tommy John surgery, likely will start the year at Double-A, but he could be an option to start later in the summer.
The Orioles lost lefthander Andrew Miller to free agency, and he’s going to be hard to replace after holding opposing hitters to a .119 average and posting a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings with the Orioles after being acquired from the Red Sox on July 31. They signed lefthander Wesley Wright to a one-year, $1.7 million contract after the Cubs non-tendered him. Zach Britton, in his first season as closer, registered 37 saves in 41 opportunities. Lefty specialist Brian Matusz returns, though he’s also trade bait. Righthanders Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter are quality late-inning options. Hunter brings the heat with his upper-90s fastball. Brad Brach can work in a variety of roles but is most important as a right-handed long man. T.J. McFarland could return as a lefty long man, but the Orioles may not want to carry four southpaws in their bullpen. He’s a candidate to start at Triple-A. Ryan Webb has another year and $2.75 million on his contract. The O’s selected Logan Verrett in the Rule 5 Draft and traded for Jason Garcia.
The Orioles’ double-play combination remains intact after shortstop J.J. Hardy signed a three-year extension in October. He’s the leader of the infield and a dependable fielder. However, his home run total dropped from 25 to nine. Jonathan Schoop made most of the starts at second base as a rookie and hit 16 home runs, but he needs to improve on a .209 average. He’s got a rifle arm, and he ranked eighth among major league second basemen with 89 double plays turned. Former Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty can back up at both positions. He started the season 0-for-17 before singling on April 6 in Detroit. The Orioles signed Rey Navarro to a major league deal and view him primarily as a second baseman, though he also plays short. Manager Buck Showalter said he’s more willing now to move Machado from third base to short if Hardy is injured. The team also signed former San Diego shortstop Everth Cabrera to a one-year deal at the start of spring training. The NL stolen base leader in 2012, Cabrera was suspended for 50 games in '13 for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. With Hardy seemingly entrenched at short, Cabrera could potentially fill in at second or serve as an utilityman and late-inning pinch runner off of the bench, if he makes the team.
Machado returns after undergoing surgery on his right knee in August. He’s now had procedures on both knees in the last two years. He was sorely missed at third base, where he won a Platinum Glove in 2013. Machado also was suspended five games this summer for intentionally throwing his bat on the field in a June 8 game against Oakland. He could use a fresh start this season. First baseman Chris Davis was handed a 25-game suspension on Sept. 12 for a second failed test for Adderall. He has one game remaining on it, which removes him from the Opening Day lineup. Davis led the majors with 53 home runs in 2013, but he hit only 26 last year as his average dipped to .196. Flaherty can play both first and third as part of his super-utility role, and Jimmy Paredes remains an option. He’s more bat than glove, however. Steve Pearce can play first base and may be given a chance to back up at third. Pearce established career highs across the board, including doubles (26), home runs (21), RBIs (49) and games (102). The Orioles claimed Ryan Lavarnway off waivers, and he’s capable of playing first. First baseman Christian Walker, one of the top prospects in the organization, made his major league debut in September and eventually could return to the big club.
Center fielder Adam Jones is the only remaining outfield starter from last season. Jones posted his fourth consecutive season playing 150 games and recording at least a .280 average, 25 doubles, 25 home runs and 80 RBIs, joining Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray as the only Orioles to accomplish the feat. But who’s playing left field and right field this year? Pearce could be the primary starter in right, and Alejandro De Aza could mostly play left and replace Markakis atop the order. De Aza batted .293 after being acquired from the White Sox on Aug. 30. He just needs to improve his splits against left-handed pitching. David Lough got off to an awful start in his first season with the Orioles, but he batted .356 in his final 52 games beginning July 6. He also provides plus-defense and much-needed speed. Young is a below-average fielder but can play left or right if needed. The Orioles also acquired Travis Snider from the Pirates in late January. Snider, who has yet to put it all together in his seven-year career, could end up stealing one of the starting corner spots, provided he makes the final roster.
Wieters played in only 26 games before undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow on June 17. He may not be ready for Opening Day. Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley — who wasn’t re-signed — did an admirable job as fill-ins. Joseph threw out 21 of 55 (38.2 percent) runners attempting to steal. His work behind the plate kept him in the majors as a rookie. Lavarnway, claimed in December, and Steve Clevenger are also viable options.
Pearce could get plenty of starts as the DH, but Young was re-signed primarily for that role. Lavarnway could be a backup catcher and first baseman if he makes the team. Flaherty and/or Cabrera figure to make the club as super subs, and Lough should be an extra outfielder again. The Orioles signed Hassan off waivers and will give him a chance to win a backup outfield job. Paredes can move around the infield. Joseph is the favorite to serve as the backup catcher, but the position is unsettled.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette was named Major League Executive of the Year by several media outlets. The Orioles have posted winning records in all three seasons since they hired Duquette, who has a knack for making under-the-radar moves that pay huge dividends. Showalter won his third BBWAA Manager of the Year Award, and he remains one of the best acquisitions in franchise history. He changed a losing culture, which isn’t easy. Owner Peter Angelos, heavily criticized in the past for meddling, has stepped back in recent years and trusted his baseball people. With two playoff appearances in the last three years, it’s hard to argue with the results.
The Orioles have a nice core of players and a rotation and bullpen that could carry them back to the playoffs. They’re set in center field and at third base, second base, first base and catcher. But getting back to the American League Championship Series, where they appeared for the first time since 1997, will be difficult without Cruz, Markakis and Miller. The Orioles aren’t willing to spend big in free agency or make a bold trade, and their reluctance to dip into their pitching depth to acquire a big bat could come back to haunt them.
2015 Prediction: 3rd in AL East
LF Alejandro De Aza (L) Acquired last year from the White Sox, he’s the leading candidate to replace Nick Markakis atop the order.
3B Manny Machado (R) Former Platinum Glove winner recovering from second knee surgery in two years.
1B Chris Davis (L) Home run total dropped from 53 to 26, but he received exemption to use Adderall in 2015.
CF Adam Jones (R) Made his fourth All-Star team and won his fourth Gold Glove last season.
DH Delmon Young (R) Batted .302 in 83 games and went 10-for-20 as a pinch-hitter during the regular season.
C Matt Wieters (S) Could be final season as an Oriole after undergoing Tommy John surgery on right elbow.
RF Steve Pearce (R) Manager Buck Showalter said in December that Pearce would be in right if season started that day.
SS J.J. Hardy (R) Needs to rediscover his power stroke after home runs dropped from 25 to nine.
2B Jonathan Schoop (R) Hit 16 home runs as a rookie in 2014 but a .209 average leaves much room for improvement.
C Caleb Joseph (R) Nice story as a 27-year-old rookie who threw out 38.2 percent of runners.
OF David Lough (L) Plus-defender who can play all three outfield positions and bring needed speed element.
INF Ryan Flaherty (L) Valuable reserve played all four infield positions and the outfield last season.
INF Everth Cabrera (B) Made first trip to All-Star Game in 2013 as a Padre then missed 50 games because of ties to Biogenesis scandal.
RH Chris Tillman Former second-round pick started on Opening Day and in Game 1 of the ALDS and ALCS.
LH Wei-Yin Chen Orioles resisted trade offers for Chen after he won career-high 16 games.
RH Bud Norris Won a career-high 15 games and posted career-low 3.65 ERA in first full season with the Orioles.
RH Miguel Gonzalez Vastly underrated despite posting 2.19 ERA in final 11 starts last year.
RH Kevin Gausman Has minor league options and could be sent down or sent to the bullpen.
LH Zach Britton (Closer) First year as closer was a rousing success with 37 saves in 41 opportunities.
RH Ubaldo Jimenez Could get back in rotation after disastrous first season with Orioles.
RH Darren O’Day Posted career-low 1.70 ERA and didn’t allow a run in 58 of 68 outings.
RH Tommy Hunter Lost closer’s job in May but posted 1.77 ERA in final 43 appearances.
LH Brian Matusz Would prefer to start, but the Orioles like his splits vs. left-handed hitters.
RH Brad Brach Didn’t get much attention after arriving from San Diego but won seven of eight decisions.
LH Wesley Wright Signed to one-year, $1.7 million deal to help ease loss of Andrew Miller.
Beyond the Box Score
Home sweet home The Orioles captured their ninth AL East title last season, but it was the first time they clinched via a win at home since 1969. That’s a big reason why players celebrated so enthusiastically on the field. The Orioles clinched in Milwaukee in 1997, 1983 and 1973, in Detroit in 1974, in New York in 1971 and in Washington in 1970. They clinched in 1979 despite losing to the Indians at home.
Double-figure winners The Orioles had four starters — Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez — record at least 10 wins for the first time 1997. They matched Mike Mussina, Jimmy Key, Scott Erickson and Scott Kamieniecki.
Big hitters The Orioles led the majors with 211 home runs, 25 more than the Rockies and 34 more than the Blue Jays. Their 107 home runs at home were the most by an American League club. The Orioles have hit 200 or more home runs in three straight seasons for the first time in franchise history.
Back to back The Orioles became the fourth team since 1920 to have two different players win the home run title in consecutive years. Chris Davis won it in 2013 and Nelson Cruz won it in 2014. They joined the Yankees’ Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio in 1936-37, the Athletics’ Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco in 1987-88, and the Giants’ Barry Bonds and Matt Williams in 1993-94.
Saves from the southpaw Zach Britton, in his first season as closer, became only the seventh AL lefthander to record 37 or more saves in a season. Britton is just the second Oriole, joining Randy Myers, who had 45 saves in 1997.
Road kill Chris Tillman was undefeated in his first 15 road starts until he lost in Toronto on Sept. 26. Tillman’s 8–1 record away from home tied for the second-best road winning percentage in a season by an Orioles pitcher. Scott McGregor holds the record by going 14–1 in 1983. Had he won or taken a no decision in that game vs. the Blue Jays, Tillman would have had the most road starts in a season without a loss (16) since 1914.
Deep roster The Orioles used 23 different players on Sept. 7 against the Rays, the most by the club since also using 23 on Sept. 14, 1960 at Detroit. The franchise record is 24 in a Sept. 7, 1958 game against Boston.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Brian Gonzalez, LHP
The Orioles forfeited their selections in the first two rounds after signing Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz as free agents. They took Gonzalez with the 90th overall pick after he went undefeated in his senior season at Archbishop McCarthy High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Gonzalez committed to the University of Miami before signing with the Orioles and went a combined 0–1 with a 1.34 ERA in 10 starts between the Gulf Coast League and short-season Class A Aberdeen. He allowed 21 hits, walked 10 and struck out 36 in 33.2 innings. He could move up to Low-A Delmarva in 2015. There’s no way to project his arrival date in the majors at such a young age, but the Orioles love his potential.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Dylan Bundy, RHP (22) The former first-round pick is recovered from Tommy John surgery and trying to climb back to the majors. He should start 2015 at Double-A Bowie.
2. Hunter Harvey, RHP (20) First-round pick in 2013 with a plus-fastball and plus-curveball is recovered from a flexor mass strain in his right arm that ended his second professional season.
3. Christian Walker, 1B (24) Walker, a fourth-round pick in 2012 out of the University of South Carolina, was named the Orioles’ Minor League Player of the Year.
4. Chance Sisco, C (20) The top catching prospect in the system won the South Atlantic League batting title with a .340 average at Class A Delmarva.
5. Dariel Alvarez, OF (26) Alvarez, the second Cuban player signed by the Orioles, projects as a right fielder with a plus-plus arm. He hit above .300 at Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk last season.
6. Zach Davies, RHP (22) Davies’ stock is really on the rise since the Orioles chose him in the 26th round of the 2011 draft. He may possess the best changeup in the farm system.
7. Tim Berry, LHP (24) Berry slipped to the 50th round of the 2009 draft after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. He posted a 2.53 ERA in his last eight starts at Double-A Bowie.
8. Mike Wright, RHP (25) He’s got a mid-90s fastball and a possible future as a late-inning reliever if there’s no spot in the Orioles’ rotation.
9. Mike Yastrzemski, OF (24) The grandson of Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski played at three levels of the system in 2014, finishing up at Double-A Bowie.
10. Jomar Reyes, INF (18) This is all about upside. Reyes is raw but he’s got impressive tools, including a strong arm and developing power.
It looks like it’s becoming safe to say that the Dallas’ Mavericks December trade for Rajon Rondo was a mistake.
The former Boston Celtics point guard was suspended for the Mavs’ 104-87 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, after a dispute with head coach Rick Carlisle in a Tuesday night victory over the Toronto Raptors:
And now, we’re starting to see reports of Rondo’s desire to leave Dallas this summer — when he’ll be an unrestricted free agent.
Rondo has previously been linked to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, particularly because of a well-publicized breakfast the two shared, and because of Bryant’s very transparent attempt to recruit Rondo to Tinseltown.
For Dallas, such a story can’t exactly be devastating. Before bringing Rajon to Texas, they were boasting the league’s best offense and winning at a .700 clip with a 19-8 record. They’ve been 20-13 since Rondo came to town — good for just a .610 mark — and they now trail the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers in offensive efficiency.
Rondo has visibly depreciated as a player. His shooting percentages have plummeted, especially his almost unbelievable 31 percent from the free throw line, and he can no longer take it to the rack and finish with flourishes of brilliant, spontaneous creativity like he used to.
When Rondo was one of the best players in the league during the Celtics’ run to the 2010 NBA Finals, his famously difficult personality was worth the trouble. But injuries and age caught up to him fast, and now he’s caught battling with a coach who wants him to keep the ball moving through pre-planned sets, instead of taking his time with the shot clock to try bending and breaking the court against the power of his vision.
When you’re great, you can get away with a lot. But Rondo looks more mediocre than great these days, and he’d likely do well by himself to keep his head down and trust the championship culture he’s in, instead of trying to transcend it.
But if he doesn’t, and he goes to the Lakers after a failed stint in Dallas, we can all look forward to an even more tragicomic NBA spectacle in Hollywood, where Bryant and Rondo run inefficiently amok on the fuel of former glory.
— John Wilmes
Cleveland tallied a 110-99 victory over the vaunted Golden State Warriors Thursday night, keyed by LeBron’s 42 points and 11 rebounds. The Cavs, for the most part, cruised through this one — they held double-digit leads through much of the second half. And the Warriors looked a rare form of frustrated, with head coach Steve Kerr getting so heated during a lecture to the referees that he had to remove some clothing:
Things are looking real good for Cleveland these days. With perhaps their biggest roadblock to the NBA Finals in a state of crisis — the now Derrick Rose-lesss Chicago Bulls — there’s seemingly only the Atlanta Hawks between them and a shot at the Western Conference champion in June. And if last night was any indication, the Cavs aren’t exactly intimidated by the West.
Maybe the most encouraging thing about their recent run is the chemistry of it. Kevin Love has begun to find his spot in the team’s system, crashing the defensive glass and throwing dazzling outlet passes to several strong finishers on the break, and getting loose for scoring assaults from behind the three-point line.
The Cavs’ acrimony of earlier in the season is becoming a distant memory, and it’s hardly difficult to see why: they’ve got the best player in the world. LeBron is not just a freak athlete; he’s also a one man system, and when he’s happy and healthy, his locomotive breakdown of defenses and passing vision is really all you need to get everyone involved.
Right here, right now, Cleveland looks every bit like the favorites to win the NBA title.
— John Wilmes
Alex Rodriguez asked for this. Remember that. On Feb. 17, 2009, upon reporting to the Yankees’ spring training camp for the first time as an admitted steroid cheat, Rodriguez told a packed news conference, with typical grandiosity: “The only thing I ask from this group today and the American people is to judge me from this day forward. That’s all I can ask for.”
Well, judgment day is upon us. Rodriguez returned to the Yankees’ active roster after the last out of the 2014 World Series, ending a season-long suspension for his latest dalliance with performance-enhancing drugs.
Incredible, isn’t it? Even in an era of rampant doping across the sports landscape, Rodriguez stands out as one of the slimiest characters of all. When he asked for that fresh start, it seemed like a reasonable request. Sure, his misdeeds with the Texas Rangers would always stain his glittering career record. But most fans are willing to forgive a lapse in judgment.
Yet look at what Rodriguez did with that second chance: The very next season he went right back to cheating, scheming for an illegal chemical advantage through a shady Florida clinic and its sleazy head, Anthony Bosch. When he was caught, Rodriguez did what he does best: lie. He didn’t know Bosch at all! He never used banned drugs! He’ll expose this “witch hunt” in court!
Wrong. The richest baseball player ever could not buy his way out of this one. Major League Baseball banned Rodriguez for all of 2014 — and, oh yeah, he admitted everything to the DEA anyway, as revealed by the Miami Herald.
Rodriguez did, in fact, pay Bosch about $12,000 a month for roughly two years. He did, in fact, get pre-filled syringes for hormone injections into his stomach. Bosch did, in fact, draw A-Rod’s blood in the bathroom of a nightclub.
What a guy.
The Yankees could have made a bold statement. They could have cut Rodriguez and told the world that the kind of person who makes such despicable decisions has no place in their uniform. But that’s not how things happen in the real world.
While the Yankees were thrilled to have Rodriguez’s $25 million off their payroll for 2014, they still want to save more from the ludicrous 10-year, $275 million contract they gave him after the 2007 season. The Yankees owe Rodriguez $61 million in salary for the 2015-17 seasons, and for all of their animosity toward him, the money talks loudest.
If the Yankees had released Rodriguez before he suited up for them again, they would have been obligated to pay him everything they owe. But if Rodriguez breaks down physically while employed by the team — if he re-injures his hip, for example, and is forced to retire — then insurance could cover 80 percent of his remaining salaries.
Yet there is also a somewhat unsettling reason the Yankees are keeping their most notorious player in pinstripes: They just might need his bat.
Yes, Rodriguez missed all that time. Yes, he turns 40 in July, with a body he has treated like a science experiment for more than a decade; who knows the real effects of all those injections, testosterone “gummies,” surgeries and everything else? But when Rodriguez played for the Yankees in 2013, he wasn’t all that bad — at least by the low standards of the team he left behind in 2014. As the Yankees staged a year-long farewell tour for captain Derek Jeter, they staggered through their worst offensive season in more than two decades. Rodriguez’s OPS over 44 games in 2013 was .771. Of the 11 players with the most plate appearances for the 2014 Yankees, nobody had an OPS that high.
The Yankees have been careful to keep their expectations guarded. They say that they do not know what to expect from Rodriguez. They have talked to him about playing first base and getting starts at designated hitter in addition to his old spot at third. But they have also tried to advance a storyline that Rodriguez’s work ethic will serve him well.
“He’s fit,” owner Hal Steinbrenner said late in the season. “Alex is a hard worker. Alex will be ready. We’ll just have to go from there, see how he does, see how he responds to playing every day in spring training. Point is, he’s in good shape. And that’s not surprising.”
Rodriguez, a hard worker? Spare us, Hal. This is one of the all-time con men in sports history. Plenty of athletes deserve the honorific “hard worker.” The painfully insecure Rodriguez, who has repeatedly chosen to take shortcuts in his career, is not one of them.
Rodriguez was so desperate for a boost in the 2012 playoffs that he flew Bosch to Detroit. He and Bosch had code words for drugs: Rodriguez insisted on calling them “food” in their text messages. When Bosch slipped once, Rodriguez texted him back: “Not meds, dude. Food.”
That sounds like the ham-handed ploy of a Scooby-Doo villain, but Rodriguez was sophisticated enough to beat all the drug tests he took. That is part of the reason baseball investigated Bosch’s Biogenesis clinic so aggressively. It served as a warning to any other would-be cheaters: Even if you pass the tests, we will hunt you down and suspend you.
Now that Rodriguez has served his penalty, he faces the harsh judgment he said he welcomed in 2009.
Yankees fans largely cheered him in 2013, while he was denying wrongdoing while appealing what was first a 211-game ban. Chances are, those fans will cheer him again, simply because he is wearing their team’s uniform. Road fans will taunt Rodriguez, but that will be nothing new. Neither will the avalanche of attention from the news media, which is also familiar to the Yankees as a team.
“We’ll deal with it,” manager Joe Girardi said in November. “I know there’s going to be a lot of attention. But very similar to when he came back a couple of years ago, there was a lot of attention the first week and then everybody disperses and covers other stories around the country. We’ll have to deal with a lot in the beginning, but it’ll spread around the country. It always does.”
Girardi is probably right about that, and nobody seems to care much that the vibe around the team will be so polluted by the presence of baseball’s biggest disgrace. What matters to the Yankees now is the faint hope of saving money — and the perhaps even fainter hope that Rodriguez might actually be able to help the team win.
Even if he does, though, Rodriguez’s past decisions have put him in a box. How can he possibly play well without cheating when he has shown repeatedly that he believes he must cheat to succeed? If he somehow does play well, few will be gullible enough to believe it.
Rodriguez has 654 career home runs. His 660th, if it ever comes, will trigger a bonus of $6 million. So will career homers No. 714, 755, 762 and 763. The bonuses were supposedly included in his deal as part of a marketing arrangement between the player and the team to celebrate his pursuit of the career home run record. Really, though, it was a clever way to make an extra $30 million and push the total value of his contract over $300 million.
Knowing Rodriguez, he will feel no shame if he hits No. 660, which would tie Willie Mays for fourth all-time. Here’s hoping he does it on the road, so his magic moment is drowned out in boos — a full-throated verdict for a fraud who literally asked for it.
— Written by Tyler Kepner for Athlon Sports
Like Odysseus before him, Kevin Garnett has gone through a long, weird journey that’s led him back to the only true endpoint: home.
After a trade returned him to the Minnesota Timberwolves last Thursday, Garnett made his first appearance in his new/old jersey with the ‘Wolves last night, as they beat the Washington Wizards 97-77 at home.
A standing ovation and overall roaring performance from the crowd accompanied KG’s return.
"I've been back before and I never paid attention to how much love is here still for me because I'm too busy being focused on the game," Garnett told reporters. "And tonight it was just over the top. I did not know the city missed me like this. I don't think that you can ever wish or ever think the city loves you like this. But to see it is reality and I'm very appreciative.”
His impact on the floor was minimal — despite starting, Garnett played only 19 minutes, scoring five points to go with eight rebounds. That’s about as much as the 38-year-old can offer now, statistically.
But there’s no mistaking the extra energy and inspiration his homecoming gave the team. A hungry young squad keyed by the burgeoning rookie superstar Andrew Wiggins completed a 35-point swing after a 15-point deficit early on, to wallop the slumping Wizards. Washington’s 77 points marked a season-best defensive outing from Minny.
"Tonight's event was bigger than the game," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders told reporters later. "It's about bringing a family member back home.”
The ceiling is high for Minnesota. Wiggins is surrounded by a lot of talented players his age, like Gorgui Dieng, Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne, Shabazz Muhammad and the recently overlooked Ricky Rubio. Let’s see if Garnett can help this roster mature quickly, and be more than the sum of its unseasoned parts.
— John Wilmes
The characters in that long-running Windy City disaster known as the Chicago Cubs’ World Series Disappointment are well known to all baseball fans. There is the Billy Goat. And Bartman. The Miracle Mets. Leon Durham and his “Gatorade glove,” not to mention a supporting cast both great (Ernie Banks) and small (Ernie Broglio, part of the infamous Lou Brock trade), all of whom have contributed to American sports’ most celebrated failure. If you don’t know that the Cubs haven’t won a title since 1908, you must be a soccer fan.
Over the past few months, there have been some names added to the marquee, and hope has returned to soon-to-be-renovated Wrigley Field. It actually began in 2011, when Red Sox architect Theo Epstein took over the team’s front office, spawning a small delirium among those who expected he could erase the goat’s curse, just as he had made the Bambino’s go away. Since the first three years of Epstein’s regime produced a record of 200–286, North Siders weren’t exactly camped out along the parade route in anticipation of a championship celebration.
That changed during the fall, when Epstein took advantage of a crack in Joe Maddon’s contract and extricated the Tampa Bay manager from baseball’s discount store. Maddon made friends immediately by promising to talk of contending in 2015 and even tried to curry favor with the media with an offer to buy a round of drinks. (Q: What are a reporter’s favorite two beers? A: Free and Free Lite.) Suddenly, that magic touch Epstein was supposed to possess looked a little more legitimate. Maddon’s ability to keep the Rays in contention — and reach the 2008 World Series — with an ever-changing roster of young players whose contracts never reached luxury levels would no doubt help the Cubs grow.
“What does it mean to have a dynamic manager?” Epstein asked at the November press conference announcing Maddon’s arrival. “It means that you have the potential to have an edge in everything related to the events on the field. Whether it’s preparation, decision-making in the game, knowing you can get the most out of your players, trying to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. All those things … it’s really nice to just have complete trust and faith that the person in charge of running that on-field operation is going to put you in the best possible position.”
That sounds pretty good, and in Maddon the Cubs have a manager with the kind of track record guaranteed to attract respect in the dugout and wins on the field. In December, the party continued when Chicago outbid Boston, among other suitors, for the opportunity to pay 31-year-old left-handed starting pitcher Jon Lester $155 million over the next six years. It was the kind of splashy signing the Cubs hadn’t had for a while, and Lester’s decision to join the team demonstrated the faith he had in the organization’s push for success. He wanted to play for Maddon. He wanted to be with a club that had an abundance of young talent. And he didn’t seem one bit worried that it has been 107 years since Chicago last won it all.
Lester has posted a career mark of 116–67 in nine seasons with Boston and the A’s. He’s a three-time All-Star who has won 15 or more games six times, and he gives Chicago the No. 1 starter it has lacked. More than that, his decision to be a Cub validates Epstein’s efforts and provides a big reason for the team’s fans to get excited. When he was introduced, Lester sounded as if helping the team win a championship would be as satisfying for him as it would be for those Chicagolanders who have experienced so much diamond anguish over the past century-plus.
“It’s one of those things you put at the top of the list,” Lester said, referring to winning a World Series title. “To be a part of something like that would truly be special and unbelievable. Obviously, that’s our goal, to do that.”
Most baseball fans — even some on Chicago’s South Side — would agree that a Cubs World Series title would indeed be special. But after so many seasons, the unbelievable part is more appropriate. The franchise hasn’t just had a short run of misfortune, or even a long stretch of despair. This has been 107 years of misery. Sure, teams like the Mariners have never won a championship, but they have only been around since 1977. By then, the Cubs had endured 69 seasons of disappointment and at times comic failure. Their Wrigley home is “friendly,” but decades of day-only baseball might have contributed to the trouble. Then again, the Bartman playoff debacle took place at night. No one can pinpoint a reason for the failure; we just know the Cubs haven’t won it all for more than a century. Maddon and Lester are the biggest names on the latest edition trying to change that.
“Why wouldn’t you want to accept this challenge?” Maddon asked at his press conference. “In this city? In that ballpark? Under these circumstances, with this talent? It’s an extraordinary moment, not just in Cubs history, but also in baseball. This confluence of all these items coming together is pretty impressive.”
• • •
Maddon’s talk about contending for the NL Central title in 2015 is great Hot Stove fodder, and his track record and confidence have made the Cubs’ sales staff’s jobs much easier during the offseason. That’s what December and January are all about: the possibility of success. Maddon’s tenure in Tampa Bay gives him the bona fides in the dugout. But signing Lester and pitcher Jason Hammel — whom the Cubs traded away last year — and acquiring catcher Miguel Montero from the Diamondbacks aren’t necessarily enough to guarantee contention for a team that finished 2014 with a 73–89 record and was outscored by 93 runs.
That’s the reality behind the celebration. Chicago is headed in the right direction, but to herald the arrivals of Maddon and Lester as the final answers to a championship riddle simplifies the Cubs’ plight. There is really only one top-shelf hitter in the lineup — first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who hit .286 with 32 homers and a robust .527 slugging percentage (.913 OPS) last year. Fans may point to the excessive accumulation of talent in the Chicago farm system, and indeed Epstein has been hoarding young studs for future use or as trade bait. Names like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell may not mean a lot to fans in other cities, but Cubs supporters invoke them regularly as evidence of future success. The trouble is that they aren’t ready to be key pieces of a winner yet, and while Rizzo, Montero and shortstop Starlin Castro comprise a solid nucleus, too many of the others on the roster are not championship pieces. Even with Maddon in the dugout, it’s going to take some time.
“I like where we are as an organization,” Epstein says. “It’s nice to have an eye on competing, and we’re going to try to build it the right way and not force it or rush it. We’re mindful of the next offseason, as well as this offseason to find the right fits and the right moves and compete.”
If that doesn’t sound like a man who has job security, nothing does. Perhaps Epstein believes that if a city has waited more than a century for a championship, another few years won’t matter. But he is right that it’s important to build the right way. When quick fixes don’t deliver, a franchise is often left with a collection of underachieving veterans and no young talent on the horizon. By constructing a farm system that has been rated the majors’ best, Epstein has given the Cubs plenty of options. He can wait for the youngsters to blossom, or he can dish them for established stars. More likely, he will create a hybrid of new and old that is capable of winning for a while.
That’s why the Lester signing is so important. Chicago didn’t have to sacrifice any of its key pieces to get the top-of-rotation pitcher it needed. Lester has made at least 31 starts in each of the past seven seasons. Last year, he had a career-best 2.46 ERA with Boston and Oakland, and his 3.58 ERA in a career spent exclusively in the American League would indicate that the Cubs won big by signing Lester.
“This signing really marks a transition of sorts for the Cubs, the start of a period where we are clearly very serious about bringing a World Series to the Cubs and the people of Chicago,” Epstein said at Lester’s introductory press conference. “It’s a great day for our fans. They’ve been so patient with us, incredibly patient, over the past few years, and they truly deserve a pitcher and a person of this caliber to call their own.”
Epstein’s comments about a new chapter demonstrate that it is no longer time for assessing and accumulating potential future stars. This is his fourth year with the Cubs, and despite his praising the fans’ tolerance, it’s unlikely they will remain so docile if the next couple seasons don’t bring real progress. At a time when Pittsburgh can end a 21-year postseason drought with back-to-back playoff appearances, and Kansas City can reach the World Series, fans don’t want to hear too much talk about building, even if the Pirates and Royals did have long journeys to the postseason. There is a feeling that the NL Central is not as formidable as it once was, what with Ryan Braun’s post-suspension drop-off, Cincinnati’s pitching fire sale and St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina’s mortality-proving injury providing evidence that there is room to grow.
Make that win.
When Epstein took over the Cubs, he invited former Chicago pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, the 1984 NL Cy Young Award winner and three-time All-Star, to spring training and asked Sutcliffe to evaluate the team’s pitchers. Epstein probably wasn’t expecting a glowing report, but he couldn’t have been prepared for what he heard.
“I thought he would hit me when I told him the truth,” says Sutcliffe, who is now an ESPN analyst. “I told him that of the 60-some prospects I saw, there might have been three of them who could pitch in the majors.”
Sutcliffe has since seen the Cubs’ farm system develop into one of the best — if not the best — in the business. “I don’t think Theo would trade his farm system for anyone else’s,” Sutcliffe says. But someone has to take that talent and translate it to a successful team on the field. That’s where Maddon comes in. It’s not an understatement to say that he did some remarkable things in Tampa Bay. Five of his nine teams won 90 games or more, and four reached the postseason. And it was all accomplished without big-money stars or collections of proven veteran winners. Tampa Bay would hold on to its young talent as long as it could before free agency and then try to get something for it to avoid paying big money. Trying to win consistently under that constriction is not easy, yet Maddon did it.
“Being able to bring Joe Maddon is way above signing Jon Lester,” Sutcliffe says. “He has a proven ability to evaluate, and someone has to evaluate for the team to evolve. Nobody did it better or quicker than Joe Maddon did it in Tampa Bay.
“He has his five steps of success, and the fifth step is, ‘All I want to do is win.’”
Managers don’t hit or pitch. They don’t field or throw, but they are responsible for everything else on a team. During his time in Tampa, Maddon developed a reputation for knowing how to handle players, individually and as a group. He never showed up his team, and he always appeared — and by all accounts was — in control. Sutcliffe is right that adding Maddon is much bigger than signing Lester. First off, Lester only throws every fifth day. Maddon is in the dugout, clubhouse and office every game — and on off days, too. Secondly, without Maddon, there is no Lester in Chicago.
“When you make a statement like bringing in a Joe Maddon, that just adds to the decision-making,” Lester said about his choice to join the Cubs. “Makes it that much more interesting.”
Plenty of people in the Rays’ orbit groused about Maddon’s departure, since it came during a tiny window of availability. For many people, he was the franchise’s personality, with his northeastern Pennsylvania working-class sensibility, serial unflappability and ability to keep Tampa Bay in contention no matter how elastic his team’s roster was. He is now the Cubs’ face, and the team is elated that he has taken on that responsibility.
“Joe is a combination of just about everything we look for in a manager,” Epstein says. “Everyone associates him with new school, because they’ve used analytics in Tampa, and he’s so open-minded and progressive. But this is an old-school baseball guy with a wealth of knowledge. It’s hard to find that. It’s hard to find old-school and new-school in the same package.”
The Cubs have found that in Maddon. Now, all he has to do is lead the team to a World Series title.
What could be so hard about that?
— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports
Chris Paul is the president of the NBA Players Association — better known as the union — and LeBron James was recently named the vice president.
But the fearless leader of the organization is undoubtedly 58-year-old lawyer Michele Roberts, who continued to prove herself as a hard-liner in a recent interview with ESPN W’s Kate Fagan. The most telling piece of Fagan’s story was Roberts’ thoughts on media availability.
"Most of the time I go to the locker room, the players are there and there are like eight or nine reporters just standing there, just staring at them," Roberts said to Fagan. "And I think to myself, 'OK, so this is media availability?' If you don't have a f---ing question, leave, because it's an incredible invasion of privacy. It's a tremendous commitment that we've made to the media — are there ways we can tone it down? Of course. It's very dangerous to suggest any limitation on media's access to players, but let's be real about some of this stuff.
"I've asked about a couple of these guys, 'Does he ask you a question?' 'Nah, he just stands there.' And when I go in there to talk to the guys, I see them trying to listen to my conversation, and I don't think that's the point of media availability. If nothing else, I would like to have a rule imposed, 'If you have a question, ask it; if you don't, leave.' Sometimes, they're waiting for the marquee players. I get that, but there is so much standing around."
This one’s a prickly pear. The press has classically been an instrumental part of the NBA product, but revolutions in technology and media have made it increasingly easier for players to reach their fans directly — be it through social media or otherwise. Reporters who used to be essential middlemen are now fighting a difficult battle, in which it’s harder and harder to prove that their place in the locker room results in salient material.
For what it’s worth, I’ve been in a number of NBA locker rooms, a number of times, and yes: it’s awkward. Gigantic men covering themselves with puny towels before and after showers — and before they do their very difficult jobs — are not the best conversationalists, and quote-hungry reporters don’t tend to ask questions that exactly ease the tension of the situation.
Roberts, though, is simply playing a form of hardball that looks likely to be a trend for her in this new role. While the current system of media availability leaves some emotional comfort to be desired, and while it could very well be wise to reform the existing format, there are definitely more important fights to be fought in the name of players — like the probably impending work bargaining in 2017.
— John Wilmes
Fear not baseball fans — Sunshine and warmer weather are on their way, and spring training is knocking on Old Man Winter’s door. Thankfully, it is almost time for baseball, as camps are in full gear in Arizona and Florida.
Many players are getting acclimated to new spring training surroundings, as these past few months proved to be busy for general managers, agents and players alike. Between blockbuster trades and free agents signing robust contracts with new teams, there has been no lack of player movement this offseason.
Lucky for you, Athlon Sports has kept a close watch on the MLB Hot Stove while you’ve been shoveling snow. So get your pencils and scorebooks ready as we list the Five National League Players on New Teams to Watch in 2015.
Max Scherzer, SP, Washington Nationals
It seemed like a foregone conclusion that the 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner was going to test the free agent market this offseason after Scherzer turned down a six-year, $144 million contract offer from Detroit last March. Instead of re-signing with the Tigers and fighting for a fifth straight AL Central division title, Scherzer headed to the National League and Capitol Hill, as he penned a seven-year deal worth approximately $210 million with Washington.
Last season the Nationals were the poplar pick to win the NL pennant, and rest assured they will be even more favored in 2015 with the addition of Scherzer. The Nats’ 2014 rotation was special, but this season has the opportunity to be historic. Manager Matt Williams’ starting five will feature (in some order) Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister, a teammate of Scherzer’s on the Tigers in 2011-13. While some in-season tinkering cannot be ruled out, if this quintet lives up to lofty expectations, it could be a historic season on the mound for the Nationals. And hopefully, it also will produce winning results in October.
With the Braves in full-on rebuilding mode and the Mets and Marlins considered fringe postseason contenders, the NL East is the Nationals’ to lose, and all eyes will be fully fixed on their new $210 million dollar ace.
Matt Kemp, OF, San Diego Padres
Four years ago Matt Kemp was the darling of MLB after he fell one home run short of the elusive 40/40 club and posted a slash line of .324/.399/.586 along with 126 RBIs, 115 runs, 195 hits, 353 total bases, an OPS of .986 and an OPS+ of 172. Sadly, Kemp fell short in the MVP voting to Ryan Braun, who was suspended 65 games in 2013 for his part in the Biogenesis scandal.
What’s even more despairing is that Kemp has never been the same since that 2011 season. Kemp, who is easily one of the most genuine and likable guys in sports today, was robbed of his prime due to constant, nagging injuries. Kemp has yet to top 30 homers, 100 RBIs, or 10 stolen bases since his near-MVP campaign, and baseball has been lesser for it.
In 2014, Kemp had a resurgence. He appeared in 150 games for the Dodgers, hitting .287/.346/.506 with 25 homers, 89 RBIs and 38 doubles. The bat was back for Kemp, but the range and defensive prowess in the outfield and speed on the base paths weren’t the same. The recipient of two Gold Gloves as a center fielder, Kemp spent most of his time manning the corner outfield spots last season, which led to noticeable frustration with manager Don Mattingly.
Kemp is now 30, suffering from arthritis in both hips, and is just one of three brand-new outfielders San Diego acquired in the offseason, along with Wil Myers and Justin Upton. Kemp swears his hips won’t be a nuisance, that he’s happy in his new home, and ready for a full slate in 2015. Kemp and the Padres might be the biggest question marks coming into spring training. Most pundits don't know what to make of new Padres GM A.J. Preller’s extensive roster makeover, but here’s hoping that we witness the next chapter of the Matt Kemp Comeback that began in 2014. Baseball is better when Kemp is at his best.
Wil Myers, OF, San Diego Padres
Speaking of the Padres’ outfield…It’s funny how baseball works itself out. In December 2012 Myers, a third-round draft pick by Kansas City, was shipped to Tampa Bay for pitchers Wade Davis and James Shields. Last season, Shields and Davis helped the Royals reach their first World Series since 1985, while Myers was named the AL Rookie of the Year in 2013 when he hit .293/.354/.478 with 13 homers, 23 doubles and an OPS of .831 in just 88 games for the Rays.
After a disastrous 2014 in which Myers hit just .222 in 87 games due to a broken wrist, the Rays shipped him to San Diego in December in a three-team trade that also involved the Nationals. The funny thing is, Shields also wound up in a Padres uniform after signing a four-year, $75 million free-agent contract a few weeks ago. See, baseball is a funny game.
Myers, like fellow new teammate Matt Kemp, is looking for somewhat of a resurrection on the West Coast. Myers has already been named the starting center fielder by skipper Bud Black, and will find a spot somewhere in the heart of the lineup. Perhaps the opportunity of a fresh start in San Diego will be welcomed by Myers, who was tabbed as a “can’t miss” prospect. However, the increased expectations of the new-look Padres could be a bit cumbersome for a player who just turned 24 in December and has yet to play a full season in the majors.
Jon Lester, SP, Chicago Cubs
As if breaking a 107-year old curse wasn’t stressful enough, tack on the pressure of $155 million over six seasons for a 31-year old pitcher. No big deal, right? Oh, don’t forget the eyes of the entire baseball world are upon Wrigley Field, as some publications are picking the Cubs as a World Series contender. Not to mention Chicago is home to one of the most loyal, obsessed, and passionate fan bases in all of sports. No pressure, Mr. Lester — no pressure at all.
Theo Epstein and the Cubs’ brass, and their rabid fans, are ready to start winning, and start winning now. The signing of one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball over the past decade is proof of this win-now mindset. After three seasons of sub-.500 baseball, prospect collecting, sign-and-trades, and big contract expulsion, the Cubs finally made their power play to sign Lester, the ace they so desperately needed. But there are still too many questions for this team before we anoint them as World Series-bound.
The Cubs know what they’ve got in Lester, a pure professional who has improved with age, who commands the strike zone as well as any pitcher, and delivers 200-plus innings of work.
Lester isn’t the issue. This issue is most of this Cubs lineup is still wildly unproven. Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Addison Russell, and Kris Bryant are all fantastic prospects but none of them have a full season of big-league ball on their resumes. Heck, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are considered cornerstones, but are just 25 and 24 years old, respectively. That is a lot of pressure to put on a team built with kids in their early 20s.
The only way this contract proves to be a winner is if the Cubs win —Duh, right? But if Lester lights up the NL only to see the offense falter, the deal is a wash. If the Cubs’ young lineup lives up to the hype, but it’s Lester who doesn’t deliver over time, the deal will be regarded as too pricey for the results.
The only way this deal works is by winning an NL pennant, which seems plausible. But who are we kidding — it’s the Cubs we’re talking about. No matter the outcome of the 2015 season, the signing of Lester will be the signature of the Epstein regime in Chicago, for better or worse.
Jason Heyward, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Remember when Heyward homered in his first big league at-bat off of Carlos Zambrano in 2010? Remember how quickly Heyward was anointed as the next big thing? That seems so long ago…
Since 2010, when Heyward finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting, his inaugural batting average of .277 hasn't gotten higher than .271. Heyward’s power numbers are also a thing of the past, not hitting more than 15 homers or driving in 70 runs or more in three of the past four seasons. In his career, Heyward has never slugged over .500.
Maybe it’s time to simply accept that Heyward isn’t the big bat we all thought he might turn into. He did show flashes of what could be in 2012 when he hit 27 homers and drove in 82 runs, but has totaled just 25 homers and 96 RBIs the last two seasons.
The falling numbers and the Braves’ rebuild made Heyward expendable to the new Atlanta brass. After the death of elite prospect Oscar Taveras, the Cardinals needed outfield help, and Hayward became a perfect trade target — great glove with possible offensive upside.
Heyward, a first-round pick in 2007 and two-time Gold Glove winner, will only strengthen what already is one of the NL’s better defensive teams. If Heyward can tap into what worked at the plate in 2010 and ‘12, that would be a much-needed bonus for a Cardinals offense that lacked consistent run-producers a season ago.
Heyward’s glove has never been a question, which begs another question — where does Heyward’s bat fit in this lineup? Lead off? Second? Fifth? Seventh?
Heyward is just 25 years young, yet this will be his sixth season in The Show, so he’s no longer a kid in baseball time. The Cardinals, ripe with experienced veterans, are looking for Heyward to be the player that he was projected to be just a few seasons ago. How will Heyward respond in the baseball-crazed city of St. Louis?
- By Jake Rose
Not since the 1950’s has the NBA seen a team have consecutive MVP campaigns from two different players. Bob Cousy won it for the Boston Celtics in 1957, followed by Bill Russell in 1958.
The Oklahoma City Thunder currently look as close to matching that feat as anyone has since. With reigning MVP Kevin Durant sidelined about half of the year with foot issues, point guard Russell Westbrook has all but put the team on his back with his terrific play.
Westbrook has missed a number of games himself — 14, to be exact — or else he’d be mentioned as frequently as Steph Curry and ex-teammate James Harden in the MVP conversation. Russell’s been one of the very best players around this year — scoring at will, distributing with as much poise as ever, and affecting offenses from all angles with his relentless defensive athleticism.
Only Anthony Davis has a higher player efficiency rating than Westbrook’s 29.25 mark, as No. 0 is also second in the NBA in scoring — behind only Harden — fifth in assists, second in steals and first among fellow point guards in rebounding.
And, as has long been the case, Westbrook’s signature emotional style has keyed his team. The Thunder rally around his ceaseless energy and swagger, and perhaps no superstar can say they do a better job of leading by example in the intensity department.
The missing games and the Thunder’s relatively low .554 winning percentage are the best arguments against Westbrook’s candidacy. But if Durant continues to miss time and OKC keeps up their current pace (they’ve won eight of their last ten) with Westbrook’s excellence at the lead, more heads will start turning.
Whether or not Russell grabs the coveted trophy, though, he’s certainly playing at a level that has the rest of the league on edge as we approach the postseason.
— John Wilmes
The NBA has experienced a lot of bad injury news lately — Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Chris Bosh, Kobe Bryant and Blake Griffin are all out of action at the moment.
But the latest development might be the hardest to swallow. Perennially injured 2011 MVP Derrick Rose has a torn meniscus in his right knee; the same one he tore in November of 2013, causing him to miss all but ten games of the season a year after missing every game due to a torn ACL in his left knee, suffered in the first game of a promising Chicago Bulls postseason run.
There’s no denying it at this point: Rose is a tragic figure. Like Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill and Brandon Roy before him, the 26-year-old Chicago native is chock full of the kind of talent that truly gets fans’ butts moving, but he simply can’t stay healthy for long enough to wield that skill in important moments. The promise of Rose’s scintillating early career has been broken by the cruel hand of fate, and the NBA and its fans are all worse off for it.
Social media experienced an outpouring of sympathy and upset feelings that reached levels of nausea, when the news hit last night. Competitors, allies, and neutral bystanders alike all hate to see this happen, again and again.
The Bulls, in the meantime, haven’t announced a ton about Rose’s status. His surgery will be scheduled, and a timetable for a return will be determined when it is complete. Rose and his team opted for a full repair to the meniscus when he tore it last time, which made a longer career more likely. But, depending on how things look when the doctors dig in, a quicker “clean-up” procedure may be the better option, and may allow Rose to return in time for the playoffs. Stay tuned as this story progresses.
— John Wilmes
A little more than two weeks before Madison Bumgarner strong-armed the Kansas City Royals in Game 7 of the World Series, before he took the ball on two days of rest and refused to give it back till long past sundown, before he carved himself into an October legend and before he beckoned the San Francisco Giants to their third victory parade in five seasons, he stood on a mound on the opposite side of the state of Missouri.
And a disturbing thought crossed his mind.
“This is their inning,” said Bumgarner, as he faced the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS. “Regardless of whether I gave them anything to hit or any momentum, I kind of figured they’d feel they had some.”
It was the seventh inning, and although the Cardinals trailed 3–0, they were threatening. The red-clad crowd filled Busch Stadium with noise after Yadier Molina singled on a first-pitch fastball and Jon Jay poked a blooper on a two-strike slider. The Giants had one out, and swollen eardrums, and one very unsettling bit of knowledge: This was when the Cardinals wrecked Clayton Kershaw. Twice.
“I had to tell myself, ‘OK, I’ve got to make a pitch and keep this thing from unraveling,’” Bumgarner said.
He did more than that. He lowered his shoulder while covering first base on Kolten Wong’s grounder, veering in front of the baseline like a stock car driving an opponent into the wall. Wong bounced off him like a spring. Then Bumgarner overpowered Tony Cruz with a high fastball to strand two runners in scoring position.
And he walked off the mound. Something that Kershaw, the greatest pitcher on the planet, couldn’t do. Either time.
“We don’t necessarily put a star by the seventh inning or anything,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “We just know that we stay the course, and we needed someone to come up there and get a big hit for us. And Madison Bumgarner was good today. He kept us from having that big inning.”
That was just one unyielding moment from a postseason of pure brawn and bravado that the modern game had never witnessed before. Bumgarner reached all the way back with that slinging delivery of his and snuffed out one opponent after another.
No matter how far you reached back, you couldn’t find a more dominant October pitching performance in baseball history. Bumgarner threw 52.2 innings over four playoff rounds, the heaviest load ever, and posted a 1.03 ERA.
When the Giants faced elimination in the wild card showdown at Pittsburgh, Bumgarner walked into the black-shirted din of PNC Park and played a funeral dirge. He threw a four-hit shutout and struck out 10.
When the Giants needed an ace to step up against the Cardinals, the team that had just taken a car crusher to Kershaw, Bumgarner zipped through with a pair of victories. Then he dominated the Royals in both his World Series starts, throwing a four-hit shutout in Game 5.
And when the Giants found themselves in dire straits amid baseball’s ultimate winner-take-all game, Bumgarner trotted from the bullpen on two days of rest, commandeered the ball and protected a one-run lead over five shutout innings.
The Giants did something that hadn’t been accomplished in the World Series since 1979: They won a Game 7 on the road.
What Bumgarner did was unmatched, period.
He became the first pitcher in history to record two wins and a save in a single World Series, striking out 17 and walking one while yielding just one run to the Royals over 21 innings. And a five-inning save in the Fall Classic? That was flat-out ridiculous. No pitcher had ever come close to such a feat. Heck, it hadn’t been done in a regular-season game in 12 years.
“At one point I looked at the pitch count and thought to myself, ‘Why are you even worried about it?’” Giants GM Brian Sabean said. “With each inning, he was getting stronger. He was getting more and more into their heads.”
And why wouldn’t he? Just 72 hours earlier, Bumgarner had thrown a four-hit, 117-pitch shutout against them in Game 5 — the first World Series shutout since Josh Beckett in 2003, and the first no-walk Series shutout since Kansas City’s own Bret Saberhagen in 1985.
There was no doubt in manager Bruce Bochy’s mind that Bumgarner would be a factor out of the bullpen in Game 7. He envisioned two innings, maybe three. When Tim Hudson lasted just five outs, though, the plan changed. Jeremy Affeldt, whose 22 consecutive scoreless postseason appearances rank one behind Mariano Rivera for the all-time record, stabilized matters over his 2.1 innings. The Giants scratched out a one-run lead.
Bumgarner was next, and Bochy let him go. On 68 pitches, 50 for strikes, he took them further than anyone thought possible.
“I was thinking maybe if he could get through the eighth, that would be amazing,” Giants catcher Buster Posey said. “But he got stronger. He got locked in. I asked him during that first inning — he wasn’t too crisp — so it’s, ‘Hey, are you OK?’ And he goes ‘(grunt) Yeah, man, I just gotta get loose.’”
Earlier in the series, Royals manager Ned Yost joked that his three-closer bullpen of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland allowed him to turn off his brain in the late innings. With Bumgarner, Bochy could spend the game in a hammock.
That’s what made Bumgarner’s performance so remarkable. In an era of accelerating bullpen specialization, and in a series between two teams that were masterful at shortening a game, Bumgarner kicked it old school. There was no need to play matchups. Bochy had the best percentage play in the ballpark.
“I mean, you have to say, ‘Is there anybody I have to put in this game better than what I’ve got out there?’” Hudson said. “And there ain’t. He’s the best player on the field any time he’s on the mound.”
Said Bumgarner: “You want to finish the game. That is the ultimate goal, to go out and give them innings. I feel like if you throw a lot of innings, all the other stuff will take care of itself.”
It didn’t work out so well for most every other ace in the postseason — especially Kershaw, who let those two leads slip away against the Cardinals and ended up getting hit for 11 runs in 12.2 innings. It was a stunning pair of outcomes for a pitcher who was 21–3 with a 1.77 ERA and would go on to win a unanimous Cy Young Award as well as become the first NL starting pitcher to take home league MVP honors since Bob Gibson in 1968. Bumgarner couldn’t lay claim to being the best left-handed pitcher in his own division, and because the Giants couldn’t catch the Dodgers, they had to sneak into the playoffs.
It didn’t matter. If Bochy’s teams have proved anything over the last five years, it’s that anyone with an October entry stamp can win the prize.
Bumgarner already owned World Series victories over the Texas Rangers (as a 21-year-old rookie) in 2010 and the Detroit Tigers in 2012, when he combined to allow those teams just five hits over 15 shutout innings.
After he accepted his World Series MVP trophy in Kansas City, his career 0.25 ERA in the Fall Classic ranked as the lowest in World Series history for pitchers with a minimum of 25 innings. Bumgarner became the first pitcher to win his first four World Series starts since Lew Burdette in 1957-58.
“In the history of the game there have been some great efforts, guys that have (thrown) three games and things like that,” Bochy said. “But I haven’t seen a better pitcher over the course of this postseason, and it’s been a pretty long one. To do what he’s done is pretty historic, I think.”
And to think — it all could’ve been lost had Bumgarner slipped up once to the last batter he faced. The Giants made an error with two outs in the ninth that allowed Alex Gordon to race all the way to third base representing the tying run. Salvador Perez, who hit a solo home run off Bumgarner in Game 1, stepped to the plate with a chance to win it.
Bumgarner didn’t want to risk bouncing a curveball. He wasn’t going to give in with anything over the plate. He threw high fastballs, one after the other, and the sixth heater resulted in a foul pop for the final out.
You’d never know, as Bumgarner overpowered the final hitter of the 2014 baseball season, that he had thrown a grand total of 270 innings — the most by a Giant in 41 years.
“He just … he did what he wanted with the baseball,” Posey said. “That’s the simplest way I can describe it.”
— Written by Andy Baggarly for Athlon Sports
Rory McIlroy may have history on his mind when he drives up Magnolia Lane in early April, but good luck getting him to verbalize it. Golf’s No. 1 player remains steadfastly in the moment, and while he may indulge in a little private goal-setting, he’s not about to broadcast his specific plans for this year’s majors to the world. Writer Bernie McGuire sat down with Rory in Dubai earlier this year, at the dawn of what could be a historic 2015. This interview appears in the 2015 edition of Athlon Sports Golf Annual; order your copy here.
What are your goals for 2015?
There’s always little goals and it’s always the process goals that are most important. But then it should be obvious what any golfer’s goals are at the start of a New Year: winning tournaments, winning majors.
It’s the little things that you can do in practice and just in everyday life that can maybe help you get to that and be a little bit more consistent and do a couple more things.
Every year, I’m flying here to Dubai, and I do a week of prep or ten days of preparation in Dubai before this tournament, so I will write my goals down on the back of my boarding pass, and I put it in my wallet and I memorize them. But I don’t look at them until the end of the year.
So in my back pocket in my wallet is a boarding pass with my goals for this year. I don’t really want to share them with anyone else. They are just my little goals, and I’ll try and achieve those, and I’ll take that boarding pass out at the end of the year and see how well I’ve done.
With The Masters not that far away, do you feel the excitement building, and are there things you’re working on now thinking ahead to Augusta?
Even with The Masters just a matter of months away now I am trying not even to think too hard given I seem to be asked about it every week.
But then I’m working on everything that will ensure I am prepared for Augusta. I’m just trying to make everything as good as it possibly can be. But I guess maybe there’s a few things that I’m happy with in my game that, say, if Augusta was to roll around next week, I would be happy going there knowing that I’m hitting the ball the way I want to.
So it’s important just to put in some good performances before that and get into contention and feel what it’s like in the heat of the moment, because that’s when you really know how your game is and how it holds up under some pressure.
I will have a few tournaments before heading to Augusta to do that and hopefully I can, and that will really let me know where my game is heading into the first major of the year.
In strokes gained, putting on the PGA Tour you went from 117th in 2013 to 41st last year. What did you do to improve?
I figured something out by myself on the sixth green at Augusta on the Sunday of The Masters. My alignment was a little bit off and I just started doing a couple of things in my routine.
I putt a lot with a mirror that people have probably seen me with on the putting green. I am just trying to put a little more structure around it I guess, and it’s really helped.
I got to the point at The Masters last year where I really was — I just wasn’t comfortable with it and I needed to go in a new direction and started to work a bit on my own again. I actually consulted my good friend, Harry Diamond, and we worked a little bit on it, when I went home for a couple of weeks after The Masters and I’ve just kept with it ever since.
What area of your game are you looking to improve this year then?
Everything I guess. One area of my game that I could probably get better at is my wedge play from 80 to 130 yards because I do leave myself a lot of shots from that distance. And if I’m driving the ball well, I feel like for the most part, I do take advantage, but even if it saves me one or two strokes a tournament where I can just get my wedge play a little sharper, it could make a big difference.
It’s something I’ve been trying to work on a little bit the last few weeks, and you know, as I say, I’m very comfortable with how I’m driving the ball so I’m giving myself plenty of chances.
So it is from that particular distance and it’s being as efficient as I possibly can converting those chances and not being wasteful.
"In my back pocket in my wallet is a boarding pass with my goals for this year written on it. I’ll take that boarding pass out at the end of the year and see how well I’ve done."
Does the thought of a single-season Grand Slam ever cross your mind?
I have not thought of winning the four majors in a single season, so I will have to pass on that one.
Who would you pay to go and watch play golf?
Bubba Watson. You will get a whole golf bag full of excitement and amazement watching Bubba play.
Who would say are your best friends on Tour?
Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler, and I get on really well with Keegan Bradley.
Who would be in your dream foursome?
My dad, Harry Diamond (Rory’s childhood friend) and probably Sean (O’Flaherty), my manager.
Who is the best non-pro you have played alongside?
I’ve played with a lot of celebrities, some great sports people and some great amateurs, but probably the President at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Jimmy Dunne. He’s a great guy, and I was playing there with Tiger in November and we had a great time.
Who would you choose to hole a 10-foot putt for all the cash?
Other than myself? Then Luke Donald.
What is your favorite club in the bag?
My driver. Just simply because of the distance I can drive the ball off the tee and how that club is then so pivotal to every other shot I play at a particular hole when using the driver.
This driver in my bag (the Nike Vapor) is the best driver I’ve had for a long while and I couldn’t be happier with it.
What is a normal workout routine for you?
Sixty minutes in the morning, and with 30 minutes of that working on quads. Though I am watching the clock after 10 minutes, I have to say (smiles). Then around 90 minutes in the gym in the afternoon or early evening.
What is your normal practice routine?
I usually get to the course spending about an hour or so on the range and then it’s the usual procedure like the majority of pros. I might hit a few bunker shots before spending about 20 minutes or so on the practice putting green, so from there I’m ready to go to the first tee.
What impact has Michael Bannon (Rory’s lifelong swing coach) had on your game?
Michael is a pretty good player in his own right, and it’s nice to have chats with him about course management, and if he watches me play a tournament, I’ll talk about, well, I was thinking about playing this shot into this pin but really I should have been playing this shot.
Just little things like that, little tiny, minute details not a lot of people would talk about but that he would pick up on. He knows my game pretty well; he’s been coaching me for 20 years.
So I clearly owe a lot of my success to him, and we work really well together. I’m looking forward to catching up with him in Florida in a couple weeks’ time to prepare for the start of the tournaments over there.
Can you talk about your relationship with Tiger Woods?
We had played alongside each other a few times but I never got the chance to really have an in-depth discussion with Tiger until we were grouped together in the 2012 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and it has evolved since then.
I think we have a lot of things in common. We are huge sports fans and that’s a strong common thread in our friendship.
Since that Abu Dhabi grouping it’s been great for me to get to know Tiger better, and I’ve been fortunate playing alongside him many times since then to pick up a few things and learn a few things.
Tiger was a huge hero of mine when I was growing up, so getting to know him and getting to compete against him has always been a huge dream of mine. So now to spend time hanging around with him, and getting to know him so much better, is something I find pretty cool.
He transformed the image of golf. He made it a younger sport and single-handedly attracted more young people to take up the game of golf.
What is your favourite golf course?
Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. It is one of the truly great links golf courses. I sort of grew up playing the course.
I was 16 when I contested the North of Ireland Amateur Open, and I shot a course-record 61. I can still virtually remember every shot I played that day. I missed a 6-footer on the first for birdie, so it could have been even better.
That was nearly 10 years ago and while it’s a different course now, as there’s a few new tee boxes, it’s still a fabulous golf course and such a fantastic setting. I just love so much the chance to play the course.
They’ve made the decision the Open Championship is returning to Royal Portrush, and given the reception the 2013 Irish Open received in being staged at the course, it is just going to be amazing to play an Open Championship on one of the greatest links courses in the world.
6. Sacramento Kings
The Kings have done a lot of dumb things. When they fired head coach Mike Malone, replaced him with Ty Corbin, and then excused Corbin in favor of George Karl, it made for five coaches over five years. That’s no way to build momentum around their premier center DeMarcus Cousins, especially when you consider that the team has paired him with an even larger number of starting point guards over that period. Having Cousins — a top-ten talent — on the roster is a great start to something good in northern California, and so was the hire of Karl. But the Kings have a lot to prove before we recognize them as moving in any one direction.
5. Orlando Magic
The Magic have a lot of young, exciting talent in Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris and more. But when they fired coach Jacque Vaughn, it raised questions. Not so much about why Vaughn was fired, but about why the move took so long. The Magic have consistently been one of basketball’s worst teams since Dwight Howard left town in 2012, and there’s been a lack of progress despite the collection of some good, if unseasoned, pieces through the draft. That the exhausting Scott Skiles has been named as a potential replacement for Vaughn in the fall isn’t exactly encouraging, and Magic fans are left wondering if their front office knows how to make anything work.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have one thing on their side: history. They’re one of the most dominant sport organizations in world history, and there’s no shortage of talented young men who grew up with stars in their eyes for Kobe, Shaq, Magic, Kareem and the rest. But with mastermind owner Jerry Buss gone and his kids running the show, many are starting to wonder whether there’s any plan in place for the Lakers that goes beyond “hey, free agents will want to come here.” At some point, general manager Mitch Kupchak has to prove he isn’t merely a pawn of the directionless Jim Buss, and make some moves that point to a brighter future.
3. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets showed some self-awareness at the trade deadline, dealing away JaVale McGee and Arron Afflalo for some more future-oriented goods. They’ve also got one of the best young big men in the game: Jusuf Nurkic. But they’re still a mishmash of okay talent that lacks cohesion, with a head coach who can’t communicate with them in Brian Shaw. Denver has a chance to restart this summer and go all-in on a fire sale — but until they do, what we’re looking at is a team stuck in the mud.
2. New York Knicks
Phil Jackson hasn’t exactly proved his skeptics wrong as the Knicks’ top executive yet. He’s looked out-of-touch in the modern NBA, lacking an understanding of the commodity exchange game that general managers must play to stay competitive. Most of the core he inherited is gone via trade already, and hardly anyone can see what value the zen master got back for his departed roster. Clearing the deck may be of some currently invisible value, as the Knicks’ culture has long been broken, but there’s still no indication that Jackson can build a happy house over the earth he’s scorching, and do it around a possibly declining — and probably overpaid — Carmelo Anthony.
1. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets balked at the trade deadline, failing to unload any of the onerous contracts that have sent them into the NBA’s financial cellar with a team that’s struggling to compete for a low-end playoff spot, in a historically bad Eastern Conference. Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are all still useful players, but each has been beset with injuries and undue expectations, and none of them seem to be exactly blossoming under old-school head coach Lionel Hollins. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov has shifted his focus from winning, to trying to turn his team back into a profiting one after sinking them into the cellar by giving general manager Billy King too much money and freedom to work with. The Nets are without quality draft picks, elite talent, or optimism.
— John Wilmes
Reigning MVP Kevin Durant is sidelined indefinitely after a minor surgery, done to repair a screw in his foot, which was put there earlier in the season due to a Jones fracture. Durant has missed 29 of the Thunder’s 56 games this season, with his protracted absences being a major reason why they’ve had to claw at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture, after many forecasted them to win conference — or even a championship — in October.
Durant will be re-evaluated in another week, according to ESPN’s Royce Young, but the expectation is that No. 35 will be back to the floor before the regular season is over.
More alarming than the Thunder’s prospects for this season, though, is the state of Durant’s body. The Jones fracture has undone men before K.D., and many believed OKC was rushing their star back to action when Durant returned on December 2. It may seem like a win-now moment for the Thunder after two straight postseason runs spoiled by bad injury luck, but no single-season goal could possibly be as important as the long-term health of one the game’s most gifted scorers ever.
Regardless of how OKC handles Durant’s continued foot issues, though, there’s this to lean on: Teammate Russell Westbrook is having an MVP-like season, leading his team to victories with a 29.24 player efficiency rating that currently ranks second in the league.
And with the new weapons they have in Kanter, Singler and Augustin, K.D. should take his sweet, sweet time as the Thunder look prepared to hold strong to the West’s eighth playoff spot. Their competition for the seed has taken a hit, as the recently reshuffled Phoenix Suns attempt a recalibration at the worst possible time and the New Orleans Pelicans sink without the injured Anthony Davis.
— John Wilmes
Brand equity. Brand awareness. Brand image. These are all economic terms that overlap, exist in a nebulous world and don’t directly impact the bean counters.
As the media world has grown over the last half century, so has the understanding of concepts like advertising, marketing and, of course, branding. So things like tag lines — “I’m loving it” or “We pick you up” — and brand logos are born. A company’s logo is still the most recognizable, most direct way to separate itself from its competitors.
Major League Baseball is no different. Since Athlon Sports has been producing the best-looking magazine on newsstands for the better part of five decades, we feel qualified to offer our opinions on all 30 MLB team logos for 2015.
To do so, we let our graphic design guru and magazine designer Daly Cantrell do the honors and here is what she thinks of the current roster of MLB logos:
|1.||The Tigers logo stands on its own, which makes it easy to see on a page, uniform, etc. It doesn’t need any words or extra colors to communicate what it represents. It's simple, yet creative and has an old-school feel, which is great to see.|
|2.||This is definitely a favorite. I am a huge fan of the script type and love the lines that show movement in the ball. I also, like that the lines do not interfere with the text. It’s a feminine approach on a masculine logo that works well without emasculating it|
|3.||Classic, yet unique. The repetition in the curvature of both the Cubs C and the circle surrounding it make for a visually pleasing logo. This is an example of an effective circle logo.|
|4.||I am a sucker for simplicity explored in a creative, unique way. The Angels logo is just that. The A stands alone and represents the Angels without any extra words. It’s both classic and compelling.|
|5.||I enjoy the use of a script typeface in this Orioles logo. The lowlights of the black are done correctly making the orange pop. However, the cartoon bird logo that they wear on their hats needs to go. Now.|
|6.||This is a great example of a circle logo that includes a good amount of text. Circle logos seem to be an easy fix, but doing them correctly is the challenge. The text is readable, the blue jay is well seen and the white background allows the colors to pop. It's a memorable look.|
It's timeless and it works. The only thing I might change is make the stroke a little less on the words, that way the blue doesn’t overpower the red.
|8.||I am a fan of the balance in the Cardinals logo. Originally, I thought having two birds was a little much, but it makes the logo stand out more and keeps a great balance.|
Another well-designed logo that stands on its own. What makes it different is the placement of the letters. By angling them it creates a unique feel to a simple logo.
|10.||I really like the shape of the Reds logo. This shape makes it stand out and not seem like a regular circle logo.|
|11.||This logo is pretty interesting because of the use of the team's colors, but bravo - I think they were used correctly, which makes the logo stand out. Personally, I would take the words Miami out.|
|12.||I am a huge fan of the shape of this logo. Inside the base-like shape, it gets a little cluttered when made smaller. I would probably make the bell a light grey so the letters stood out more.|
|13.||I’m personally not a huge fan of this logo but it's a classic. You can’t just change a classic and I'm giving points for the amazing "N-Y" emblem as well.|
|14.||This is a very visually compelling logo, but if my young eyes can’t read it then that’s a problem.|
|15.||This logo isn’t bad, it just needs to be simplified (of course). The lettering can stay the same, but the pirate is too detailed.|
|16.||This isn’t horrible — but it would be much better if it wasn’t in a circle logo. Simplifying this logo to only the A would make the A, which is the brand, stick out more than the circle logo as a whole.|
|17.||Just like the A's, this logo should be simplified. I would keep the circle, but take out the baseball and just make it a white circle. This way the T would be more distinguishable and your eyes would not get lost in the threads of the baseball.|
|18.||Could be better. The KC part of the logo could stand by itself and so could the Royals part of the logo. To me, these seem like two logos combined, which complicate things. Pick one, or the other please.|
|19.||This is another case of a logo that could easily be simplified. The text of the logo says “Minnesota Baseball Club” — that is 21 letters too long. Stick with just “Twins” in the center and make it stand out.|
|20.||Does anyone else look at the Nationals W and see the Walgreens W? Be more creative than this, because all I think of when I see this is a pharmacy. Other than that the logo is very well done.|
|21.||Simplify, Simplify, Simplify. This logo is too dark — there is too much blue. This is a prime example where taking the SD out of the circle would make it a much better marketing tool.|
|22.||I’m not really a fan of this logo at all. I like the idea of the single “A”, but cluttering with the diamonds on the side makes it look cheesy.|
|23.||This is a well done logo, when it’s printed largely, but looking at it smaller it makes it very hard to read. There are 3 different colors on the text and I think that is what makes it harder to read.|
|24.||What is going on with how busy this logo is? Is it necessary to have a cityscape, a bridge, and the baseball stitching all crammed into one little logo? When enlarged the logo doesn’t look as cluttered, but when the logo is smaller its hard to make out what all the different pieces of the logo are.|
|25.||I really like the treatment and detail of the text in this logo, but I feel like there is too much going on. I would either keep the red socks and have that stand alone as a logo, or play with the text and have that stand alone.|
|26.||At first, I thought this logo is a little boring, but once seeing it enlarged the detail on the text is more noticeable. I wish there wasn’t a baseball behind it, or if they wanted to keep the baseball then just using the G would also suffice.|
This is a controversial logo that looks cheesy. The Indians should just take the feather and use that with their C or their uniform logo. It would make more people happy, and look better at the same time.
|28.||Nothing stands out about this logo at all.|
|29.||I feel like this was done with clip art. Also, using a serif font and having two colors on the text makes it harder to read.|
|30.||There are a bunch of things about this logo that I am not a fan of, but the biggest is the diamond in the background. It takes away from the text too much and makes it harder to read. I would take it off completely.|
One of the unique things about baseball is that history can be made on any given day or night at the ballpark, especially if you are paying close enough attention. The 2014 season was no exception, as players and teams alike added their names to the record books. Here is a rundown of some of those baseball "firsts" that may have initially gone unnoticed.
In 2014, for the first time in baseball history a batter...
» Hit three doubles, two singles and a home run in a game (Charlie Blackmon).
» Doubled six times in the first seven games of his career (Yangervis Solarte).
» Had a grand slam, two other hits and a pair of intentional walks in the same game (Giancarlo Stanton).
» Hit a grand slam for two different teams in April (Ike Davis, Mets and Pirates).
» Went 5-for-5 with three homers and nine RBIs in a game (Lonnie Chisenhall).
» Recorded multiple hits and multiple stolen bases in four consecutive games (Jose Altuve).
» Homered 20 or more times in seven consecutive seasons while playing for five different teams in that span (Mark Reynolds).
» Went 4,000 days between the first and second RBI of his career (Jerome Williams).
» Stole three bases in a game for a team that was the victim of a no-hitter (Jason Heyward).
» Drove in a run in eight straight games while playing for more than one team during the streak (Adam Dunn).
» Hit a solo, two-run, three-run and grand slam homer sequentially in successive games (Devin Mesoraco).
» Made at least 225 plate appearances in a season yet scored fewer than five runs (Jose Molina).
» Struck out more than 90 times in a season of fewer than 250 plate appearances (Javier Baez).
» Who was playing shortstop hit a grand slam in a postseason game (Brandon Crawford).
» Homered and doubled in three straight postseason games (Matt Carpenter).
» Had multiple hits in six consecutive playoff games (Nelson Cruz).
» Ended an NLCS with a home run (Travis Ishikawa).
» Struck out 10 batters in an outing of less than four innings (Danny Salazar).
» Fanned 10 hitters and walked five in a start that was no longer than four innings (Michael Wacha).
» Made the first 178 starts of a career without completing one (Max Scherzer).
» Struck out the side on nine pitches with the bases loaded (Brad Boxberger).
» Made it through the first nine starts of a campaign without allowing either more than two runs or five hits (Johnny Cueto).
» Fanned 40 batters in a season before walking his second (Sean Doolittle).
» Struck out as many as 15 batters in a walk-free no-hitter (Clayton Kershaw).
» Worked seven or more scoreless innings in nine of his first 18 starts of a season (Adam Wainwright).
» Won eight consecutive starts in a single season during which he struck out at least 80 batters with an ERA below 1.00 (Kershaw).
» Who previously had won a Cy Young Award lost 12 decisions in a row (Jake Peavy).
» Made 16 consecutive starts of at least seven innings in which he allowed two or fewer runs (Felix Hernandez).
» Struck out 14 batters in a scoreless start of exactly six innings (Mike Fiers).
» Lost a one-hit complete game in which he fanned at least nine batters in fewer than nine innings (David Price).
» Saved 30 games in a season for two different teams by the age of 25 (Addison Reed).
» Fanned 10 or more batters in a game for a fifth different team (A.J. Burnett).
» Who previously had won a Cy Young Award allowed nine straight hits in a game (Price).
» Opened a season with three starts of at least seven innings, fewer than two runs and no walks (Derek Holland).
» Allowed as many as eight earned runs and 10 hits while getting fewer than three outs in an appearance (Carlos Frias).
» Beat one team (Oakland) three times while pitching for three different teams in the same season (Jerome Williams).
» Retired at least six batters while striking out every one he faced in two different games of a season (Antonio Bastardo).
» Struck out more than 11 batters for each one he walked (Phil Hughes).
» Won fewer than 10 games despite making 30 starts and posting an ERA below 2.50 (Cole Hamels).
» Fanned as many as 182 batters in a season of less than 150 innings (Yu Darvish).
» Whiffed at least one batter in 49 straight relief appearances (Aroldis Chapman).
» Fanned 52 percent of the batters (min. 50 IP) he faced in a season (Chapman).
» Averaged 10-plus strikeouts per nine innings in each of his first seven seasons (David Robertson).
» Allowed at least seven earned runs in back-to-back postseason starts (Kershaw).
» Allowed no more than one run in any of the first five postseason starts of his career (Ryan Vogelsong).
— Compiled by Bruce Herman for Athlon Sports
"We believe this decision is in the best interest of our team," Bucks general manager John Hammond said in an official team statement. "We wish Larry well and remain excited about the future of the Bucks organization.”
Bucks coach Jason Kidd said that "it's business. That's just the nature of this. It happens. We wish Larry the best with moving forward and hopefully everything works out.”
This circumstance isn’t exactly common — players don’t just walk away from contracts like the one Sanders earned by playing lights-out ball in the 2012-13 season, in which he was second in the league with 2.83 blocks per game. His four-year, $44 million deal and rising dominance had him projected to be a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
There are a lot of mysteries to Sanders’ fall from grace, and most likely it should remain that way — league insiders have suggested that he’s dealing with some heavy psycho-emotional trouble, and should seek rest and help above all. Basketball can wait.
Sanders will make about half of the money that was left on his deal, and it will be spread out in smaller doses over many more years.
He’s also eligible to sign with any team he chooses this season or next. Reports are that he’s taking an indefinite break from the sport, though, so don’t get your hopes up if the team you’re rooting for is short on big men.
Here’s to hoping that Sanders is on the up.
— John Wilmes
To understand the immense popularity of Dale Earnhardt Jr., a history lesson is in order. And no one is more qualified to deliver it than Earnhardt Jr. himself. He did so shortly after striding into the media center at Martinsville Speedway last October. After years of trying and coming up short, he finally had won there to claim the coveted grandfather clock that comes with a victory at the tricky .526-mile short track that has been hosting NASCAR races since 1949.
Even before the champagne from Victory Lane had dried on his fire suit, Earnhardt Jr. already was mentally putting the accomplishment into big-picture perspective. Looking around, he said: “You know, I love the history of the sport and just can’t get enough of things like all these old pictures on the wall in here. I know this place has a special meaning and a special place in the series and the sport.
“I’ve been coming here so many years. I’ve been coming here since the early 1980s, watching races here. Dad won several races here, brought home several clocks. I remember one in particular that set at the front door, in the hall by the stairs. It had this little round rug right in that hallway that I’d run my Matchbox cars on, listening to the race on (the radio on) Motor Racing Network.”
The point was, he always wanted one of those clocks for his own. And now that he finally had one, he deeply appreciated it.
“The clock seems so hard to get,” he added. “I try not to get too caught up in the emotion of it because it’s a team deal, but this is very personal and very special for me to be able to win here.”
Heck, after the previous decade of mostly wandering in the winless wilderness in the Sprint Cup Series, any win for Earnhardt Jr. was special. But the 2014 season was different, lending hope to Earnhardt and his vast Junior Nation of fans that it was possibly setting the table for even greater accomplishments in 2015.
Yes, Earnhardt Jr. is the son of a legendary NASCAR Hall of Famer and seven-time Cup champion, the late Dale Earnhardt.
But he isn’t his father and never claimed to be. Plus, he’s always seemed to have a deep sense of appreciation for his special place in the sport. Whereas others might have come to loathe the constant comparisons to a legendary father, Earnhardt Jr. always has deftly deflected those comparisons while at the same time embracing his own growing legacy over the years.
And as the years have passed, Earnhardt Jr. has increasingly seemed more comfortable in his own skin. In 2014, he was able to translate that into more success on the track with crew chief Steve Letarte and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.
The season began with a win in the Daytona 500 in February. It was Earnhardt Jr.’s second career victory in NASCAR’s biggest race, coming a decade after his first, and it set the tone for a season in which three more victories would follow — at both Pocono races and then at Martinsville.
The four wins represented the most for Earnhardt Jr. in a single season since he also began a season with winning the Daytona 500 in 2004, when he went on to capture a career-high six races.
While it was disappointing that Earnhardt Jr. was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup when the field was trimmed from 12 drivers to eight after the Contender Round, he and Letarte still said they were proud of what they accomplished in their final season together. After four seasons leading Earnhardt Jr.’s team, Letarte is moving to the NBC broadcast booth as a NASCAR analyst in 2015 and will be replaced on the No. 88 pit box by Greg Ives.
“I definitely would put it as a successful year,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “Instead of running up the stairs to the top, we’ve had to take one step a year. Finally we’re getting to where we’re winning some races.”
Letarte adds: “Shame on us if we would have let getting eliminated from the Chase overshadow all that we accomplished on the season. … One of the things I was most proud of was the fact that at Martinsville, seven short days after we were eliminated, this team performed. They came to work. You wouldn’t have known whether we were the championship leader or eliminated from the Chase when you walked into the garage that Friday. And it showed on Sunday afternoon when we won.”
All eyes now are on Ives, a 35-year-old Michigan native who is very familiar with Earnhardt Jr. — and vice versa.
Ives served as the championship-winning crew chief for Chase Elliott in the Nationwide Series in 2014. Elliott drove the No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, which Earnhardt Jr. owns along with his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, and Rick Hendrick, who of course supplied Earnhardt Jr. with the cars he drives in the Sprint Cup Series.
Ives also worked for Hendrick Motorsports as an engineer on driver Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team for five of Johnson’s six Cup championships. He says he plans to take a practical approach to his new job, knowing lots of people will be keeping a close watch on every move he makes.
“We all have our jobs to do,” says Ives, who also gained experience as Regan Smith’s Nationwide Series crew chief for JR Motorsports in 2013. “I’m very focused and strict on what I do each week. But it always comes around to the people you put around you, too. I have great engineers … I have the people in place to make all this happen. “
Elliott has no doubt that Earnhardt Jr. is in good hands. After spending just one season with Ives on top of his pit box, Elliott came away mightily impressed, not only with the calls and adjustments to the race cars that Ives routinely made, but with the way he helped foster a great team chemistry.
“I think Greg is very deserving of this opportunity,” Elliott says. “And I think anybody who is wondering about the change, I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the results and the effort and the teamwork and the way that Greg treats people. I’m talking not about just the guy driving his car, but the people who work on the cars and everybody. He treats people the way they should be treated. Nobody’s role means any more than anybody else’s role, and I think Greg has a great understanding of that. He obviously has the smarts and whatnot to do the job. But I think the biggest thing is his leadership.”
Letarte says his advice to Ives is simple: Be yourself. It wasn’t until after years of working under Ray Evernham and Robbie Loomis at Hendrick Motorsports that Letarte was given his first shot at being a crew chief. Then he worked alongside the great Chad Knaus, Johnson’s six-time championship-winning crew chief, in the same building at the HMS complex even after becoming crew chief first for Jeff Gordon and then for Earnhardt Jr.
“Greg Ives needs to be Greg Ives,” Letarte says. “That’s what I learned. I got to work with Ray Evernham, who was spectacular, and Robbie, who is great, but I learned to be me. I didn’t try to be Chad, Robbie or Ray. I just tried to be my own man, and I think Greg Ives should do the same thing.”
In their four years together, Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. developed a close friendship and a tight chemistry that eventually carried over to the race track. But none of that happened overnight.
They went winless their first season together in 2011 and a total of 50 races before earning their first win as a team at Michigan in June 2012. Then they went another 55 races without a win before visiting Victory Lane in the 2014 Daytona 500.
In other words, these things can take time. Earnhardt Jr. is well aware of that.
“I think me and Greg could get off to a great start. I think we could get off to a mediocre start. You never know when you get to working together,” Earnhardt Jr. says.
In addition to losing Letarte, car chief Jason Burdett also left the No. 88 team for a new job at JR Motorsports, and several pit-crew members are leaving to join the new No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team of driver Carl Edwards. That’s a whole lot of change to overcome, but Earnhardt Jr. says one of the keys is that the team’s lead engineer, Kevin Meendering, remains to help ease the transition for Ives.
As fellow engineers, Meendering and Ives should be able to speak the same language when it comes to figuring out how to consistently put fast race cars under NASCAR’s most popular driver. But again, Earnhardt Jr. cautions that it may take more time than the offseason had to offer. Plus, there is no substitute for the experience gained in actual race weekends over testing and crunching numbers back at the shop.
“Kevin is going to be a big key player in all this, helping Greg sort of really round the bases and get up to speed on what we’ve been working on in the past year and the tendencies that I have as a driver and things that I will and won’t like,“ Earnhardt Jr. says. “We’ve got to be open to Greg’s ideas and some new ideas and fresh ideas, also, so all that stuff has got to sort of counterbalance itself out. That’s a bit of a work in progress. I don’t think it happens immediately in the offseason.”
The man known simply as “Junior” to fans who have voted him recipient of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award 12 years running turned 40 years old last October. Time is running out for him to win his first Sprint Cup championship, but he says he’s OK with that as long as he can continue to win races.
Nonetheless, it is a potentially difficult and risky time for Earnhardt Jr. to be coping with all these changes. He says he remembers when he was much younger and winning seemed so routine that he somewhat took it for granted.
“I was so young back then,” he says. “I think the older you get, you definitely come to appreciate how challenging it is, how the competition is very difficult, how so many guys are capable of winning.
“But it’s not easy. You don’t have all these awesome years where you’re piling up wins, hitting homers every week. I mean, I can’t believe I’m 40 years old and still doing this, still successful at it, still with a great team. … It’s something that I hope I can sustain and hopefully be fortunate enough to be with this group for many years. We might have as good an opportunity (in 2015) and maybe the year after that to win a championship. But winning races is the priority. I don’t know that I’d be that damn happy about winning a championship had we not won any races (last) year. Winning these races definitely is still a whole lot of fun.”
— Written by Joe Menzer for Athlon Sports