Articles By Athlon Sports
When Phil Hughes signed a three-year, $42 million contract extension just before Christmas, the veteran righthander insisted he could see signs of hope for a Twins franchise that has fallen on hard times.
It’s not just the prospects, highlighted by Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, who are on the way as the franchise transitions in the dugout from Ron Gardenhire to Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. It’s also the fact that the Twins bumped their 2015 payroll back up over $100 million. “A lot of times you look at clubs and they just kind of sit stagnant and don’t really make the moves that I think are necessary,” Hughes says. “I think as an organization we could just sit back and just kind of wait for the prospect (surge) to happen. To kind of complement that, going out and signing guys like (Ervin) Santana and (Torii) Hunter and providing some leadership and spending a little money to go along with those young guys, I think is the right formula. I think we’re on the right path.”
The Twins bought low on Hughes after 2013, and general manager Terry Ryan was shrewd in locking up the workhorse and pinpoint-control artist through 2019. After going 16–10 and setting career marks for innings and strikeouts in his Twins debut, which included an all-time mark for strikeout/walk rate (11.63), the ex-Yankee appears poised to take off at age 28. Joining him at the top of the revamped rotation is Santana, a 32-year-old righthander signed to a four-year, $55 million deal that was the richest for any free agent in club history. Now on his fourth team in as many seasons, Santana has posted five straight years of 30-plus starts, averaging 207 innings in that span while bringing his usual quirky energy to the mound and the clubhouse. Santana’s deal topped the one Ricky Nolasco signed a year earlier (four years, $49 million) before flopping through a highly disappointing debut. So durable over his previous six seasons, Nolasco unwisely pitched through intermittent elbow pain in the first half and spent six weeks on the disabled list before returning to post a 2.93 ERA in five September starts. Former first-rounder Kyle Gibson, just 16 months younger than Hughes, enjoyed a 13-win breakthrough and started to miss more bats down the stretch with his heavy sinker/slider combination. Finesse lefthander Tommy Milone has a good chance to break up an otherwise all-righty rotation.
Bullpen salaries are skyrocketing around the game, but the Twins have two-time All-Star closer Glen Perkins locked up through 2018 (via club option) at a maximum salary of $6.5 million per season. The native Minnesotan pitched through a forearm strain over the final two months, but the hope is he will return to form after uncharacteristically blowing seven saves in 2014. Journeyman righthander Casey Fien returns as the primary setup man, with free-agent righthander Tim Stauffer, signed away from the San Diego Padres for $2.2 million, bidding to replace Jared Burton, whose option was bought out. Southpaws Brian Duensing and Caleb Thielbar are durable and have the ability to work out of trouble. Aaron Thompson is another lefty who showed promise in September. Young guns Michael Tonkin and Ryan Pressly also figure to bid for time in a bullpen that lost long-man Anthony Swarzak before his first crack at arbitration. Mike Pelfrey, in the final year of his $11 million deal, could bounce into a long-relief role.
Brian Dozier has remade himself into a power-hitting second baseman over the past season-and-a-half. He also gets high marks for his defense, baserunning and competitive fire. How good has Dozier been? Twins fans no longer pine for sweet-swinging prospect Eddie Rosario to replace him at the earliest opportunity. Shortstop is trickier. Eduardo Escobar enjoyed a 35-double breakout last season while providing above-average defense, but Molitor has made it clear he would prefer to return Danny Santana from center field to his natural position. Santana proved as a rookie he could hit big-league pitching, but his loose defensive history at shortstop leaves him with plenty to prove this spring.
Coming off a career-altering concussion and a long-discussed position change, Joe Mauer had a rare down year at first base. He missed six weeks with an oblique strain and also banged up his left shoulder in the field after returning in August. Heading into his age-32 season and playing for the first time under Molitor, his St. Paul progenitor, the three-time batting champion has something to prove. Four years and $92 million remain on Mauer’s contract. At third base, Trevor Plouffe enjoyed a huge defensive improvement, even as the Twins markedly increased their use of the shift. Far more than a placeholder until Sano arrives, Plouffe did a better job of using the whole field and ranked third on the team in slugging percentage.
Hunter, a 39-year-old nine-time Gold Glove winner, insists he has plenty left in the tank. The Twins certainly hope he’s right after paying $10.5 million to fund this one-year reunion that includes a full no-trade clause. Hunter’s bat remains potent, and his situational chops should come in handy. Young slugger Oswaldo Arcia moves from right to left, where he made 54 starts as a rookie in 2013. He has a strong arm, but his routes remain an adventure, as does his daily ability to avoid nagging injuries. In center, former first-rounder Aaron Hicks should get a third crack in as many seasons at seizing the everyday job. Hunter was his childhood idol, so the daily inspiration could give him a push. If not, glove-first speedster Jordan Schafer returns as a possible platoon option (or more). There’s also the Santana option should Escobar refuse to relinquish shortstop duties.
Not only did the Twins sign veteran Kurt Suzuki on the cheap, but they also managed to bring him under control through 2017 (club option) with a modest contract extension ($6 million per year) that came two weeks after his first All-Star appearance. Suzuki, 31, made 115 starts in his Twins debut despite taking enough backstop abuse to topple a redwood. Pitch-framing stats aside, he brings all the Twins could have imagined after Mauer’s forced position switch. Bat-first bopper Josmil Pinto will get another shot at backing up Suzuki after struggling to polish his defensive skills.
Kennys Vargas went more than a month between walks at one point late in his rookie year, so it was highly encouraging for the Twins to see him pile up more walks than strikeouts in the Puerto Rican Winter League. A protégé of David Ortiz, Vargas brings the same huge frame and outgoing personality to the park every day. Plus, Vargas has big-time power from both sides of the plate. Eduardo Nunez and potentially Escobar, if he loses the shortstop battle, offer versatility and energy off the bench.
Owner Jim Pohlad and team president Dave St. Peter authorized a payroll bump of nearly 25 percent after absorbing a fourth straight losing season amid multiplying empty seats at Target Field. Ryan, after undergoing cancer treatments that limited his 2014 schedule for months, has returned more motivated than ever to restore his organization to its former heights.
At a projected $105.5 million, the Twins are looking at the second-highest payroll in franchise history. Whether that will be enough to make them competitive again this season is debatable. What seems clear, however, is that at least the Twins are trying.
2015 Prediction: 5th in AL Central
SS Danny Santana (S) Only Jose Abreu outproduced him among AL rookies last season (.824 OPS for Twins).
2B Brian Dozier (R) Since late May 2013, Dozier’s power has been undeniable: 40 homers in 264 games.
1B Joe Mauer (L) Strained oblique cost him six weeks; poor season cost him spot in hometown All-Star Game.
DH Kennys Vargas (S) Mammoth slugger went more than a month without a walk but showed better patience in winter league.
RF Torii Hunter (R) Veteran is back where it all started after leaving via free agency seven years ago.
LF Oswaldo Arcia (L) Shows massive power when healthy, but poor defense, nagging injuries have slowed his progress.
3B Trevor Plouffe (R) Quietly improved his defense to the point where advanced metrics like him better than Adrian Beltre.
C Kurt Suzuki (R) Big first half landed him first All-Star nod and, soon, a two-year, $12 million contract extension.
CF Aaron Hicks (S) Former first-rounder keeps flopping, but a platoon arrangement (.410 OBP vs. lefties) might work.
UT Eduardo Escobar (S) Made the most of his opportunity, outslugging Mauer by 35 points while starting 86 games at shortstop.
OF Jordan Schafer (L) Waiver-wire pickup swiped a career-best 30 bases between Atlanta and Minnesota.
UT Eduardo Nunez (R) Versatile and energetic, this ex-Yankee was once viewed as Derek Jeter’s potential successor.
C Josmil Pinto (R) Lots of pop in that bat, but still too much lead in his glove to merit regular playing time.
RH Phil Hughes Move to Midwest agreed with ex-Yankee; extended through 2019 after first season with Twins.
RH Ervin Santana Well-traveled righty has had a sub-4.00 ERA in four of the past five seasons.
RH Ricky Nolasco Unwisely pitched through intermittent elbow pain after signing a then-club record, $49 million free-agent deal.
RH Kyle Gibson Former first-rounder, Tommy John survivor won 13 games and piled up nearly 180 innings.
LH Tommy Milone Finesse lefty won 31 games for Oakland in two-plus seasons before arriving in Sam Fuld trade.
LH Glen Perkins (Closer) Two-time All-Star pitched through forearm strain while blowing seven saves in 2014.
RH Casey Fien Durable setup man saw his nine-inning strikeout rate drop from 10.6 to 7.2 last season.
LH Brian Duensing League-adjusted ERA was 20 percent above average, best among all Twins with 30-plus innings.
LH Caleb Thielbar Lefty batters slugged .433 against him, almost 60 points higher than righties.
RH Tim Stauffer Former No. 4 overall pick has reinvented himself as a middle reliever following shoulder, elbow surgeries.
RH Ryan Pressly Former Rule 5 pick has career nine-inning strikeout rate of just 5.4 in 105 innings.
RH Mike Pelfrey Last chance for the former No. 9 overall pick who has one year at $5.5 million left on his deal.
Beyond the Box Score
Streak continues In the end, Ron Gardenhire wasn’t able to overcome history. With a fourth straight season of 92 or more losses, the media-friendly manager found himself on the chopping block after 13 seasons, giving way to Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. That left Twins legend Tom Kelly, who survived a mild stroke in the 2014 season’s final days, as the only manager to leave on his own terms after suffering at least three straight 90-loss seasons since World War II.
Pinpoint Across the first seven seasons of his big-league career, all with the Yankees, Phil Hughes walked 2.80 batters per nine innings and posted a strikeout/walk rate of 2.68. In his first home start with the Twins, Hughes walked the first two batters in a four-run first inning and then walked Eric Sogard leading off the second. At that point something clicked. The durable righty would walk just 13 more batters (one intentionally) the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Hughes’ strikeout rate jumped to 8.0, as he broke Bret Saberhagen’s 20-year-old mark for the best strikeout/walk rate (11.63) for any qualifying pitcher since 1900.
Long wait Between July 18, 2012 and Sept. 13, 2014 — nearly 26 full calendar months — Twins pitchers waited in vain for something taken for granted in most modern quarters: a double-digit strikeout game. The drought reached a majors-high 379 games, dating to Francisco Liriano’s penultimate start in a Twins uniform, before Hughes finally ended the madness with an 11-strikeout performance at Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field. The following day, rookie righthander Trevor May, an earnest Hughes protégé, went out and struck out 10 batters of his own.
Catch a whiff While waiting for a suitable offer as a free agent in the spring of 2014, veteran righthander Ervin Santana coined a catchphrase on his popular Twitter account: #SmellBaseball. It took off, and soon the bubbly Dominican was printing up T-shirts with the slogan and even holding baseballs to his nose on the mound. What does it mean? “It’s what he loves. He loves baseball,” says Amy Santana, his wife since 2009. “Anytime you go anywhere, certain smells remind you of something. For him it’s the smell of a dirty baseball, rubbing it in his hands.”
2014 Top Draft Pick
Nick Gordon, SS
The bloodlines are there. Taken fifth overall out of an Orlando-area high school, Gordon is the son of three-time All-Star pitcher Tom Gordon and the younger brother of All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon. Nick Gordon showed mound potential during his high school days, but he always wanted to play shortstop like his hero Derek Jeter. Gordon has soft hands and a plus arm to go with at least average range. At the plate, his left-handed swing can get a little long, but he hits for average and power with the ability to drive the ball to all fields. His raw speed is above average but needs refinement. A broken index finger on his left hand kept him from completing the Appalachian League playoffs and slowed him at his first instructional league as well. He should start 2015 at Low-A Cedar Rapids in the Midwest League.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Byron Buxton, CF (21) Injuries keep dogging the player many consider the No. 1 prospect in the minors. The latest was a fractured finger that ended his Arizona Fall League season.
2. Miguel Sano, 3B (21) After missing all of 2014 following Tommy John surgery, the gifted power hitter is eager to make up for lost time.
3. Jose Berrios, RHP (20) The former supplemental first-round pick reached Double-A and earned the starting assignment for the World team in the All-Star Futures Game at Target Field.
4. Kohl Stewart, RHP (20) Taken fourth overall out of a Houston high school in 2013, the former quarterback signee (Texas A&M) has been slowed by minor shoulder issues.
5. Alex Meyer, RHP (25) Towering in stature and potential; was set to make big-league debut in September until shoulder fatigue scuttled that plan.
6. Nick Gordon, SS (19) Sure, he’s tooled-up, but Gordon is a baseball player who loves the game, has outstanding instincts and impressive makeup.
7. Nick Burdi, RHP (22) A former Louisville All-American with a triple-digit fastball, Burdi posted a 0.72 ERA from July 1 forward.
8. Jorge Polanco, SS (21) A switch-hitter with a live body and bat, Polanco has drawn comparisons to fellow Dominican Tony Fernandez.
9. Eddie Rosario, OF/2B (23) A 50-game suspension wrecked his 2014, but high-average gap threat had strong showing in the Arizona Fall League.
10. Lewis Thorpe, LHP (19) Surgery wasn’t necessary for a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in fast-improving Aussie’s throwing elbow.
The Kansas City Royals awoke from a 29-year playoff slumber in 2014 and became baseball’s darlings during a postseason run that started with a record eight consecutive wins and ended one shy of a World Series title. Ace and clubhouse leader James Shields moved on, and the Royals let designated hitter Billy Butler walk, but a still-young core of players — including first baseman Eric Hosmer and catcher Salvador Perez — return. The hope is that the centerpieces of general manager Dayton Moore’s nine-year rebuilding effort, a group that also includes third baseman Mike Moustakas, will blossom into the consistent and productive nucleus for another run. Augmented with a trio of affordable free-agent signings — DH Kendrys Morales, right fielder Alex Rios and pitcher Edinson Volquez — the Royals have unfinished business and will rely on a familiar blend of speed, defense and a dominant bullpen in the quest for another pennant.
Without Shields, the rotation is less imposing, but Kansas City returns its other four starters and is banking that Volquez, who signed a two-year deal for $20 million, won’t represent too steep of a drop-off. Volquez was terrific for Pittsburgh last year, but it was his first season with an ERA below 4.10 and second with double-digit wins since 2008. He’ll slot at the back of the rotation with Jeremy Guthrie, who has won 28 games the last two years and regularly tops 200 innings. Jason Vargas exceeded expectations in his first season with Kansas City. The Royals happily would take another 187 innings with a 3.71 ERA from Vargas with the hope Yordano Ventura or Danny Duffy emerges as an ace. Both Ventura, a slender flame-thrower who finished sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting and shined in two World Series starts, and Duffy proved capable last season. Both also have durability concerns and must stay healthy. Moore added insurance by signing Kris Medlen to a two-year deal worth $8.5 million, but he’s coming off a second Tommy John surgery and won’t be a factor until at least midseason.
The Royals had baseball’s best bullpen last season, going 65–4 when leading after six innings, but it might be better in 2015. Setup men Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis — another piece of the Shields trade — lead off a late-inning relay of dominance. Closer Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star who converted 46 of 48 save chances and won the inaugural Mariano Rivera Award as the AL’s best reliever, serves as the anchor. The trio generated considerable trade interest, especially after combining for 51 strikeouts and allowing only 23 hits and 14 walks with a 1.12 ERA in 40.1 innings during the playoffs, but Moore kept HDH intact. Bolstering the bullpen, Luke Hochevar re-signed on a two-year deal for $10 million despite missing last season (Tommy John surgery), and Jason Frasor, who arrived midseason via trade with Texas, re-signed for one year at $1.8 million. Both would be primary setup men in almost any other bullpen. Veteran Tim Collins might be the only lefty in the bullpen to start the season, though Brian Flynn — acquired in a trade that sent Aaron Crow to Miami — could force his way into the mix. The Royals’ preference would be for Brandon Finnegan to develop as a starter, making him likely to begin the season in the minors, though he showed value out of the bullpen after his September call-up.
Up the middle, the Royals’ infield is anchored by shortstop Alcides Escobar and second baseman Omar Infante. Infante filled a glaring need when he was signed before last season, but he disappointed at the plate while battling a variety of injuries, including back and shoulder issues. The Royals need Infante to improve last season’s .252/.295/.337 slash. Offensive production from Escobar is a bonus. His glove represents his most value, but the Royals need him to boost a career .299 on-base percentage, especially if he’s asked to bat leadoff given the dearth of options.
Hosmer and Moustakas, both former top-three picks, remain the homegrown linchpins of the Royals’ offense. Neither has become the perennial All-Star the Royals envisioned, but both showed flashes during the postseason. The Royals hope it’s a harbinger of things to come in 2015. Hosmer has won two straight Gold Gloves, but he’s yet to match the 19 home runs he hit as a rookie in 2011. Last season, he only hit nine home runs, with a rising strikeout rate and a declining walk rate. Moustakas clubbed five home runs in the postseason, but his batting average, on-base and slugging percentages have declined the last two seasons. He bottomed out at .212/.271/.361 last season but did hit 15 home runs.
The Royals boast arguably the best defensive outfield in baseball. Left fielder Alex Gordon is the team’s most established and consistent player. He’s batted .283 with an OPS of .749 or higher and averaged 19 home runs, 39 doubles and 79 RBIs the last four seasons. Gordon also won a Gold Glove each year. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain shook off the oft-injured label and enjoyed a breakout 2014 season. A superb defender, he set career highs in almost every offensive category. To replace Nori Aoki, the Royals turn to Rios, who signed a one-year deal for $11 million. He’ll need to rebound from an injury-filled 2014 season. Rios upgrades the Royals’ top-notch defense in spacious Kauffman Stadium. He has averaged 22 steals during an 11-year career and averaged 18 homers from 2005-13.
Perez, a two-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, is rapidly emerging as one of the AL’s best catchers. Pitchers raves about Perez’s game-calling, but he caught nearly 1,250 innings last season, prompting manager Ned Yost to pledge a lighter workload in 2015. Perez was great during the first 101 games last season, but his numbers dipped from .276/.314/.422 to .225/.234/.364 after Aug. 5. Backup Erik Kratz is sturdy and serviceable.
The Royals declined Butler’s $12.5 million club option, deciding it was too much money for a player with declining production. Enter Morales, a switch-hitter who signed an incentive-laden, two-year deal worth $17 million. He only batted .218 with eight home runs in 98 games for Minnesota and Seattle last season after sitting out until mid-June in a contract ploy. Kansas City expects a rebound. Jarrod Dyson remains the fourth outfielder — and a valuable weapon as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner with 100 steals in the last three seasons. Christian Colon and Ryan Jackson, acquired from the Dodgers, are the most likely infield candidates for the bench.
Building a winner took time, but Moore found a formula for success, and owner David Glass continues to buck the miserly reputation he earned during his first decade overseeing the Royals. The team had a productive offseason and plugged the roster’s deficiencies. Moore’s track record earns him the benefit of the doubt, but the franchise risks losing momentum if the Morales, Rios and Volquez signings don’t pan out.
Unseating the four-time reigning AL Central champion Tigers won’t be easy. Counting on bounce-back seasons from Morales and Rios is a bit hopeful, but the Royals will rely as much on progress from their youthful core as production from their free agents. Last season proved what’s possible in Kansas City, which is eager for another crack at the postseason after leaving the tying run 90 feet from home in the seventh game of the World Series.
2015 Prediction: 3rd in AL Central
SS Alcides Escobar (R) Slick fielder batted .362 in a 16-game audition as the leadoff hitter in September.
1B Eric Hosmer (L) WAR dipped from 3.6 to 0.8 last season. Missed 30 games with broken hand. Repeat Gold Glove winner.
DH Kendrys Morales (S) Missed spring training in 2014 and only hit .218 with eight HRs. Averaged more than 22 HRs from 2009-13.
LF Alex Gordon (L) Two-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glover is face of franchise. Was in MVP conversation through August.
C Salvador Perez (R) Wore down while catching club-record 146 regular-season games. Rest should help .289 OBP rebound.
RF Alex Rios (R) Hit four home runs during injury-plagued 2014, but showed pop with 30 doubles and eight triples.
3B Mike Moustakas (L) Still more potential than production, but hit 15 home runs — plus five more during postseason.
CF Lorenzo Cain (R) Exceptional defender finally stayed relatively healthy and won ALCS MVP.
2B Omar Infante (R) Disappointing debut season marred by injury. Must rebound from batting .252 with .632 OPS.
OF Jarrod Dyson (L) Fantastic fourth outfielder, both as a late-inning defensive replacement and spot starter.
C Erik Kratz (R) Showed power in limited action last season after arrival via trade from Toronto.
UT Christian Colon (R) Socked five doubles and a triple in 21 games last season. Primarily provides depth at third and second.
INF Ryan Jackson (R) Career .268 minor league hitter can play shortstop, third and second base.
LH Jason Vargas Posted career-best 3.71 ERA and 2.0 walks per nine innings ratio. Royals would love a repeat.
RH Yordano Ventura Ventura, known as “Ace” in Kansas City, has been compared to his idol, Pedro Martinez.
LH Danny Duffy Durability remains a concern after 2012 Tommy John surgery and a rib-cage injury last season.
RH Edinson Volquez Has thrown 170-plus innings in three straight seasons. Declining strikeout rate is a concern.
RH Jeremy Guthrie Surpassed expectations with 28 wins in first two years of a three-year deal. Club has 2016 option.
RH Greg Holland (Closer) Two-time All-Star wasn’t as dominant in 2014. Still posted 1.44 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 62.1 innings.
RH Wade Davis Would close for most teams. Struck out 109 while allowing 38 hits and 23 walks in 72 innings.
RH Kelvin Herrera Posted a 1.16 ERA, scattering 45 hits and 24 walks with 52 strikeouts in 62 innings after April 23.
RH Luke Hochevar Former No. 1 overall pick missed 2014 after Tommy John surgery. Established himself in setup role in ’13.
RH Jason Frasor Reliable middle reliever went 3–0 with a 1.53 ERA in 23 games after midseason arrival via trade from Texas.
RH Jandel Gustave Royals will try to stash the flame-throwing righty in the pen after acquiring the Rule 5 Draft pick by trade.
LH Tim Collins Spent half of 2014 in Class AAA. Command remains an issue, but he’s the most experienced southpaw reliever.
Beyond the Box Score
Power outage Relievers Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera didn’t allow any home runs in 142 combined innings. Davis only allowed five extra-base hits (three doubles and two triples), and Herrera gave up just 13 extra-base hits (all doubles).
More bullpen brilliance During the last 45 years, there have been 52 relievers who have thrown 60-plus innings with an ERA under 1.50 in a season, but there had never been two on the same team until last season when the Royals had three — Herrera (1.41 ERA in 70 IP with 59 strikeouts), Davis (1.00 ERA in 72 IP with 109 strikeouts) and Greg Holland (1.44 ERA in 62.1 IP with 90 strikeouts). They also became the first trio of teammates in history to post a sub-1.50 ERA with at least 50 strikeouts in the same season.
Disciplined or not By one measure, the Royals were baseball’s least disciplined team at the plate, walking an MLB-worst 380 times — or roughly once every 16 plate appearances — in 2014. The major league average was roughly one walk every 13 plate appearances. On the other hand, the Royals also were the toughest team to strike out, fanning only 985 times. The Oakland A’s had the second-fewest strikeouts at 1,104.
Thievin’ Royals Kansas City led baseball in stolen bases for the second straight season with 153 — 15 more than the Dodgers, who led the NL. The Royals were the only team with three players who stole at least 25 bases, a first for the franchise since 1983. Part-time outfielder Jarrod Dyson led the way with a career-high 36 steals, while Alcides Escobar (31) and Lorenzo Cain (28) proved to be prolific base thieves as well.
Speaking of steals Kansas City signed righthander Kris Medlen to a two-year deal worth $8.5 million. It’s a gamble, because Medlen missed most of the 2011 season after Tommy John surgery and had a second ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery that cost him the 2014 season. It also could be a brilliant move if Medlen regains the form he flashed going 25–13 with a 2.47 ERA in 335 innings with Atlanta from 2012-13.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Brandon Finnegan, LHP
Finnegan became the first pitcher to appear in the College World Series and the actual World Series in the same season. Selected 17th overall in the 2014 draft, Finnegan led TCU to the CWS then breezed through the lower levels of the Royals’ minor league system, posting a 1.33 ERA with 26 strikeouts and only four walks in 27 innings during stops at Class A Wilmington and Class AA Northwest Arkansas. During a September call-up, Finnegan went 0–1 with a 1.29 ERA, striking out 10 with only one walk during seven appearances, which earned him a spot on the club’s postseason roster. He sparkled in his first six postseason outings before a hiccup in the fourth game of the World Series. Finnegan is a candidate for the Royals’ bullpen, but is more likely to start the season in the minors as he’s groomed to be a starter.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Raul Adalberto Mondesi, SS (19) Batted .211 with eight homers at Class A Wilmington, but scouts rave about his defense, see power potential.
2. Brandon Finnegan, LHP (21) A proven winner who showed his makeup during the AL wild card game, pitching 2.1 critical innings.
3. Kyle Zimmer, RHP (23) Durability concerns plague the 2012 first-round pick, who was limited to six games by shoulder issues.
4. Sean Manaea, LHP (23) Bounced back from a hip injury to throw 121.2 innings for Class A Wilmington, going 7–8 with a 3.11 ERA and 146 strikeouts against 54 walks.
5. Hunter Dozier, 3B (23) The 2013 first-round pick reached Class AA after batting .295 with 18 doubles and four home runs in 66 games at Class A.
6. Miguel Almonte, RHP (22) Displays excellent command, especially with his mid-90s fastball, and could move quickly.
7. Foster Griffin, LHP (19) The sturdy-framed southpaw has a reputation for throwing strikes with his three-pitch arsenal, including a low-90s fastball and improving changeup and slider.
8. Jorge Bonifacio, OF (21) Entering his sixth year with the Royals organization and looking to rebound after batting .230 with only four home runs in first full season at Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
9. Scott Blewett, RHP (18) The 6'6" 2014 second-round pick went 1–2 with a 4.82 ERA in eight appearances (28 IP) in rookie league.
10. Christian Colon, SS/2B (25) Batted .333 with five doubles in 21 games with the Royals last season. Poised to break in the big leagues as a full-time bench player in 2015.
Despite winning a fourth straight AL Central crown, the Tigers took a small step backward in 2014, getting swept by the Orioles in the Division Series and falling short of the ALCS for the first time since 2010. The chief culprit was easy to spot — a bullpen that, by October, lacked even one shutdown arm, leaving rookie manager Brad Ausmus completely exposed in late-inning situations. On the surface, the 2015 edition of this roster is not terribly different than the 2014 Tigers. The big changes have come in the rotation — which loses Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello while adding Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene, not exactly an upgrade — and in right field, where Yoenis Cespedes replaces departing free agent Torii Hunter, essentially a wash in terms of production. But the addition of center fielder Anthony Gose and the return of shortstop Jose Iglesias signal an emphasis on up-the-middle defense, and the middle of the lineup — now with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Cespedes and J.D. Martinez — remains as scary as any in the game.
The rotation remains the foundation — spiritually and financially — of the Tigers. Lefty David Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young winner, slides into Scherzer’s ace role without much of a drop-off, but the rest of the rotation is now chock-full of questions. Was Justin Verlander’s rough 2014 an aberration or a sign of permanent decline? Can Anibal Sanchez remain healthy after an injury-shortened 2014? Was Simon’s 2014 breakthrough with the Cincinnati Reds more than a fluke? And is Greene more like the pitcher who went 29–43 with a 4.39 ERA as a minor leaguer, or the one who posted a solid 5–4 and 3.78 as a big league rookie last year in the Bronx?
To be fair, GM Dave Dombrowski tried valiantly to shore up the 2014 Tigers’ bullpen, adding closer Joe Nathan last offseason, trading for promising young lefty Ian Krol, then adding Joakim Soria as a setup man in July. But none of them could prevent the ugly collapse. And nearly everyone is back in 2015, including Joba Chamberlain who signed a one-year deal at the start of training camp. The Tigers believed enough in a Soria bounce-back to pick up his 2015 option, so he will return as Nathan’s top setup man. But the best things that can happen for this unit are for hard-throwing righthander Bruce Rondon to make a full recovery from 2014 elbow surgery, for Krol to make a big leap from last year’s disaster and for a couple of youngsters to emerge as dependable middle-inning solutions.
The Tigers have yet to see their projected double-play combination together, as shortstop Jose Iglesias, runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 2013, missed all of ’14 with stress fractures in his shins, just as All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler was arriving from Texas. Iglesias’s expected return will be a boost both offensively and defensively. Kinsler was exactly what the Tigers expected. You can pencil him in for 150 games, 15 homers, 80 RBIs and 15 stolen bases — as well as exceptional defense — in 2015.
The monumental November 2013 trade that sent Prince Fielder to Texas for Kinsler allowed the Tigers to shift Cabrera back across the diamond to first base — where he had another great 2014 while not killing the team too much with his glove — and perhaps more important, opened up third base for top prospect Nick Castellanos. At the plate, Castellanos’s 2014 rookie season was encouraging, as he produced a respectable .259/.306/.394 slash line at age 22, but he was disappointing on the other side of the ball, with advanced defensive metrics measuring his performance somewhere between dismal and abysmal. Part of that could be attributed to his shift from shortstop (where he played primarily in high school) to third base (after being drafted) to left field (after the signing of Fielder) then back to third. Perhaps the stability of remaining at one position will help.
The Tigers are replacing two-thirds of their 2014 outfield. With Hunter’s departure, the Tigers went out and acquired a statistical clone who is a decade younger in Cespedes — a move that pushes Rajai Davis to the bench, or into a platoon in center field. That platoon would be shared with Gose, a top defender who was acquired from Toronto over the winter. Gose has never played more than 94 games in a season, and it remains to be seen whether the Tigers can live with a hitter who slugged .293 in 274 plate appearances in 2014. Returning in left is J.D. Martinez, who was merely one of the best surprises in baseball in 2014. Released by the Astros in spring training, he signed with the Tigers two days later and spent the season shedding his underachiever label with a dazzling .315/.358/.553 line.
Alex Avila seemed poised to take his place as one of the top young catchers in the game following his breakout season of 2011, but a series of concussions and a steady decline in production have followed. Nonetheless, his numbers are still decent enough for a catcher, and his performance behind the plate is brilliant enough that the Tigers wasted little time in exercising his $5.4 million option for 2015. Still, whoever the Tigers have as backup — James McCann, a rookie who made a big-league cameo in 2014, is the top choice — may get more time behind the plate and more at-bats than the typical backup catcher.
Thank heaven for Victor Martinez. The venerable DH had the best season of his illustrious career, leading the league with a .974 OPS, bashing a career-high 32 homers and finishing second in MVP balloting. Martinez tore the meniscus in his left knee and underwent surgery in early February, but the team is optimistic that he will be ready to play come Opening Day. While Martinez is not a huge concern at this point, the Tigers’ bench, however, is another story, as it was exposed in the three-game sweep at the hands of the Orioles in the ALDS. Getting Iglesias back at shortstop will help with depth, allowing Andrew Romine, who saw the bulk of the playing time there last year, to slide into a utility job, where he probably belongs. But outside of Davis, who got bumped by the Cespedes acquisition, this looks to be a dangerously inexperienced bench for such an established team. Youngster Tyler Collins is in line to be the fifth outfielder, and McCann is the top choice as backup catcher.
Dombrowski is regarded as one of the top GMs in the game, and deservedly so, but he appears to have made a rare misstep with the pivotal Doug Fister deal of December 2013. Of the three players acquired from Washington in the trade, only Krol remains — a weak return for one of the most consistent pitchers in the game. To his credit, Dombrowski checked off the major items on his list in 2015 — re-signing Martinez, finding a center fielder and replacing departed free agents Scherzer and Hunter — but you have to wonder why he didn’t do more to beef up a bullpen that was exposed last October. As for Ausmus, 90 wins and an AL Central title would qualify as a successful rookie season in the dugout, but he was overmatched against counterpart Buck Showalter in the ALDS.
By acquiring Gose for center field, picking up Avila’s option and keeping shortstop open for Iglesias, the Tigers, long known as the home of power arms and power bats, appear to be trying to build around defense. They will still be a formidable team in 2015, but with major questions concerning the bullpen and the impact of the loss of Scherzer — not to mention the rise of the Royals as a tireless challenger and the radical offseason improvement of the White Sox — the path to a fifth straight Central title appears more difficult than ever, and this Cabrera-Verlander-Martinez-Kinsler core may only have a few more seasons to try to capture that elusive World Series title.
2015 Prediction: 1st in AL Central
2B Ian Kinsler (R) At least 13 homers, 15 stolen bases and 70 RBIs in six of the last seven seasons.
C Alex Avila (L) OPS has declined average of 70 points per season since 2011 breakout (.895).
1B Miguel Cabrera (R) Still managed 25 homers, 109 RBIs, .895 OPS in injury-plagued “down” season.
DH Victor Martinez (S) Had best season of his career last year at age 35; signed new four-year deal.
RF Yoenis Cespedes His 2014 slash line: .260/.301/.450. Torii Hunter’s 2014 slash line: .286/.319/.446.
LF J.D. Martinez (R) From spring training release with Houston to .912 OPS with Detroit in eight months.
3B Nick Castellanos (R) Despite high strikeout total, low OBP, his 2014 rookie season was encouraging.
SS Jose Iglesias (R) Injury kept him sidelined all of 2014; Tigers missed his glove more than his bat.
CF Anthony Gose (L) Career OPS+ is just 76, but Tigers traded for him to shore up outfield defense.
OF Rajai Davis (R) His 2014 splits define platoon player: .617 OPS vs. RHPs, .939 vs. LHPs.
OF Tyler Collins (L) Corner outfielder showed knack for pinch-hitting during September call-up.
C James McCann (R) Second-round pick in 2011 had breakout year at Triple-A in 2014 and is top candidate to back up Avila.
INF Andrew Romine (S) Started nearly half Tigers’ games at shortstop last year; moves to utility role in 2015.
LH David Price Career-high 248.1 regular-season innings pitched in 2014, most by AL pitcher in four years.
RH Justin Verlander Three straight years of rising ERA and WHIP, declining IP and K/9 IP.
RH Anibal Sanchez Injury, inconsistency in 2014 resulted in step back after career year in 2013.
RH Alfredo Simon 13 of 22 HRs allowed in 2014 came in Cincinnati; deep Comerica fences should help.
RH Shane Greene Two of his five wins in 2014 rookie campaign with the Yankees came against Tigers.
RH Joe Nathan (Closer) Tigers hope for bounce-back year in 2015, but he’s 40 and coming off career-worst season.
RH Joakim Soria July trade acquisition failed to stop bullpen’s bleeding, but team picked up 2015 option.
RH Joba Chamberlain Big righty is back after going 2-5 with a 3.57 ERA in 69 games last season.
RH Al Alburquerque Most consistent member of 2014 Tigers pen, but manager Brad Ausmus stayed away from him in October.
RH Bruce Rondon Promising career as future closer interrupted by elbow surgery that cost him all of 2014.
LH Ian Krol Last man standing from Doug Fister trade gets another chance after dismal 2014.
LH Kyle Lobstein Respectable as a spot-starter in 2014, he may get first crack at long man in 2015 bullpen.
Beyond the Box Score
Who’s up first? It appears as if the Tigers will be without a true, everyday leadoff man again in 2015, with Ian Kinsler expected to be pressed into duty, as he was for much of 2014. Rajai Davis, a speedster who has stolen 25 or more bases in seven straight seasons, would seemingly be a natural leadoff man — and against lefties, he is — but his splits against righthanders (.247/.290/.327 in 2014) have been awful, which is why he likely will find himself on the bench.
Take a walk Kinsler’s walk rate took a precipitous fall, dropping to 4.0 percent of his plate appearances, less than half his 2013 rate of 8.3 percent. In a league-leading 726 plate appearances, Kinsler walked 29 times, the first time since ’08 that he walked fewer than 50 times. His OBP dipped to a career-low .307.
Is the Price right? In letting ace Max Scherzer walk, the Tigers may have been setting the stage to re-sign lefty David Price, a free agent after 2015, to a long-term deal, using the money that otherwise would have gone to Scherzer. Price is slightly younger and left-handed, and he throws with a less violent delivery that should make him less prone to an arm injury.
Top Tiger Although Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez draw the most attention, Kinsler was the Tigers’ best player in 2014, as measured in WAR. Kinsler measured 5.4 WAR in the Fangraphs.com model and 5.5 in the Baseball-Reference.com model.
Trending down Justin Verlander’s numbers are trending in the wrong direction. Since his Cy Young season of 2011, his ERA has risen in three straight seasons, nearly doubling from 2.40 in 2011 to 4.54 in 2014, and his WHIP has seen a similar rise. What has been dropping? Namely, Verlander’s average fastball velocity, which has fallen from 95.0 in 2011 to just 92.3 last season — perhaps one reason he has come to rely much more frequently on sliders (8.4 percent of his pitches in 2011, 15.1 percent in 2014).
Bullpen woes How bad was the Tigers’ bullpen in 2014? Despite being called upon to throw the third-fewest innings of any pen in baseball (447 innings), it posted the fourth-worst ERA (4.29) and FIP (4.09) and the third-worst BB/9 IP rate (3.87). Take out Joba Chamberlain’s 0.8 WAR, and the rest of the Tigers’ relievers combined to pitch below replacement-level.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Derek Hill, OF
After picking Hill, a center fielder out of Elk Grove (Calif.) High School, with the 23rd overall pick, the Tigers went slightly above the slot figure to sign him for $2 million and keep him from his commitment to the University of Oregon. Hill is a 6'2", 190-pound speedster who graded as an 80 for speed on the standard 20-80 scouting scale. He advanced out of rookie ball to short-season Class A in 2014, and stole 11 bases in 13 tries, but he hit only .208/.296/.295 combined. It will be a few years, at least, before Hill ever appears in a Tigers uniform, but his pure speed and a body that should fill out over time give him a high ceiling as a prospect.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Steven Moya, OF (23) In a farm system depleted by trades, he is the closest thing to a high-impact prospect. Bashed 35 home runs with 105 RBIs in Double-A.
2. Buck Farmer, RHP (24) Former Georgia Tech star climbed all the way from Class A to the majors last September — he started two games — and has shot to make 2015 team.
3. Derek Hill, OF (19) Speedy center fielder was Detroit’s 2014 top draft pick. He will be in Class A this season.
4. Kevin Ziomek, LHP (23) Second-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2013 went 10–6 with a 2.27 ERA in full-season pro debut (Class A). He lacks plus stuff and projects to be no more than a middle-of-the-rotation starter.
5. Austin Kubitza, RHP (23) Former Pirate draft pick went 10–2, 2.34 as a starter at High-A, but the lack of a dependable third pitch may send him to bullpen.
6. Hernan Perez, INF (24) The Tigers thought enough of Perez that they put him on 2014 postseason roster and worked him out as an outfielder this winter.
7. Tyler Collins, OF (24) Had two short stints in big leagues in 2014 — appearing in 18 games — and bench job is his to lose this spring.
8. Spencer Turnbull, RHP (22) Struggled in short-season Class A, but strong build and mid-90s fastball put him on this list.
9. Jose Valdez, RHP (25) Hard-throwing reliever struggled a bit in Class AA, but team encouraged by declining walk rate.
10. Drew VerHagen, RHP (24) Big, hard-throwing righthander spent nearly all of 2014 in Class AAA, but got spot-start for Tigers in July and could be back in 2015.
The relationship between Shaw and his 20-39 team has been bad since he took the helm last fall. Often, it was comically so — reports eventually came out that he tried to relate to his team by reading books about the millennial generation. Even more cringeworthy was his attempt to win over the Nuggets by performing scouting reports by way of rapping them.
That would all be okay if the results on the floor were good, but they weren’t. Shaw collected a 56-85 record, good for just a .400 winning percentage. To be sure, the Nuggets have had a bad roster of mismatched parts and middling talent since general Masai Ujiri skipped town for the Toronto Raptors in 2013, so Denver’s mediocrity shouldn’t all fall on their departed coach’s shoulders.
David West of the Indiana Pacers (where Shaw was previously an assistant) had this to say when he heard of the news:
David West on Brian Shaw being fired: "That's bullshit. No grownups on the roster. You can't win without grownups."— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) March 3, 2015
West is at least partly right — whoever replaces Shaw in Denver won’t have much better results unless Denver goes all-in on a player mixup. They started one by trading Arron Afflalo, Nate Robinson, Timofey Mozgov and JaVale McGee before the deadline — mostly for draft assets — but the Nuggets are still rich with misdirected talent.
Assistant Melvin Hunt will replace Shaw on an interim basis, while Sam Amick of USA Today reports that Mike D’Antoni has interest in the job for next season.
Shaw didn’t do a great job, but his experience also proved that the job in the Rockies isn’t exactly the most desirable one around. The Nuggets are in need of a lot more than one new face on the bench.
— John Wilmes
The Indians have the pitching to make a run at the postseason this year despite the new muscle that has been added to the AL Central. Led by AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, the starting rotation posted a 2.95 ERA after the All-Star break, second lowest in the big leagues last year. Emerging closer Cody Allen and a fleet of talented arms form a solid bullpen that manager Terry Francona used a league-record 573 times in 2014.
The factors that will determine whether they are able to return to the postseason will be how well they hit and how well they field. Nick Swisher (knees), Michael Bourn (hamstring), Jason Kipnis (oblique, hamstring, finger) and Ryan Raburn (knee, wrist) must bounce back from injuries. Newcomer Brandon Moss is coming off right hip surgery.
Defensively, the Indians led the big leagues in errors. Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, catcher Yan Gomes, departed shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, a range-challenged Kipnis at second base and an immobile Swisher at first made every ground ball an adventure in 2014.
If injured Indians hitters can return to full strength, and a revamped defense can catch the ball, this team has a chance to do some damage in October. Despite an offense that barely averaged three runs per game after the All-Star break, the Indians pitched so well that they were not eliminated from wild card contention until game No. 159 last season.
Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, T.J. House, Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin give the Indians as talented a group of young starters as they’ve had in several years. GM Chris Antonetti added depth to the rotation by signing veteran righthander Gavin Floyd to a one-year $4 million deal. If Floyd makes it through spring training healthy after experiencing two big right elbow injuries over the last three years, Antonetti has promised him a spot in the Opening Day rotation, along with Kluber, Carrasco and Bauer. Salazar, House, McAllister and Tomlin will compete for the fifth spot. McAllister, Carrasco and Bauer are out of options. If McAllister doesn’t make the rotation, he could open the season in the bullpen.
With Francona, the road to victory runs straight through the pen. He had eight relievers at his disposal through much of last season, and sometimes more because of the flexibility of his position players. Allen stepped in as the closer when John Axford faltered in May, and Francona didn’t hesitate to use him before the ninth inning. Francona expertly manipulated Allen and setup man Bryan Shaw, along with Scott Atchison and Marc Rzepczynski in the late innings. Shaw led the majors with 80 appearances, while Allen (76) and Rzepczynski (73) ranked in the top five in the AL. Lefties Nick Hagadone and Kyle Crockett and righty C.C. Lee are emerging as bridge builders from the starters to the late-inning relievers. Veteran lefty Scott Downs will be in camp on a minor league deal.
When Cabrera was traded to Washington on July 31, rookie Jose Ramirez replaced him and almost immediately improved a bad defense. Behind Ramirez, the Indians have top prospect Francisco Lindor with another shortstop in Erik Gonzalez looming. Ramirez is expected to open the season at short with Kipnis at second, but the Indians’ depth could force a change if Kipnis doesn’t rebound from last season. Kipnis injured the ring finger on his left hand in November while lifting weights. While Kipnis is expected to be ready for the season opener on April 6, he won’t be able to swing a bat in the early parts of spring training.
When last season ended, the Indians talked about moving Chisenhall or Kipnis to the outfield, a direct reflection on how poorly they played defensively. Such talk was shelved, but it’s clear the Indians are expecting better play from Chisenhall at third. Offensively, Chisenhall showed the same inconsistency, hitting .393 (66-for-168) through June 11, but .219 (68-for-310) for the rest of the season. Carlos Santana will open at first base, his third different Opening Day position in as many years. He was the starting catcher in 2013 and starting third baseman last year. Offensively, the move from third to first helped Santana, who led the Indians in homers with 27. Swisher and Moss are also expected to see time at first.
In a crowded outfield, Michael Brantley is expected to start in left field following his breakout season. Bourn, who made three trips to the disabled list last year because of his left hamstring, will be in center. There is a logjam in right field with Moss, Raburn, David Murphy, Tyler Holt and Zach Walters all looking for playing time. Swisher, depending on the condition of his knees, could compete for time as well. Moss, who played left and right field last year for the A’s, is not expected to be able to swing a bat early in camp, but he should be ready to open the regular season.
Gomes emerged from his first full season behind the plate as one of the best catchers in the big leagues. After overcoming some throwing problems early in the season, he led AL catchers in average (.278), OPS (.785) and extra-base hits (49). He handled the pitching staff well, drawing raves from Kluber. Gomes threw out 32 percent of the baserunners he faced and drew good grades as a pitch framer. Roberto Perez joined the Indians from the minors in July and proved to be an excellent backup. Indians pitchers had a 2.61 ERA when Perez was behind the plate.
Swisher, in the third year of a four-year $56 million deal, is expected to be the primary DH. He did not play after Aug. 9 and underwent surgery on both knees on Aug. 20. The Indians won’t know how much Swisher can play until he gets to spring training, but they could definitely use a dose of the guy who averaged 25 homers and 80 RBIs per season from 2005-13. Utility man Mike Aviles, with his ability to play every position but catcher and pitcher, has allowed Francona to carry an extra reliever for most of the last two seasons. Raburn has been the right-handed bat off the bench the last two years, but after a disappointing 2014, he’s going to need a big spring training to win a job even though his 2015 salary is guaranteed. Walters and Holt will challenge him for that role. Perez will be the backup catcher.
Under Antonetti and Francona, the Indians won 92 games in 2013 and 85 in 2014. It is a team that has been one or two big moves away from becoming a serious contender, but those big moves have yet to be made. Perhaps ownership is still smarting because of the lack of production from Swisher and Bourn, the team’s last two forays into the big-money side of free agency. The Indians have shown an interest in keeping the core of the club together by signing Kipnis, Brantley, Gomes and Santana to multiyear deals. Kluber could be in line for such a deal before the start of the 2015 season.
The Indians watched AL Central foes Detroit and Kansas City prosper last year as the Tigers won their fourth straight division title and the Royals made it all the way to the World Series as a wild card. The White Sox and Twins, the Tribe’s other Central rivals, spent this offseason making several free-agent signings. The Indians, meanwhile, continued to show confidence in their young position players and deep pitching staff. Their only big additions were Moss and Floyd, who are both coming off injuries. It will be interesting to see how far that strategy takes them in what might be the best division in baseball.
2015 Prediction: 4th in AL Central
CF Michael Bourn (L) Former National League stolen base king has swiped only 33 in two years with Indians.
SS Jose Ramirez (S) He hit .299 with 20 runs in 42 starts while batting in the No. 2 spot in 2014.
LF Michael Brantley (L) Led the American League with a .376 average with runners in scoring position.
1B Carlos Santana (S) Selective slugger walked 113 times last season and has 394 walks in last four seasons.
RF Brandon Moss (L) Last season, he hit 21 of his 25 homers before the All-Star break with Oakland.
DH Nick Swisher (S) He played 97 games last season, fewest since his 131 with A’s in 2005.
2B Jason Kipnis (L) Did not homer after July 31 last season, a streak of 48 games and 183 at-bats.
C Yan Gomes (R) Native of Brazil ranked third among AL catchers last year with 21 homers.
3B Lonnie Chisenhall (L) Ranked eighth among MLB third basemen with a .770 OPS in 2014; defense needs to improve.
UT Mike Aviles (R) He played six different positions last season, making his debut in right and center field.
C Roberto Perez (R) Threw out 36 percent (8 of 22) of the runners who tried to steal on him.
OF David Murphy (L) Hit .326 with runners on base and .360 with runners in scoring position.
OF Ryan Raburn (R) Injured his wrist and knee running into an outfield wall in spring training and struggled at the plate.
RH Corey Kluber His 269 strikeouts in 2014 ranked sixth highest in team history for a single season.
RH Carlos Carrasco Posted a 1.30 ERA with 78 strikeouts in 69 innings over his last 10 starts of the season.
RH Trevor Bauer Averaged 8.41 strikeouts per nine innings, third-highest ratio ever among Indians rookie pitchers.
RH Gavin Floyd Coming off a fractured right elbow last year and Tommy John surgery in 2013.
RH Danny Salazar Struck out 10 White Sox hitters in 3.2 innings on April 10, most ever by a pitcher in fewer than four innings.
RH Cody Allen (Closer) Workhorse closer has made 153 appearances over the last two seasons.
RH Bryan Shaw First Indians reliever to lead to the big leagues in appearances since the 1950s.
RH Scott Atchison He set career highs last season in appearances (70), innings (72) and strikeouts (49).
LH Marc Rzepczynski Allowed only 11 of 57 inherited runners (19.3 percent) to score last season.
LH Kyle Crockett Fourth-round pick in 2013 posted a 1.35 ERA in his last 33 games of his rookie season.
LH Nick Hagadone Lefties hit .217 and righties hit .211 in Hagadone’s four trips to the big leagues last season.
RH Zach McAllister Made seven late-season relief appearances, striking out 14 in 13 IP, in moving from the rotation to the pen.
Beyond the Box Score
Triple double On July 1 at Dodger Stadium, the Indians turned a triple play that withstood two replay reviews. Kyle Crockett faced the Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez with no outs, Dee Gordon on third and Yasiel Puig on first. Gonzalez hit a fly ball to left fielder Michael Brantley. Brantley made the catch for the first out and threw home to Yan Gomes to get Gordon for the second out. Gomes saw Puig heading for second and threw to Jason Kipnis, but Puig was called safe. Manager Terry Francona challenged the play and Puig was called out to complete the triple play. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly then challenged the play at the plate. That play was reviewed and the call on the field stood.
Son bests father On April 29 at Angel Stadium, Indians righthander Corey Kluber walked off the mound in the fifth inning thinking J.B. Shuck had just hit into an inning-ending double play. Shuck’s out at first base was overturned after a replay challenge and the Angels went on to score two more runs on the way to a 6–4 victory. The Angels replay coordinator was Nick Francona, son of Indians manager Terry Francona. He gave manager Mike Scioscia the heads-up to challenge the call. “I thought that was kind of weak on Nick’s part,” said Francona with a smile after the game. “He may work for Scioscia, but he’s my son.”
Don’t blame me Francona went through the entire 2014 season without being ejected. But on one occasion he had to do some fast talking to stay in the game. He went out to challenge a call at third base made by Joe West. Francona was stalling for time until he got a signal from bench coach Brad Mills as to whether the Indians would challenge the call. “I told Joe, ‘Hey, I think you got the call right,’” said Francona. “It’s Millsie who thinks you got it wrong.”
Deke of dekes David Murphy was on first base on Aug. 5 against Cincinnati when Gomes doubled to the wall, right in front of the Reds bullpen. Lonnie Chisenhall scored from second and Murphy slid into third. As the relay on Gomes’ double was thrown back into second base, an errant toss by Reds reliever Jumbo Diaz sailed out of the bullpen and landed in the same area as the relay throw. Murphy saw the stray ball and broke for home. Reds shortstop Zack Cozart, who had the ball that was in play, threw Murphy out.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Bradley Zimmer, CF
The Indians drafted Zimmer out of the University of San Francisco with the 21st pick in the first round. They paid him a $1.9 million signing bonus and sent the 6'4", 185-pound left-handed hitter to Class A Mahoning Valley of the New York-Penn League. In 45 games, he hit .304 (51-168) with 11 doubles, four homers and 30 RBIs. Zimmer, whose brother Kyle was Kansas City’s No. 1 pick in 2012, hit .372 against lefties. The Indians promoted him to Class A Lake County for the postseason, and he hit two homers in three games. Zimmer hasn’t shown a lot of power in his career, but the Indians believe his power will improve as he gets older and stronger.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Francisco Lindor, SS (21) Lindor is a top-of-the-order switch-hitter and above-average defender. He reached Class AAA Columbus last season and should make his big-league debut this year.
2. Jesus Aguilar, 1B (24) The 6'3", 250-pound Aguilar is a right-handed hitter with big power that he’s shown at every level except the big leagues.
3. Tyler Naquin, CF (23) The Indians’ No. 1 pick in 2012, this left-handed hitter had his 2014 season derailed at Class AA Akron when he suffered a broken left hand after being hit by a pitch.
4. Erik Gonzalez, SS (23) Gonzalez hit .289 (89-308) with 24 extra base hits last season at Class A Carolina. The right-handed hitter moved up to Class AA Akron and hit .357 (46-129).
5. Clint Frazier, CF (20) Frazier, a right-handed hitter, was the Indians’ No. 1 pick in 2013. Last season, he hit .266 (126-474) with 18 doubles, 13 homers and 50 RBIs at Class A Lake County.
6. Giovanny Urshela, 3B (23) If the Indians need help at third base, Urshela is their guy. He’s their top defensive third baseman and had a breakout year offensively last season.
7. Justus Sheffield, LHP (18) Sheffield was headed to Vanderbilt before the Indians paid him $1.6 million to turn pro. He went 3–1 with 29 strikeouts in 20.2 innings in the Arizona Rookie League.
8. Bradley Zimmer, CF, (22) Brad Grant, Indians’ director of amateur scouting, had this to say: “Bradley is a really good combination of speed, defense, power and hitting ability.”
9. Bobby Bradley, 1B (18) The Indians’ third-round pick in 2014 won the Arizona Rookie League batting title, hitting .361 with 50 RBIs in 39 games.
10. Francisco Mejia, C (19) The switch-hitting Mejia hit .282 (70-for-248) with 17 doubles at Class A Mahoning Valley. He made 11 errors.
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 26: Paul Casey
Born: July 21, 1977, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England | Career PGA Tour Wins: 1 (13 on European Tour) | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $877,968 (112th) | World Ranking: 45
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Casey finished 2014 ranked 75th in the world, down from his highest position of third in 2009. Off-course distractions and a few nagging injuries have kept him from maintaining world-class form over the last few years. But he is healthy now and seems to have his personal life in fine order, which should give him the peace of mind to climb back up toward the top 10 in the world. In 2010 he played in the final group on Sunday at St. Andrews and eventually finished third, his best finish in a major to date. And it is that kind of golf that has made him a 13-time winner in Europe and a winner on the PGA Tour — and why I think he will do much more in his career before he is through.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - DNP
U.S. Open - T56
British Open - T47
PGA Championship - Cut
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - T6 (2004)
U.S. Open - T10 (2007)
British Open - T3 (2010)
PGA Championship - T12 (2010)
Top-10 Finishes: 5
Top-25 Finishes: 11
Missed Cuts: 16
White Sox management started the offseason by saying they wanted the team’s fans to dream again. After watching the Sox lose 188 games the last two seasons, fans wondered how optimistic their dreams should be. Management spoke with its checkbook. The Sox added at least six significant pieces through free agency or trades — starter Jeff Samardzija, closer David Robertson, relievers Zach Duke and Dan Jennings, outfielder Melky Cabrera and DH/first baseman Adam LaRoche. That group should enable the Sox to press the Tigers and Royals in the AL Central, especially with Chris Sale, third in AL Cy Young voting, and Jose Abreu, fourth in MVP voting, serving as the team’s foundation.
With three consecutive appearances in the All-Star game, Sale has confirmed his status as one of the game’s most overpowering lefthanders. Sale might have won his first Cy Young but finished with only 12 wins because of meager offensive support. He also missed six starts with an injury. Jose Quintana, another lefty, cannot match Sale’s ability to miss bats, but he’s been more durable, delivering 200 solid innings in back-to-back seasons. John Danks, the rotation’s third lefty, took another step forward after his 2012 shoulder surgery. Danks must slash his high walk total because he allowed 205 hits (25 home runs) in 193.2 innings. Enter Samardzija, the former Cubs’ righthander who pitched the second half of last season for the As. Samardzija will be highly motivated by two things: He’s a free agent after the 2015 season, and he pitched in terrible luck last year, winning only seven of 20 decisions despite a combined ERA of 2.99. Sale and Samardzija gives the Sox two potential No. 1 starters. The fifth spot likely belongs to Hector Noesi, who thrived under pitching coach Don Cooper, winning eight games and giving the Sox 166 innings in 2014. But Carlos Rodon, the team’s first-round draft pick last summer, pitched his way to AAA and has the stuff and makeup to become a top-of-the-rotation guy.
During the winter meetings, whenever a questioner would ask Sox general manager Rick Hahn about his bullpen moves, Hahn had a quick reply: “If you saw our bullpen last season, I apologize for that.” Enter Robertson, who followed Mariano Rivera as the Yankees’ closer and converted 39 of 44 save opportunities. For most of last season, the Sox lacked a trustworthy left-handed specialist. Now they have two — Duke, who arrives as a free agent from Milwaukee, and Jennings, acquired in a trade with the Marlins. The rest of the bullpen will be tweaked. Jake Petricka saved 14 games, but he’ll likely be a seventh-inning guy who needs to improve his control. Ditto for Daniel Webb, who walked 42 guys in 67 innings. Zach Putnam, Javy Guerra and Maikel Cleto showed flashes but not enough consistency. They are all right-handed. Eric Surkamp is the other lefty with a chance.
Alexei Ramirez, 33, has been the Sox shortstop since 2009 and delivered his most consistent season, regaining his power while reducing his errors. Ramirez only sits once a month. Although he’s back with the team after being traded to the Angels in August, former first-round pick Gordon Beckham is now a reserve instead of the starting second baseman. That opens up the job for solid prospects Micah Johnson and Carlos Sanchez. Sanchez has a better glove and a decent bat. He does many things well, but nothing spectacularly. He can also fill in at short. Johnson stole 84 bases in the minors in 2013 and has a more lively bat. But he might need more seasoning.
Some questioned the Sox’ six-year, $68 million commitment to Abreu off workouts and video from Cuba. The questions stopped when he contributed 10 home runs and 32 RBIs before May 1. Abreu cooled slightly in the second half of the season but still finished with 36 and 107. Third baseman Conor Gillaspie showed improvement in his second big-league season, adding 37 points to his batting average (.282) and 31 to his on-base percentage (.336). But with only seven home runs, he lacks the power of a top corner infielder.
The Sox finished last season convinced they had their leadoff man in center fielder Adam Eaton and a power hitter in right fielder Avisail Garcia. Left field was the hole that neither the now-departed Alejandro De Aza nor Dayan Viciedo filled. Enter Cabrera, who earned a three-year, $42 million contract because the Sox want him to hit between Eaton and Abreu. Cabrera can hit, get on base and advance runners. The offense and energy were upgraded whenever Eaton played because he contributed speed (36 doubles and triples) and the ability to get on base (.362). He made two trips to the disabled list and missed 39 games but still finished second on the team with 76 runs. A more significant injury stopped Garcia. He tore the labrum in his left shoulder while diving for a catch on April 9. He refused to accept the diagnosis that his season was over, rehabbing his way back on the field in August. Garcia struggled with a .244 average and 44 strikeouts in 172 at-bats. But he reported to the Venezuelan League and performed well, hitting five home runs in 34 games while batting .312.
The Sox are convinced that Tyler Flowers took a major step forward last season, contributing 15 home runs with 50 RBIs. Flowers, however, is prone to slumps and struck out in nearly 40 percent of his at-bats. Cooper, the pitching coach, says the staff loves Flowers’ ability to call the game and frame pitches.
The White Sox are trying to fill their designated hitter hole with a left-handed hitter named Adam who played in Washington. But they hope they have more luck with LaRoche than they did with Adam Dunn, whose strikeouts and salary were a drain on the roster. LaRoche cannot match Dunn’s ability to walk or hit mammoth home runs, but he’s a more polished hitter. The Sox signed veteran infielder Emilio Bonifacio to a one-year deal in January. He is a candidate to platoon with Gillaspie at third base and could also see significant time at second and can fill in the outfield too. The White Sox were short-handed with backup catcher Adrian Nieto in the major leagues all season because he was acquired in the Rule 5 Draft. He figures to return to the minor leagues in 2015 with Geovany Soto, Rob Brantly and George Kottaras battling for the backup job.
Robin Ventura faces multiple challenges in his fourth season as Ozzie Guillen’s replacement. His last two teams have finished fourth (2014) and fifth (2013), a combined 52 games below .500. Ventura escaped intense criticism because the teams lacked pitching and suffered injuries. Over the last two seasons, Hahn has shed the hefty contracts carried by Jake Peavy, Alex Rios and Dunn, while making the team younger and more dynamic. Attendance in 2014 was the lowest since 1999. Ventura’s low-key personality won’t stir much excitement with Joe Maddon working across town at Wrigley Field, so he needs to win to sell tickets.
Hahn has added a left-handed power bat (LaRoche), a No. 2 hitter (Cabrera), a closer (Robertson), a right-handed starter (Samardzija) and two left-handed relievers (Duke and Jennings). The Sox could use another bat (catcher or third base) and another starter. But the Sox have added enough to push past Cleveland for third — and if all goes well, this team has the pieces to press the Tigers and Royals at the top of an intensely competitive AL Central.
2015 Prediction: 2nd in AL Central
CF Adam Eaton (L) Feisty leadoff man (.362 OBP) makes things happen but needs to avoid injuries.
LF Melky Cabrera (S) Seeking another table-setter for Jose Abreu, the Sox outbid the Mariners and others for Cabrera.
1B Jose Abreu (R) Finished in the top five in the AL in batting (.317, fifth), HRs (36, tied for third) and RBIs (107, fourth).
DH Adam LaRoche (L) His solid power numbers (26 HRs, 92 RBIs) should improve at U.S. Cellular Field.
RF Avisail Garcia (R) Made a rapid recovery from labrum surgery in less than four months but needs to improve his .305 OBP.
SS Alexei Ramirez (R) Mr. Durability has played at least 156 games for five straight seasons.
3B Conor Gillaspie (L) His .300 average against righties suggests he’d be a great candidate for a platoon situation.
C Tyler Flowers (R) Added glasses after the All-Star break and hit .280 in the second half after hitting .218 in the first half.
2B Micah Johnson (L) Young speedster could be a factor, provided he can get on base and not be a defensive liability.
UT Emilio Bonifacio (S) Verstaile veteran could platoon with Gillaspie at third, fill in at second or in the outfield.
2B Carlos Sanchez (S) His glove gives him a chance to play regularly, especially if Johnson falters.
2B/3B Gordon Beckham (R) Former first-round pick back with White Sox after brief stint with Angels following August trade.
C Geovany Soto 2008 NL Rookie of the Year with the Cubs played just 24 games least season with Rangers and A’s.
LH Chris Sale Third in the Cy Young voting, Sale delivered eight games with 10 strikeouts or more.
RH Jeff Samardzija Picked for the NL All-Star team before he was traded to Oakland. Struck out a combined 202 batters.
LH Jose Quintana Has quietly given the Sox back-to-back 200-inning seasons and cut his HRs allowed from 23 to 10.
LH John Danks His velocity has not returned from 2012 shoulder surgery, but he managed to split 22 decisions in 2014.
RH Hector Noesi Discarded by the Mariners and Rangers, set career highs in wins (eight), innings (172.1), strikeouts (123).
RH David Robertson (Closer) Saved 39 games in his first season as Mariano Rivera’s replacement with the Yankees.
RH Jake Petricka Saved 14 games as part of the Sox closer-by-committee but figures to move to the seventh inning.
RH Zach Putnam Rode his split-finger fastball to become the surprise success of the Sox bullpen.
RH Daniel Webb Possesses stuff to close, but he might have to return to the minors if he doesn’t improve his control.
RH Javy Guerra A former closer with the Dodgers, Guerra has the power arm to deliver strikeouts (38 in 46.1 IP).
LH Zach Duke Lowered his arm slot and brightened his career, striking out 74 in 58.2 innings in Milwaukee.
LH Dan Jennings Acquired from the Marlins, Jennings was tougher on righties (.265) than lefties (.299) last season.
Beyond the Box Score
Boos to cheers Two seasons ago White Sox fans booed Jeff Samardzija after he hit Paul Konerko in the face with a fastball. The boos were more vigorous than usual because Samardzija pitched for the Cubs. Now, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Samardzija will become the 175th player to play for both the Cubs and White Sox. Acquired in a trade with Oakland, Samardzija immediately endeared himself to Sox fans by telling general manager Rick Hahn that coming to the Sox was a “dream come true.” Samardzija grew up about 50 miles southeast of U.S. Cellular Field in Valparaiso, Ind. — as a White Sox fan.
Favorite son Adam LaRoche, a DH and first baseman, also has White Sox connections. LaRoche’s father, Dave, is a former relief pitcher who served as the Sox bullpen coach from 1989-91. Adam remembered his connection to the White Sox third baseman — current manager Robin Ventura. “Getting ready for a big-league game, you have 10- and 11-year-old punks hanging around, and he took the time to treat us the way he did and hang out with us …” LaRoche says. “I always had respect for that.”
Hawk’s on board The first response to the Sox’ aggressive re-tooling came in the broadcast booth. Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, the team’s long-time TV voice, is 73 and makes a four-hour round-trip commute from Granger, Ind. As the Sox stumbled to a fourth-place finish in the AL Central, Harrelson said he was considering shaving at least 40 games off his schedule to spend more time with his family. That thinking stopped after Hahn acquired Samardzija, LaRoche, closer David Robertson, reliever Zach Duke, outfield Melky Cabrera and others. “(The moves) sort of convinced me,” Harrelson told The Chicago Tribune. “Now with this thing, it’s going to be a fun year.”
Anniversary The White Sox plan to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their 2005 World Series victory over Houston during the summer. With the retirement of Paul Konerko, no players from that team remain with the Sox. In fact, only five members of the champs figure to remain in the majors — pitchers Mark Buehrle (Blue Jays), Brandon McCarty (Dodgers) and Neal Cotts (Brewers), catcher A.J. Pierzynski (Braves) and infielder Juan Uribe (Dodgers).
2014 Top Draft Pick
Carlos Rodon, LHP
The Sox were surprised — and thrilled — when Rodon was available with the third pick of the 2014 draft. Projected as the lock first overall selection before the 2014 season, Rodon slipped behind two prep pitchers after a puzzling 6–7 junior season for NC State, which missed the NCAA Tournament after playing in the 2013 College World Series. The Sox were not concerned by Rodon’s college stats. They love his plus-fastball and wipeout slider and are working to improve his changeup. “We watched the progression over several years and thought he was the consensus best guy on the board,” says Doug Laumann, the White Sox amateur scouting director. Rodon struck out 38 in 24.2 innings at three levels of the Sox system, finishing his first professional season in Class AAA.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Carlos Rodon, LHP (22) The Sox did not promote Rodon to the majors in September, perhaps to be conservative starting his service time. He’s a Scott Boras client.
2. Micah Johnson, 2B (24) Hamstring issues cut Johnson’s stolen bases from 84 to 22 last season, but he hit .294 while splitting time in AA and AAA. His glove needs polish but he should plenty of chances to secure the starting job in spring training.
3. Tim Anderson, SS (21) Taken in the first round by the Sox in the 2013 draft, Anderson should start the season in AA, where he hit .364 in 10 games after batting .297 in High-A.
4. Frank Montas, RHP (22) Montas’ fastball was clocked at 102 mph in the Arizona Fall League.
5. Courtney Hawkins, LF (21) Asked to repeat High-A, Hawkins reduced his strikeouts and increased his power, finishing second in the Carolina League with 19 home runs.
6. Spencer Adams, RHP (18) The Sox were surprised he was available in the second round of the 2014 draft. Adams pitched like a first-rounder in the Arizona League.
7. Tyler Danish, RHP (20) Some compare his delivery to Jake Peavy’s motion. Drafted in the second round in 2013, Danish projects as a potential closer.
8. Jacob May, CF (23) May’s game features his glove and speed. He impressed last season with 31 doubles and 37 stolen bases in High-A.
9. Micker Adolfo, RF (18) The Sox invested $1.6 million in the Dominican native in 2013. They’ve been conservative with his development.
10. Trey Michalczewski, 3B (20) He drove in 70 runs in the South Atlantic League, but will need to curb his 140 strikeouts.
1. Golden State Warriors (46-12)
Despite some recent displays of vulnerability, the Warriors are still the NBA’s top dog. The looming possibility of a healthy Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs is a fear, as the Thunder’s teeming athleticism has been an issue for Golden State. But everyone else in Western Conference — aside from potential Conference Finals opponent Memphis — appears eminently beatable.
2. Atlanta Hawks (47-12)
Like the Warriors, the Hawks have chilled a bit from their torrid winning pace of the first half, but they still haven’t looked any less than superior. The true test of their mettle will come Friday night, though, when LeBron and his streaking Cavaliers come to town.
3. Memphis Grizzlies (42-16)
Memphis remains the contrarian contender of the league, eschewing the pace-and-space trend of the game for a retro half-court version of NBA basketball that depends on plodding two-way execution. The scary thing about it for the rest of the West is that in the Grizzlies’ hands, this style is no nostalgia act — they’ve got enough conviction in their ways to make you bend to them.
4. Houston Rockets (41-18)
The trail to the MVP trophy is covered in clippings of James Harden’s beard. The Rockets are dark horse contenders because of him, but even more so because a healthy Dwight Howard looms, and because the Rockets now have perhaps the deepest assemblage of wing defenders in basketball.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers (37-24)
The hype about these Cavaliers no longer looks all that wasted, as Cleveland has emerged as clear contenders for the Eastern Conference title behind a rejuvenated, freight-train version of LeBron. But the playoffs will tell us whether their unseasoned pieces are ready for the limelight yet.
6. Portland Trail Blazers (39-19)
The Blazers have regained form and health after some expected winter malaise, and the addition of Arron Afflalo as sixth man makes them a considerably more potent playoff foe. The biggest question mark facing them: Whether LaMarcus Aldridge is going to pay for playing with an injured thumb.
7. Los Angeles Clippers (40-21)
Blake Griffin’s injury has been rich with the silver linings for the Clippers, with the best of them being the improved play of DeAndre Jordan. A monstrous February has him in the lead for Defensive Player of the Year considerations, and his rebounding numbers have been ridiculously high — he had four games with twenty-plus boards in the month.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder (33-27)
No Kevin Durant? No problem. Russell Westbrook’s MVP campaign has been aided by new Thunder guns in Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and D.J. Augustin, and OKC has become something rare: a low-seeded playoff team with real championship potential.
9. Toronto Raptors (38-22)
Given Kyle Lowry’s terrible February play, the Raptors are lucky to still be the two seed in the East. If he can turn it around in time for the playoffs, Toronto might be a sleeper team to make some postseason noise.
10. Chicago Bulls (37-23)
Injuries, injuries, injuries. What else? Injuries. The Bulls are singing a sad, familiar tune, but they can still potentially get Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler back and ready before playoff time. All hope is not lost.
11. Dallas Mavericks (40-22)
The decay of Rajon Rondo’s game has been an alarming sight in Dallas, where the Mavericks have been a worse team since they made the blockbuster trade. Once a stealth title contender, the Mavs are now fighting for mere respect.
12. San Antonio Spurs (36-23)
Obituaries have been written about Tim Duncan’s Spurs before. And, time and time again, they’ve been wrong. We shouldn’t fall for the same trick again… or should we? San Antonio looks tired, uninspired and done this season.
13. Washington Wizards (34-26)
Nothing is holding the Wizards back more than their coach. Randy Wittman lives in a nostalgic bubble, in which the three-point line and fast break hardly exist — and that might even be fine if he had different personnel. But John Wall is one of the best, quickest point guards in the game, and Washington needs a more modern leader to let them thrive, and to break out of their slump.
14. Milwaukee Bucks (32-27)
Formerly a dark horse playoff contender, Jason Kidd’s Bucks reset the program at the trade deadline by shipping out Brandon Knight for Michael Carter-Williams. Whether they actually raised their ceiling down the road, though, definitely remains to be seen.
15. Indiana Pacers (25-34)
The Pacers’ record doesn’t look good, but February saw them collect the best winning percentage in the league. And with George Hill back in the lineup and playing the best ball of his life with Paul George possibly around the corner, Indy looks like a surprise Eastern Conference playoff fighter.
16. Phoenix Suns (31-30)
The Suns’ shocking blowup at the trade deadline, instigated by an unhappy Goran Dragic, certainly could have turned out worse. Brandon Knight is a welcome addition to the backcourt with Eric Bledsoe, and they got him without giving up promising young frontcourt pieces in Markieff Morris and Alex Len. There’s an exciting road ahead for a Suns team that’s already scary.
17. New Orleans Pelicans (32-28)
The Pelicans have done surprisingly well without Anthony Davis in the lineup, but they’re still unlikely to make the playoffs with the Thunder ahead of them and surging. It’s time to start thinking about a crucial offseason in New Orleans.
18. Miami Heat (26-33)
Luck has hit the post-LeBron Heat hard. Just as they looked to be emerging as playoff contenders in the East when they traded for Goran Dragic and with Hassan Whiteside on the rise, Chris Bosh was sidelined for the season. Perhaps next year will bring better juju.
19. Charlotte Hornets (24-33)
Without top scorer Kemba Walker, the Hornets have survived with an extra helping of defense, and they’ve stayed in the hunt for the East’s final playoff spot. But if they get it, is it even worth anything more than a sweep at the hand of the Hawks?
20. Boston Celtics (23-34)
Isaiah Thomas is a neat fit for the Celtics, who badly needed the offense he’s more than happy to provide. Next to Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley — and under the tutelage of Brad Stevens — Thomas and Boston have reason to hope together.
21. Detroit Pistons (23-36)
The Pistons are contending for a playoff spot in the East this year, but their vision seems oriented more toward future seasons with the acquisition of Reggie Jackson. And news of Greg Monroe’s increased willingness to re-sign has to be encouraging to Stan Van Gundy.
22. Utah Jazz (23-35)
Sending Enes Kanter out has created more room for Frenchman Rudy Gobert to make an impression in, and that’s a good thing. Early signs have the lengthy center looking like one of the best rim-protectors in basketball.
23. Sacramento Kings (20-37)
George Karl’s new team has some interesting pieces for him to work with, aside from the obvious benefit of having DeMarcus Cousins around. Ben McLemore, in particular, should benefit from Karl’s presence — but we won’t see a demonstrable difference in anything Kings-wise until next season.
24. Brooklyn Nets (25-33)
The Nets are more stalled than any franchise in the league. They’re another team in the East’s sad race for the final playoff spot, but the mission from on high in Brooklyn has clearly shifted: It’s about getting back some poorly spent money, not about winning NBA games.
25. Denver Nuggets (20-39)
Brian Shaw is out the door, and it hardly seems like a solution for Denver. Shaw’s meandering, often embarrassing tenure probably did need to come to an end, but whoever takes his place is unlikely to have much better results with a sloppily constructed roster, in a very tough conference.
26. Orlando Magic (19-42)
What’s next for the Magic? Finding the right new coach, to make sense of their young, developing roster. The post-Jacque Vaughn offseason looms large in Orlando.
27. Minnesota Timberwolves (13-46)
Kevin Garnett’s return to Minny means some extra warm fuzzies, and maybe some advanced tutelage for what’s one of the most promising young cores in the game.
28. Philadelphia 76ers (13-47)
More of the same in Philly: losing, losing, and losing to go with some asset-based trickery from the front office. We’re still waiting to see if their long view comes to life on a basketball court.
29. Los Angeles Lakers (16-42)
Is there a plan in place for the stalled Lakers? It doesn’t look that way. They just have to hope free agents really like the weather, and want to play with Kobe.
30. New York Knicks (12-46)
Phil Jackson has a lot left to prove in New York. If there isn’t a sense of direction by this time next year — and if the team is still terrible — his skeptics will start seeming like sages.
— John Wilmes
The American League West is chalked full of A-list characters that make the cast of "Birdman" look like a B-movie. King Felix’s kingdom in Seattle, MVP Mike Trout in Southern Cal, Billy Beane wheeling and dealing in the Bay Area, Prince, Yu and Choo revamping for a revolution in Texas, and a group of hard-swinging youngsters in Houston that are poised for takeoff make the AL West a must-watch division this summer.
Here are the top storylines to watch in the American League West in 2015.
Angels' Time Running Out?
Is it possible that a team can win its division by 10 games, have this generation’s best player, own the best record in baseball and be considered a disappointment? With a payroll that exceeded $154 million and a roster built for October, the 2014 Angels were absolutely disappointing. Expectations will only continue to grow in 2015 as high-priced players like Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson grow in age and fail to deliver consistently.
The Angels are on the hook for $189 million over the next seven years for Pujols, who just turned 35, and is coming off a “rebound year” in which he hit 45 points below his career batting average. Hamilton, impending suspension aside, hasn’t been worth the $25 million he’s due in 2015, hitting just .255/.316/.426 with 31 homers and an OPS of .741 since moving to Anaheim in '13. Wilson made $16 million in 2014 and is due another $18 million this season, has an ERA close to 3.90 and WHIP of 1.374. In his lone start in the AL Division Series against the Royals last October, Wilson didn’t make it out of the first frame, giving up three runs in just two-thirds of an inning.
The Halos will be looking for a bounce back at the plate from third baseman and former All-Star David Freese, who has yet to live up to his 2011 World Series heroics in California. Kole Calhoun put together a solid year in 2014, hitting 17 homers and 31 doubles batting mostly leadoff and newcomer Matt Joyce has the ability to add much-needed depth to Scioscia’s lineup in the DH spot.
The biggest riddle will be the re-vamped bullpen that features many new young arms and veteran closer Huston Street. The rotation should be a bright spot for Anaheim, especially if Wilson can keep it together for an entire summer and as well as the postseason. Being without budding ace Garret Richards until late April seems to be a minor hiccup for this staff that also includes veteran All-Star Jered Weaver, and up-and-coming righty Matt Shoemaker.
The biggest question for this Angels team is — how much longer does GM Jerry Dipoto have until it's time to move major contracts in order to replenish a fledging farm system and plan for the future? 2015 could be the last great opportunity Anaheim has before the World Series window is no more.
After an impressive 2014 that saw a 16-game swing from 2013, the Seattle Mariners are the team to watch in the AL West in 2015. Championship teams are built on superior pitching, reliable defense, and timely hitting. The Mariners have all three.
Pitching has been and will be the M’s trademark in 2015. Any rotation that features Felix Hernandez is going to be good, but throw in Hisashi Iwakuma as the number two, with a mix of young, live arms waiting in the wings like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton and that rotation becomes deadly. If lefty J.A. Happ can find his 2009 form that almost won him NL Rookie of the Year honors with the Phillies, this Mariners rotation could be untouchable.
The only thing more dangerous in the AL West than the M’s starting rotation could be their bullpen. The majority of the relief corps that allowed just 157 runs in 500 innings and had a combined ERA of 2.59 last season is back for 2015. Fernando Rodney, with his bow and arrow, crooked hat, and 48 saves from are back, along with even more young arms, including last year’s rookie studs Dominic Leone and Carson Smith, each of whom could be thrown in the mix as the season progresses.
The Mariners struggled last season at the plate, finishing 2014 ranked 27th in doubles, 22nd in total bases, 19th in RBIs, and 15th in homers. Signing Nelson Cruz, last season's home run leader, to a four-year deal surely will help remedy that issue. Asking Cruz to hit another 40 dingers in Safeco is a tall order, but adding his big bat will surely allow for better pitches for Robinson Cano and budding star third baseman Kyle Seager. Seager, a first time All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 2014, hit 27 doubles and 25 homers last season and was rewarded with a seven-year deal worth approximately $100 million.
The addition of Cruz and locking up Seager long term will definitely be helpful for the M’s in 2015, but several questions still linger for a team looking to take the next step. First baseman Logan Morrison finished 2014 on a nice pace, but in large part has been a shell of the player he was becoming in Miami.
Since his breakout 2009 season (25 2B, 23 HR, 72 RBI), Morrison hasn’t topped 20 doubles, 11 homers, or 38 RBIs, as injuries have been a nuisance throughout his career. Waiting in the wings in case Morrison’s struggles continue is last year’s minor league RBI champion, D.J. Peterson, who is expected to make the move to first this spring.
Seth Smith, who was acquired from the Padres, and Justin Ruggiano are expected to platoon in right field, as outfielders Dustin Ackley and Austin Jackson are aiming to rebound from lackluster 2014 showings.
If the outfield can’t produce to GM Jack Zduriencik’s liking, he has plenty of young pitchers to use as trade bait to find the needed help at the plate. Keep your eye on the Emerald City this summer as this could be the year the Mariners snap their 14-year postseason skid and march into October as favorites.
Houston’s Big Leap?
The Houston Astros might be the most entertaining team to watch in 2015. Yeah, they are going to swing and miss — a lot, but they are also going to hit a ton of home runs. Last season, the ‘Stros were truly feast or famine, ranking fourth in homers and second in strikeouts. Developing superstars Chris Carter, Jon Singleton, and George Springer combined for 430 strikeouts in 2014 — but they also combined for 158 homers with Springer and Singleton playing roughly half their seasons in The Show.
The Astros are looking to new manager A. J. Hinch to be a vital influence for their young sluggers, hoping he can teach patience at the plate. In addition to a new skipper, the Houston front office made moves to bring in several veteran lineup pieces, including Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus in the outfield and Luis Valbuena at third. Rasmus, Valbuena and Gattis have big pop capabilities, but are also rather strikeout-prone. All three should add a welcomed veteran presence in the clubhouse and on the lineup card for Hinch.
The Houston lineup wasn’t the only thing that received a minor facelift this offseason, as veteran hurlers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson were signed to bolster a bullpen that ranked dead last in ERA during 2014 (4.80). Neshek and Gregerson were nice pick ups, but the Astros still lack a true closer after missing out on David Robertson this past winter.
The rotation for the Astros could prove to be formidable with last season’s surprises in Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. Keuchel and McHugh both posted sub-3.00 ERAs in 2014, as McHugh struck out 157 batters in 154.2 innings of work, and Keuchel developed into the Astros' most reliable starter, throwing 200 innings. While the long-term jury is still deliberating on Keuchel and McHugh, the Astros are still without a true ace. But that ace could be within the Astros organization already in 2013 No. 1 overall pick, Mark Appel. Appel was inconsistent in his first full minor league season, but has reportedly already been turning heads at Astros camp.
Make no doubt about it, the future is bright in Houston, especially with pieces like reigning AL batting champion Jose Altuve manning second base long term, and a cabinet full of hard-swinging youngsters whose upside is almost infinite. The Astros are ready to start winning, and winning soon. While a postseason run this summer is a bit too ambitious, certainly a .500 record is well within reach.
- by Jake Rose
Opening Day of the 2015 MLB season is less than a month away, which means fantasy baseball is just around the corner. For some leagues, drafts have already begun or will soon begin and Athlon Sports is here to help.
Besides providing our comprehensive Fantasy Baseball Big Board, we also have our positional rankings, courtesy of Bruce Herman. These are pulled straight from this year’s 2015 MLB Preview magazine, which is available at newsstands everywhere and for purchase online.
A: FRANCHISE PLAYER — You need one to compete, two to win, three to dominate.
B: CAREER YEAR — Veteran with a strong possibility of delivering his best season.
C: SLEEPER — Could be a great acquisition at a price or draft slot below his true value.
D: ROADBLOCKED — Rank has been lowered because there is no current opportunity to play regularly.
E: DECLINER — Expect moderately to significantly worse stats than in 2014.
F: INJURY RISK — Has had a recent injury that could affect performance.
G: INVESTOR’S SPECIAL — Top prospect whose immediate impact may be minimal.
Batting stats are expressed AVG-HR-RBI-R-SB. Positional eligibility for specific players may vary depending on league, as well as other Web sites and resources.
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Catchers
1. Buster Posey, Giants (A)
Posey has had two torrid Junes and frosty Julys in a row, with the latter separating him from the MVP form we saw in 2012. He’s one slumpbuster pill away from being that guy again (.336-24-103-78-1) instead of the still-formidable .303-18-80-66-1 of the last two years.
2. Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
Lucroy’s incremental progression into the catching gentry has been in lockstep with his full-season SO/BB ratios: 3.4, 2.0, 1.4, 1.1. His 2014 OPS of .837 may have been short of Posey’s, but no other qualifying backstop was within 52 points of it — hence the abbreviated Tier 1.
3. Salvador Perez, Royals
Perez’s AVG was .298 on June 30, but just .230 afterwards (including playoffs). He wore down from catching 91% of KC’s games, saw his swing compromised (MLB-high 17.3 infield pop-up rate) and flailed at anything with seams. Homers are on pace to settle in the 20s.
4. Devin Mesoraco, Reds
Dusty Baker jacked him around, but Bryan Price trusted Mesoraco, whose response was to enact the largest OPS increase in the National League (min. 300 PAs), from .649 to .893. Led all catchers with 25 HRs, but the .273 AVG is at the upper end of his capability.
5. Yan Gomes, Indians
We pointed out that Gomes would be a Tier 2er if Carlos Santana changed positions. That came to pass, and Yan’s year was a dead ringer for Perez’s. His lack of judgment is equally as dicey, but then again, Brazilians love this dish called feijoada that contains pigs’ ears.
6. Yadier Molina, Cardinals
Molina wasn’t quite the usual automaton in 2014, as he dipped to his lowest OPS since 2010. His career highs of a .319 AVG, 22 HRs and 80 RBIs will likely remain so in perpetuity, but he’s a safe option at a position with few.
7. Russell Martin, Blue Jays
The .290 AVG — up from .234 the previous five seasons — was a quirk, but a move to Rogers Centre and better health should inch the homers back into the high teens. John Gibbons has him penciled in as a No. 2 hitter, though, which would menace his RBI chances.
8. Matt Wieters, Orioles (F)
Wieters was swatting 53 points above his career AVG when he was derailed by an elbow injury and eventually Tommy Johned. He’ll be lucky to hit .260 over a full season, but 20 homers and 70 RBIs are even bets, recognizing that his workload may be reduced.
9. Wilson Ramos, Nationals (B, F)
In Ramos’ case, the term “full season” is as meaningful as it was to “Osbournes Reloaded.” He’s been sidetracked by everything from gossamer hamstrings to being kidnapped. Based on his three-year numbers, a 500-AB season would look like this: .268-21-82-51-0.
10. Jason Castro, Astros
The position’s next great offensive hope fell into a quagmire of strikeouts (one every 3.4 PAs), precipitating a 54-point AVG fall to .222. Homers in the teens, RBIs in the 50s are plausible.
11. Travis d’Arnaud, Mets (B, F)
Quietly but dramatically pulled out of a halting career launch to go .271-7-22 in his final 54 games. Had bone chips removed from his elbow in October.
12. Brian McCann, Yankees
McCann is fortunate to be playing in one of the few ballparks that keeps him roto-relevant; 19 of his 23 homers were at Yankee Stadium. Acute pull proclivities beat down his AVG to a shift-stymied .232.
13. Miguel Montero, Cubs
Made a considerable regression from his first three 400-AB seasons (.287-16-78-64-1, on average) to .237-12-57-42-0 in 2013-14. Moves to Wrigley, where’s he’s done well.
14. Wilin Rosario, Rockies (F)
Like many catchers, Rosario can only tell a ball from a strike while wearing a mask. That, the burden of his defensive struggles, and the seeming inevitability of his departure from Coors threaten to eat into the lofty power ceiling he erected with 49 homers in 2012-13.
15. Mike Zunino, Mariners
First player in history to bat below .200 with at least 150 SOs and fewer than 20 BBs while hitting more than 20 HRs. The hooks on which to hang a fantasy hat are that last stat and his perceived potential.
18. John Jaso, Rays (F)
17. Derek Norris, Padres
16. Stephen Vogt, A’s (F)
19. Francisco Cervelli, Pirates (B)
20. Yasmani Grandal, Dodgers
21. Alex Avila, Tigers (F)
22. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Marlins
23. Tyler Flowers, White Sox
24. Nick Hundley, Rockies
25. Rene Rivera, Rays
26. Kurt Suzuki, Twins (E)
27. Josmil Pinto, Twins (C)
28. Chris Iannetta, Angels
29. Robinson Chirinos, Rangers
30. Christian Bethancourt, Braves
31. Blake Swihart, Red Sox (G)
32. Welington Castillo, Cubs (D)
33. Brayan Pena, Reds
34. Ryan Hanigan, Red Sox
35. A.J. Pierzynski, Braves
36. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies
37. Hank Conger, Astros (D)
38. Peter O’Brien, Diamondbacks (G)
39. Christian Vazquez, Red Sox
40. A.J. Ellis, Dodgers (E)
Opening Day of the 2015 MLB season is less than a month away, which means fantasy baseball is just around the corner. For some leagues, drafts have already begun or will soon begin and Athlon Sports is here to help.
Besides providing our comprehensive Fantasy Baseball Big Board, we also have our positional rankings, courtesy of Bruce Herman. These are pulled straight from this year’s 2015 MLB Preview magazine, which is available at newsstands everywhere and for purchase online.
A: FRANCHISE PLAYER — You need one to compete, two to win, three to dominate.
B: CAREER YEAR — Veteran with a strong possibility of delivering his best season.
C: SLEEPER — Could be a great acquisition at a price or draft slot below his true value.
D: ROADBLOCKED — Rank has been lowered because there is no current opportunity to play regularly.
E: DECLINER — Expect moderately to significantly worse stats than in 2014.
F: INJURY RISK — Has had a recent injury that could affect performance.
G: INVESTOR’S SPECIAL — Top prospect whose immediate impact may be minimal.
Batting stats are expressed AVG-HR-RBI-R-SB. Positional eligibility for specific players may vary depending on league, as well as other Web sites and resources.
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Designated Hitters
1. Victor Martinez, Tigers (A)
Martinez had an astonishing season for a two-tool player, striking out 40 fewer times than any other 30-HR hitter and becoming the third-oldest first-time member of the 30-HR/100-RBI club. Lightning won’t strike twice, but he’s still the class of the DHs. Also be wary of a slow start, as Martinez underwent surgery in early February to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.
2. Nelson Cruz, Mariners (E)
The reliable gravity of baseball will work against another 40-HR/108-RBI bombshell by Cruz. Or maybe pitchers will just figure out that his OPS on non-fastballs was .720. More realistic is his 2009-13 average of 27/81.
3. David Ortiz, Red Sox (E)
Ortiz pulled off the rare feat of hitting 35 jacks and driving in 100 runs after his 35th birthday. Papi is more of an all-or-nothing sort now, since shifts are throwing up obstacles.
4. Adam LaRoche, White Sox
LaRoche, underappreciated from a power standpoint, has come up with 20-plus HRs in all nine of his 120-game seasons. A five-year AVG of .252 takes the edge off, though.
5. Billy Butler, Athletics
The A’s 21st century version of Billy Ball (general manager Beane and designated hitter Butler) will be measured at least in part on how this provocative signing works out. Career OPS in KC: .849; in Oakland: .759.
6. Chris Carter, Astros
They don’t come more entertaining than Carter, who (a) led the majors in HRs/AB (.073) and was fourth in percentage of batted balls that were infield pops (16.0); (b) had stretches of 15 HRs in 31 games, as well as none in 18 and one in 19; and (c) set a record for fewest career RBIs with 85 or more HRs.
7. Kendrys Morales, Royals
Kauffman Stadium doesn’t seem like the best place to resurrect the career of a 32-year-old, high-flyball/high-strikeout power hitter, but Kendrys will give it a go.
8. Kennys Vargas, Twins
The current game’s largest human, Vargas was, in 2014, the most recent player with at least 43 hits and 31 RBIs in his first 32 major league contests. The previous two were Albert Pujols and Joe DiMaggio. (We’ll wait while you go clean out your ears with a Q-tip.)
9. Mitch Moreland, Rangers (F)
A .250-ish hitter whose 20-HR possibilities (if his surgically repaired ankle is OK) have some value in AL-only leagues.
10. Nick Swisher, Indians (F)
Bad year, worse knees. If he can snap back from the August surgeries on both, Swisher might salvage a 10th 20-HR season, but without many trimmings.
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 27: Luke Donald
Born: Dec. 7, 1977, Hemel Hempstead, England | Career PGA Tour Wins: 5 (7 on European Tour) | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 0 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $1,451,440 (72nd) | World Ranking: 44
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Donald was once the number one player in the world and in 2011 was the first player to lead both the PGA and the European Tour money lists, but in spite of all the success he had and money he won, he met criticism for never having a chance to win a major late on Sunday. Perhaps it was that criticism, or maybe it was his desire to get longer off the tee, but Luke jettisoned his long-time teacher Pat Goss for Jason Dufner’s teacher Chuck Cook, but the changes never took, so Luke is back working on familiar ideas and as such should return to his winning ways. At his best he possesses one of the top three deadliest combinations of wedge play and putting of this era to go with an elegant golf swing that will make him a winner once again in 2015.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - Cut
U.S. Open - Cut
British Open - T64
PGA Championship - T40
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - T3 (2005)
U.S. Open - T8 (2013)
British Open - T5 (2009, 2012)
PGA Championship - T3 (2006)
Top-10 Finishes: 8
Top-25 Finishes: 15
Missed Cuts: 16
Is this the end?
There are many pressing questions facing golf in 2015 — Can Rory complete the career Grand Slam? Is Michelle Wie for real? Will Ian Poulter’s next Ferrari be red or white? — but the biggest unknown by far is whether the Tiger and Phil era is, in fact, over. Last season marked the first time in nearly two decades that neither Woods nor Mickelson won a professional tournament. Tiger will be 40 in December, and his body has broken under the strain of his obsessive workout routine and a lifetime of grinding on the range. (In fact, he’s been at it for so long his age should probably be measured in dog years.)
Woods will arrive at Augusta (we presume) nearly seven calendar years removed from his last major championship victory, a drought that has extended through what should have been the prime of his career. He will be attempting to become the first player ever to win a Masters with four different swings. Tiger ended 2014 at 32nd in the World Ranking, but such is his cult of personality that CBS analyst David Feherty recently said: ”It would surprise me if, by the end of this season, he’s not No. 1 in the world again. The only mistakes I’ve ever made with Tiger Woods are underestimating him. If you think he can’t do that, well, he kind of thinks he can.”
Mickelson is an arthritic 44-year-old who looked strangely disinterested for most of the 2014 season. He found a little inspiration at the PGA Championship and could have salvaged his year with a victory, but he looked drained coming down the stretch, bogeying the 70th hole to open the door for McIlroy. Yet Mickelson, like Woods, has towered over the game for so long that we can’t quit him, either. Phil spent the offseason dropping 20 pounds and has rejiggered his early-season schedule to be fresher for Augusta and his continued, quixotic quest to win a U.S. Open. According to Mickelson’s wife, Amy, Phil has not lost the belief that has sustained him through some of the most heart-wrenching defeats of the modern era. “He’s the most positive person in the world,” she says. “He’ll be working on some part of his body that’s been injured, and I can tell he’s uncomfortable, but he’ll say, ’I’m fine. I feel great — best shape of my life.’ The thing is, he tells himself that so much he really believes it.”
Do either or both of these proud champions have one last run in them to put an exclamation point on their Hall of Fame careers? The mind says no but the heart can’t resist hoping for a yes.
• • •
Tiger and Phil grew up in middle-class Southern California suburbia, separated by 100 miles but linked by their talent — both were prodigies from the earliest age. Older by five and a half years, Mickelson loomed over Woods’ early golfing life. “Phil was an icon to us,” says one of Tiger’s friends from junior golf, Chris Riley, who would also go on to a career on the PGA Tour.
Woods’s late father Earl always received most of the credit for his son’s competitive spirit, but it was mom Tida who sharpened Tiger’s killer instinct. With her, it was personal. Any player who was as accomplished as the young Tiger was considered not just a competitor but a threat. So as Woods chased Mickelson’s numerous junior records, he was imbued with a certain disdain for a flashy counterpart he barely knew.
Tiger is still Tiger. And Phil is still Phil. Is that enough any more? We'll find out for sure this year.
All these years later Tiger and Phil are still measuring themselves against each other. Woods’s career achievements — 14 major championships and 79 PGA Tour victories — are untouchable, but Tiger is keenly aware that since his last major win (2008 U.S. Open) Phil has nabbed a Masters and a British Open. What hurts just as much is that Mickelson has repeatedly outplayed him in head-to-head matchups, notably the 64-75 thrashing on Sunday at the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach, which was Mickelson’s 40th career victory. A decade ago, Mickelson had a question he loved to trot out in press conferences: “If Tiger is the best player of all time and I start beating him regularly, what does that make me?” Woods has many motivations to keep pushing for a return to glory, but surely he doesn’t want to be eclipsed by his old rival in the last act of his career.
Meanwhile, Mickelson remains motivated by the pursuit of the one thing he seemingly can’t have. His entire 2014 season was reduced to a single tournament: the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where 15 years earlier he had begun his ritualistic heartbreak at the national championship. This year’s venue is Chambers Bay, a quirky neo-links in Tacoma, Wash. Since it’s never hosted a professional tournament, it’s hard to say for sure what kind of player Chambers favors, but it’s a big, rollicking ballpark that will be more generous off the tee than most Open venues and will demand more creativity around the greens. Sounds about right for Mickelson, no?
The highlight of the summer will be a return to St. Andrews, where Woods has won two of his three British Opens, in 2000 and ’05. This famous auld sod used to be his private playground, but Tiger long ago stopped being a sure thing there, or anywhere else. Last year he hit rock-bottom, with a serious back injury and related maladies limiting him to seven tournaments, only two of which he lasted for the full 72 holes. In an attempt to regain his old mojo, he has gone back to the future, hiring someone named Chris Como as swing “consultant” to help him refashion his swing into something close to what it was in the halcyon days of his youth. (Woods’ goal has always been to “own” his swing, and thus he prefers the verbiage of the business world — consultant — as opposed to “coach,” which would imply that he actually has something to learn.) At the World Challenge in December 2014, Woods gave the golf world a sneak peek at his action, and the reviews were guardedly optimistic, as he seemed to be swinging with more freedom and conviction.
Of course, the story of that week was his shocking chip-yips. Woods chalked up his struggles around the greens to rust, but by all reports he was wedging it beautifully in the practice rounds. The stunning yippiness continued during early-season starts at Phoenix and Torrey Pines, and it was baffling and more than a little sad to watch Woods duff, blade, chunk, skull and chili-dip chip after chip. Woods withdrew midway through the second round at Torrey, citing "deactivated" glutes. This became the butt of endless jokes, which masked a larger problem: Tiger had quit again. Shortly thereafter he announced he was taking a sabbatical to work on his game — and, presumably, his mind — without millions of fans and critics passing judgment. For Woods to cry uncle and flee tournament golf was the most graphic evidence yet that for all the questions about his body, his biggest problems are metaphysical.
During his heyday, Woods could hit any shot and he putted better than anybody ever has, but what separated him from everyone else came from his heart and his head. His belief in himself was absolute, and unshakeable. Under pressure he was the clearest thinker and the most resilient. Success begat success. But Woods is a different person now. His sense of self was destroyed after suffering through the most public humiliation of the Internet age. Being between the ropes used to be his sanctuary, but suddenly he was all alone out there, on display for the masses to pass judgment. The bulletproof confidence has been blasted away by repeated defeats large and small.
Meanwhile, a new generation has risen, minus the scar tissue that came with the repeated beatings Woods dished out around the turn of the century. Rory McIlroy, a once-in-a-lifetime talent on par with Woods and Mickelson, attacks and overwhelms golf courses with an insouciance that is utterly foreign to his aging rivals. Despite the pyrotechnics of a myth-making victory at the 1997 Masters, Woods always favored precision over power. His game plans became more conservative in the post-hydrant era, as he seemed increasingly afraid of the big miss with his driver. In 2014 his average clubhead speed with the big stick was 115.63 miles per hour. If he had recorded enough attempts to officially qualify for the stat, Woods would have ranked 55th on Tour — right above Mickelson, who was at 115.62. Woods’ diminished power is part of a larger decline in a game that is no longer as well suited for the major championships, with their more exacting conditions. The trajectory of his irons became significantly lower in the Sean Foley years, just as he became shakier over short putts.
Woods will never again be the player he was. Even if he can find some form close to that impossible standard, the competition is much stronger than when he was vacuuming up major championship victories. Mickelson used to be the only player who was even close to Woods, talent-wise. Now, the 25-year-old McIlroy is already four-fifths of the way towards Phil’s career total of majors, and he’s only getting better and more confident. Tiger forged his legend at The Masters, winning three of his first six as a pro, but in the last decade he’s won only one more while Mickelson snagged three. And yet neither can still be considered the current King of Augusta — that honorific title goes to Bubba Watson, who has won two of the last three with an unbeatable combination of power and finesse.
In 2013, as defending champ, Watson was asked if he was the favorite to win the Green Jacket. He shook his head no and anointed a figure from the past. “He’s still Tiger Woods,” Watson said. And Phil Mickelson is still Phil Mickelson. Is that enough anymore? The 2014 season hinted at an answer. We’ll find out for sure this year.
This article appears in the 2015 edition of Athlon Sports Golf annual, on sale now. Order your copy here.
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