Articles By Athlon Sports
The Diamondbacks completed two major offseason trades, moves designed to “keep up with the Joneses,” as president/CEO Derrick Hall said at the winter meetings. The addition of proven power bat Mark Trumbo should provide a middle-of-the-order complement to Paul Goldschmidt, whose breakout 2013 season earned him an All-Star berth and a second-place finish in the NL MVP balloting. Closer Addison Reed is expected to firm up a shaky bullpen. With a return to health by some and a return to form by others, the retooled D-backs again could contend in the rugged NL West.
At this time last year, lefthander Patrick Corbin was one of three candidates for the final spot in the D-backs’ starting rotation. How things change. And then change again. Corbin entered the spring as the clear No. 1 this season after blossoming in 2013, winning 14 games and striking out 178. He was one of only nine NL pitchers to work at least 208 innings, and his 9–0 start through June led to his first All-Star team appearance. Then a twinge in his elbow has him sidelined and visiting a doctor named James Andrews, never a good sign for a pitcher. So the best-case scenario has Corbin rehabbing for most of the season. The most likely outcome is Tommy John surgery. Corbin’s teammates will have to step up a notch to fill the void. Righthanders Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy will fill two of the top three spots, in some order, and both are looking to rebound after missing significant injury time a year ago. Cahill was struck in the right hip by a line drive in June and after two more starts was placed on the disabled list. While there, he tweaked his delivery to find a more consistent release point. Cahill’s hard two-seamer moves so much that he is tough to beat when he is commanding the strike zone, and the change seemed to help — he was 5–0 with 2.70 ERA in his last nine appearances. McCarthy missed nine weeks with shoulder inflammation, an issue that impacts him every year. Lefthander Wade Miley has had two consecutive double-digit win seasons and is an ideal fourth starter, keeping his team in most games. But he’ll be asked to be even better this season. Miley and Corbin finished in the top 10 in quality starts in the NL a year ago. Righthander Randall Delgado used the opportunity when Cahill and McCarthy were out to enter the rotation, and his work helped facilitate the trade of Ian Kennedy at the July 31 deadline. Long-time Cincinnati workhorse Bronson Arroyo signed with Arizona over the winter. He was brought in more or less as insurance and to give Delgado and Bradley plenty of time to develop. But now he must fill a key role. Top prospect Archie Bradley could crack the rotation at some point this season. Bradley continues to improve with a mix of a 98 mph fastball with a sharp curve.
Reed had 69 saves for the Chicago White Sox after becoming their closer two months into the 2012 season, and he should stabilize a bullpen hurt by injuries and ineffectiveness. D-backs relievers tied for the major-league lead with 29 failed save conversions and led NL bullpens with 59 home runs allowed in ’13. The D-backs recovered to win about half of the games in which there was a blown save, but the extra innings (and workload) made it more difficult on everyone. Submariner Brad Ziegler, the third pitcher used as closer, rescued the bullpen with 12 saves in the second half last year and was rewarded with a two-year, $10.5 million extension in the offseason. He is expected to return to his primary role as a setup man. Righthanders J.J. Putz and David Hernandez, bullpen horses in the D-backs’ 2011 NL West title run, look to bounce back from injuries (Putz) and ineffectiveness (Hernandez) in setup roles this season. Putz, who opened 2013 as the closer, was effective in the second half when he returned from an elbow strain. Righthander Josh Collmenter has created a niche for himself in long relief, and he was among the best in the game at that. Righthander Will Harris and lefthanders Joe Thatcher and Oliver Perez provide help.
Dual-threat second baseman Aaron Hill missed about 10 weeks after suffering a broken hand two weeks into 2013, and his production was sorely missed. Tentatively scheduled to be the cleanup hitter a year ago, he is a strong candidate to hit there again, between Goldschmidt and Trumbo. He also can hit in the No. 2 hole. Youngsters Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings could work into a platoon at shortstop, since Gregorius bats left-handed and Owings hits right. Owings was the Pacific Coast League MVP at Class AAA Reno in 2013 and has nothing left to prove at that level.
Goldschmidt signed a five-year, $32 million contract extension two days before the 2013 season and then proceeded to outperform it almost immediately. In a monster year, he tied for the NL lead with 36 home runs and led the league in most other production categories, including RBIs (125), slugging percentage, OPS and OPS-plus. He also won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger, and he led the D-backs in stolen bases. Martin Prado had a career-best 82 RBIs, and his 14 homers were one short of tying his career high in his first season with the D-backs. He was used at second base, third base and left field in 2013, but third base will be his spot this season unless injuries force a change. Prado is also versatile offensively and will likely hit second or sixth.
New left fielder Trumbo had 29, 32 and 34 home runs in his first three seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, and one veteran scout said he believed 35 dingers were possible in Chase Field, which is more hitter-friendly. Trumbo played mostly first base with the Angels, but he also took turns in left field and right field, and the D-backs believe he will be a competent defender. Gerardo Parra set career highs in six offensive categories, including doubles (43) and homers (10), in his first season as a full-time right fielder, and his arm is as much of a weapon as his bat. Parra led NL outfielders with a career-high 17 assists while winning his second Gold Glove in three seasons, first as a left fielder in 2011. A.J. Pollock, a long-shot to make the roster in 2013 until injuries struck, will play center field after finishing second among NL rookies with 12 stolen bases and 28 doubles last year. He is the best center fielder on the roster, and his breakout season made Adam Eaton expendable in the three-team trade that landed Trumbo. Adjustments will be made when Cody Ross returns from a broken hip, perhaps in May.
Miguel Montero played through lower back pain most of last season, certainly a factor in his least productive season since 2010, another injury-shortened year. At normal levels, Montero is one of the best offensive players in the league at his position, and even with a subpar 2013 has averaged 25 doubles, 15 homers and 72 RBIs the last three seasons. He provides the primary left-handed bat in the Arizona lineup.
Eric Chavez’s return is a big get for the D-backs. Chavez had 44 RBIs in 228 at-bats last season, and only Goldschmidt had a better ratio among regular contributors. Chavez will back up at first base and third base and be the prime left-handed pinch-hitter. Ross is not expected to return from his fractured hip until late April or May, at which point the D-backs will have decisions to make about outfield roles. Ross can play all three outfield positions. Cliff Pennington is an above-average defender at second base and shortstop, adding to the depth provided by Owings and Gregorius. Henry Blanco, whose defensive skills and clubhouse presence stand out, signed a minor-league contract in the offseason and will back up Montero.
Hall and managing partner Ken Kendrick demonstrated their commitment to winning now with their checkbook. With deferred salaries virtually gone and the new FOX-TV money combined with a reworking of several sponsorship arrangements, the D-backs had money to spend, and they spent it. The 2014 payroll will be the highest in team history, exceeding the approximately $102 million spent on the 2002 team in the year after the D-backs’ only World Series victory. GM Kevin Towers again was at his offseason best in landing Trumbo and Reed to fill obvious holes.
The D-backs have made it clear that they expect to compete with the defending division champ and deep-pocketed Los Angeles Dodgers and the every-other-year San Francisco Giants. Towers and manager Kirk Gibson are in the final years of their contracts. Each has two option years, but management needs to see progress for a team that faded down the stretch a year ago.
RF Gerardo Parra (L)
Hit five leadoff homers in his first extended time as a leadoff hitter in 2013.
3B Martin Prado (R)
Hit 14 home runs and had a career-high 82 RBIs in his first season with the D-backs.
1B Paul Goldschmidt (R)
The most productive hitter in the National League last season by virtually any measure.
2B Aaron Hill (R)
With health, his numbers should return to normal levels, deepening this lineup.
LF Mark Trumbo (R)
One scout suggests that 35 homers is not out of the question at Chase Field.
C Miguel Montero (L)
A workhorse, he has caught at least 1,000 innings in each of the last three years.
CF A.J. Pollock (R)
Speedy defender capped a strong rookie season by hitting .369 in his last 28 games.
SS Didi Gregorius (L)
He brings a strong arm and good range into his second season in Arizona.
INF Eric Chavez (L)
Averaged an RBI every 5.2 at-bats, second among the D-backs’ regular contributors.
OF Cody Ross (R)
Gamer remains optimistic that he can return from fractured hip in late April, early May.
C Henry Blanco (R)
Solid defender and steadying presence on the 2011 team returns to add skill and savvy.
INF Cliff Pennington (S)
A solid defender who can rise to the occasion, as his two walk-off hits in ‘13 suggest.
SS Chris Owings (R)
Earned 2013 Pacific Coast League MVP honors by hitting .330 with 31 doubles, 81 RBIs.
UT Matt Tuiasosopo (R)
The slugger appeared in 81 games for the Tigers last season and hit seven homers in 164 at-bats. He’ll provide some right-handed pop, at least until Ross is deemed fit.
LH Wade Miley
Over the final four months of 2013, the 2008 first-round pick was 7–5 with a 2.87 ERA.
RH Trevor Cahill
A midseason delivery adjustment seemed to take, boding well for the future for the former 18-game winner.
RH Brandon McCarthy
Looking to rebound from a career-high 11 losses in his first season with the D-backs.
RH Randall Delgado
Given opportunity, had career highs in wins (five), starts (19) and innings (116.1).
RH Bronson Arroyo
Made at least 32 starts each year for the past nine seasons, but carried a 4.10 ERA during that time.
RH Addison Reed (Closer)
Has 69 saves since becoming the White Sox’s full-time closer two months into 2012.
RH J.J. Putz
After recovering from elbow strain, held opponents scoreless in 22 of his final 24 appearances.
RH David Hernandez
His 241 strikeouts are sixth among National League relievers the last three seasons.
RH Brad Ziegler
Submariner leads major-league relievers by inducing 81 double-play grounders since 2008.
RH Josh Collmenter
His over-the-top “tomahawk” style is unorthodox, but the results scream effective.
LH Joe Thatcher
He has allowed 16 percent of inherited runners to score, fifth in the majors since 2009.
RH Will Harris
With a low 90s fastball and big-breaking curve, another bullpen find by general manager Kevin Towers.
LH Oliver Perez
The veteran appeared in 61 games for Seattle last season with 74 strikeouts in 53 innings.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Braden Shipley, RHP
Shipley needed a few outings to settle in at short-season Class A Hillsboro after being chosen from Nevada with the 15th pick of the first round of the draft, but he hit his stride shortly thereafter and did his best work after a late-season promotion to Class A South Bend for the playoff drive. Shipley gave up two earned runs or less in each of his four regular-season starts at South Bend to help the Silver Hawks into the playoffs, and he followed that with even better work, giving up only two earned runs in 13.2 innings in two playoff starts. Shipley is a converted shortstop who has only been pitching full-time since his junior year in high school, and because of that the D-backs see plenty of upside. His stuff is that of a top-of-the-rotation starter — he touches 97 mph with his fastball and uses a changeup as a second pitch.
C/OF Stryker Trahan (19)
After honing his catching skills in extended spring training in 2013, Trahan had 10 homers and 33 RBIs in 59 games at Class A Missoula.
RHP Archie Bradley (21)
The D-backs’ other 2011 first-round pick will bring his 98 mph fastball into competition for a rotation spot this spring.
RHP Matt Stites (23)
A bullpen component who was obtained in the Ian Kennedy trade; his fastball tops out in the high 90s.
RHP Jake Barrett (22)
A reliever who touches the high 90s; had a 1.21 ERA and 29 saves at two 2013 minor league stops.
3B Jake Lamb (23)
Showed good pop — 20 doubles, 13 home runs, 47 RBIs — in a 2013 season cut in half by injuries.
3B Brandon Drury (21)
Led the minor leagues with 51 doubles at Class A South Bend in 2013 after coming over in Justin Upton/Chris Johnson trade.
SS Chris Owings (22)
Did not appear overmatched at all in his 20-game audition last summer.
RHP Aaron Blair (21)
The 36th pick in the 2013 draft made 11 starts with seven no-decisions last season in the minors.
RHP Jose Martinez (19)
Made 10 starts in the Northwest League last summer. The good news is that he allowed just 20 hits in 38 innings. The bad news is that he walked 25.
Beyond the Box Score
Bad blood After the Los Angeles Dodgers clinched the NL West crown in Arizona on Sept. 20, a host of Dodgers moved their celebration from the visiting clubhouse to the Chase Field swimming pool, just beyond the right-center field fence. An unnamed Dodger admitted to relieving himself in the pool. Initially unfazed, D-backs righthander Brandon McCarthy spoke for many in the clubhouse when he said: “My presumption was that if it was just based on having fun and celebrating, that’s one thing. If you have some people going out of their way to be a**holes, that’s a whole ’nother thing. If it is something where you are going out to be disrespectful, then that is kind of a simple ‘grow up.’”
Inspiration Ben Petrick was not looking to get back into baseball, but when the D-backs moved into his Hillsboro, Ore., neighborhood and player personnel director Mike Bell came calling, Petrick found himself enjoying his role as a special assistant, basically a “life coach” for the D-backs’ first-year players. A storied high school athlete in Oregon and a five-year major leaguer, Petrick had his career curtailed by early-onset Parkinson’s, a journey chronicled in his autobiography, “40,000 to One.” D-backs No. 1 draft choice Braden Shipley, who started his pro career in Hillsboro last June, called Petrick “one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met. What I respect is how positive he is. That to me is inspiring. That shows me I don’t have it rough.”
Hip check Cody Ross is known as a baseball rat, willing and able to do all the dirty work required to excel. He is now a guinea pig. Ross suffered a fractured bone on the back of his right hip when his spike caught in the dirt as he approached first base on Aug. 11, and the injury is believed to be the first of its kind in baseball.
Man of his word A day after Mark Trumbo was traded to the D-backs on Dec. 10, he still made it a priority to attend the Los Angeles Angels’ annual children’s holiday party in Downtown Disney, an event he began attending while he was in the Angels’ minor-league system. He wore a plaid shirt instead of his uniform jersey, but the kids did not seem to mind as Trumbo read Christmas stories, signed autographs and traded high-fives.
Last fall in the visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park, as jubilation swirled outside, the Cardinals quietly came to grips with a sudden October ending. Several luminaries, like Carlos Beltran and retiring star Chris Carpenter, would not be returning, but general manager John Mozeliak surveyed the room and wanted the players to see past the disappointment and recognize a chance for continuation. “We’ve got a good team,” he said. “We’ve got a young team.” The Cardinals, who won a league-best 97 games, claimed their fourth National League pennant in 10 years. They reached the Fall Classic with the youngest roster in the playoffs after a season that featured 11 major-league debuts. And the Cardinals have outfitted a ring-bearing core of Matt Holliday (three World Series), Adam Wainwright (three World Series), and Yadier Molina (four World Series) with young, hotshot pitchers set to carry the club through many autumns to come.
Young and talented are the two words to describe the Cardinals’ rotation. A pitcher 26 or younger started 109 of the Cardinals’ 162 games, and rookies threw 50 percent of the innings in the World Series. In September, Joe Kelly (25) and Lance Lynn (26) combined for a 2.11 ERA, and Michael Wacha (22) had a 1.72 ERA. Shelby Miller (23) won 15 games total. All four cram into a crowded competition for starting spots after Wainwright (32), who tied for the NL lead in wins (19) and led in innings pitched (241.2). “We haven’t seen (their) ceiling,” manager Mike Matheny says. Lefty Jaime Garcia (27) was expected to return from shoulder surgery to arm the Cardinals with a rotation that could go eight deep with sky-high potential, but his shoulder did not respond well in spring training. He’s out indefinitely…again.
Matheny started the 2013 offseason with a pronouncement about 2014: Trevor Rosenthal will be the closer. The flamethrowing righty claimed the ninth inning in September and blazed through four saves and a scoreless 11.2 innings in October. An infusion of power jolted the bullpen for the postseason and will mark the late innings again. Former closer Jason Motte (elbow surgery) is back, giving the Cardinals at least five relievers who throw 98 mph or better. Lefty Randy Choate and Motte will serve as sages for a green group that could include lefty Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, and rookie Carlos Martinez. With Rosenthal at the end, Matheny can bridge leads from starter to closer with a familiar late-inning recipe: fast, faster and then fastest. Righties Keith Butler and Pat Neshek will cover any innings that might be available until Motte is completely sound.
When newcomer Jhonny Peralta debuts at shortstop on Opening Day, he’ll continue a Cardinals trend before trying to end it. Peralta, 31, will be the eighth different starting shortstop in eight consecutive Opening Days for the Cardinals. That instability is surpassed to Peralta’s left. Veteran Mark Ellis or rookie Kolten Wong will be the ninth different Opening Day second baseman in 12 years. The Cardinals moved All-Star Matt Carpenter back to third base to allow for Wong, a former first-round pick who brings speed, solid defense and high-average potential. With a .774 OPS vs. lefties since 2011, Ellis offers a right-handed-hitting complement to Wong and alternative starter if he falters. Peralta brings offense that the Cardinals haven’t seen at short in years. The position has averaged a .336 slugging percentage the past four seasons and provided 11 homers total since 2012. Peralta had that many in 2013. The Cardinals crave his production to stop their middle infield merry-go-round. The Redbirds will lose some defense, but Peralta is sure-handed and makes all the routine plays.
The first major move of the offseason was a farewell. The Cardinals packaged favorite son, St. Louis native and former World Series MVP David Freese in a deal with the Angels. The third baseman’s production drifted in 2013, and, due a raise through arbitration, he was in enough demand for the Cardinals to reshape the look of the infield and team defense with a trade. After leading the league in hits, runs and doubles, leadoff hitter Carpenter offers a defensive upgrade at third, and coaches believe he’ll flex more power to offset the loss of Freese and Beltran. Increased thump must come from first base, where Matt Adams takes over full-time. The left-handed-hitting slugger had 17 home runs in 108 games — a pace that would yield 29 homers given 500 at-bats. However, should top prospect Oscar Taveras prove he’s ready for a promotion this season, Allen Craig will move back to first and Adams will resume his roll off the bench.
In exchange for Freese, the Cardinals received center fielder Peter Bourjos, who is in position to win the starting job, or at least share it with incumbent Jon Jay. Bourjos’ 2013 season was hampered by a wrist injury that eventually required surgery, but he is a dynamic fielder with flashes of offensive upside. Jay, who fought fits of inconsistency, did post a .311 second-half average. Bourjos and Wong will add a new speed dimension to the lineup, one built on OBP and timely damage. The pillars of the Cardinals’ lineup bookend Bourjos — Holliday in left and Allen Craig in right. Relocated from first, cleanup hitter Craig would have two consecutive 100-RBI seasons if not for fluke injuries. He’s primed to challenge for an MVP. Annually, Holliday is one of the most productive (and underrated) outfielders — a metronome good for 90 RBIs, 20 homers and .490 slugging. On the horizon looms Taveras, the wunderkind whom the Cardinals call the best hitting prospect they’ve had since Albert Pujols. He missed much of 2013 with an ankle injury that eventually required surgery. He’ll need at least three months at Triple-A this year.
The meteoric arc of his career, from defensive whiz to arguably the best catcher of his generation, can be mapped on Molina’s arms, where he has tattoos for each of the achievements, like Gold Glove awards and championships. Molina’s average climbed to a career high (.319) for the third consecutive season in 2013, and he shepherded a rookie-rich rotation to a career-low catcher’s ERA (3.16). Recurring knee troubles for Molina reinforced the Cardinals’ need to get trustworthy backup Tony Cruz more starts. Molina is one of only two NL catchers with at least 1,000 innings behind the plate for three consecutive seasons, and in that time the discussion of his career has accelerated from MVP candidate to one of the best all-around players in the game.
In two seasons with Matheny as manager, the Cardinals have tried different approaches with the bench. First they went young and then spent $5 million to add seasoning in the second summer. Neither plan worked. Diminished by injury and lacking power, the bench faded by October. The team moved to correct that by constructing a blended bench for 2014 — part veteran, part prospect. Ellis offers seasoning, and Taveras, if he makes the team, could be a power source. Matheny does not let his backups gather rust, but he should now get more production in exchange for the playing time. There will basically be two spots for holdovers Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma and Shane Robinson.
To lead their team in a direction reliant on homegrown talent and on-the-job development, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and Mozeliak identified a manager who, like the coming players, was more prospect than proven. The payoff has been obvious. In two years, Matheny has nurtured the shift without any lag in the standings. A players-first motivator, Matheny, 43, has a mentor’s touch with young players as he refines his managerial skills. The Cardinals’ commitment to growing with him came with a new three-year extension through 2017. Mozeliak’s fingerprints are all over an organization that remains the envy of the industry. In three swift offseason moves, Mozeliak added a new shortstop, extra right-handed offense and improved defense, all without reaching into his purse of cost-controlled pitching or raising payroll. He has been described by his staff as the organization’s compass, pointing it toward contention.
During their third consecutive run deep into the postseason, the Cardinals spoke frequently about their organizational philosophy, “The Cardinal Way.” The form-fitting phrase was applied to their fundamentals, how prospects are cultivated, and the club’s championship expectations. With a returning core, blossoming pitchers, and additions grafted to the roster’s weak spots, the Cardinals enter 2014 set to prove that “The Cardinal Way” isn’t just a style of play but a direction — one always steering them back to October. Says Matheny: “Let’s see if we can be the best team for a long time.”
3B Matt Carpenter (L)
Returns to third after season at second surpassed in club history only by Hall of Famers like Rogers Hornsby.
CF Peter Bourjos (R)
Had a .333 average and .392 on-base percentage when hit by pitch that led to wrist surgery.
LF Matt Holliday (R)
Holliday surged to finish at .300, his 10th consecutive season with .290 average or higher.
RF Allen Craig (R)
With runners in scoring position, he’s batted .427 (109-for-255) the past two seasons.
1B Matt Adams (L)
Set club rookie record with eight homers in September, batting .315 with a .609 slugging that month.
C Yadier Molina (R)
Is the first catcher since Mike Piazza in the 1990s to have two consecutive top-five finishes in NL MVP vote.
SS Jhonny Peralta (R)
Hit .344 with a .563 slugging percentage in nine postseason starts for Tigers.
2B Kolten Wong (L)
Breakout season with Class AAA Memphis included .303 average, 10 HRs, 20-for-21 in stolen base attempts.
INF Mark Ellis (R)
Slick-fielding veteran offers needed right-handed complement and challenger to rookie Wong.
OF Jon Jay (L)
Sluggish start cost him job as leadoff hitter, though he took advantage of lower spot for a career-best 67 RBIs.
INF Daniel Descalso (L)
.199 average and .237 OBP in second half contributed to club’s search at shortstop.
INF Pete Kozma (R)
Best fielder at short on the team could lose roster spot if Cards go with another outfielder.
C Tony Cruz (R)
Reliable backup who has maintained his edge despite increasingly scarce playing time behind Molina.
OF Shane Robinson (R)
Not likely to get the 170 or so at-bats in 2014 that he has the past two years.
RH Adam Wainwright
In his second season back from elbow surgery, led majors in innings, (276.2, including playoffs).
RH Michael Wacha
Rookie won four postseason games; first pitcher born in 1990s to win World Series game.
RH Shelby Miller
First Cardinals rookie with 15 wins and 169 strikeouts since Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean had 18 and 191 in 1932.
RH Joe Kelly
Versatility could cast him in long relief, but 3.03 ERA as starter gives him claim to rotation spot.
RH Lance Lynn
His spot threatened by August struggles, Lynn finished first 200-inning season with a 2.12 ERA in September.
RH Trevor Rosenthal (Closer)
With 108 strikeouts, hard-throwing righty became first full-time reliever with 100 Ks in Cardinals history.
RH Jason Motte
Flamethrower missed all of last season recovering from a ruptured ligament in his pitching elbow.
RH Carlos Martinez
Will vie for a starting job, but electric stuff — 100 mph heat, biting sinker, darting slider — also fits setup role.
RH Seth Maness
Sinkerballer carved out role with runners on base with uncanny ability to coax double plays — 16 in 62 innings.
LH Randy Choate
Hired to serve as neutralizer for Joey Votto (and others), veteran served also as sage for young bullpen.
LH Kevin Siegrist
Riding a power fastball, sported 0.45 ERA, lowest since at least 1901 for reliever with 35 or more appearances.
RH Pat Neshek
For his career, right-handed batters have hit .181, lefties .237.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Marco Gonzales, LHP
With the 19th overall pick for the second consecutive season, the Cardinals returned to many of their familiar draft archetypes — college pitcher, athletic delivery, record of success, and steady, reliable statistics. Gonzales, a two-way player at Gonzaga, is a left-handed mirror-image of the previous year’s pick, Michael Wacha. His fastball hits around 91 mph, but it’s his command, cutter and elite changeup that made him a first-round pick. Gonzales had his innings carefully monitored during his debut and threw only 23.1 innings in eight games at two different levels. He did well and, more important, finished healthy. Gonzales is earmarked for the High-A rotation, though he’s expected to move swiftly up the system, like, well, other college picks before him.
OF Oscar Taveras (21)
Uncommonly gifted hitter poised to swing into majors this season, a year late because of ankle surgery.
OF Stephen Piscotty (23)
Made a claim for the Arizona Fall League’s MVP award with .371 average and .506 slugging, vaulting him toward majors.
LHP Tim Cooney (23)
Tall lefty downshifts from his above-average fastball to unnerve hitters, an approach he used for 148 strikeouts in 154.1 innings.
RHP Alex Reyes (19)
Power righty with 97-mph fastball relocated from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and signed $950,000 bonus as amateur free agent.
SS Aledmys Diaz (23)
The young Cuban was signed in March to a four-year, major league deal.
Beyond the Box Score
By the book The Cardinals have done more than talk about “The Cardinal Way.” They put it in writing. Officials spent recent years organizing teachings from luminaries like longtime coach George Kissell, catching guru Dave Ricketts and pitching coach Dave Duncan into a handbook for managers, coaches and players. Manager Mike Matheny penned the chapter on attributes of a Cardinals catcher. The book isn’t for sale, but every draft pick receives a copy when he first reports.
Draft status Five players drafted in 2009 — leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter, 15-game winner Shelby Miller, starter Joe Kelly, closer Trevor Rosenthal, and cleanup slugger Matt Adams — had prominent late-season roles, and 18 of the 25 players on the World Series roster were homegrown. The Cardinals’ draft emphasis peaked in recent years by hoarding picks and speeding promotions. NLCS MVP Michael Wacha and leading prospect Stephen Piscotty were both drafted in 2012 with compensation picks acquired when Albert Pujols signed with the L.A. Angels.
Wacha mania In his final start of September, Wacha came one out shy of a no-hitter when an infield single tipped off his glove. He was just getting started. An ascendant young ace, Wacha, at 22, won four games in October and became a fall sensation. Fozzie Bear references proliferated. (Wacha is pronounced “wocka” as in the Muppet’s “Wocka, wocka, wocka!”) An area sandwich shop named a milkshake for Wacha. And St. Louis native Andy Cohen, host of Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” adopted a beagle and named him Wacha.
Peralta backlash The Cardinals took a prominent role in baseball’s new morality when they became the first team to sign a player suspended due to the Biogenesis probe. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta served his 50-game suspension, but his new contract was met with criticism and howls on Twitter, some of them from players. Pitcher Brad Ziegler jabbed owners for “encouraging PED use.” Manager Mike Matheny understood the critical questions. “There are people out there that may not like our stances, (that) think of us as hypocritical,” he said. “So be it. We see a guy who made a decision that he regrets. Now we’re part of his future.”
The Pirates want to prove themselves again in 2014. Last year, they ended a string of 20 consecutive losing seasons — the longest in major North American professional team sports history — and also reached the postseason for the first time since 1992. The goal is now to sustain that success rather than be dismissed as a one-year wonder. “Our focus from the start has been to put an organization in place that has a chance to be successful year in and year out,” general manager Neal Huntington says. “It’s a very difficult thing to do.” The Pirates have been building toward being a perennial contender since Huntington was hired late in the 2007 season. Those efforts started moving in the right direction when manager Clint Hurdle was hired, as the Pirates’ win totals have jumped from 57 to 72 to 79 to 94 in his three seasons. Despite last year’s success and the second-highest attendance in club history, Huntington has still been given a mandate by ownership to keep the payroll among the lowest in the game. Thus, the Pirates are going to do things the Tampa Bay Rays way and try to build a winner on the cheap.
Lefthander Francisco Liriano takes over for righty A.J. Burnett as the No. 1 starter after winning 16 games last season and one more in the postseason while capturing the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award. Liriano seems to have found a home in Pittsburgh after spending his entire career in the American League. Righthander Gerrit Cole had a solid rookie season after being called up in June and excelled in the final month. It is realistic to believe he could be the staff ace by the end of this season. Veteran lefthander Wandy Rodriguez is a big question mark. Rodriguez, who did not make a start after June 5 last season because of elbow problems, did not need surgery, but he was found to have arthritis in the joint. Righty Charlie Morton made a strong comeback from Tommy John surgery and signed a three-year, $21 million contract extension with a club option that could keep him with the Pirates through the 2017 season. Pitching coach Ray Searage has developed a reputation for being able to fix broken pitchers — Liriano being a case in point — and his pet project this year will be righthander Edinson Volquez, who was signed to a one-year, $5-million contract as a free agent. The Pirates have built good organizational depth with their starting pitching — lefthanders Jeff Locke and Andy Oliver and righthanders Jeanmar Gomez, Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin are options at some point in the season, along with top prospect Jameson Taillon, a 22-year-old righty.
Former journeyman Jason Grilli was a revelation last year in his first season as a closer, converting 33-of-35 save opportunities despite missing a month late in the season with a strained forearm. Grilli was impressive in the postseason, and there is no reason to believe he won’t have another big year in 2014. Righthander Mark Melancon teams with Grilli to give the Pirates a dynamic late-inning tandem. Both were All-Stars a year ago, when Melancon had a 1.39 ERA in 72 games while notching 16 saves as the backup closer. Lefthander Tony Watson has developed into a key member of the bullpen; he is both effective and durable. The Pirates have a number of other big relief arms, including lefty Justin Wilson and righthanders Stolmy Pimentel, Vin Mazzaro and Jared Hughes.
Jordy Mercer will be the starting shortstop after gradually taking playing time away from veteran Clint Barmes last season. Mercer’s offense is ahead of his defense at this stage of his career, although he did make strides with his glove in 2013. Switch-hitting second baseman Neil Walker is a dependable player who is solid in all phases of the game. His one drawback, though, is a lack of power from the right side.
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez took a step toward stardom last season when he hit 36 home runs to tie for the NL lead with Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt. Alvarez would likely increase the homer total even more by exercising better plate discipline. Most of right-handed-hitting first baseman Gaby Sanchez’s starts have come against lefthanders since the Pirates acquired him in 2012 in a trade with Miami, but they believe he can handle righthanders if given the chance. Veteran Travis Ishikawa has made strides this spring toward making the team, and could be a nice complement to Sanchez at first base. Rookie Andrew Lambo, a lefty who hit 32 home runs between Triple-A Indianapolis and Double-A Altoona last season, could wind up platooning with Sanchez or at least starting against tough righties. But the club may want to give Lambo a full season at Triple-A.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen affirmed his spot among the best players in the game as he won the NL Most Valuable Player award last season, getting 28 of 30 first-place votes. He is the face of the franchise, and the Pirates will go as far as he can take them. Left fielder Starling Marte had a fine season in his first full year in the bigs. He has the tools to earn his way into the MVP race, too, with power, speed and a strong arm. Jose Tabata will likely be the Opening Day right fielder after finishing last season strong. However, inconsistency has been Tabata’s problem throughout his career, which is why the door could be open for Lambo or Travis Snider to gain playing time.
Russell Martin turned out to be the perfect fit for the Pirates last season after he was signed as a free agent. He provides outstanding defense, power hitting and credibility as someone who has played in All-Star games and won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger.
Chris Stewart was acquired from the Yankees in a trade to serve as the backup catcher, but a knee injury in mid-March sent him to the operating room. Tony Sanchez, the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2009, will fill that role. With Martin approaching free agency at the end of this season, the Pirates may be inclined to give Sanchez some additional starts to groom him for 2015. Barmes agreed to come back on a one-year, $2-million contract, taking a $3.5-million pay cut, to back up the middle infield positions and continue to mentor Mercer. Utility player Josh Harrison could be the top right-handed pinch-hitting option despite a .250 batting average and .282 on-base percentage in his three-year career. Assuming that Gaby Sanchez and Tabata play regularly, Snider could be the primary left-handed bench bat.
It took Huntington six years to rebuild the major-league club, the farm system and the scouting department, but the payoff came last season when the Pirates reached the postseason. Many fans and some media members called for Huntington’s firing following the 2012 season when the Pirates collapsed during the season’s final two months for the second consecutive season. To Huntington’s credit, he never deviated from the plan he put in place after being hired away from Cleveland’s front office. Hurdle has proven to be the perfect fit for the Pirates and won NL Manager of the Year honors last season. The most important thing Hurdle has done is change the mindset of everyone in the organization, making them believe the Pirates could be winners from the day he was hired in November 2010. He also has become an integral part of the Pittsburgh community with his charitable work and willingness to connect with the fans.
A lot of things went right for the Pirates to reach the postseason last year, and for a team that will have one of the lowest payrolls in the game — they were 26th among the 30 major-league teams last season — there is little margin for error. A solid core group of players is in place for at least the next few years, headlined by McCutchen but also including Alvarez, Marte, Walker, Cole and Morton. The Pirates also have a strong farm system. However, the team failed to make any splashy moves over the winter, declining to build on the momentum it gained last season and improve a roster weakened by the free-agent losses of first baseman Justin Morneau and right fielder Marlon Byrd. While that doesn’t mean the Pirates will return to mediocrity (or worse), it is tough to envision them winning 94 games again or reaching the postseason, especially playing in the NL Central, which includes two other 2013 postseason participants in St. Louis and Cincinnati.
LF Starling Marte (R)
Third player in Pirates history to have 10 triples, 12 home runs, 40 stolen bases in a season.
2B Neil Walker (S)
First Pirates second baseman to have four straight double-digit home run seasons.
CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
Was NL MVP last season, becoming first Pirates player to win the award since Barry Bonds in 1992.
3B Pedro Alvarez (L)
Former No. 2 overall pick led the NL in home runs (36) and strikeouts (186) last year.
C Russell Martin (R)
Was responsible for four of the nine walk-off wins at PNC Park in 2013.
1B Gaby Sanchez (R)
Former Miami Hurricane hit .325 in his final 50 games last season.
SS Jordy Mercer (R)
Hit .347 in September last season to seize control of the starting job.
RF Jose Tabata (R)
Venezuelan is a career .296 hitter at PNC Park, .252 on the road.
C Tony Sanchez (R)
After hitting .288 in 76 games at Triple-A last season, he hit .233 with two homers in 60 at-bats for the Pirates.
INF Clint Barmes (R)
Opening Day starter at shortstop each of the past two seasons but will now serve as a reserve.
UT Josh Harrison (R)
Two of his three home runs last season were as a pinch-hitter.
1B Travis Ishikawa (L)
Career .262 average vs. righthanders is not exactly overwhelming.
OF Travis Snider (L)
Former first-round pick of the Blue Jays underwent left foot surgery in October.
LH Francisco Liriano
3.02 ERA last season was his lowest since posting a 2.16 mark for Minnesota as a rookie in 2006.
RH Gerrit Cole
Went 4–0 with a 1.69 ERA in five September starts last year to win NL Rookie of the Month.
LH Wandy Rodriguez
Missed final 15 weeks of the 2013 season with an elbow injury.
RH Charlie Morton
Was 4–1 with a 2.67 ERA over his last 11 starts of the season.
RH Edinson Volquez
Gave up an NL-worst 108 earned runs with San Diego and the Dodgers last season.
RH Jason Grilli (Closer)
Was leading the NL with 30 saves on July 22 when he strained his forearm.
RH Mark Melancon
His 1.39 ERA last year was a team record for a pitcher who worked at least 50 innings exclusively in relief.
LH Tony Watson
Made 21 consecutive scoreless appearances, covering 20.1 innings, to end last season.
RH Jeanmar Gomez
Bucs were 8-0 in his eight starts last May and June.
LH Justin Wilson
Reverse platoon splits in 2013 as righthanders hit .189 and lefthanders batted .200.
RH Vin Mazzaro
Was “The Magnificent Mazzaro” last season, stranding 28 of 32 inherited runners in the regular season.
RH Stolmy Pimentel
Likely to make the team as a long reliever/spot starter as a rookie since he is out of minor-league options.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Austin Meadows, OF
The Pirates had two top-15 picks for the first time in their history and used the first one, at No. 9 overall, to take the multi-talented Meadows, a high school outfielder from Grayson, Ga. He is often compared to another left-handed-hitting outfielder, Cincinnati right fielder Jay Bruce, and the Pirates would love if Meadows turned into a player who regularly hit 30 home runs and drove in 100 runs. He got off to a good start, hitting .294 with five home runs in 43 games with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Pirates, then going 9-for-17 in a five-game stint with short-season Jamestown. Meadows comes from athletic stock; his father played baseball and was a punter at Morehead State, and his mother played softball at Georgia Southern and Georgia State.
OF Barrett Barnes (22)
The Pirates top pick in 2012 has speed and power but has been unable to stay healthy as a pro. Former Texas Tech Red Raider has 308 at-bats in two seasons in the minors.
RHP Jameson Taillon (22)
Tall Texan has a good fastball/curveball mix and figures to make his major-league debut this season.
OF Josh Bell (21)
Switch-hitter who was the Pirates’ second-round pick in 2011 is starting to gain his footing in pro ball after an early knee injury set him back.
RHP Tyler Glasnow (20)
The tall, thin righthander had 164 strikeouts in 111.1 innings last season at Low-A.
SS Alen Hanson (21)
A dynamic player with speed and moderate power but may have to move to second base.
RHP Luis Heredia (19)
Conditioning issues contributed to something of a lost season in 2013, but he is still very talented.
OF Gregory Polanco (22)
A five-tool talent who played at three minor-league levels last year and will make his major-league debut this season.
Beyond the Box Score
Silver screen Rinku Singh has won just 10 games in the Pirates’ farm system and has yet to get past the Low-A level. Yet the left-handed reliever will be the subject of a major feature film along with former Pirates minor-league pitcher Dinesh Patel. “Million Dollar Arm”, scheduled to reach theaters May 16, tells the story of how Singh and Patel were signed to minor-league contracts by the Pirates after appearing on the reality show of the same name in their native India. Jon Hamm stars as agent J.B. Bernstein, who came up with the idea for a contest to find the hardest thrower in India. More than 37,000 tried out for the show before the pool was cut to 30 contestants. Singh won the contest and the $100,000 grand prize, while Patel, who was released by the Pirates following the 2010 season, was second. Neither had ever played baseball; they were training to be javelin throwers.
Professing his love Center fielder Andrew McCutchen and girlfriend Maria Hanslovan got engaged in December after dating for four years. The 2013 NL MVP popped the question on national television while appearing on the talk show “Ellen.”
Dapper Dans In addition to winning NL Manager of the Year, Clint Hurdle was honored during the offseason with the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year award, which is presented annually to the year’s top Pittsburgh sports figure. McCutchen won the award for 2012. The Pirates hadn’t won in back-to-back years since Willie Stargell followed Dave Parker, who was honored in 1978.
Bought-in Buc Righthander Charlie Morton did not hesitate to take below market value when he signed a three-year, $21-million contract, which bought out his last year of salary arbitration and first two years of free agency. “The way I looked at it was, I wanted to be a Pirate,” Morton says. “The only way I'm going to be a Pirate is if I sign with the Pirates.”
Despite coming off their worst season in nearly a decade, the Milwaukee Brewers largely stood pat heading into 2014. While on the surface that might seem crazy, there was a method behind the madness for general manager Doug Melvin. He’s banking on his team not being hammered by injuries, the starting pitching showing up for the first half and Ryan Braun returning to his 2011 National League MVP form after being suspended for the final 65 games of 2013 for his role in the Biogenesis scandal. It’s an awfully fine line to walk for the Brewers if they want to compete in what was the toughest division in baseball a year ago. But the belief is that there’s more than enough talent returning to catch lightning in a bottle and get back into the mix with the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.
Milwaukee forfeited its first-round draft choice by signing free agent Kyle Lohse at the end of spring training in 2013. And while the reasoning was solid, it took the veteran righthander and the rest of the Brewers’ starters half a season to get up to speed. By then, the team was well out of the race. So, this winter, the Brewers acted a bit more quickly to bring Matt Garza into the fold, the only significant addition over the winter. The former Twin, Ray, Cub and Ranger signed a four-year, $50 million deal with Milwaukee. He isn’t a superstar by any means, but he should fit nicely into this established rotation. Last season, Lohse & Co. rebounded in the second half in a big way, posting one of the best staff ERAs in the majors at 3.31 over the final 81 games. The belief is that Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Garza, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada can build off the momentum from that and hit the ground running in 2014. The biggest question will be whether Gallardo can return to form. His velocity was down and his pitch counts up last season, leading to a 12–10 record — and trade rumors. Gallardo has lots of mileage on his right arm but is still only 28, which works in his favor. With a full winter off, he should be rested up and looking at a bounce-back campaign. Peralta is the future ace of the staff with a high-90s fastball and devastating sinker that produces lots of ground balls. If he can continue to keep his emotions in check when facing adversity, he could become the team’s next 20-game winner. Estrada racks up big strikeout numbers with a deceptive fastball and effective changeup but hasn’t been able to be counted on for a full season since becoming a full-time starter. That needs to change this year.
The Brewers’ relief corps was one of the only areas of the team that actually surpassed expectations last season. Two of the most pleasant surprises — Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler — return to the closer and setup roles, respectively. Henderson is still relatively new to the job, however, and relying almost exclusively on his fastball can be dangerous. Kintzler pitched his way into the setup role after beginning 2013 as something of an unknown quantity, and it’s possible he might even get a chance to close games at some point. The Brewers brought Francisco Rodriguez back for another tour. Rodriguez had 10 saves in 25 games with Brew Crew last season prior to a trade to Baltimore. At the time of the trade, Rodriguez had a 1.09 ERA and 1.054 WHIP. He wasn’t as effective with the Orioles, but both strikeout and walk ratios improved. Tom Gorzelanny and Will Smith figure to be the team’s two left-handed relievers, and both can provide length as long men as well. The rest of the bullpen could feature youngsters Donovan Hand and Rob Wooten who made their debuts with the Brewers in 2013. The hope is the starting pitching won’t place as big of a burden on the relievers as it did early on a year ago.
The Brewers are excited about their projected starting middle infield, and rightly so. Jean Segura is coming off his first All-Star nod, and second baseman Scooter Gennett blossomed as the team’s starter after Rickie Weeks was lost to injury early last August. Both are only 24 years old. Segura showed in 2013 that he could do it all. A late-season slump left him just short of .300, but he flashed some decent power with 12 homers while also banging out 12 triples, finished second in the NL with 44 stolen bases and also played a strong shortstop. Gennett, meanwhile, seized his opportunity when Weeks went down and led the NL by hitting .358 from Aug. 5 through the end of the season. Gennett hit .324 overall with a surprising six homers while playing a better-than-advertised second base. Weeks could earn the opportunity to play against lefthanders. His $11 million salary, age, injury history and declining skills make him tough to trade, and the Brewers aren’t likely to release him. Either Segura or Gennett will fill the leadoff role left vacant by the trade of Norichika Aoki.
The Brewers need major bounce-backs at both first and third base a year after injuries to Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez killed their lineup. First base figures to be a work in progress. Hart signed a free-agent deal with Seattle, leaving Melvin to work with a group that included Juan Francisco, Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay. Prospects Sean Halton, Taylor Green and former minor-league Player of the Year Hunter Morris may see some action there before the summer is over, but for now it’s likely a platoon between Reynolds and Francisco. Both players feature terrific raw power, prodigious strikeout totals and shaky defense. It’s not likely that the club will keep both Francisco and Overbay — both left-handed hitters — on the roster. Ramirez, meanwhile, is aiming to return to his normal productive self after appearing in just 92 games due to a left knee injury he suffered in spring training. The Brewers need him back in the cleanup spot and driving in runs, and the 35-year-old Ramirez needs a healthy, productive season if he has any hopes of securing another long-term contract.
While Carlos Gomez will continue to man center and look to build on a career year both offensively and defensively, there will be major changes in the corners as Braun moves from left field to right to make room for up-and-comer Khris Davis in left. The thinking in the moves is that Davis’ substandard throwing arm makes him only a candidate for left, while Braun is athletic enough and has enough of an arm to make the switch to right. The Brewers thought enough of Davis, who hit 11 home runs in 136 at-bats with Milwaukee last season, to trade the popular Aoki to clear space for him as a starter. Now he’ll need to deliver.
Jonathan Lucroy enjoyed the best season of his young career in 2013, with his 18 homers and 82 RBIs ranking him among the league leaders at his position. He was also durable, avoiding injury for the first time and playing 147 games. Lucroy’s next challenge is to continue to improve defensively while also continuing to hone his game-calling. He has become one of the team leaders.
Manager Ron Roenicke hasn’t had the veteran pinch-hitters he prefers since his initial season in Milwaukee in 2011. He probably won’t have any again this season, although outfielder Logan Schafer has shown the ability to succeed in the role. The non-starting half of the Reynolds-Francisco combo will also be available, as well as Weeks. Schafer is also terrific defensively and will likely be a frequent late-inning substitute in left field. Jeff Bianchi can play every position in the infield, making him a valuable piece if he can avoid injury. Catcher Martin Maldonado doesn’t hit much, but he adds so much defensively and in the clubhouse that he’ll remain the backup.
Melvin is hamstrung by the Brewers’ small-market status. And while team principal owner Mark Attanasio has shown a willingness to spend on a case-by-case basis — see the Lohse signing last spring — it’s not expected that Milwaukee’s payroll will deviate much from the mid-$80 million mark. So Melvin will continue to scour the bargain bins looking for ways to buy low and catch lightning in a bottle. The minor-league system has been bereft of impact talent at the top levels since Melvin traded much of it away in an attempt to make a run in 2011. Just about anyone deemed close to major-league ready got a shot with the Brewers in 2013. The majority of high-ceiling talent has yet to make it above Class A in the organization. Roenicke is well-regarded by his players and within baseball. He’s done a nice job under some difficult circumstances.
Melvin resisted a complete tear-down and rebuild, believing his team can compete if it stays healthy and performs up to its capabilities. Those are big ifs, however. The top of the NL Central will be tough to crack with St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all expected to be strong once again, meaning that even if everything goes according to plan it still might not be enough for the Brewers to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
SS Jean Segura (R)
Coming off first All-Star Game appearance, but hit leadoff only twice in ’13. Needs more plate discipline.
2B Scooter Gennett (L)
Possesses surprising pop, and his left-handed bat is a nice piece for a righty-heavy lineup.
RF Ryan Braun (R)
Returns to his customary No. 3 spot, where he hit .298 with nine HRs and 38 RBIs over 61 games in 2013.
3B Aramis Ramirez (R)
His left knee wasn’t right all season, and his 12 homers were his fewest as a full-time player in the majors.
C Jonathan Lucroy (R)
Became a run-producer by default last year, and he delivered career highs in homers (18) and RBIs (82).
CF Carlos Gomez (R)
Hit in every spot in the lineup in 2013, and responded with career highs in virtually every offensive category.
LF Khris Davis (R)
Averaged a homer every 12.4 at-bats in 153 plate appearances, finishing with 11 and 27 RBIs.
1B Juan Francisco (L)
Big power, but 138 strikeouts in 385 plate appearances in 2013 don’t suggest that he’s a viable everyday player.
INF Jeff Bianchi (R)
Singles hitter whose greatest value lies in the fact he can play any infield position, as well as in the outfield.
OF Logan Schafer (L)
Tremendous outfielder. Has proven he can deliver as a pinch-hitter, which will likely be his role once again.
C Martin Maldonado (R)
Great defensive catcher whose rapport with Wily Peralta has made him a valuable piece of the puzzle.
1B-3B Mark Reynolds (R)
Batting average hasn’t touched .225 since his 44-homer season in 2009.
2B Rickie Weeks (R)
Three-year batting average decline (.269-.230-.209) has Brewers concerned his career is approaching an end.
RH Kyle Lohse
His 11–10 record in 2013 was deceiving. His bulldog mentality and veteran leadership are much needed.
RH Yovani Gallardo
Took a big step back last season as his velocity dropped and his numbers suffered.
RH Matt Garza
The veteran is 5-6 with a 4.62 ERA in his career against the Reds, Pirates and Cardinals.
RH Wily Peralta
Big righthander has ace-type stuff and began to show his tremendous promise in the second half last year.
RH Marco Estrada
Has been dominating in stretches, but just can’t stay healthy. Has also performed well in long relief.
RH Jim Henderson (Closer)
The big Canadian became Brewers’ regular closer in 2013, when he converted 28-of-32 save opportunities.
RH Brandon Kintzler
Came out of nowhere to become Brewers’ setup man with a decent fastball and great slider.
RH Francisco Rodriguez
Held left-handed hitters to a .156 average last season; curiously, righties hit a robust .342.
LH Tom Gorzelanny
Coming off shoulder surgery. Can both start and relieve but was more consistent out of the bullpen in 2013.
RH Alfredo Figaro
Fireballer had his moments as both starter and long man, but couldn’t get his breaking balls over regularly.
RH Rob Wooten
Pitched like a savvy veteran rather than the rookie he was in some tough late-inning situations last season.
LH Will Smith
Gave up 24 hits and struck out 43 in 33.1 innings with the Royals last season.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Devin Williams, RHP
The Brewers lost their first-round pick for signing free-agent pitcher Kyle Lohse toward the end of spring training in 2013. They were delighted when Williams fell to them in the second round, where they snapped him up with the 54th overall pick. Milwaukee went 33 percent over slot in giving Williams a $1.35 million signing bonus, but needed to in order to persuade him to pass on a scholarship to the University of Missouri. The 6'3" fireballer already has team officials excited with his power arm and high ceiling. In 34.2 innings of Rookie ball, he gave up 28 hits and struck out 39. Williams, only 19, is still a long way away from the big leagues, but the future appears bright for the Hazelwood, Mo., native.
CF Tyrone Taylor (20)
Considered the team’s best overall prospect, he dominated the Rookie League as an 18 year old in 2012. His progressed continued last season at Low-A.
OF Victor Roache (22)
Taken 28th overall in 2012 by the Brewers, the slugger hit 22 bombs and drove in 74 at Low-A Wisconsin last summer.
RHP Johnny Hellweg (25)
Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year in 2013 who struggled mightily in two separate major league stints. Still shows promise.
1B Hunter Morris (25)
Morris hit 24 homers in Triple-A in 2013, but the Brewers don’t feel he’s a finished product. Needs improvement defensively.
1B Jason Rogers (26)
Former 32nd-round pick who was named Brewers’ Minor League Player of the Year in 2013. Being tried at third base and in the outfield as well.
OF Mitch Haniger (23)
Advanced former college player who stood out in the Arizona Fall League. Should debut in Double-A some time this season.
RHP David Goforth (25)
Went 4–3 with 3.28 ERA and 1.07 WHIP after call-up to Class AA last season.
C Clint Coulter (20)
He was drafted in the first round in 2012 as a potential impact bat, but he has played only 33 games above rookie level heading into 2014 and is quickly falling out of favor.
RHP Taylor Jungmann (24)
Former college star who’s likely ticketed for Triple-A. Lacks electric stuff. Projects as a No. 4 or 5 starter in the majors.
Beyond the Box Score
Day-zed and confused Among the more confounding issues for the Brewers in 2013 was their inability to compete when the lights weren’t on. Milwaukee finished the season with an 18–35 record in day games, including an 8–20 record in day games played at Miller Park. Shadows creeping across the playing surface under the afternoon sun have been an issue at home since Miller Park opened in 2001, and the Brewers hit just .234 during the day compared to .261 at night.
Golden once again Carlos Gomez ended a 31-year streak for the Brewers by winning the Rawlings Gold Glove in center field in 2013. The last Milwaukee player to be so honored was Robin Yount at shortstop in 1982, when the Brewers were still in the American League. Gomez was dynamic, being credited with 38 defensive runs saved — tops among all MLB centerfielders — to go along with 12 assists. Gomez also made five home run-saving catches, far and away the most for a single season in that category.
Miserable May The Brewers knocked themselves out of contention almost from the get-go in 2013, tying a franchise record for futility in a single month by going 6–22 in May. That left them 15 games behind the pace in the NL Central — far too big of a deficit in the best division in baseball. Poor starting pitching was mostly to blame for the Brewers’ struggles, and an injury-riddled offense missing some of its big bats just couldn’t make up the frequent early deficits.
Worst at first With Corey Hart, Mat Gamel and Taylor Green all out for the season with injuries, the Brewers had no choice but to fill the void at first base with stopgaps. That left seven different players — none of whom had ever started a game at first previously in the majors — to split the position. The result: an MLB-low combined .629 OPS and spotty defense.
Youth was served All the injuries and inconsistency allowed the Brewers to get a good look at their top advanced prospects. In all, 10 different players from Class AAA Nashville — five pitchers and five position players — made their debuts. One, leftfielder Khris Davis, played himself into a starting spot for 2014, while others like pitchers Donovan Hand and Rob Wooten and outfielder Caleb Gindl proved they could at least contribute in the bigs.
It’s amazing how much perspectives can change in one year. The Reds were expected to win the NL Central in 2013 and challenge for the league pennant but fell short, settling for a spot in the wild card game against Pittsburgh. Winning 90 games and reaching the playoffs three of the last four seasons weren’t enough for Dusty Baker to keep his job, so former pitching coach Bryan Price takes over with the challenge of turning a talent-laden team into a legitimate postseason threat. It’s not as if the Reds are trying to climb out of the cellar, but when the defending NL champions (St. Louis) and an up-and-coming team with momentum (Pittsburgh) are playing in the same division, it can feel that way. The Reds have legitimate star power in first baseman Joey Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips and right fielder Jay Bruce, but their lineup got exposed last season for having too many holes over the 162-game schedule. One guy who wasn’t a hole was leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo, now gone to Texas as a free agent. Speedy phenom Billy Hamilton will be the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter whether he’s fully ready for those jobs or not.
The Reds can win with this group. Mat Latos turned a corner in 2013 when he took the mantle of the No. 1 starter from an injured Johnny Cueto. Latos is more consistent, and the Reds generally win games he starts (43–22). Cueto must show he’s healthy — not just physically, but also psychologically. He had three stints on the DL last season because of a strained lat and was shelled in the wild card loss at Pittsburgh. Homer Bailey had a career-high 199 strikeouts last season in a career-high 209 innings, while Mike Leake set career highs for starts, wins, innings pitched and strikeouts. They all learned from Bronson Arroyo in the past but will not have his veteran presence in the clubhouse this season. Lefty Tony Cingrani should earn the final spot. He’s got a power arm but needs to show more consistency and confidence in his off-speed pitches to become truly effective as a starter.
Forget about the thought of Aroldis Chapman becoming a starter; he’s realized that he enjoys closing games. But a scary moment late in spring when Chapman was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of Royals catcher Sal Perez had everyone in Reds camp holding their breath. He had surgery to repair some broken bones, but should heal completely and is expected to return to the mound at some point this season, perhaps before the All-Star break. That leaves a huge hole in the Reds’ bullpen heading into the season. J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure and Manny Parra all stepped into bigger roles in 2013, and now must step into even larger roles in 2014. Hoover is probably the best candidate to close until Chapman returns. Parra became the lead left-handed setup pitcher — because of left shoulder injuries to Sean Marshall — and he stranded 24 of the last 28 runners he inherited. A healthy Marshall this season would give Price more options out of the bullpen. The same could be said for the healthy return of Jonathan Broxton from a torn flexor muscle in his right arm. Alfredo Simon has grown into this role as the long arm out of the bullpen, but he’s not exclusive to mop-up situations. Pedro Beato could log a few innings while the Reds wait for Broxton to heal surgery last August.
There was talk about trading Phillips in the offseason in part because of some of his words and actions last season that didn’t sit well with upper management. But he’s owed $50 million over the next four seasons, so the Reds will have to settle for a Gold Glove, 100-RBI second baseman who is popular with fans. Phillips will likely start the season hitting in the No. 2 hole in the lineup, but you can put him anywhere in the batting order, and he is adaptable to any role. While unlikely, he could be flipped with Votto into the No. 3 spot. Shortstop Zack Cozart had a solid final two months with an OPS of more than .700 after Aug. 1. He’s an above-average fielder (.977 fielding percentage, 83 double plays turned) with good range.
All Votto did in 2013 was get on base more than anyone else in the history of the Reds, appropriate for a player who signed a contract worth $263 million over 13 years. Opposing pitchers will do just about anything not to let Votto beat them, and he’s not about to help them. He has the most discerning eye for the strike zone in baseball — maybe too discerning at times — and he’s led the NL in on-base percentage the last four seasons and is the active career leader at .419. The Reds will need more production out of Todd Frazier at third base. He had a solid .407 slugging percentage in his first full season as a starter, but he’s prone to hot and cold streaks.
Much of the focus this spring and early summer will be on Hamilton. He spent last season at Triple-A Louisville learning to play center field after starting his career as a shortstop. The Reds aren’t concerned about his defense. He will cover any ground Bruce and Ryan Ludwick don’t in the corners. Hamilton has made his name from his work on the basepaths. He stole 13 of 14 bases as a September call-up, but that was mostly as a pinch-runner. Now he’s being asked to be the team’s leadoff hitter and get on base at the MLB level. Bruce continues to improve each season. He was top 10 in the NL in home runs, RBIs, total bases, doubles, extra-base hits and outfield assists in 2013. He earned a second consecutive Silver Slugger award last season, and he’ll be just 27 years old this season. His continued development gives the Reds a consistent threat in the middle of the lineup. Ludwick played in only 38 games because of a torn right shoulder labrum. He spent the last month of the season getting into playing shape and finding his swing. The Reds would like to keep him penciled in as their cleanup hitter, batting in between Votto and Bruce. He also is a strong clubhouse presence, something that was missed in 2013.
Veteran Ryan Hanigan was traded to Tampa Bay in the offseason to make room for Devin Mesoraco. A former first-round pick, Mesoraco showed greater command calling games behind the plate in 2013 when Hanigan was out with injury. He hit nine homers last season, and his power numbers should increase this year, but he will be in the lineup because of his defense. The Reds signed former Detroit backup Brayan Pena to fill the same role in Cincinnati this season.
Skip Schumaker, formerly with the Cardinals and Dodgers, can play just about anywhere on the field. He’ll be able to spell Hamilton in center at times, but if he’s playing there too much because Hamilton struggles at the plate, then the Reds are in trouble. There isn’t much power off of the bench, although Chris Heisey has shown that capability at times. Jack Hannahan is solid defensively as a corner infielder and gives the Reds a left-handed bat. Veteran infielder Ramon Santiago, a switch-hitter, will most likely be given the 25th spot on the roster.
The Reds have a commitment to winning from the front office of owner Bob Castellini on down. They are proactive in the community and at the stadium, all with an eye on being a championship-caliber organization. General manager Walt Jocketty and Baker had a contentious relationship that finally came to a head after the Wild Card loss at Pittsburgh. Naming Price as the new manager was a no-brainer; he built the pitching staff into one of MLB’s best the past four seasons and is respected in the clubhouse.
The Reds will again be in contention for the NL Central title and the postseason if for no other reason than their starting pitching. They have to get better production offensively from the shortstop, third base, left field and catcher positions this season, and figure out the back end of the bullpen in Chapman’s absence. Too often last season there wasn’t enough balance in the order, with the back end not contributing enough on a consistent basis. Hamilton can’t be expected to be as good as Choo leading off, but if he continues to improve throughout the season, the Reds should be fine. Another 90 wins and a postseason berth are hardly guaranteed, but this is a club capable of much more than it showed at the end of 2013.
CF Billy Hamilton (S)
Stole 13 of 14 bases in September call-up. Trick this season will be getting on base consistently.
2B Brandon Phillips (R)
Tied for MLB lead with 19 game-winning RBIs and was third with 35 go-ahead RBIs.
1B Joey Votto (L)
Has led NL in walks in three straight seasons and on-base percentage in four straight seasons.
LF Ryan Ludwick (R)
Tore labrum in shoulder on Opening Day but returned to play 37 more games. Will start 2014 healthy.
RF Jay Bruce (L)
Joined Dave Parker and Frank Robinson as only Reds with 40 doubles, 30 HRs, 100 RBIs in a season.
3B Todd Frazier (R)
Was fourth on the team with .407 slugging and .721 OPS despite just a .234 batting average.
C Devin Mesoraco (R )
Had .874 OPS vs. lefthanders but just .576 vs. righthanders last season.
SS Zack Cozart (R)
Hit .304 in final 31 appearances last season and had a career-high 15-game hitting streak in second half.
INF Jack Hannahan (L)
Had nine pinch hits to tie for the team lead and started games at three different positions.
OF Chris Heisey (R)
Injuries limited him to career-low 87 games, including 42 as the starter in left field after Ludwick injury.
C Brayan Pena (S)
Hit .297 in a career-high 243 plate appearances as backup in Detroit in 2013.
INF Ramon Santiago (S)
Batted just .215 in 433 at-bats over the past two seasons as the Tigers’ primary backup infielder.
UT Skip Schumaker (R)
Started at least eight games at four different positions for the Dodgers in 2013.
RH Johnny Cueto
Has a 2.92 ERA over last four seasons but poor start in playoffs at Pittsburgh haunted offseason.
RH Mat Latos
Went at least six innings in 28 of 32 starts, including last 12 while pitching career-high 210.2 innings.
RH Homer Bailey
Has lowered his ERA every season since 2009, including 3.49 in career-high 209 innings last season.
RH Mike Leake
Showing signs of getting physically stronger, including scoreless streak of 20.1 innings in September.
LH Tony Cingrani
Made 18 starts out of 23 appearances, allowing more than three runs in just one of those starts.
LH Aroldis Chapman (Closer)
Had 38 saves in 43 opportunities but didn’t have save chance in final nine games, including playoffs. After taking a liner to his face in a spring game, he’ll probably miss the first half of the season.
RH Jonathan Broxton
Veteran reliever is making his way back from torn flexor muscle in right arm.
RH J.J. Hoover
Led the pitching staff with 69 appearances, including scoreless streak of 26.1 innings over 23 appearances. The closing job probably falls to him.
LH Sean Marshall
Shoulder issues limited him to only 16 appearances in 2013 after averaging 77 games previous three seasons.
RH Sam LeCure
Only gave up 50 hits and had 66 strikeouts in 61 innings pitched last season.
LH Manny Parra
Revived career in 2013, stranding 30 of 35 inherited runners for the season.
RH Alfredo Simon
Long reliever tossed at least two innings in 20 of his 63 appearances last season.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Phillip Ervin, OF
Ervin had a successful first season in pro ball after the Reds selected him 27th overall in the draft. Ervin, a centerfielder from Samford University in Alabama, played in 46 games between Rookie League Billings and Class A Dayton of the Midwest League. He hit .331 with nine home runs, 35 RBIs, with a .425 on-base percentage and 14 stolen bases while getting thrown out just once. If he starts at Dayton this year, don’t expect him there too long. The Reds really like Ervin — a former MVP of the wood bat Cape Cod League while in college — and are going to give him every chance to move up through the organization quickly. He is already rated as their No. 4 prospect by MLB.com.
RHP Nick Travieso (20)
The Reds’ top pick in 2012 pitched in 17 games at Low-A Dayton with 4.63 ERA in 81.2 innings last season.
RHP Robert Stephenson (21)
Progressed from Low-A to Class AA last season. Went a combined 7–7 with a 2.99 ERA and 1.111 WHIP in his three stops in the minors.
OF Yorman Rodriguez (21)
The slender outfielder is still developing power. Last season he hit .259 with 35 doubles combined at High-A and Double-A.
OF Jesse Winker (20)
Played full season at Class A Dayton and finished with .281/.379/.463 line with 76 RBIs in 112 games.
RHP Michael Lorenzen (22)
Was second of two picks Reds had in 2013 first round. Reds like his arm enough to move him quickly from Arizona League to Double-A Pensacola last season.
RHP Daniel Corcino (23)
Struggled at Class AAA Louisville last season, giving up 141 hits in 129 IP and finishing 7–14 with 5.86 ERA. Still just 23.
LHP David Holmberg (22 )
Acquired in three-team offseason trade that sent Ryan Hanigan to Tampa Bay. Former second-round pick (2009) of the Chicago White Sox.
2B Ryan Wright (24)
Solid season at Class A Bakersfield, playing in 100 games with eight home runs, 23 doubles and 52 RBIs.
Beyond the Box Score
Left out The Reds were counting on Ryan Ludwick to provide a big bat in the middle of the lineup, but when he tore his right shoulder labrum on Opening Day sliding head-first into third base, it put a crimp in the lineup. Even with Ludwick’s return in the middle of August, Cincinnati left fielders hit just .250 with a .313 on-base percentage and .374 slugging percentage. They had a combined 14 home runs and 65 RBIs.
Inspiring fear Joey Votto has led the National League in walks three straight seasons, making him the first Reds player to do so and just the ninth player in the NL ever to accomplish the feat. Barry Bonds (2000-04) was the last player on that list. Votto’s power numbers were down last season (24 home runs, 30 doubles, 73 RBIs), but there was concern he hadn’t fully healed from two knee procedures in 2012. Let’s see how much his approach changes this season.
Stability at short Zack Cozart is expected to make his third straight Opening Day start at shortstop this year. It’s not an extraordinary streak except that he will become the first Reds shortstop to do so since Barry Larkin retired in 2004. From 1970-2004, Dave Concepcion and Larkin started 32 of 35 Opening Day games at shortstop for Cincinnati. Since Larkin’s retirement, the Reds have had seven different shortstops start on Opening Day. Only Alex Gonzalez (2007, ’09) started more than once before Cozart.
Superstar For the first time in his career, Jay Bruce didn’t increase his home run totals. He still hit 30 homers last season, and his all-around game improved. He had a career-high 43 doubles and 109 RBIs, allowing him to join Frank Robinson (1962) and Dave Parker (1985) as the only Reds players to have 30 homers, 40 doubles and 100 RBIs in a season.
Lost leader The Reds allowed Bronson Arroyo to become a free agent without offering him a qualifying contract this offseason. This was a tough move for the team but one in keeping with their player development philosophy. They’ve got young arms in Tony Cingrani and Robert Stephenson ready to push for time with at the MLB level, but Arroyo’s contributions the past eight seasons can’t be underestimated. He led the National League with 105 wins, 265 starts and 1,690.1 innings in that span. His 265 starts also led all of MLB.
At this point, mediocrity would be considered a major upgrade. The Theo Epstein era is heading into its third year, and the results from the first two are some of the most hideous in team history. The Cubs lost 197 games over this stretch, which represents the worst two-year period ever experienced by the North Side club. Epstein, the savior credited for Boston’s success, has a long-range plan, but Cubs fans seem to have short-term expectations. The fact that current management signed manager Dale Sveum to a three-year deal and then axed him after the second season caused some to wonder how well this plan is working. Most fans are willing to give Epstein and his staff time to get things turned around, but there is no denying that the product on the field has been uninspiring, and there don’t appear to be many reinforcements on the way in the very near future. There aren’t many players on the 2014 roster to get excited about other than befuddling shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, whose first full season in the majors produced decent-but-not-great numbers. Outfielder Junior Lake could command some buzz judging by a 64-game dress rehearsal last year. But most of the other players on the roster are cost-effective patchwork pieces who could end up elsewhere at any time in order to keep feeding the beast in the minors. When new manager Rick Renteria was hired in November, he had so much pain in his hips — following October surgery — that he couldn’t make a trip to Chicago to be introduced to the media. He may be in for some equally painful moments this season.
There was some speculation that Jeff Samardzija would be a guy the Cubs would build their pitching staff around, but now it appears he is on the trade market. They didn’t deal him during the winter meetings, but he could be on the block during the season. The former Notre Dame two-sport athlete leads a staff that had moments of brilliance last year but not enough to guide the Cubs to a winning mark. He threw 213.2 innings and struck out 214 hitters but also had a 4.34 ERA to go with an 8–13 record. Travis Wood will battle Samardzija for the job as the No. 1 starter. Wood had a 3.11 ERA and made the All-Star team in 2013 but also had a losing record (9–12). He could be the subject of trade talks during the season if he continues to give up runs at a stingy pace — and if the Cubs, as expected, are out of contention early. The first year of Edwin Jackson’s surprising four-year deal resulted in 18 losses and a 4.98 ERA. Because there are three years left on the contract, it’s likely he’ll be sticking around this season since he would be difficult to move. Jake Arrieta entered spring training as a favorite for a spot in the rotation, but shoulder soreness has delayed his progress. James McDonald and Jason Hammel will likely complete the quintet, although lefthander Chris Rusin, a former fourth-round pick, gave up just 66 hits in 66.1 innings last season.
Up-and-down closer Carlos Marmol finally departed last year, and his successor Kevin Gregg (33 saves) is also gone. The Cubs signed well-traveled Jose Veras initially for the closer’s role, but there could be a couple of other candidates. The Cubs also inked a deal with lefthander Wesley Wright, who has 51 career holds. Righthander Hector Rondon concluded the 2013 season on a high note, allowing no runs and one hit over nine innings in his final nine appearances in September. Southpaw James Russell and righthander Pedro Strop will settle into roles in the bullpen as well. Strop, who struck out 42 in 35 innings after joining the Cubs last season, was considered a serious candidate for the closer’s job before Veras’ signing.
Castro went from a .307 hitter with 207 hits in 674 at-bats in his first full season in 2011 to a .245 hitter with 163 hits in 666 at-bats in 2013. He has frustrated his previous managers, but Cubs officials believe that Renteria might be able to get through to the enigmatic shortstop. Castro’s fielding remains inconsistent; he’s brilliant at times but is prone to concentration lapses. Second baseman Darwin Barney is one of the best defensive players the Cubs have had in years. He has committed only seven errors in two seasons and won a Gold Glove Award in 2012. But his .208 batting average in 2013 could find him scrambling to keep his starting job if any of the young infield prospects are ready to break into the majors.
Rizzo’s first full season in Chicago was slightly disappointing since expectations were so high. He hit 23 home runs with 80 RBIs but only hit .233 with a .419 slugging percentage. General manager Jed Hoyer is still high on the former sixth-round pick of the Red Sox, so look for Rizzo to get every opportunity to succeed in Chicago. Luis Valbuena, who hit only .218 in 331 at-bats last season, likely will be the Opening Day starter at third base, but he is simply a stopgap. If top shortstop prospect Javier Baez is ready to break into the majors anytime soon, the Cubs may toy with moving Castro to third. The Cubs also haven’t ruled out prospect Mike Olt at third this season. He struggled a Triple-A Iowa last summer after his trade from Texas, but this spring he appears completely rid of lingering concussion issues that plagued him in 2013.
The brightest spot on the team is the outfield. Lake, the left fielder, played well in his 64-game tryout last year. The 24-year-old Dominican hit .295 with 14 stolen bases in Class AAA before his call-up on July 19 and proceeded to hit .284 with the big club. Lake was known for having one of the strongest arms in the minor leagues. Center field will likely be divvied up between right-handed hitting Justin Ruggiano and left-handed hitting Ryan Sweeney. Sweeney was the Cubs’ top hitter at .295 until a rib injury suffered in June sidelined him for two months. Ruggiano showed some pop last year for Miami, hitting 18 home runs in 424 at-bats, but he struck out 114 times with a .298 on-base percentage. Nate Schierholtz hit 21 homers in 137 games playing right field last year in his first season with the team. He will be expected to be a top run-producer in 2014.
Welington Castillo had a solid season at the plate, hitting .274, and he continues to show significant improvement defensively. He missed the final two weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. Castillo is one of the few current players likely in the team’s long-range plans.
Veteran infielder Donnie Murphy could challenge for time at third base, or maybe even second if Barney’s bat continues to go soft. Olt will likely stick on the major league roster, even if he isn’t the everyday third baseman. Renteria believes he can get him enough at-bats to warrant keeping him in the bigs. George Kottaras, who has never played more than 85 games in a major-league season, will be Castillo’s backup behind the plate. Non-roster invitee Emilo Bonifacio apparently has earned a roster spot. His blazing speed and ability to play all over the field make him a valuable reserve.
The brass signed Renteria, who has no major-league managing experience, for three years with two one-year club options, which indicates that the Cubs are not just looking at him to be a caretaker over a rebuilding club. Expectations will remain low this season — and probably in 2015 — but the team is confident that Renteria will be the right man to take them to high places after the team starts to resemble a contender. For the most part, just about everyone from the old regime is out of the front office — as well as off the field — and it is pretty much full speed ahead with Epstein’s people. The Cubs owners, the Ricketts family, might be getting a little impatient about the losing, the lack of buzz and the declining attendance. Look for the team to market its MVP — Wrigley Field — heavily during the team’s 100th year at the park this season.
The Cubs’ roster has a lot of moveable — and removable — parts, and like in the past two seasons, there could be a lot of players coming and going as Epstein and his staff continue to strengthen the farm system. Renteria, a rookie manager, will have an opportunity to learn on the job in his inaugural season with the team. A run at .500 may still be an unrealistic goal for a team still working its way through a lengthy rebuild.
SS Starlin Castro (R)
He’s hit just about everywhere in the Cubs’ lineup, but leadoff might be his best option.
3B Luis Valbuena (L)
Light hitter can make himself valuable by bunting Castro to second when he reaches base.
RF Nate Schierholtz (L)
Supplied decent power last year with 21 home runs and 68 RBIs in 462 at-bats. Was it a fluke?
1B Anthony Rizzo (L)
Led the team in homers (23) and RBIs (80) last year, but that wasn’t a spectacular accomplishment.
LF Junior Lake (R)
Had a 27.8 line-drive rate in his 64-game debut. Will be dangerous if he continues at that pace.
C Welington Castillo (R)
Hit .295 in day games last year, and the Cubs still play more day games than anyone else in the majors.
CF Ryan Sweeney (L)
Veteran was leading the team in hitting (.295) before crashing into a wall in late June.
2B Darwin Barney (R)
Ace defender, but he needs to step up his offense or he could be riding the bench.
OF Justin Ruggiano (R)
Hit 18 HRs in 128 games with Miami in 2013. Should get plenty of starts against left-handed pitching.
C George Kottaras (L)
Career backup is on his fifth team in six seasons. Has solid power but strikes out a ton.
INF Donnie Murphy (R)
Broke into the majors in 2004, but has played in only 290 games, including 46 with the Cubs last year.
UT Emilio Bonifacio (S)
The switch-hitter who turns 29 in April has started as many as 20 games at six different positions in his seven-year career.
3B Mike Olt (R)
Has shown decent power in the minors, but struggled to keep his average propped up.
RH Jeff Samardzija
Ace? Trade bait? Maybe a little of both on a team that isn’t picked to do much this season.
LH Travis Wood
Won only nine games in 32 starts, but his ERA was 3.11 with a 1.145 WHIP.
RH Edwin Jackson
Opponents hit .281 off of him last year, and he was 1–7 in his final 10 starts.
RH Jake Arrieta
Went 4–2 with a 3.66 ERA and a 1.123 WHIP in nine starts after trade from Baltimore on July 2.
RH Jason Hammel
Began 2012 8-2 over first 14 starts for Baltimore with a 2.61 ERA and 1.115 WHIP. But injuries cost him about a dozen starts.
RH James McDonald
Could make a few spot starts until Arrieta is completely healthy.
RH Jose Veras (Closer)
The biggest acquisition the Cubs made at the winter meetings, Veras is the favorite to win the closer’s spot.
RH Pedro Strop
Pegged as the main setup man but could be used as a closer if Veras falters.
LH Wesley Wright
Had a 3.69 ERA in 70 appearances with Houston and Tampa Bay in 2013; will serve as a setup man in ’14.
LH James Russell
After a 7–1 mark in 2012, fell to 1–6 last year but his WHIP dropped from 1.298 to 1.215.
RH Hector Rondon
Righty reliever who held left-handed batters to a .192 average but struggled against righties (.306).
RH Blake Parker
A sparkling 2.72 ERA in 49 games got the attention of the Cubs’ brass.
RH Carlos Villanueva
Has started 44 games over last three seasons with the Blue Jays and Cubs.
LH Chris Rusin
Former Kentucky Wildcat had a 2–6 record in 13 starts but was able to keep his ERA under 4.00.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Kris Bryant, 3B
Bryant is two degrees separated from Ted Williams. Bryant learned a lot about hitting from his father, Mike. Mike Bryant was a Boston Red Sox farmhand in the 1980s and was coached by Williams. That alone won’t get a lot of notice, but slamming 31 homers in 62 college games will, and that’s what Bryant did as a junior at the University of San Diego. The Cubs snapped up the 6'5" third baseman with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Bryant hit well last summer — a combined .336 with nine home runs in stops in Rookie ball and Low-A and High-A — but was even more impressive in the fall. He hit .364 with six homers and 17 RBIs in the Arizona Fall League and was named the league MVP. He’ll probably start in Class AA this year, and if he does well, the Cubs could be tempted to bring him up in September.
OF Albert Almora (19)
Shelved with an injury after hitting .329 and slugging .466 in 61 games for Class A Kane County. Former No. 6 overall pick is a career .326 hitter in the minors.
SS Javier Baez (21)
Top prospect could be called up to the bigs this season. Hit a combined 37 home runs last year and slugged .638 in 54 games with Class AA Tennessee. Still considered a top shortstop, he’s expected to play some second base this season in the minors.
OF Jorge Soler (22)
A left tibia injury slowed his progress, but the Cuban star still has a high ceiling as a power hitter.
3B Mike Olt (25)
He struggled at Class AAA Iowa after the Cubs acquired him in a trade, but he was dealing with issues related to a concussion.
RHP Pierce Johnson (22)
Quickly moved up the Class A ladder and is ready for bigger challenges.
RHP C.J. Edwards (22)
Had a 1.96 ERA in six starts with Class A Daytona.
1B Dan Vogelbach (21)
Has slammed 37 HRs and driven in 144 runs in first 198 minor-league games.
2B-SS Arismendy Alcantara (22)
The switch-hitter may be blocked by both Baez and Castro, but he had 36 doubles and 31 steals at Double-A last summer, splitting time between second and short.
Beyond the Box Score
100 years at Wrigley In honor of the team’s 100th season at Wrigley Field, the Cubs began to unveil 100 Great Times at Wrigley Field at their convention in January. During spring training and every regular-season home game, the team will unveil another memorable moment. Fans will also be able to follow the tributes via social media.
Back where he started Eric Hinske, who recently retired after 12 years in the big leagues, has been named the Cubs’ new first base coach. Hinske played five seasons with Toronto and also played with Boston, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, the Yankees, Atlanta and Arizona. He won World Series titles with Boston in 2007 and the Yankees in 2009. But few remember that Hinske was selected by the Cubs in the 17th round of the 1998 draft out of the University of Arkansas. He never played with the parent club and was traded to Oakland for Miguel Cairo in 2001.
Legal issues Shortstop Starlin Castro hit just .245 last year, and he may be blaming some of his struggles on a lawsuit filed in his native Dominican Republic. He is being sued by a baseball school for $3.6 million because of a contract his father signed when Castro was 16. Castro’s camp countersued, and his attorneys maintain that the original suit had a “direct impact on his duties as a professional ballplayer, leading to one of his worst-ever statistical performances.”
Walk this way First baseman Anthony Rizzo helped raise $100,000 in Parkland, Fla., in his second “Walk Off For Cancer” event in December. Rizzo, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in May 2008, has been cancer free for five years. The money will go to the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital Foundation.
Does this add up? The Cubs ranked second in the National League in home runs (172) and first in extra-base hits (487) yet finished next-to-last in the league with only 602 runs scored. It was the fewest runs scored by the Cubs in a full season since the 1992 team only scored 593. The Cubs also ranked 27th in the majors in batting with a .238 team average.
Walk this way The Cubs’ pitchers issued 540 walks last season, the most in the NL and the third-most in the majors. Jeff Samardzija led the team and ranked seventh in MLB with 78 walks.
“Probably the same as a lot of people. Watching the (1979) Final Four with my dad in the living room when (Larry) Bird played Magic (Johnson). To me, that game got me so fired up — watching those two guys go at it. I thought it was so cool. I love Magic. But for me, Larry Bird was my hero. It was amazing how he put that team on his back.”
Russ Smith, Louisville guard:
“My favorite was watching Stephen Curry’s run through the NCAA Tournament (2008). I never really followed college basketball until I went to prep school and colleges started recruiting me, but I followed Curry. He never missed, and all his teammates knew that in order to win, he had to get the ball. Every time he made a play, it was probably the best play. I remember him going off against Gonzaga, then Georgetown — and then Davidson almost beat Kansas to go to the Final Four. He was just so much fun to watch.”
Chris Mack, Xavier coach:
Doug McDermott, Creighton forward:
“I’d have to say when (Florida’s) Mike Miller hit that shot to beat Butler at the buzzer (2000). I was watching it down in the basement in Cedar Falls (Iowa) with my brother. I was a huge Florida fan growing up. I’m not sure why, and I loved Mike Miller. My dad wound up getting me a Mike Miller jersey afterwards.
Noah Vonleh, Indiana forward:
“When Mario Chalmers hit the three to send the game into overtime against Derrick Rose and Memphis in the national championship game (2008). I was shocked and I couldn’t believe it. I thought Memphis had the game locked up, being up the entire game by a good amount. I knew Kansas was going to win in overtime."
Sam Dekker, Wisconsin forward:
“The Maryland team with Juan Dixon and Steve Blake stuck out to me. They won it all back in 2002, and that’s one of my first memories of college basketball. But the game that I remember more than anything else was an Elite Eight game between North Carolina and Wisconsin in 2005. I was a diehard Carolina fan, and was cheering for both teams. My brother had open-heart surgery and knew former Carolina player Joe Wolf. He sent him a card to get better after his surgery. I was literally rooting for both teams. I loved Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton and Sean May. I was watching that game down in Gulf Shores, Alabama — where my family went on spring break that year. I even remember the shoes Carolina was wearing.”
Sean Miller, Arizona coach:
“Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot against Georgetown in the Superdome (1982). I was watching it with my dad in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and couldn’t believe it. I’ll always remember that play, and that game. I was thinking, ‘Man, I hope I can be good enough to go to Carolina.’”
Nick Johnson, Arizona guard:
Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado guard:
Nik Stauskas, Michigan guard:
Sometimes a coach inherits a bad team or steps into a program where the university simply does not invest in basketball. In some cases, through recruiting, Xs and Os and inspiration, that coach can turn a bad team into a good or even great one.
The guys on this list are not those coaches. Here are the 20 worst coaching tenures in the six major conference since the NCAA Tournament expanded in 1985.
Worst Coaching Tenures in Major Conferences since 1985
1. Dave Bliss, Baylor
Record: 61-57, 19-45 Big 12
Before his undoing at Baylor, Bliss took three teams to the NCAA Tournament (Oklahoma, SMU and New Mexico), but his downfall at Baylor remains one of college athletics biggest disgraces. One player, Carlton Dotson, pleaded guilty to murdering teammate Patrick Dennehy in 2003, and Bliss' actions in the aftermath did not help an already tragic situation. Bliss was found to have paid part of Dennehy’s tuition and that of another player (both NCAA violations), and then asked an assistant and players to lie to investigators about the payment, saying Dennehy had been dealing drugs. That, among other NCAA and recruiting violations put Baylor under harsh sanctions through 2010. On the court, Baylor had one winning season and never finished better than 6-10 in the Big 12.
2. Bob Wade, Maryland
Record: 36-50, 7-35 ACC
Wade took over after the drug-related death of All-American Len Bias, who had just been drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics. With an academic scandal at the end of coach Lefty Driesell’s tenure as well, Wade did not take over in College Park under ideal circumstance when he was hired from the high school ranks from Baltimore Dunbar. After three seasons, including two where Maryland went 0-16 and 1-14 in the ACC, Wade resigned amid his own allegations of NCAA violations. He was replaced by Gary Williams, who resuscitated the program and won 461 games with the Terps.
3. Bob Staak, Wake Forest
Record: 45-69, 8-48 ACC
Staak took over for Paul Tacy, who had reached the postseason in five consecutive years (three pre-expansion NCAAs, two NITs) before Staak arrived. The former Xavier coach and Connecticut player went 8-21 and winless in the ACC in his first season and never won more than three conference games during his four years at Wake. He resigned amid an NCAA inquiry into recruiting violations and was replaced by Dave Odom, who would lead the Demon Deacons to their most successful era in the 1990s and early 2000s.
4. Bill Foster, Northwestern
Record: 54-141, 13-113 Big Ten
The only program from a major conference not to have reached the NCAA Tournament, Northwestern has had its share of futile coaching tenures. Foster’s, though, was the worst. The Wildcats finished in last place in six of his seven seasons, went 2-16 in the Big Ten five times and winless once. His successor, the late Ricky Byrdsong, reached the NIT in his first season with Northwestern. And interesting footnote: Foster also preceded Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.
5. Paul Graham, Washington State
Record: 31-79, 9-63 Pac-10
The Cougars aren’t known for their basketball success, but before Graham, Washington State built a solid program under Kelvin Sampson and reached the NIT under Kevin Eastman. After Graham, Dick Bennett and son Tony Bennett built Washington State into an NCAA Tournament team. A rash of play departures also didn’t help Graham’s short-lived tenure at Wazzu.
6. Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest
Record: 51-76, 17-51 ACC
Bzdelik has coached in the NBA and took Air Force to the NCAA Tournament in 2006, so it’s a mystery why Bzdelik has had such meager results at a program that has been a consistent power in the ACC. The Demon Deacons have had their share of player departures, due to transfers and off-court issues, so those are possible reasons. His tenure has had fans screaming for Wake to replace him, but the athletic department must see improvement: Bzdelik had twice as many ACC wins in his third and fourth seasons (12) than he did in his first two combined (five).
7. Sidney Lowe, NC State
Record: 86-78, 25-55 ACC
Hopes were high that Lowe, a former NC State player and longtime NBA assistant, would help the Wolfpack take the next step after an unspectacular run under Herb Sendek. As NC State learned, things weren’t so bad under Sendek, who reached the NCAA Tournament in each of his last five seasons in Raleigh. Lowe recruited well, but the results didn’t come on the court as NC State never won more than six ACC games in a season and finished ninth or lower each year. Successor Mark Gottfried, however, took advantage of the influx of talent under Lowe with a Sweet 16 appearance in his first season.
8. Melvin Watkins, Texas A&M
Record: 60-112, 21-75 Big 12
Watkins’ predecessor, Tony Barone, also was a candidate for this list, which says something about the Aggies’ basketball program in the ‘90s. Watkins, though, capped his tenure in College Station with a winless Big 12 season and a 7-21 overall record. The Aggies won 10 or fewer games three times in his six seasons. If there was a silver lining, Watkins did bring Acie Law and Antoine Wright to Texas A&M. Under Law and Gillispie, Texas A&M reached the NIT in 2005 and the Sweet 16 in 2007.
9. Brian Mahoney, St. John’s
Record: 56-58, 29-43 Big East
After the departure of the program’s most successful coach, St. John’s promoted assistant Brian Mahoney to replace Lou Carnesecca, but Mahoney turned out to be the first coach in a line of four who weren’t able to restore St. John’s to the glory days. Mahoney reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season, but reached only one NIT in the three seasons thereafter. Mahoney went 17-37 in the Big East.
10. Matt Doherty, North Carolina
Record: 53-43, 23-25 ACC
Doherty played for Dean Smith at North Carolina and was a teammate of Michael Jordan’s. Those were better days for the Tar Heels. Doherty went 26-7 and 13-3 in the ACC in his first season taking over for Bill Guthridge, but he went 27-36 and 10-22 in conference the following two seasons. During his short-lived tenure, Doherty clashed with Guthridge and Smith by replacing longtime assistants and ran off players with his abrasive style. In North Carolina’s second attempt to pursue Roy Williams, the Tar Heels landed him to replace Doherty in 2003. With some of Doherty’s recruits, Williams won a national title in 2005.
11. Eddie Payne, Oregon State
Record: 50-90, 20-70 Pac-10
Since the retirement of Ralph Miller in 1989 until the hire of current coach Craig Robinson, none of the coaches in Corvallis had distinguished tenures. Payne’s best season was 7-11 in the Pac-10, but the Beavers went 3-15 in conference or worse in three of his five seasons.
12. Billy Gillispie, Kentucky
Record: 40-27, 20-12 SEC
Hopes were high for Texas A&M’s Gillispie he took over for Tubby Smith, a national title coach who never wowed the Kentucky fan base. A first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament to Marquette followed by an NIT ended his tenure in Lexington after only two seasons.
13. Ken Bone, Washington State
Record: 80-86, 29-62 Pac-12
Washington State is perhaps the toughest basketball job in the Pac-12, but Bone started off with two things in his favor: Tony Bennett had just wrapped up a successful tenure that included a Sweet 16 appearance, and he had eventual NBA Draft lottery pick Klay Thompson on the roster. The Cougars topped out at the NIT with Bone and Thompson, and bottomed out to 7-29 in the league in Bone's final two seasons.
14. Larry Shyatt, Clemson
Record: 70-84, 20-60 ACC
Shyatt took over after a successful run under Rick Barnes and was replaced by Oliver Purnell, who remade the Tigers into a postseason contender. In between, Shyatt had only two winning seasons and never finished better than 5-11 in the ACC.
15. Jerry Wainwright, DePaul
Record: 59-80, 20-51 Big East
DePaul clearly was not ready to be competitive in the Big East and had long since fallen behind in recruiting the Chicago area. An Illinois native, Wainwright couldn’t help matters. He was fired midway through the 2009-10 season amid a stretch in which DePaul went 1-35 in Big East games.
16. Fred Hill, Rutgers
Record: 47-77, 13-57 Big East
Like Jerry Wainwright and DePaul, Rutgers hoped Hill’s local ties would help revive a moribund Big East program. Hill signed McDonald's All-American Mike Rosario (who later transferred to Florida), but he never won more than five Big East games in four losing seasons at Rutgers. Hill caused further problems for his program when he got into a shouting match with the Pittsburgh baseball coach after a game between the two schools (Hill’s father is the Rutgers baseball coach). Hill disobeyed his athletic director by attending later games in the series, a development that played a role in his ouster.
17. Tony Barbee, Auburn
Record: 49-75, 18-50 SEC
Barbee arrived at Auburn after going 16-1 in Conference USA in his final season at UTEP. As a John Calipari assistant at Memphis, Barbee was expected to up the level of talent at Auburn just as facilities began to improve. That never materialized as Auburn was one of the worst teams in the SEC during his four seasons. Auburn's a tough job, but the Barbee and the Tigers were the clear bottom feeder in a league in decline.
18. Jeff Bzdelik, Colorado
Record: 36-58, 10-38 Big 12
Bzdelik makes his second appearance on the list. Again, he won at Air Force and coached in the NBA, but he couldn’t manage a winning season at Colorado. Successor Tad Boyle, meanwhile, took over to lead the Buffaloes to back-to-back postseason appearances.
19. Todd Lickliter, Iowa
Record: 38-57, 15-39
Perhaps a cautionary sign for Brad Stevens that the grass isn’t always greener. Lickliter left Butler after a Sweet 16 appearance for a failed tenure with the Hawkeyes. Iowa was a postseason regular under four coaches since the late ‘70s, but the Hawkeyes finished eighth or lower in the Big Ten each season under Lickliter.
20. Ricky Stokes, Virginia Tech
Record: 29-55, 10-38 Big East
The above record does not include Stokes’ first season when the Hokies were a member of the Atlantic 10, which was also his only winning season (16-15) in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech was already struggling before joining the Big East as a basketball member in 2000, so the Hokies’ first three seasons in the league were no big surprise.
First, our sincere condolences for anyone who isn’t able to sneak away from work on Thursday or Friday to take in one of the greatest days in the sports calendar.
With 16 games, 32 teams to follow in one day is tough enough with multiple screens but perhaps impossible with the boss looking over your shoulder.
Athlon Sports will do what it can to help you follow each team in the field with these Twitter accounts for every team in the NCAA Tournament.
For a bird’s-eye view, we’ve also included 16 must-follow national accounts to aid your viewing experience.
And of course, even if you did call in sick, we’d urge you follow these accounts for insight on every team.
The Sweet 16
@MarchMadnessTV: CBS’ official account with video of every key play
@SethDavisHoops: CBS, “Sharpie” czar
@GoodmanESPN: Jeff Goodman, ESPN
@GaryParrishCBS: Gary Parrish, CBSSports.com
@RobDauster: Rob Dauster, NBCSports.com
@MattNorlander: Matt Norlander, CBSSports.com
@NicoleAuerbach: Nicole Auerbach, USA Today
@KenPomeroy: Ken Pomeroy, kenpom.com
@JayBilas: Jay Bilas, ESPN
@PacerCK: Clark Kellogg, CBS
@bubbaprog: Tim Burke, Deadspin, GIFs and screen grabs
@BrianHamiltonSI: Brian Hamilton, SI.com
@FranFraschilla: Fran Fraschilla, ESPN
@JasonKingBR: Jason King, Bleacher Report
@ESPNDanaOneil: Dana O’Neil, ESPN.com
@DickieV: Dick Vitale, ESPN
|1. Florida: @Goldkamp247, Thomas Goldkamp, 247Sports.com|
16. Albany: @tjwilkin, Albany (N.Y.) Times Union
16. Mount St. Mary’s: @mounthoops
|1. Arizona: @ghansen711, Greg Hansen, Arizona Daily Star|
16. Weber State: @bigskybball, Jonathan Reed, bigskybball.com
|8. Colorado: @tomkensler, Tom Kensler, Denver Post|
9. Pittsburgh: @PantherLair, Chris Peak, PantherLair.com
|8. Gonzaga: @SRJimm, Jim Meehan, Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman Review|
9. Oklahoma State: @jjhelsley, John Helsley, The Oklahoman
|5. VCU: @timpearrelltd, Tim Pearrell, Richmond (Va.) Times Dispatch|
12. Stephen F. Austin: @CoachBradSFA, Brad Underwood, head coach
|5. Oklahoma: @ryaber, Ryan Aber, The Oklahoman|
12. North Dakota State: @NDSUmbb
|4. UCLA: @DufresneLATimes, Chris Dufresne, Los Angeles Times|
13. Tulsa: @CoachDManning, Danny Manning, head coach
|4. San Diego State: @sdutzeigler, Mark Zeigler, San Diego Union Tribune|
13. New Mexico State: @SimBhullar2, Sim Bhullar, 7-5 center
|6. Ohio State: @CRAFTRoomies, Aaron Craft’s roommates|
11. Dayton: @KevinKuwik, Dayton assistant
|6. Baylor: @OurDailyBears, SB Nation|
11. Nebraska: @HuskerExtraBR, Brian Rosenthal, Lincoln (Neb.) Journal-Star
|3. Syracuse: @NunesMagician, Sean Keeley, SBNation|
14. Western Michigan: @Drew_on_WMU, David Drew, Kalamazoo Gazette
|3. Creighton: @PivOWH, Steve Pivovar, Omaha (Neb.) World-World Herald|
14. UL Lafayette: @TDARaginCajuns, Tim Buckley, The Lafayette (La.) Daily Advertiser
|7. New Mexico: @GeoffGrammer, Geoff Grammer, Albuquerque (N.M.) Tribune|
10. Stanford: @wilnerhotline, Jon Wilner, San Jose Mercury News
|7. Oregon: @TheOregonDuck, mascot|
10. BYU: @drewjay, Jay Drew, Salt Lake Tribune
|2. Kansas: @RustinDodd, Rustin Dodd, Kansas City Star|
15. Eastern Kentucky: @EKUHoops
|2. Wisconsin: @JimPolzinWSJ, Jim Polzin, Wisconsin State Journal|
15. American: @auhoops, “American University Basketball. In Blog Form”
|1. Virginia: @WhiteysWorld365, Whitelaw Reid, Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress|
16. Coastal Carolina: @CCUHoops
|1. Wichita State: @Clearly_BallLyf, Cleanthony Early, Wichita State forward|
16. Cal Poly: @SLOcollegebeat, Josh Scroggin, SanLuisObispo.com
16. Texas Southern: @TSUMBB
|8. Memphis: @TheCAJasonSmith, L. Jason Smith, The Memphis Commercial Appeal|
9. George Washington: @MikeLonergan, Mike Lonergan, GW head coach
|8. Kentucky: @KyleTucker_CJ, Kyle Tucker, Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal|
9. Kansas State: @DScottFritchen, D. Scott Fritchen, gopowercat.com
|5. Cincinnati: @SeanKilpatrick_, Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati guard|
12. Harvard: @THCSports, The Harvard Crimson
|5. Saint Louis: @TomTimm, Tom Timmermann, St. Louis Post-Dispatch|
12. Xavier: @slrussell, Shannon Russell, Cincinnati Enquirer
12. NC State: @RyanTice, Ryan Tice, The Wolfpacker
|4. Michigan State: @joerexrode, Joe Rexrode, Lansing (Mich.) State Journal|
13. Delaware: @kevintresolini, DelawareOnline.com
|4. Louisville: @mengus22, Mark Ennis, cardchronicle.com|
13. Manhattan: @nybuckets, John Templon, nycbuckets.com
|6. North Carolina: @_andrewcarter, Andrew Carter, Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer|
11. Providence: @friarblog, FriarBlog.com
|6. UMass: @steve_hewitt, Steve Hewitt, UMass Daily Collegian|
11. Iowa: @PatHarty, Pat Harty, Iowa Press Citizen
11. Tennessee: @Ben_Fred, Ben Frederickson, Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel
|3. Iowa State: @TravisHines21, Travis Hines, Ames (Iowa) Daily Tribune|
14. North Carolina Central: @NCCUAthletics
|3. Duke: @LauraKeeley, Laura Keeley, Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer|
14. Mercer: @MercerMBB
|7. UConn: @NeillOstrout, Neill Ostrout, Manchester (Conn.) Journal Inquirer|
10. Saint Joseph’s: @HHHardwood, HawkHillHardwood.com
|7. Texas: @kbohls, Kirk Bohls, Austin American-Statesman|
10. Arizona State: @DougHaller, Doug Haller, Arizona Republic
|2. Villanova: @Brian_Ewart, VUHoops.com|
15. Milwaukee: @CoachJeterUWM, Rob Jeter, Milwaukee coach
|2. Michigan: @daycheck3, Andrew Dakich, Michigan walk on/bench mob|
15. Wofford: @WoffordMBB
The Phillies had a bleak winter. Coming off their first losing season since 2002, they made only modest additions to a team that had trouble scoring runs — and preventing them — in 2013. The framework of the club that won five NL East titles and a World Series from 2007 to 2011 remains, but age and poor health have taken the shine off what was once a star-laden group. On the hot seat, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. hopes that a high-mileage core — five of the team’s eight starting position players are 34 or older — can turn back the odometer and return the team to contention in its first full season under manager Ryne Sandberg. It won’t be easy. This club still looks closer to the breakdown lane than the high-speed lane.
The team’s strength sits atop the starting rotation, where lefties Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee form one of the elite tandems in the game. No other set of teammates in the majors combined for more innings than the 442.2 that Hamels and Lee delivered in 2013. But these guys aren’t just workhorses; they’re thoroughbreds who can dominate opposing lineups with command, smarts and pure stuff. Both reached 200 strikeouts in 2013, and they combined for 49 quality starts. If run support hadn’t been such a problem, they certainly would have combined for more than 22 wins. Hamels, the younger of the two, has dealt with a balky shoulder all spring. He will likely start the season on the disabled list, but shouldn’t miss more than two starts. Even with Hamels and Lee combining for a 2.97 ERA after the All-Star Break, Phillies starters finished with a 4.41 ERA, second-worst in the NL. There remains a huge drop after Hamels and Lee, and this team could struggle to get enough innings from the back end of its rotation. A.J. Burnett, who enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in Pittsburgh the last two seasons, is slotted in the No. 3 hole. Burnett has made at least 30 starts for the past six seasons, but at age 37 doesn’t make the rotation any longer. Kyle Kendrick, who profiles as a No. 5 starter, had a wobbly second half in 2013 that does not instill confidence. The Phils spent $12 million on power-armed Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, but he has pitched just a handful of competitive innings the last two years because of a suspension in his homeland, and has also had elbow issues. Nonetheless, the Phillies hope he can be in the starting five. In recent offseasons, the Phils acquired Lee and Roy Halladay. Wary of more long-term, big-dollar commitments, the team opted for less pricey Burnett and Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona), who has a 5.03 ERA the last six seasons.
Less than two seasons after signing Jonathan Papelbon to the largest contract ever for a reliever — four years, $50 million — the Phillies began shopping their closer last July. There were no takers then and none this offseason, so the Phillies hope Papelbon, age 33 and owed $26 million through 2015, can rebound from a season in which he blew seven saves and aired his frustrations about the direction of the team. Papelbon’s fastball sagged from the mid- to the low-90s in 2013, and his strikeout rate dipped to a career-low 8.3 per nine innings. Papelbon wasn’t the only Phillies reliever to struggle in 2013. The bullpen’s ERA of 4.19 ranked 27th in the majors. The Phils need more than just Papelbon to rebound in 2014. Lefty Antonio Bastardo missed the final 50 games of 2013 on a PED suspension, and veteran Mike Adams is a huge question mark as he tries to come back from shoulder surgery at 35. Veteran Brad Lincoln, added in a trade with Toronto, should help, while three homegrown power arms offer reason for hope. Lefty Jake Diekman and righthanders B.J. Rosenberg and Justin De Fratus all gained valuable experience last season. They need to build on that and become strong contributors to a unit that needs help. The side-arming Diekman is particularly promising. He averaged 95 mph in 2013 and hit 99 several times.
Over the last decade, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley have started 1,072 games together, the most by a current middle-infield tandem. Rollins is reaching some rarified statistical air; he needs only 60 hits to pass Mike Schmidt as the franchise’s all-time leader. Utley, a blue-collar reflection of the town he plays in, is one of the most popular players in team history. While both players are club icons, the reality is they have gotten old. Both are 35 and past the apex of their careers. Rollins had the lowest OPS of his career in 2013 but did play in 160 games and remains a top defender. Utley rebounded from two years of degenerative knee problems and was productive offensively and defensively in 131 games, his most since 2009. Utley must stay healthy and productive and Rollins must improve offensively for this team to have a chance.
Is Ryan Howard ready to rock after two injury-plagued seasons? This might be the most important question facing this fragile club. Howard has missed more than half of the Phillies’ games the last two seasons, and the offense has sputtered badly. If he’s on the field — and all signs point to him being healthy — he’s a threat for 30 homers and 100 RBIs. If he’s not, the Phillies are looking at another rough season. Across the diamond, the Phils haven’t produced a homegrown regular at third base since Scott Rolen. Cody Asche showed promise in the field and at the plate in a two-month cameo in 2013 and might end up being the guy.
Desperate for some youth, the Phils received positive offensive contributions from left fielder Domonic Brown and center fielder Ben Revere in 2013. Brown, 26, was an All-Star and led the team in homers and RBIs but tailed off in the second half. Revere, 25, survived a rough April and slapped his way to .300 before suffering a season-ending broken ankle in mid-July. Neither player is strong defensively, and that’s a concern. Unwilling to pursue top free agents, the Phils signed 36-year-old Marlon Byrd to play right field. His production has ranged from poor to very good in recent seasons. The Phillies hope to see Byrd’s best as his right-handed bat balances out a lefty-heavy lineup.
Amaro raised eyebrows when he re-signed 35-year-old Carlos Ruiz for three years and $26 million. Amaro wanted a top game-caller and receiver to handle the pitching staff, and with no one ready in the minors, paid the price for Ruiz. The Phillies hope they are not paying for a lot of past performance. Ruiz had a career year in 2012 but tested positive for a banned stimulant. He struggled at the plate in the first half of 2013 but came alive in the second half, fueling hopes that he could be a solid contributor for the bulk of his contract. Pitchers love throwing to Ruiz, so they are happy he’s back. At this stage of his career, Ruiz is about a 110-game guy, so backup Wil Nieves will be important.
Sandberg, devoted to the ways of the NL, has vowed to use his bench and will have to as he tries to get the most from a well-worn roster. The problem is, this isn’t a high-quality bench. Freddy Galvis, a premium defender at three infield positions, is the best of a group that includes Kevin Frandsen, John Mayberry Jr. and Darin Ruf. Former Philadelphia All-Star Bobby Abreu is in camp, with a good chance to make the team.
Amaro has admitted to being embarrassed by the team’s decline, and his popularity in his hometown has sunk along with the club’s place in the standings. With Charlie Manuel gone, the bull’s-eye is on the GM, and he knows it. “I put myself under the gun,” Amaro said after last season’s fourth-place finish. “I’m accountable for the things that have happened.” The Phillies went 20–22 after Sandberg took over last August. He will run a tighter ship than Manuel, and with a three-year deal, has more job security than Amaro.
This club doesn’t appear to be much improved from the 73-win clunker of 2013. But with perfect health, continued excellence from Hamels and Lee at the top of the rotation, strong contributions from Utley, Brown, Revere, Ruiz and Byrd, and big rebounds from Rollins, Howard and Papelbon, the Phillies might be able to hang around long enough to make it an interesting summer. If not, Lee could be gone by the trade deadline, and management could finally commit to rebuilding.
CF Ben Revere (L)
Hit .347 in his final 65 games before season-ending broken ankle last July.
SS Jimmy Rollins (S)
He made just three errors in his final 101 games in 2013.
2B Chase Utley (L)
His .823 OPS ranked third among MLB second basemen in 2013.
1B Ryan Howard (L)
Thirty-two percent of his plate appearances the last two seasons have ended with a strikeout.
RF Marlon Byrd (R)
Career year in 2013 included .511 slugging percentage, fifth-best in the NL.
LF Domonic Brown (L)
Twelve of 27 homers and 25 of 83 RBIs last season came in torrid May.
C Carlos Ruiz (R)
Leads Phillies in batting average (.295) and on-base percentage (.374) since 2010.
3B Cody Asche (L)
Had 43 extra-base hits in 404 at-bats at Triple-A prior to July 30 promotion.
INF Freddy Galvis (S)
Valuable glove man will see time at second base and shortstop.
INF Kevin Frandsen (R)
Had 14 pinch-hits in 2013, but hit just .192 after the All-Star break.
OF/1B Darin Ruf (R)
Made 70 starts in 2013 and led club with 12 homers after the All-Star break.
OF John Mayberry Jr. (R)
Hit just .237 with .687 OPS in 863 plate appearances last two seasons.
C Wil Nieves (R)
Hit .299 in 278 at-bats for Colorado and Arizona last two seasons.
LH Cole Hamels
Received ninth-worst average run support (3.36) in MLB en route to career-high 14 losses in 2013.
LH Cliff Lee
Has 1.049 WHIP, third-best in MLB, in 666.1 innings during last three seasons.
RH A.J. Burnett
Phils need his 30-start streak to continue as well as his sub-4.00 ERA trend.
RH Kyle Kendrick
After solid start to the season, had 6.48 ERA in his final 14 starts in 2013.
RH Roberto Hernandez
Left-handed hitters feasted to .305 batting average and .905 OPS in 2013.
RH Jonathan Papelbon (Closer)
Converted just 81 percent of save chances in 2013, a career low.
RH Mike Adams
Once a top setup man, he’s a big unknown as he comes back from shoulder surgery.
LH Antonio Bastardo
A valuable contributor, but what will he be after 2013 PED suspension?
LH Jake Diekman
Hard-throwing sidearmer improved control, had 1.82 ERA in final 34 games in 2013.
RH B.J. Rosenberg
Gained confidence while striking out 17 over final 14.2 innings in 2013.
RH Justin De Fratus
Finished the season with a scoreless streak of 8.2 innings.
RH Brad Lincoln
Former first-round pick could be ready to blossom with third team.
2013 Top Draft Pic k
J.P. Crawford, SS
As Phillies scouts studied pitcher Shane Watson, their eventual top pick, before the 2012 draft, they became smitten with the smooth-fielding shortstop behind him. For a year, the Phillies targeted Crawford, and they got him with the 16th overall pick in 2013. Lakewood (Calif.) High School is a favorite of the Phillies. Before Crawford and Watson, they landed catcher Travis d’Arnaud, now a Met, from the school. Crawford, a left-handed hitter with long limbs, has the athleticism Phillies scouts love, but he’s no project. He has advanced baseball skills and projects to be a difference-maker offensively and defensively. Crawford dazzled in the Gulf Coast League last summer, hitting .345 with a .908 OPS in 39 games. He finished in the South Atlantic League, a nice jump for an 18-year-old. Moments after being drafted, Crawford said he wanted to take Jimmy Rollins’ job. In time, that should happen.
LHP Jesse Biddle (22)
The 6'4" lefty projects as a big-league starter, but might need to return to Double-A to hone control.
OF Kelly Dugan (23)
Hard-working corner outfielder has hit his way onto the 40-man roster.
3B Maikel Franco (21)
Corner infielder projects as the middle-of-the-order right-handed bat Phils have long sought.
RHP Severino Gonzalez (21)
Panamanian came out of nowhere in 2013 and dazzled with control and pitching savvy.
C Tommy Joseph (22)
Still highly regarded even though concussion at Triple-A hurt his development in 2013.
OF Carlos Tocci (18)
Batted just .209 at Single-A last season, but the Phillies love his upside and expect him in Philadelphia in 2017.
Beyond the Box Score
Back to his roots Ryne Sandberg made his name and Hall of Fame playing career with the Cubs, but don’t forget that he was originally a Phillie. He was drafted by the Phillies in 1978, made a cameo with the club in 1981 and was traded to the Cubs as a “throw-in” in the Larry Bowa-Ivan DeJesus swap that offseason. Passed over for the Cubs’ manager job in 2010, Sandberg managed the Phils’ Triple-A team for two years and now has the top job. At Sandberg’s insistence, Bowa is back with the club (he’s been a player, coach and manager) for a fourth time.
To rebuild or not Phillies management has been reluctant to rebuild, but a third straight season of no playoffs might give it no choice. “At some point we might have to do that, but not right now,” GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said in December. The comment was the first time a club official had acknowledged that rebuilding was a possibility.
Right here, kid Chase Utley took a liking to Cody Asche during spring training 2013. When Asche was promoted from Triple-A in late July, he was assigned the locker next to Utley’s. It was no accident; Utley arranged it. “I know when you’re a young guy, it’s nice to have someone who has been around to help navigate you in the right direction,” Utley says.
At the turnstiles Though the Phillies have drawn three million for seven straight seasons, attendance has dropped as the team has slipped. The Phils had drawn at least 3.5 million four straight seasons before slipping to 3,012,403 in 2013. The average attendance dropped from 44,021 in 2012 to 37,190 in 2013.
Hello, 21st century The Phillies have long been a scouting-based organization. In fact, the team’s two World Series-winning clubs were led by scouts, Paul Owens and Dallas Green in 1980 and Pat Gillick in 2008. But the Phils have added analytics to player evaluations. They added Scott Freedman, on loan from the commissioner’s office, to help institute more analytical practices during the offseason. Before you knew it, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. was citing Roberto Hernandez’ ground-ball rate as a reason for signing the righthander. “We’re going to continue to be a scouting organization,” Amaro says. “That said, I think we owe it to ourselves to look at some other ways to evaluate.”
The Mets have had five losing seasons in a row, tied with the Astros for the longest such streak in baseball. The streak coincides with the 2009 opening of Citi Field, where attendance has dropped every year. The Mets do not seem ready to contend, but with reinforcements from the free-agent market, they could challenge .500 as they wait for their breakout ace, Matt Harvey, to return from Tommy John surgery in 2015.
Even without Harvey, the Mets have a respectable rotation. They signed Bartolo Colon to a two-year, $20 million contract, hoping that Colon, who turns 41 in May and has a 2012 PED suspension on his résumé, can maintain the All-Star form he showed for the A’s last season, when his 2.65 ERA was the best of his career. Jon Niese withstood a partial rotator cuff tear to return near the end of the season, but he’s had some arm issues this spring that bear watching. He is a solid middle-of-the rotation guy, essentially a left-handed version of Dillon Gee. The healthy starter with the most upside is Zack Wheeler, who made an impressive debut last season with a 3.42 ERA in 17 starts. Wheeler, who turns 24 in May, worked 168.2 innings between Class AAA and the majors, meaning that he should be ready to cross the 200-inning threshold this season. Daisuke Matsuaka appears likely to make the rotation as a non-roster player this spring. He made seven starts for the Mets at the end of last season. In his final outing, he threw 7.2 shutout innings in a 1-0 win at Cincinnati. Elbow tendinitis cost Jeurys Familia much of the season, but he enters camp as a leading candidate for spot starts should Niese not be ready by Opening Day. One factor to watch: Colon and Gee both ranked in the top 25 last season in fly ball percentage — not as much of an advantage as it once was at Citi Field, where the walls are closer than they originally were, but still a source of strength that the Mets can exploit.
The Mets finally gave the closer’s job to hard-throwing Bobby Parnell last season, and he responded with 22 saves in 26 chances and a 1.00 WHIP, the best of his career. At 95 miles per hour, Parnell’s fastball remains his best pitch. But he threw it less often last season and utilized his curveball on more than a quarter of his pitches. The Mets lost veteran LaTroy Hawkins, who had 13 saves, to the Colorado Rockies as a free agent, but they like what they have in righty Vic Black, a former first-round pick by the Pirates, who traded him to the Mets last August in a deal for Marlon Byrd and John Buck. Black had 217 strikeouts in fewer than 180 innings in the minors. Scott Rice emerged from the shadows of a long minor-league career to establish himself as a dependable lefty from the pen. But the rest of the unit is suspect, with largely unproven Josh Edgin and Gonzalez Germen getting a chance to make the team. The Mets brought veterans Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth to camp to compete for spots in spring training. Both have experience as closers, but are viewed as stopgap material at this point.
The Mets’ second baseman, Daniel Murphy, had 188 hits and 92 runs scored last season, but his on-base percentage was only .319. Murphy had some pop, with a team-leading 55 extra-base hits, but advanced metrics showed that his defense was among the worst in the majors, ranking 17th of 19 qualified second basemen in Ultimate Zone Rating, according to Fangraphs. The likely shortstop, Ruben Tejada, is a better defender but backslid badly at the plate last season, hitting just .202 in 208 at-bats, and general manager Sandy Alderson called his dedication into question. Naturally, the Mets explored options to upgrade and likely will continue to look. But Tejada is only 24 and did hit .289 as a regular in 2012.
David Wright injured his hamstring on Aug. 2, missed a month and a half, and when he returned in late September, homered in his first two games to lead the Mets to victories. Even with the downtime, Wright had a fantastic season, with a .904 OPS that was his best since 2008, the Mets’ last season at Shea Stadium. He is easily the team’s best player, and the Mets must win with him while he is still in his prime. Across the diamond, the team has options at first in Ike Davis and Lucas Duda, two lefty hitters with power who struggle against left-handed pitching. Davis is a much better fielder, while Duda reaches base more reliably. The presence of somewhat redundant players means that the Mets may trade one before the season.
The Mets’ outfield was such a shambles last offseason that Alderson cracked, “What outfield?” when reporters asked about it. He’s not joking anymore, after making three moves to put legitimate major leaguers in each position. Eric Young Jr. led the NL in steals with 46 and made 84 starts in left field for the Mets after a giveaway trade from Colorado. Center fielder Chris Young was an All-Star for Arizona in 2010, and the Mets hope he can restore his power and timing in an everyday role after slumping in part-time duty with Oakland last season. Right fielder Curtis Granderson, signed for $60 million over four years, will be counted on to have the biggest impact, with his power complementing Wright and Young in the middle of the order. Granderson is also polished and fan-friendly, an important value for the Mets as they seek to restore a tattered brand. “He brings a tremendous amount of professionalism,” Alderson said while introducing Granderson at the winter meetings in December. “He brings a personality. He brings credibility. He brings experience, and he brings talent.” That last aspect, of course, matters most of all, and after losing most of 2013 to broken bones, Granderson is eager to prove he still has it. At 33, it’s safe to expect that he does.
Travis d’Arnaud was traded for two Cy Young Award winners, Roy Halladay and R.A. Dickey, before turning 24. Injuries have restricted his playing time, but not his advancement up the professional ladder. He fractured his left foot when it was hit by a foul ball last April and played only 32 games in the minors before making his major-league debut in August. The results were inconclusive (20-for-99 with a home run), but d’Arnaud hit .286 with solid power in the minors, and there is every reason to believe he will soon be among the better hitting catchers in the game.
The Mets have some positional flexibility in Young, who can play the outfield and second base, and Duda, who can play first and a corner outfield spot, although not especially well. Josh Satin can back up at first and third, with a knack for reaching base. Juan Lagares offers superior outfield defense, while Anthony Recker is a capable backup to d’Arnaud behind the plate. Omar Quintanilla, who can play second, third and short, is a reliable backup infielder.
The financial problems plaguing Fred Wilpon, whose son Jeff runs the team, severely impacted the Mets in recent seasons. They still do not operate like a big-market behemoth, but with the burdensome contracts of Johan Santana and Jason Bay finally off their books, the Mets did spend nearly $90 million in free-agent deals. That gives Alderson and his talented assistants a better chance to build the roster as they see fit, adding the right pieces to the Mets’ exciting young talent. Manager Terry Collins, a good soldier through three years of rebuilding, has more to work with in the first season of his two-year contract extension. Collins comes from the Jim Leyland mold — neither of them played in the majors, but both command respect from their teams for the way they treat players and for keeping open lines of communication. Collins even wears No. 10 as a tribute to Leyland, who gave him his first major-league coaching job with Pittsburgh in 1992. The feisty Collins turns 65 in May, but his energy for the job has never been in question.
It feels like another bridge season for the Mets, with their ace on the disabled list all season. But it is safe to say that the team is transitioning, not merely rebuilding, and with more pricey veterans on the roster, expectations should tick upward. The Mets could surprise this season — Granderson, at his introductory press conference, noted that the Red Sox went from last place to a championship, while the Mets just finished third. But the first winning season of the Citi Field era would represent real progress, and without much star power besides Wright, that is probably the most realistic ambition to have.
LF Eric Young Jr. (S)
Credit GM Sandy Alderson with a steal (38 to be exact) in getting Young from the Rockies for Collin McHugh.
2B Daniel Murphy (L)
Set career highs in games, at-bats, hits, runs, homers, RBIs and steals last season.
3B David Wright (R)
Mets’ ongoing struggles make him the rare New York player who is probably underrated nationally.
RF Curtis Granderson (L)
Brings credibility and power, but lots of strikeouts, to a needy lineup.
CF Chris Young (R)
Mets are betting $7.25 million that his .200 average last season was an aberration.
1B Ike Davis (L)
Hit .267 in July and August before oblique injury cost him all of September.
C Travis d’Arnaud (R)
At 25, he will have the chance to start delivering on his potential, if he stays healthy.
SS Ruben Tejada (R)
Alderson said it was like “pulling teeth” to get Tejada to do extra work, but the Mets have limited options.
INF Josh Satin (R)
His .398 OBP in minors supports the notion that his .376 mark with the Mets last season was no fluke.
OF Juan Lagares (R)
Standout defender must improve .281 OBP to become an everyday player.
1B/OF Lucas Duda (L)
Big power, but similarity to Davis gives the Mets an attractive trade chip.
C Anthony Recker (R)
The team will look to improve this spot, given d’Arnaud’s youth and health history.
INF Omar Quintanilla (R)
Made 89 starts at shortstop for the Mets last season.
RH Bartolo Colon
Made 30 starts last season for the first time since 2005. Turns 41 in May.
LH Jon Niese
Partially tore rotator cuff in June but returned after seven weeks to finish strong.
RH Zack Wheeler
Won seven games in impressive debut season, with fastball averaging 94.3 miles per hour.
RH Dillon Gee
Lowered walk rate while leading staff with 199 innings. Has a 33–26 career record.
RH Daisuke Matsuzaka
In his seven starts for the Mets last season, Dice-K had a better WHIP (1.271) than in any of his years with Boston.
RH Bobby Parnell (Closer)
Lowered WHIP to 1.00 with career-best 2.16 ERA in his first full year as closer.
LH Scott Rice
Six years ago, had a 15.68 ERA for the Long Island Ducks. Now, he’s cemented a spot in the bullpen.
RH Vic Black
Came to the Mets from Pittsburgh in Marlon Byrd/John Buck trade last August.
RH Jeurys Familia
Healthy and still only 24, he gets a chance to reestablish himself in rotation.
RH Kyle Farnsworth
Had 25 saves for the Rays in 2011, but only one save and a 4.41 ERA and 1.362 WHIP in 82 games since then.
RH Carlos Torres
Rotation option is 4–8 with a 5.61 ERA in 15 career starts for White Sox and Mets.
RH Jose Valverde
Averaged 38 saves between 2007-12, but seems much older than 36 now.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Dominic Smith, 1B
After years of chasing veterans, the Mets have stubbornly held to a plan that offers no quick fixes. They have underscored that philosophy in the draft, selecting high school position players with their top picks in each of the last three years, willing to wait for the talent to blossom. Last June it was Smith’s turn to become a Met, signing for $2.6 million out of Serra High School in Gardena, Calif.; it was the most the Mets have ever given a high school prospect. Smith, who attended the draft in New Jersey, rewarded them with a strong first impression, hitting .287 with a .384 on-base percentage in the Gulf Coast League and swatting four doubles in six at-bats at rookie-level Kingsport in the Appalachian League playoffs. Smith, who attended an MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., while growing up near Los Angeles, has a mature approach at the plate, with a smooth swing, solid power potential and a slick glove at first base.
SS Gavin Cecchini (20)
Has one home run and .256 average in 390 pro at-bats; Cardinals took Michael Wacha seven picks later.
OF Brandon Nimmo (20)
Had .397 OBP at Low-A Savannah, but fanned once every three at-bats.
RHP Noah Syndergaard (21)
Husky power starter could advance to majors this season. Former first-round pick of the Blue Jays.
RHP Rafael Montero (23)
Breakout season puts him on verge of big-league rotation, perhaps before Syndergaard.
C/1B Kevin Plawecki (23)
On-base machine who devours left-handed pitching.
RHP Jacob deGrom (25)
Lanky righty has overcome Tommy John surgery to become a rotation option for 2014.
SS Amed Rosario (18)
Received Mets’ largest international bonus ($1.75 million) in 2012; scouts love overall tools.
INF Wilmer Flores (22)
Can’t quite settle on a position, but is a three-time top-100 prospect on Baseball America lists.
Beyond the Box Score
Seizing the opportunity Lefty reliever Scott Rice was leading the majors in appearances, with 73, before sports-hernia surgery ended his season in early September. He allowed just one homer and at the time of his injury had the sixth-best ground-ball percentage among relievers. It was a feel-good story for Rice, who spent 14 seasons in the minors with five organizations and three independent teams.
Veterans Stadium The Mets will institute “Military Mondays” in 2014, saluting veterans by wearing beige-and-brown camouflage jerseys and caps for every Monday home game. On April 21, July 7, July 28, Sept. 8 and Sept. 15, the Mets will give complimentary tickets to active and retired military members and up to three guests. Staff, players and former Mets will visit VA hospitals on those dates, when the team will also honor a “Veteran of the Game.”
Two more for Terry Despite three losing seasons as Mets manager, Terry Collins earned a three-year contract extension just after the regular season. Collins, who turns 65 in May, has shown boundless enthusiasm and energy with an often undermanned roster. “To have a chance to take those pieces and move on absolutely is pretty exciting for me,” Collins says. “So I was thrilled when (GM Sandy Alderson) said, 'Hey, we want you to come back.' You know what? Maybe we can finish what we started.”
Lead recruiter After tying himself to the Mets through 2020, David Wright embraces the role of cheerleader and headhunter for the organization. Wright sent a text message to Curtis Granderson urging him to sign and acknowledged that bringing players to Flushing was not easy after five losing seasons. “Sometimes that first move is the hardest one, to convince a player of that caliber to come here, and maybe we get things turned around,” Wright told Newsday.
Jerry From Queens Jerry Seinfeld, who has a suite on the lower level behind home plate at Citi Field, joined the SNY broadcast booth in September for a few innings behind the mic with Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez. He said he enjoyed watching young players break in. “When you want to rebuild the team, you want to see some light on the horizon,” Seinfeld said, “and that’s what young players are.”
Asked about his offseason priorities, new Miami Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill didn’t have trouble prioritizing. “Offense, offense, offense,” he said. Formerly the club’s general manager under long-time president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, Hill and his revamped front office went free-agent shopping. The mission: Improve the 13th team in the modern era to score 513 runs or fewer in a 162-game season. By complementing the club’s strength — a promising, young starting rotation — with more run support, the Marlins hope to achieve vastly better results in 2014. What ensued by Marlins’ standards was a spending spree. In no way did it resemble the reckless expenditures that preceded the organization’s opening of Marlins Park in 2012, when it committed $191 million to free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell. All were traded after a disastrous campaign, leaving the Marlins with a prospect-rich farm system and at times an unwatchable major-league product. The Marlins, in their trudge back toward respectability, reverted to their cost-conscious spending blueprint. The additions of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia on a three-year deal, first baseman Garrett Jones for two years, and third baseman Casey McGehee and middle infielder Rafael Furcal on one-year commitments required a modest $32.85 million outlay. What’s to keep the Marlins from a fourth consecutive last-place finish in the National League East? Start with NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez, who arguably had the best age-20 season since Dwight Gooden in 1985. Three of the Marlins’ four other projected starters — Nathan Eovaldi, Jacob Turner and Henderson Alvarez — all will be under age 25 when the regular season opens March 31. How much the club improves hinges on the progress of young position players. Outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna both had promising rookie campaigns in 2013. Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria is an athletic, gifted defender with a developing bat, and few in the game rival right fielder Giancarlo Stanton’s raw power.
On a 170-inning limit in 2013, Fernandez will have the reins loosened in 2014. He should be on everybody’s preseason Cy Young watch list. Mature beyond his 21 years due in part to a harrowing escape from Cuba as a 15-year-old, Fernandez has to transition from a nothing-to-lose scenario to shouldering big time expectations. In Eovaldi, whom the Marlins acquired from the Dodgers for Hanley Ramirez, the team has another power arm looking for a breakthrough season. He has yet to total more than 22 starts in any of his three big-league campaigns. Like Eovaldi, Alvarez could not complete a full season in 2013. He showed just how dominant he could be in the regular-season finale, when he no-hit the Detroit Tigers. That was his 17th start of 2013 and 58th of his major-league career. Turner is a former Tigers’ first-round pick who opened last season in Triple-A after a horrid spring. He was fantastic during stretches after his promotion, but like the rest of his young counterparts, he needs experience and consistency. Tom Koehler, if he doesn’t open in the rotation, likely will pitch out of the bullpen.
In non-tendering Ryan Webb and opting not to re-sign free agent Chad Qualls, the Marlins lost 142.1 innings from last season’s relief corps. The team believes they have enough in-house options to cover it. Back to handle ninth-inning duties is Steve Cishek, who in 2014 can join Juan Carlos Oviedo and Robb Nen as the only closers in club history with back-to-back 30-save seasons. As a rookie in 2013, A.J. Ramos pitched in every conceivable bullpen role and racked up 80 innings. He should vie for the club’s primary right-handed setup role. Mike Dunn will handle late-inning lefty duties, pairing with fellow southpaw Dan Jennings. Two interesting right-handed arms are Brad Hand and long-time Cubs’ closer Carlos Marmol. The Marlins acquired another promising, hard-throwing righthander in Carter Capps from the Mariners, who with a little more polish could be outstanding. Arquimedes Caminero features another power arm. He can fill Webb’s multi-purpose role of a year ago.
A rocket-armed shortstop, Furcal missed all of 2013 with the Cardinals after Tommy John surgery. The Marlins approached Furcal, 36, about starting at second, and the idea appealed to him. Conceivably, he could add a couple more years to his career on the right side of the bag. The Marlins believe Furcal paired with Hechavarria at short gives them iron-clad up-the-middle defense. Offensively, the switch-hitting Furcal is a seasoned top-of-the-order table-setter, allowing the club to move Yelich down into a run-producing spot. A glove-first shortstop, Hechavarria rivals Braves Gold Glove winner Andrelton Simmons in athleticism. Manager Mike Redmond sees a future No. 2 hitter in Hechavarria, but last season’s .227/.267/.298 slash line won’t keep him there consistently.
Although the Marlins weren’t averse to tapping into their pitching depth to acquire a third baseman via trade, they settled on McGehee, who re-discovered his swing during a championship-winning season in Japan with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. He hopes to duplicate those results with the Marlins as he keeps the position warm for top position player prospect and 2013 first-round pick Colin Moran. Across the diamond at first is Jones, an ex-Pirates teammate of McGehee’s. When the Marlins signed the left-handed-hitting Jones, it became apparent that they had given up on the oft-injured Logan Morrison. Though Jones hasn’t shown the ability to hit left-handed pitching consistently, the Marlins at least initially don’t plan to platoon him.
The general consensus is that Stanton’s days in South Florida are numbered, but the Marlins hope to build around the power-hitting right fielder. With a better supporting cast, the idea is that he’ll see more pitches and become the 40-homer, 120-RBI force the club envisions. Homegrown prospects Yelich and Ozuna both had encouraging starts to their major-league careers in 2013. Yelich is the club’s best pure hitter, and Ozuna, before going down with a fractured hand, showed much-improved plate discipline. Should Ozuna falter, the Marlins have another well-regarded prospect at the ready in Jake Marisnick.
The Marlins thought they had a cornerstone piece in Rob Brantly, but he regressed both defensively and offensively. That prompted the Saltalamacchia signing. The concern is that spacious Marlins Park might negate Saltalamacchia’s power, but the Marlins like his ability to put balls in the gap. Though the Marlins love the way Jeff Mathis works with the young staff, he hits like a backup catcher and should be limited to 50-60 games.
The Marlins signed utility man Jeff Baker, who started games at left, right, first, second, third and DH for the Rangers last season. Not only does he give the club lineup flexibility, but he batted .279 and slugged .545 with a .905 OPS in 2013. He could be a nice right-handed complement to Jones at first. Greg Dobbs will reprise his role as the club’s primary left-handed pinch-hitting option. The Marlins swapped fourth outfielders with the Cubs, sacrificing Justin Ruggiano’s power for Brian Bogusevic’s contact. Donovan Solano is the primary candidate for the remaining backup infielder spot.
The Marlins dumped Beinfest and promoted Hill and Dan Jennings (no relation to the reliever) to the top two spots in baseball operations. The front office also brought in well-respected talent evaluators Craig Weissmann, Mike Berger and Jeff McAvoy. On the field, Redmond returns for his second season as manager.
Taking a wrecking ball to last year’s lineup was a start, but don’t look for the Marlins to contend just yet. With the possible exception of Saltalamacchia, the club’s moves are stopgaps. The hope is that an injection of somewhat flawed yet battle-tested veterans not only spurs a more dynamic offense, but also enhances the development of young, cornerstone players.
2B Rafael Furcal (S)
Three-time All-Star shortstop transitioning to second after missing ’13 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
LF Christian Yelich (L)
Marlins’ first-round pick in 2010 hit .288/.370/.396 in first 273 major-league plate appearances last season.
RF Giancarlo Stanton (R)
Increased walk rate from 9.2 percent in 2012 to 14.7, but isolated power plummeted from .318 to .231.
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S)
Coming off career year with World Series champion Red Sox, hitting 40 doubles and knocking in 65.
1B Garrett Jones (L)
Over last two seasons has a combined .266 AVG vs. righties (783 at-bats), .168 (95 at-bats) off lefties.
CF Marcell Ozuna (R)
Promoted to fill in for an injured Stanton in right field, hit .331/.371/.472 over first 142 big-league at-bats.
3B Casey McGehee (R)
Offensive catalyst for Japan Series champion Rakuten, hitting .292-28-93 with 30 doubles in 144 games.
SS Adeiny Hechavarria (R)
11 of 42 RBIs came on three HR swings, including grand slams off Jeff Samardzija and Roy Halladay.
C Jeff Mathis (R)
Started 70 games and had multiple RBIs in five straight (June 26-July 3), tying Hanley Ramirez’s club record.
1B/3B Greg Dobbs (L)
Active major-league leader as a pinch-hitter with 95 hits (including 10 in 2013), 21 doubles and 75 RBIs.
OF Bryan Bogusevic (L)
.273 hitter in 143 at-bats with Cubs last season; acquired in trade for Justin Ruggiano.
INF Donovan Solano (R)
Supplanted as projected starter at second after Furcal signing; has played four different positions since 2012.
UT Jeff Baker (R)
Batted .314 with a 1.073 vs. lefties last season and just .204/,536 against righthanders.
RH Jose Fernandez
Garnered 26 of 30 first-place votes in winning National League Rookie of the Year Award at age 20.
RH Nathan Eovaldi
According to PITCHf/x, 96.1 mph average fastball would have led all qualifying starters in the majors.
RH Henderson Alvarez
Alvarez no-hit Tigers in regular-season finale, and allowed only five hits and no walks to first 24 batters faced in the spring.
RH Jacob Turner
Brutal spring led to start in minors, but returned and logged 3.74 ERA in 20 starts.
RH Tom Koehler
In five September starts went 2–1 with 3.14 ERA and held opponents to a .225/.307/.333 slash line.
RH Steve Cishek (Closer)
After a June 4 blown save in Philadelphia, converted 29 straight opportunities to set franchise mark.
RH A.J. Ramos
Totaled 80 innings and struck out 9.7 batters per nine innings as a rookie in 2013.
LH Mike Dunn
Fourth pitcher in franchise history to total 60 or more appearances in three or more consecutive seasons.
LH Dan Jennings
Logged a reverse split, holding right-handed hitters to a .221 average while lefties hit .282 against him.
RH Carter Capps
In first two seasons with Mariners (2012-13), average fastball velocity per PITCHf/x was 96.4 mph.
RH Arquimedes Caminero
Back on track after ascent through minors slowed in 2011 due to elbow issues.
RH Carlos Marmol
Trying to rediscover some semblance of control and resurrect his once-promising career.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Colin Moran, 3B
With the sixth overall pick, the Marlins selected third baseman Colin Moran out of North Carolina. Considered an advanced college bat, Moran began his pro career with Greensboro of the Low-A South Atlantic League. He hit .299/.354/.442 in 42 games (154 at-bats) with eight doubles, four homers and 23 RBIs. What already was a long season that included a trip to the College World Series with the Tar Heels concluded in the Arizona Fall League. A spent Moran went 20-for-87 (.230) with just three doubles, no homers and 10 RBIs. Moran likely will open 2014 at Double-A Jacksonville and could make his major-league debut by season’s end in preparation for a shot at the everyday third base job in 2015.
LHP Andrew Heaney (22)
Organization’s top prospect after stellar 2013 between High-A Jupiter and Double-A Jacksonville. Should make major-league debut in 2014.
OF Jake Marisnick (23)
Center fielder with great range made major-league debut in 2013. Bat developed nicely at Double-A (.294/.358/.502).
LHP Justin Nicolino (22)
Marlins’ second-best starting pitching prospect behind Heaney went combined 8–4, 3.11 for Jupiter and Jacksonville.
RHP Anthony DeSclafani (23)
The Marlins’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year split 2013 between Jupiter and Jacksonville and went a combined 9–6 with 2.65 ERA, 23 walks and 115 K’s in 129 IP.
RHP Jose Urena (22)
At Jupiter in 2013, he went 10–7 with a 3.73 ERA and a 3.7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
2B Avery Romero (20)
Returned to the short season Class-A New York Penn League, where he hit .297/.357/.411 in 209 at-bats with Batavia.
Beyond the Box Score
Revolving door Since Miguel Cabrera manned third base for Marlins in 2007, the club has used five different primary third basemen — Jorge Cantu, Emilio Bonifacio, Greg Dobbs, Hanley Ramirez and Placido Polanco. Last season alone, five different players started at least one game at third. Casey McGehee in 2014 stands to become the ninth player since 2008 to start at least 20 games in a season at third for the Marlins, joining: Cantu, Wes Helms, Bonifacio, Dobbs, Chad Tracy, Ramirez, Polanco and Ed Lucas.
Love the gloves The Marlins couldn’t hit in 2013, but they caught the ball surprisingly well for a 100-loss team. The 69 teams that have lost 100 or more games since the advent of the 162-game schedule (1961 in the AL and 1962 in the NL) averaged 144 errors. The Marlins committed 88.
Running low If last season wasn’t rock bottom for the Miami offense, the Marlins are in trouble this season. They scored two runs or fewer in 46.9 percent of their 162 games and went 13–63 in those contests. The Marlins will try to avoid becoming the third team ever to play at least 162 games and score 513 runs or fewer in back-to-back seasons; they would join the 1963-64 Houston Colt .45s and the 1967-68 New York Mets.
Strange superlatives The Marlins in 2013 had the tallest player in major league history (6'11" Jon Rauch). In 2014 they’ll field the major-leaguer with the longest last name. Jarrod Saltalamacchia claimed that distinction when he made his debut in 2007. Long surnames don’t faze the Marlins’ equipment staff. Remember, Tim Spooneybarger and Todd Hollandsworth both were members of the 2003 team.
Power shortage Marlins Park in its two years of existence has seen many frustrated hitters jog back to their dugout. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the venue in 2012 had a home run index of 73, meaning the ballpark reduced the number of homers by 27 percent. That was the fourth-lowest in the majors. It got worse in 2013. Marlins Park had a major-league-low home run index of 64. Giancarlo Stanton accounted for 15 of his team’s 36 Marlins Park home runs. Unlike several other teams, the Marlins have not given any indication that they’re inclined to move in the fences.
The Braves, who reeled off 14 consecutive division titles starting in 1991, captured their first since 2005 by going 96–66 to outlast the favored Nationals. They did it despite awful seasons from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. Those players can’t be any worse — can they? — so a very young Braves team expects to repeat as division champions, or at least contend with the Nationals, who have bigger-name stars and should get all the hype again. The Braves, who lost their NLDS to the Dodgers, still have not won a playoff series since 2001. And a couple of ill-timed injuries to pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy have tempered hopes somewhat. But the Braves’ talented core group should keep providing postseason chances in the foreseeable future.
The legacy of the 1990s Braves will be celebrated at the Hall of Fame this summer, as a team built on consistently dominant starting pitching begins to take its place in bronze in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. It’s asking a lot for any team to replicate the era of Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz & Co., but the Braves are at least in the ballpark, ranking sixth in the majors last season in starters’ ERA, at 3.51. The Braves were one of only two teams in the majors to have three starters with at least 13 victories and an ERA under 3.30: Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran. But Medlen’s 2014 season is already over, before it began. The talented righthander is having his second Tommy John surgery. The news on Beachy is similarly dismal. After receiving the bad injury news in early March, the Braves jumped quickly to sign free agent Ervin Santana, a victim of the rule regarding draft pick compensation. Santana had gone the entire winter without finding any serious suitors. Due to his abbreviated spring training, Santana, who won nine games each of the last two seasons, will likely not be with the team when it breaks camp. The righthander has averaged 187 innings over his nine-year career — all spent in the American League — and had a career-best 3.24 ERA last season with Kansas City. Veteran Freddy Garcia will take one of the available spots in the rotation. Lefty Alex Wood, who made 11 starts among his 31 appearances last season will join the group as well. Minor’s shoulder was balking a bit in spring training and may cost him a start or two. Youngster David Hale will fill the void until Minor is healthy, which shouldn’t be later than mid-April. Veteran Gavin Floyd, formerly of the White Sox, will return from Tommy John surgery at some point around midseason. Expect the Braves to bring him along slowly.
The Braves had the majors’ second-best bullpen ERA in 2012, and when injuries robbed them of some of their best arms last season, it somehow got even better. Atlanta’s relievers posted a 2.46 ERA, the best mark in the majors last season, led again by the indomitable Craig Kimbrel, who had 50 saves, an 0.881 WHIP and fanned 13.2 batters per nine innings. Two of his better setup men, Anthony Varvaro and David Carpenter, came to the Braves off waivers, and another, Luis Avilan, seamlessly replaced the injured Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters as the resident dominant lefty. Venters, a 2011 All-Star, had Tommy John surgery last May; he could be an option, although the procedure was his second, which is always trickier to return from. Jordan Walden, the former Angels closer, made a nice impression in his first season with the Braves. David Hale is another option out of the pen if his services aren’t needed in the injury-riddled rotation.
How does a player with a .296 on-base percentage rank fourth in the league in overall Wins Above Replacement? He has to play a premium position, shortstop, and field like Andrelton Simmons. His bat had some pop, with 17 homers and 59 runs batted in, but the vast majority of Simmons’ value comes from his glove. Going strictly by fielding performance, Baseball-Reference.com credited Simmons with 5.4 defensive wins above replacement — the highest single-season total in baseball history. Simmons tends to play deep to utilize his outstanding arm and has otherworldly range in all directions. His middle infield partner, Uggla, is a below-average fielder who makes a living with his bat. Uggla led the league in walks in 2012, has made three All-Star teams and has also hit as many as 36 homers in a season. Everything fell apart last year, though, as he batted just .179, with a .122 mark in September that kept him off the playoff roster.
This was a major strength for the Braves last season, with Chris Johnson leading the National League batting race for much of the summer and Freddie Freeman putting it all together with a .319 average, 23 homers and 109 RBIs. Freeman, who turned 24 in September, improves at the plate every season and ranked fourth among NL first basemen in range factor per game, after leading the league in the category in 2012. Johnson hit .321 (second in the NL) with 46 extra-base hits and played well defensively at third. He kept on going in the playoffs, batting .438 (7-for-16) against the Dodgers.
The Upton brothers realized a dream of playing together in the same major-league outfield last season, and while it ended with a playoff appearance — and a joint Sports Illustrated cover with supermodel Kate Upton — neither player had a memorable season. Justin started hot, winning Player of the Month honors in April with a mind-bending .734 slugging percentage. After that, though, he slugged just .409, and wound up with an .818 OPS that was a bit below his career average. B.J., signed to the richest free-agent deal in Braves history (five years, $75.25 million) the winter before, would have gladly taken that season over the one he posted: a .184 average, nine homers, 26 RBIs and 151 strikeouts. Right fielder Jason Heyward endured a beaning against the Mets that cost him a month late in the season. Heyward is only 24 and has power, some speed and a good eye at the plate. He could still develop into a superstar. The Braves seemed to take off last season when manager Fredi Gonzalez inserted Heyward at the top of the batting order.
The Braves lost one of their leaders — and a local favorite — in catcher Brian McCann, who signed with the Yankees without his hometown team putting up much of a fight. His departure clears the way for Evan Gattis, 27, who clubbed 21 homers in 354 at-bats but, like a lot of his teammates, had a meager on-base percentage (.291). Gattis was respectable defensively, but McCann was a master at guiding a staff and framing borderline pitches. The Braves have a top catching prospect in Christian Bethancourt, but he has played only one career game above Class AA and has a career .299 OBP in the minors.
The Braves love the versatility that Ryan Doumit provides as a switch-hitter who can back up at catcher, first base and the corner outfield spots, and he gives them a power threat off the bench. The athletic Jordan Schafer started at all three outfield spots last season and is young enough, at 27, to warrant decent playing time in case of injury or underperformance from a starter. Veteran Gerald Laird, who hit .281 last season, is among the more reliable backup catchers in the game, while Ramiro Pena can play second, short and third. Pena missed more than half the season after surgery to repair a torn labrum, but the Braves liked him enough to quickly re-sign him for another year.
Locked into a bad local cable deal for years, the Braves took a step toward generating greater revenues by securing a deal for a stadium in Cobb County that will open in 2017. For now, general manager Frank Wren has maintained a payroll below $100 million with a young but talented roster that reached the postseason in 2010, ’12 and ’13. That success has been undercut by repeated playoff failures, and manager Gonzalez is unsigned beyond this season. He has provided a smooth transition from his Cooperstown-bound predecessor, Bobby Cox, but sooner or later, the Braves must take the next step.
Pitching carried the Braves’ boom-or-bust offense, which led the NL in both homers and strikeouts (tied). The front office did little to remedy that in the offseason, but the formula did produce 96 wins. However, given the injuries to Medlen and Beachy, it will take significant improvement from a few hitters to keep the Braves in position to win again. Repeated early playoff exits have grown tiresome for all concerned.
RF Jason Heyward (L)
Unconventional leadoff man, but the Braves like giving him extra turns at bat.
3B Chris Johnson (R)
Unlikely to repeat near-batting crown, but a verystrong hitter with pop.
LF Justin Upton (R )
Braves saw his impact early, but need more consistency throughout season.
1B Freddie Freeman (L)
Knocked in a career-high 109 runs; no other Brave topped 70 RBIs.
C Evan Gattis (R)
One of four in this order with OBP below .310; that’s a huge risk for the Braves.
CF B.J. Upton (R)
After signing biggest contract in Braves history, must avoid becoming biggest bust.
2B Dan Uggla (R)
Led team with 77 walks; opposing pitchers’ fear of him was a mystery (.179 average).
SS Andrelton Simmons (R)
Surprising power, disappointing OBP, superlative glove work.
C Gerald Laird (R)
Has been backup for three different playoff teams in three years (’11 Cardinals, ’12 Tigers, ’13 Braves).
OF Jordan Schafer (L)
Led the Braves in stolen bases (22) while playing only 94 games.
INF Ramiro Pena (S)
Earned a return trip to roster as solid utility man despite injury-shortened season.
C/OF Ryan Doumit (S)
Has hit 81 of his 99 career homers as a left-handed hitter, including 12 of 14 last year.
OF Jose Canstanza (L)
Offers both speed and a handy lefty bat off the bench.
LH Mike Minor
Quietly establishing himself as one of the premier starters in the NL. May begin this season on the DL with shoulder issues.
RH Julio Teheran
Would have won Rookie of the Year Award in a runaway if he pitched in AL.
RH Ervin Santana
Royals won two of Santana’s three starts against the Braves’ NL East rivals last season.
LH Alex Wood
Delivery evokes White Sox ace Chris Sale; 3.13 ERA gives Braves hope for future.
RH Freddy Garcia
Yep, he’s still in the league and going strong. In three starts in late September for the Braves last season, he allowed just four runs in 19.2 innings.
RH Craig Kimbrel (Closer)
With Mariano Rivera retired, there’s no doubt: He’s the game’s best closer.
LH Luis Avilan
Flummoxed lefty hitters as he took over for Eric O’Flaherty.
RH David Carpenter
One of three regular Braves relievers to have ERA under 2.00 and WHIP under 1.00.
RH Jordan Walden
Defies all convention while literally jumping, both feet in air, as he delivers a pitch.
RH Anthony Varvaro
Pitches to contact, with good results (2.82 ERA last season).
LH Jonny Venters
Former All-Star eases back in after Tommy John surgery. He should be available by the All-Star break.
RH David Hale
First two starts were good enough to earn a place on playoff roster.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Jason Hursh, RHP
The Braves lost their draft position in the first round last season by signing free-agent outfielder B.J. Upton, but chose Hursh with the 31st overall pick as compensation for the departure of Michael Bourn. They liked Hursh in high school and stayed on him through his tenure at Oklahoma State, where he missed the 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. A strong performance as a redshirt sophomore earned him a $1.7 million bonus from the Braves. With good action on a fastball that has touched 98 mph, Hursh reliably generates ground balls. He posted an 0.67 ERA in nine starts for Low-A Rome, although he was limited to 27 innings. The Braves want to keep Hursh as a starter and are hopeful he can advance quickly if he masters his changeup and slider, but don’t expect to see him in Atlanta this season.
RHP Lucas Sims (19)
The 21st pick in the ’12 draft, Sims went 8–0, 1.59 in his last eight starts, with 57 strikeouts in 45.1 innings for Low-A Rome.
C Christian Bethancourt (22)
Outstanding defensive catcher who could soon challenge Evan Gattis for starting role.
RHP J.R. Graham (24)
Shoulder trouble slowed his path last season, but he has shown promise since converting to pitching in the pros.
2B Tommy La Stella (25)
Dark horse to unseat Dan Uggla at second after .422 OBP at Class AA Mississippi.
RHP Mauricio Cabrera (20)
Fastball touches 100, but had control issues in Low-A (71 walks in 131 innings).
Beyond the Box Score
On the move The Braves, who have played in downtown Atlanta since moving from Milwaukee for the 1966 season, are headed 10 miles northwest of the city, to Cobb County, for the 2017 season. The team announced plans in November for a 42,000-seat stadium that will cost $672 million and replace Turner Field, which was built for the 1996 Olympics and remodeled for baseball in 1997. The Braves cited improved transportation options and the migration of their fans as a reason for the move, and Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed said Turner Field would be razed. Reed said Cobb County was contributing $450 million to the stadium project and that the city would not match.
Uggly Average Dan Uggla came to bat 537 times for the Braves last season and batted .179. Historically, that’s really tough to do. Only one other player in the division-play era (since 1969, that is) has qualified for the batting title with an average that low: Rob Deer of the Detroit Tigers in 1991. Both Deer and Uggla had exactly 80 hits in 448 at-bats and stayed in the lineup for their power; Deer hit 25 homers, Uggla 22. Good news for Uggla: Deer bounced back the next season and hit 32 homers while batting a respectable .247.
Not just a throw-in It was easy to overlook infielder Chris Johnson in last year’s blockbuster deal for Justin Upton, but the Braves knew what they were getting. The Braves and Astros are spring-training neighbors, and they had seen a lot of Johnson when he played for Houst von. Johnson also had a champion in Chipper Jones, whose godfather, Pete Dunn, had coached Johnson at Stetson. Johnson led the NL in hitting for much of the season and finished at .321.
Detour to Atlanta Reliever David Carpenter finished the 2012 season with the Toronto Blue Jays, then migrated to Atlanta with a peculiar stopover in Boston. The Red Sox needed to compensate the Blue Jays for hiring manager John Farrell, so they sent infielder Mike Aviles. But because managers cannot be directly traded for managers, the Blue Jays had to send a player to the Red Sox. That player was Carpenter, who was designated for assignment by Boston, claimed by Atlanta and in the Braves’ bullpen for good by the end of April. He posted a 1.78 ERA in 56 games but took the loss in the playoff finale in Los Angeles.
Feeling the breeze Of the 14 players in the majors last season who fanned at least 150 times, three played for Atlanta: Dan Uggla (171), Justin Upton (161) and B.J. Upton (151). The only others on the list who spent the full season in the NL were Pedro Alvarez of Pittsburgh and Jay Bruce of Cincinnati.
Top Craig Kimbrell photo from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Craig_Kimbrel_2013_Spring_Training.jpg
Now that Selection Sunday is over, it's time for March Madness to kick into high gear. It's that time of year when everyone—even the guy in the cubicle next to you who still plays Dungeons & Dragons—starts caring about college basketball. Most of the excitement comes from NCAA Tournament bracket games, where anyone can fill out a March Madness bracket in hopes winning cash — even Warren Buffett wants to give away a billion dollars — and bragging rights among friends and co-workers. Of course, the majority of people have no clue which teams to pick.
A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Florida (1)
The Florida Gators (32–2, 18–0 SEC) are fresh off a perfect 18–0 SEC regular season followed by the SEC Tournament title. Florida is the top No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, their first No. 1 seed since 2007 — when the Gators chomped their way to a second straight national championship with Joakim Noah and Co. This year’s team has just two losses — at UConn (on a fluke finish) and at Wiconsin (in the season’s second game). The Gators have not tasted defeat since Dec. 2, 2013 — beating Kansas, Memphis and every team in the SEC since then. In this one-and-done era, UF has the rare star-studded senior class led by point guard Scottie Wilbekin (13.0 ppg, 3.7 apg), leading scorer Casey Prather (14.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and monster in the middle Patric Young (11.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg). Oh yeah, and the Gators are coached by two-time NCAA champion Billy Donovan. Florida is clearly the team to beat.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Ohio State (6)
The Buckeyes have a tough in-state Round of 64 matchup with Daytona in a 6-11 potential trap game. But if Ohio State can avoid the fate of Goliath, it will face the winner of Syracuse and Western Michigan. On one hand, Cuse has gone 2–5 since opening the season with a 25–0 record. On the other hand, WMU is a No. 14 seed for a reason. The Buckeyes would have to feel good about their chances, either way. The next loss will be the last for OSU senior point guard Aaron Craft. Don’t be surprised if the overly scrappy guard hustles his way to the second weekend of the Big Dance.
Upset Alert – Stephen F. Austin (12) over VCU (5)
Wait a minute, isn’t VCU the underdog that could? Not this time. Southland champion Stephen F. Austin is on a 28-game winning streak that dates back to Nov. 23, 2013. The Lumberjacks have five players who average 9.6 points or more, including a pair of wings — Jacob Parker (14.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and Thomas Walkup (12.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg) — who both shoot over 54 percent from the field. Obviously, Shaka Smart and VCU will bring the havoc. But SFA will be ready to keep chopping wood.
South Region Preview
East Region Preview
West Region Preview
Midwest Region Preview
A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Arizona (1)
The Arizona Wildcats (30–4, 15–3 Pac-12) opened the season with a 21–0 mark, including impressive wins over Duke, Michigan and UCLA. Although the Wildcats went 9–4 to close out the season — losing to UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament title game — this is still a team to be reckoned with. Junior guard Nick Johnson (16.2 ppg), freshman phenom forward Aaron Gordon (12.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg), and sophomore big men Kaleb Tarczewski (10.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Brandon Ashley (11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) make UA a matchup nightmare. Coach Sean Miller has yet to lead a team to the Final Four, despite coming painfully close in Elite Eight losses at Xavier (2008) and Arizona (2011). This could be the year Miller finally breaks through for Zona’s first Final Four since Lute Olson’s Cats cut down the nets in 1997.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Oklahoma State (9)
The Pokes will have to outlast Gonzaga in the 8-9 game and take down the best out West in Arizona. But that is doable. O-State has been a different team since Marcus Smart returned from his three-game suspension following a run-in with a fan at Texas Tech. The Cowboys are 5–2, with both losses coming in overtime, to Iowa State and Kansas, respectively. Along with Smart (17.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 2.8 spg), OSU features senior Markel Brown (17.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and junior Le’Bryan Nash (14.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg), giving coach Travis Ford’s team three players capable of taking over offensively. Then again, the Cowboys have looked good on paper all year, but that hasn’t translated on the court most of the season.
Upset Alert – Nebraska (11) over Baylor (6)
Warren Buffett’s billion-dollar perfect bracket may be a 1-in-128 billion longshot. But the Oracle of Omaha could get a priceless matchup in the Round of 32 if Nebraska can take down former Big 12 rival Baylor and No. 3 seed Creighton can hold serve against No. 14 seed Louisiana-Lafayette. The Cornhuskers played solid basketball since hitting rock bottom on a five-game losing streak from Dec. 28 until Jan. 12. The Huskers have wins over Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin since those dark days and appear capable of upsetting Baylor.
South Region Preview
East Region Preview
West Region Preview
Midwest Region Preview
A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Wichita State (1)
The Wichita State Shockers (34–0, 18–0 Missouri Valley) had an impressive encore following last season’s unbelievable run to the Final Four. Coach Gregg Marshall’s team ran the table with a perfect 34–0 regular season record that included wins over five teams — Tulsa, BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee and NC Central — in this year’s NCAA Tournament field of 68. Led by senior big man Cleanthony Early (15.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and sophomore guards Fred VanVleet (12.1 ppg, 5.3 apg) and Ron Baker (13.1 ppg), Wichita State has the balance, talent and experience to make a repeat trip to the Final Four. And if it comes down to free throw shooting down the stretch, the Shockers’ top three scorers all shoot over 82 percent from the charity stripe.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Kentucky (8)
The preseason No. 1 team in the country didn’t enjoy the 40–0 season some in the Big Blue Nation hoped for, but the Wildcats could take down a team that still has a shot at an undefeated 2013-14 campaign. If UK can sneak past Kansas State in the 8-9 game, the Cats will go toe-to-toe with a Wichita State team that has yet to play a team as talented — at least on an individual level — as Kentucky. Coach John Calipari’s team was a botched final possession away from potentially upsetting No. 1 Florida in the SEC Tournament. The notoriously young Wildcats may be maturing at just the right time.
Upset Alert – Arizona State (10) over Texas (7)
Historically, 7-10 games are ripe for upset — and so is Texas coach Rick Barnes, who has lost a combined 10 of his 20 career NCAA Tournament Round of 64 matchups at Texas, Clemson and Providence. Even when Barnes had Kevin Durant on his roster, the Longhorns only advanced to the Round of 32. Arizona State is a difficult draw, thanks to the underrated backcourt duo of point guard Jahii Carson (18.6 ppg, 4.5 apg, 4.0 rpg) and sharpshooter Jermaine Marshall (15.0 ppg, 40.0 3P%).
South Region Preview
East Region Preview
West Region Preview
Midwest Region Preview
A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Virginia (1)
The Virginia Cavaliers (28–6, 16–2 ACC) became the first team other than Duke or North Carolina to win the ACC regular season conference title outright since Maryland in 2002 — the same year the Terrapins were crowned NCAA Tournament champs. The Wahoos also swept the ACC Tournament title before earning their first No. 1 seed since the days when Ralph Sampson patrolled the paint in Charlottesville. Coach Tony Bennett’s team may not be the most exciting to watch and the Cavs roster doesn’t read like an NBA Draft preview, but UVa has proven capable of beating any team in the country on any stage. With a methodical style of play, suffocating defense and backcourt — Malcolm Brogdon (88.6 FT%) and London Perrantes (82.9 FT%) — that knows how to ice a game in the closing minutes, Virginia will be a maddeningly tough out in March, or maybe even early April.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – North Carolina (6)
It’s been a roller coaster ride for Tar Heel hoops fans this season. UNC jumped out of the gate with a loss to Belmont, then reeled off wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, followed by a 1–4 start to ACC play. A 12-game winning streak was halted by back-to-back losses — at Duke and vs. Pitt — heading into the NCAA Tournament. But with heady point guard Marcus Paige (17.4 ppg, 4.3 apg), forward James Michael McAdoo (14.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and two-time NCAA champion coach Roy Williams, the Heels have the pieces to dance into the Sweet 16.
Upset Alert – Harvard (12) over Cincinnati (5)
The Crimson don’t play like a stereotypical Ivy League champ. Tommy Amaker’s club is not going to small-ball and backdoor-cut like the great Princeton teams of yesteryear. Harvard can go blow-for-blow with some of the best in the nation, as it did during a five-point loss at Connecticut and a 15-point win over Boston College earlier this season. The Crimson have six players who average at least 9.3 points per game, led by wingman Wesley Saunders (14.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.9 apg), point guard Siyani Chambers (11.1 ppg, 4.7 apg) and active big man Steve Moundou-Missi (10.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg).
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There have been better players with prettier swings. But there has never been a more important golfer than The King, Arnold Palmer. He almost single-handedly quadrupled purses, grew the game beyond the country clubs and brought it into our living rooms, and assembled an Army of devoted followers. He won — and lost — with more flair than any other athlete.
As hard as it might be to believe, this spring marks the 50th anniversary of Arnold Palmer’s last major championship victory. He won the 1964 Masters at Augusta National, earning his fourth green jacket in seven years and giving him a seventh professional major title.
Although there would be several close calls, there would be no more major titles, although Palmer kept contending for another decade, winning his last PGA Tour event, the 62nd of his illustrious career, at the Bob Hope Desert Classic in 1973. He would keep competing into his 50s and go on to support the Champions Tour for years.
Today, at age 84, Palmer remains a top earner in the golf endorsement world and one of the game’s most prominent figures, a beloved elder statesman. In addition to myriad business interests, Palmer hosts his own PGA Tour event, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which will be contested for the 36th straight year at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando.
Athlon gained an audience with The King to ask him a variety of questions on all manner of subjects.
Athlon Sports: What current player reminds you most of yourself?
Arnold Palmer: I’ve had a lot of people remark on who might be a lot like I am, and the name that comes up most of the time is Phil Mickelson. He’s left-handed and I’m right-handed, so we’re not similar there, but the compliments that he gets and the way he treats the fans and a lot of the way he plays the game … I suppose if I look I can see some things I enjoy doing and did in my career. I think he’s a very thoughtful guy, and that is certainly in his favor as far as my thoughts are concerned. And he’s a good closer. He’s had some unfortunate things at the U.S. Open, but he has finished very well most of the time.
Athlon: Speaking of Mickelson, what do you make of his British Open win and the way he won it at Muirfield?
Palmer: That was a great victory. He came on very good. He seemed to be playing with a consistent desire to win the championship. It was positive throughout. That was obvious in his play.
Athlon: What is your take on the anchored putter debate? Such a stroke is scheduled to be banned starting Jan. 1, 2016.
Palmer: I’m a little outspoken as far as the anchored putter is concerned. I’m opposed to it. You shouldn’t need to or be allowed to anchor a club against your body in any part of the golf swing. Of course you can find people who will argue with that and find fault with my opinion. When you touch your body you’re getting an aid that isn’t meant to be in the golf swing.
Athlon: Speaking of the rules, a new Decision (18/4) was enacted for 2014 that stipulates if a high definition video or replay is the only way to determine that a ball moved, the player will not be penalized. (Tiger Woods got a two-stroke penalty under a similar scenario at the BMW Championship.) Do you like this change?
Palmer: I think I go back to the rules of the game. It’s the player's responsibility to charge himself with the penalty. If he thinks he has done something wrong, it’s a penalty — whether he sees it with the naked eye or with HD isn’t the matter. It’s his own opinion of what he did during that transaction.
Athlon: Who is in your dream foursome, among people you have played with?
Palmer: It is very difficult to narrow it down. I certainly have people I’ve enjoyed playing golf with. One of the things I’ve always said is if you play 18 holes of golf with a person, you have an opportunity to really get to know that person. A lot of the people I have played with I have really come to that conclusion; it is a way of getting to learn about a person. So who would they be? My father would be one of the most interesting people in my group. Dwight D. Eisenhower would be one I enjoyed being with and playing golf with. I could go down a list. Jack Nicklaus, of course — people like that. Gary Player. People I have respected and enjoyed through the years. I could name hundreds of people I have enjoyed being with. I think of Bob Hope as another one. These are people I have thoroughly enjoyed.
Athlon: Who’s left that you wish you could play with?
Palmer: I was on my way one time to play golf with Jack Kennedy in Palm Beach. He hurt his back the day before and had to cancel the golf. That was not long before he was killed and I never played with him. I would have enjoyed that and trying to get to know him better.
Athlon: Do you regret that you didn’t get to play with today’s equipment in your prime? Do you think modern equipment has been good for the game?
Palmer: I suppose I have mixed feelings about that. Having played as far back as wooden shafted golf clubs and now seeing what they are doing with shafts alone, titanium … wood is a thing of the past now in golf clubs. So I’m not sure sometimes how things might be different. It’s very difficult to say. One day I did a competition with myself and I used the old model golf clubs with wooden shafts and leather grips and played one ball, and the other I used all the modern stuff, the graphite shafts, the titanium heads and so forth. The difference for nine holes was 2 strokes. But the modern stuff won…
I do think the modern golf ball, the modern shafts, the heads, the technology that has been put into the game is certainly an opportunity to improve your performance. And I think that is good for the game, for those trying to play the game.
Athlon: Do you feel it would still help to have the golf ball reined in?
Palmer: I think there is no question about the fact that some day in the near future we’re going to have to bring the ball back, cut it down. Bring it back to a more playable situation as far as distance is concerned. If technology continues to improve… and that takes in a lot of territory — dimples of golf ball, type of material we use, composition of the golf ball. I feel strongly those things will have to be adjusted.
Athlon: It's a Ryder Cup year. Are you surprised that the Ryder Cup has evolved into one of the biggest events in golf?
Palmer: Not really. I think the Ryder Cup was something that started with the rivalry of the nations involved. It’s a good competition, and I thought it was from the beginning. It will continue to be a good competition. I suppose it will continue to improve, and maybe there will be different rules or means of selecting teams. But that is progress and that will be something that is probably inevitable.
Athlon: Could someone today serve as playing captain as you did? (Palmer was the last U.S. playing captain, at the 1963 Ryder Cup at East Lake.)
Palmer: It was certainly fun for me. It was something where I was thoroughly honored to be the captain and to be playing on the same team. It was a lot of fun. And of course I enjoyed the competition and I enjoyed my team. They were very supportive in the matches that we were playing. I’m not sure how that would work out today.
Athlon: Why do you think the U.S. has struggled in the Ryder Cup? (Europe is 7-2 going back to 1995.)
Palmer: I think golf is becoming more international as days go by. The international community and golf community is certainly getting better and better all the time. The competition will be something that we all have seen grow and take note of, and it’s been great for the Ryder Cup.
Athlon: Do you get into the Ryder Cup as fan?
Palmer: I certainly am interested. Some of these matches, as a fan, you’ve got to have an interest in what’s happening. And if you know the golf courses and those situations, it becomes exciting and interesting.
Athlon: Is the Golf Channel everything you hoped it would be? (Palmer helped found the channel, which launched in 1995.)
Palmer: I always thought the Golf Channel was something that would be great. I have to admit that in the early days I was skeptical of what you would do for 24 hours. Working with that as I did, it was quite interesting. Of course I think the Golf Channel has done marvels for the game and the golfing public. It has been a godsend. And it’s something that will continue to be healthy for the golf public.
Athlon: If you had to pick one career highlight, what would it be?
Palmer: I don’t think there is one. I’ve had some good and bad. Certainly I’ve been very fortunate that I was able to win a lot of golf tournaments, including a lot coming from behind. I’ve lost a few, too, that have taken me down. And in all instances I feel it’s a great opportunity that I’ve had to be able to play and compete in those circumstances to way back in the middle 1950s.
Certainly I’ve been very fortunate that I was able to win a lot of golf tournaments, including a lot coming from behind. I’ve lost a few, too, that have taken me down. And in all instances I feel it’s a great opportunity that I’ve had to be able to play and compete in those circumstances to way back in the middle 1950s.
Athlon: Is there a biggest disappointment?
Palmer: I haven’t won the PGA Championship. That is certainly one that I immediately think of. I would have loved to have added it to my resume. But I had a lot of success with the PGA Championship. I had a couple that I finished second in and some other close calls. (Palmer had six top-10s at the PGA, including two runner-up finishes.) I literally just didn’t make the shot that I needed to make at the right time. It’s sort of like how Sam Snead never won the U.S. Open.
Athlon: What is your take on reigning Masters champion Adam Scott’s future?
Palmer: I think he is a wonderful young man. I think he has a fantastic future in the game. He’s got a great golf swing, great personality. He’s learned to compete around the world. I feel very strongly about him. I am very pro Adam Scott.
Athlon: Tiger Woods will be trying to win your tournament for the ninth time at Bay Hill. To what do you attribute his success?
Palmer: I think he knows the golf course very well. He came here and played as a junior and won, won on this golf course as an amateur. He is very familiar with playing golf in the central part of Florida. And of course Bay Hill is a course that is somewhat tuned to his game. That is quite obvious given his number of victories.
Athlon: Do you have a personal recipe for an Arnold Palmer?
Palmer: I made the whole thing. I did it for a special reason and it has worked out very well. I am very pleased with the drink, I am very happy that people have supported it and enjoyed it. I put the combination together originally and that is what we do. And that is a secret!
This interview appears in the 2014 edition of Athlon Sports Golf Annual, on newsstands now. Order your copy today.
Was 2013 just a nice little season by the Indians or a springboard to bigger things? AL Manager of the Year Terry Francona asked that question in December at the winter meetings at Disney World, and the answer has yet to reveal itself. The Indians caught MLB looking last season when they won 92 games and made the postseason for the first time since 2007 by claiming the AL’s first wild card spot. They have not had consecutive winning seasons since 2000-01, and based on the pitching defections, that streak may stay intact through 2014. In the rotation, the Indians lost 13-game winner Ubaldo Jimenez and 10-game winner Scott. They released closer Chris Perez, third in franchise history in saves, and lost key relievers Joe Smith and Matt Albers to free agency. Most of the offense that finished fifth in the AL in runs last season returns. To make up for the pitching losses, the Indians need more production from Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, who signed big free-agent contracts before the 2013 season but turned in subpar performances.
Justin Masterson, coming off a career season, will once again be the No.1 starter, followed by Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister. The fifth spot will be determined among Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer. To compensate for the loss of Jimenez and Kazmir, it’s imperative that Masterson, Kluber and McAllister stay healthy. Masterson was knocked out of the rotation by an oblique injury in early September, and Kluber and McAllister missed time because of finger injuries. Salazar, the Indians’ most exciting home-grown starter since Bartolo Colon, has never pitched a full season in the big leagues. Carrasco and Tomlin are rebounding from Tommy John surgery, while Bauer spent most of 2013 at Class AAA Columbus trying to rework his delivery.
John Axford lost his closer’s job with the Brewers last April and spent the rest of the season pitching in a setup role with Milwaukee and St. Louis. The Indians signed him to a one-year $4.5 million deal to replace Perez as closer, a role in which Axford earned 105 saves for Milwaukee from 2010-12. Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw will be Axford’s top setup men with Allen probably getting the first shot at closing if Axford falters. Outfielder Drew Stubbs was traded to Colorado for Josh Outman, who should replace Rich Hill as the Tribe’s left-handed specialist. Marc Rzepczynski has the inside track to be the second lefty in the pen, while righthander Vinnie Pestano will try to re-establish himself as one of the AL’s top setup men after struggling last season with a sore elbow.
Three years ago, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera was the Indians’ best overall position player, but his game has slipped the last two seasons. Now that title belongs to second baseman Jason Kipnis, who is coming off his first All-Star appearance. The only thing holding back Kipnis, who led the Indians in runs, hits, RBIs and steals, is a tad more consistency at the plate. Cabrera, who has seen his OPS drop for three straight seasons, is entering his walk year after batting a career-low .242 last season. Cabrera is sure-handed with a good arm but ranks low on most defensive metrics. Mike Aviles is an experienced backup in the middle infield.
While Swisher will be at first base, third base could be a revolving door. Swisher, who played a career-high 112 games at first last season, watched his OPS drop below .800 (.763) for just the second time in the last eight years. He led the Indians with 22 homers but was bothered by a sore left shoulder and couldn’t handle the pressure of batting cleanup. Last season ended with Lonnie Chisenhall and Aviles platooning at third. The Indians want Chisenhall to seize the job. Catcher Carlos Santana, Swisher’s main backup at first, could get some at bats at third after playing the position in winter ball.
In their big free-agent signing of the winter, the Indians added left-handed-hitting David Murphy to platoon in right field with Ryan Raburn. Murphy is coming off a bad season with Texas — he hit only .220 with 13 home runs — but the Indians believe he’ll improve their stats against righthanders. Murphy is a .280 lifetime hitter against righties but struggled against them last year. Bourn, coming off surgery on his left hamstring, will open his second season in center. In his first year in the AL, Bourn stole just 23 bases and had an on-base percentage of .316, down 32 points from his final season in Atlanta. Left fielder Michael Brantley hit .375 with runners in scoring position and played the entire season without making an error. He doesn’t have much power — 16 home runs in 1,220 plate appearances the past two seasons — but he does have a respectable 133 RBIs over that span.
Yan Gomes took the starting job away from Santana last August even though he didn’t make the team out of spring training. Not only did Gomes handle the pitching staff and throw out 41 percent (20-for-49) on the basepaths, but he also batted .294 (86-for-293) with extra-base power. It remains to be seen how Gomes handles the burden of catching full-time. The emergence of Gomes makes Santana the backup at catcher, first and third base and the primary DH. He is coming off a solid offensive season and showed he could handle batting cleanup.
Last year the bench players named themselves the Goon Squad and were one of the best units on the club. On the Goon Squad, all roads lead to Jason Giambi, 43, the part-time DH and clubhouse Yoda. Giambi played only 71 games last year, but hit nine homers with 31 RBIs. Aviles can play second, short, third and the outfield. Raburn, who is especially effective against lefties, hit 16 homers and drove in 55 runs in just 243 at-bats. If Santana doesn’t start at third, he’s expected to be the regular DH and backup catcher. Should the Indians go with three catchers, veteran Matt Treanor will get a look. Justin Sellers has been a pleasant surprise in the spring and could make the team as an extra infielder.
Francona made GM Chris Antonetti, the man who signed him to a four-year deal in October 2012, look good in 2013. One area in which the Indians need to improve this season is their play against good teams. They went 8–31 last year against Detroit, Boston, the Yankees and Tampa Bay and 84–39 against everyone else. Antonetti believes the Indians have a better roster entering the 2014 season than they did a year ago. He is especially high on the starting pitching, noting the improved depth behind Masterson, Salazar, Kluber and McAllister. It would help if he hit on a couple of minor-league free agents as he did last season with Raburn and Kazmir.
The Indians had a chance to build on their momentum with another winter of signings and trades. But that didn’t happen. After shaking things up with the signings of Swisher and Bourn for a combined $104 million before last season, they moved cautiously this offseason. In signing Swisher and Bourn, they spent against this year’s revenues from MLB’s national TV contracts, which somewhat depleted their resources. Issues with attendance could be another reason ownership may have chosen not to make a bigger play on the free-agent market. Despite being in contention from late April, the Indians drew only 1.6 million fans, second-fewest in the big leagues. The Rays, who beat the Indians in the wild card game, were the only team that drew fewer fans. Overall, this is a team that will be a factor in the AL Central but didn’t do enough in the offseason to pass favored Detroit and must contend with surging Kansas City to stay in the wild card race.
CF Michael Bourn (L)
His .316 OBP was his lowest in five years as he had trouble adjusting to the AL.
1B Nick Swisher (S)
Hit .263 with seven homers and 17 RBIs in September stretch run.
2B Jason Kipnis (L)
Hit .307 (114-371) with 25 doubles and nine homers from June 5 through the end of the season.
DH Carlos Santana (S)
The Indians went 33–15 with Santana batting in the cleanup spot.
SS Asdrubal Cabrera (S)
Hit just .209 (54-for-258) at home compared to .276 (69-for-250) on the road.
LF Michael Brantley (L)
Made at least one start in every spot in the lineup except No. 9.
RF David Murphy (L)
He’s a career .365 (27-for-74) hitter at Progressive Field, his new home ballpark.
C Yan Gomes (R)
Ranked third in OPS (.826) for MLB catchers who had at least 275 plate appearances.
3B Lonnie Chisenhall (L)
Helpless against lefties, hitting .111 (4-for-36) with one homer and six RBIs.
INF Mike Aviles (R)
Replaced injured Asdrubal Cabrera for 19 straight games at shortstop in June.
1B Jason Giambi (L)
Veteran slugger has six pinch-hit, walk-off homers, the most in MLB history.
OF Ryan Raburn (R)
His 1.020 OPS against lefthanders ranked fifth in AL for hitters with at least 100 plate appearances.
INF Justin Sellers (R)
In 82 games with the Dodgers over the past three seasons, he batted .199 with three homers and a stolen base.
RH Justin Masterson
Went from 15 losses in 2012 to career-high 14 victories in 2013.
RH Danny Salazar
Opened year at Class AA and ended it by starting the AL wild card game against the Rays.
RH Corey Kluber
Won four of his last five starts after coming off the disabled list in September.
RH Zach McAllister
Former third-round pick of the Yankees pitched five or more innings in 19 of his 24 starts.
RH Josh Tomlin
Didn’t walk a batter in 29.1 combined innings last year as he rebounded from Tommy John surgery.
RH John Axford (Closer)
Appeared in 75 games last season, but none as a closer after April 7.
RH Cody Allen
Finished second in the AL with 77 appearances as a rookie, second-most in club history
RH Bryan Shaw
Went 5–0 with a save and did not allow a run in 13 September appearances.
LH Josh Outman
Lefties hit just .198 (22-for-111) against him last year with the Rockies.
LH Marc Rzepczynski
After he was acquired from St. Louis on July 30, the opposition hit just .159 (11-for-69) against him.
RH Vinnie Pestano
Went 6-for-9 in save situations, but other than that 2013 was a nightmare.
RH Carlos Carrasco
The Indians love his arm and want him to start, but he seems more comfortable in the pen.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Clint Frazier, CF
The Indians selected the 19-year-old high schooler with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft and sent him to the Arizona Rookie League after signing him for $3.5 million. Frazier homered in his first professional at-bat, tripled in his second and drove in four runs. Frazier hit .297 (51-for-182) with 11 doubles, five triples, five homers and 28 RBIs in 44 games for Arizona. He swung and missed a lot (61 times) and drew just 17 walks. Look for him to play next season at Class A Lake County. In his senior year at Loganville (Ga.) High School, Frazier hit .485 with 17 homers, 45 RBIs and 22 steals. He hit a school-record 63 homers at Loganville. The right-handed-hitter, has power and speed, but is still probably four to five years away from the big leagues. In Arizona, he hit .318 (14-for-44) against lefties, but all five of his homers came against righthanders.
OF Tyler Naquin (22)
The center fielder/leadoff hitter put together a nice year at Class A Carolina and Class AA Akron. He performed well in the Arizona Fall League, too.
SS Francisco Lindor (20)
Lindor hit .303 overall at Carolina and Akron, but his season ended prematurely with a stress fracture in his back.
1B Jesus Aguilar (23)
He hit 16 homers and drove in 105 runs at Class AA Akron before tearing up winter ball in Venezuela.
SS/2B Jose Ramirez (21)
The speedy infielder was a September call-up from Class AA and made the wild-card roster.
SS Dorssys Paulino (19)
Son of former big leaguer Jesus Sanchez can hit for average and power.
RHP Cody Anderson (23)
Named Indians Minor League Pitcher of the Year after a strong season at Class A Carolina.
Beyond the Box Score
Walk this way Jason Giambi, 42, became the oldest man in history to hit a walk-off homer on July 29 when he beat the White Sox. Almost two months later, Giambi broke his own record with another walk-off homer, once again against the White Sox.
Now that’s a scoop The Indians officially announced the signing of outfielder David Murphy to a two-year $12 million deal on Nov. 25, but it was old news by then thanks to his five-year-old daughter, Faith. On Nov. 19, Faith was at her Dallas-area preschool listening to teachers talk about Thanksgiving and the roles played by the Pilgrims and Indians. Faith piped up and told the teachers, “My dad is going to the Indians.” A couple of hours after Murphy confirmed the news to teachers and some parents when he picked up Faith at school, word of the signing appeared on Twitter.
Feel the beet Catcher Yan Gomes had a career day on May 20 as he went 3-for-4 with four RBIs and a walk-off 10th-inning homer against Seattle. Asked what he credited his performance to, Gomes said, “I drank a bottle of beet juice before the game.”
Ying and yang The Indians went 4–15 against Detroit last season and 17–2 against the White Sox. They must do better against the defending Central champs.
Is Brody home? On June 4 a small amount of marijuana was delivered to the residence of Chris Perez, the Indians’ former closer, in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River. Police and drug enforcement agents followed the package and arrested Perez and his wife, Melanie, on misdemeanor drug charges. The packages were addressed to Brody Baum, the Perez’s dog. Baum is Melanie Perez’s maiden name.
Help me In the early morning of Sept. 27, Scott Kazmir was returning to his Minneapolis hotel room when his elevator got stuck on the 27th floor. Kazmir called Mike Seghi, director of team travel, who alerted the hotel and fire department, but it took them an hour-and-a-half to get Kazmir free. He didn’t enjoy the wait. “I sat down, fetal position pretty much,” said Kazmir. “I was just sitting in the corner rocking.” On Sept. 28, Kazmir struck out 11 in six innings in a 5–1 victory over the Twins. “It was nice being on the mound in all that wide open space,” he said.
During their first 50 seasons in Minnesota, the Twins had a total of two seasons with 95-plus losses: 1982 and ’99. After averaging 97 losses the past three seasons, fans were demanding change, but it didn’t come in the form of a managerial firing. That hasn’t happened for this franchise since Ray Miller gave way to Tom Kelly with 23 games left in the 1986 season. Ron Gardenhire returns for a 13th season at the helm, and this time his trusted pitching coach, Rick Anderson, will have some talent in the rotation. Whether it leads to a quick turnaround remains to be seen, but the days of “Pitch to Contact” appear over. Meanwhile, for all their starting pitching woes, the Twins’ offense posted the third-most strikeouts in history and finished with just 614 runs in 2013. That was the lowest run total in any full season for the Twins since 1968, the year before the pitcher’s mound was lowered.
The Twins, who rank last in the majors in rotation ERA over the last three seasons, threw some money at the problem. First, they signed workhorse righthander Ricky Nolasco to a four-year, $49 million deal that ranks as the richest the Twins have ever given in free agency. Of the 31 active pitchers with more than 1,000 innings since the start of 2008, Nolasco ranks third in fewest walks per nine innings (2.0). Next, they reeled in former Yankees mega-prospect Phil Hughes for $24 million over three years. Hughes had fallen on hard times in New York, but if his troublesome back holds up, he is primed for a return to prominence. As much as the fans wanted them to clean house, the Twins couldn’t bring themselves to cut righthander Mike Pelfrey loose after his stabilization year post-Tommy John surgery. They handed him a two-year, $11 million deal that could grow to $14.5 million if he hits all his incentive targets. Add it up, and the Twins guaranteed $84 million to three righthanders in hopes of climbing back to respectability sooner than expected. Workaday righthander Kevin Correia returns as well, but the fifth slot in the rotation is up for grabs. Ideally at some point in 2014, top pitching prospect Alex Meyer will be recalled from Triple-A Rochester and thrust into the rotation for years to come. For now, however, it will be a battle among lefties Scott Diamond and Kris Johnson and righties Kyle Gibson, Samuel Deduno and Vance Worley.
As bad as the Twins’ rotation was in 2013, the bullpen was pretty solid. First-time All-Star Glen Perkins, the closer, continued to nail down 90 percent of his save chances. He’s signed through 2015 with a club option for 2016, so if the Twins can just get him the ball with a few more leads, the victory total should climb. Veteran setup man Jared Burton struggled at times with command issues, but journeyman Casey Fien stepped in to help carry the burden of the eighth inning. Former independent leaguer Caleb Thielbar roared past Brian Duensing to claim top situational lefty honors. Failed starter Anthony Swarzak settled nicely into his long relief role and led all major-league pitchers in relief innings. Rule 5 pickup Ryan Pressly came flying out of the gates but scuffled at times over the final three months. He could face a challenge from towering righty Michael Tonkin.
Failed 2012 shortstop Brian Dozier overcame a slow first half and blossomed into a power-hitting second baseman over the final three months. Dozier needs to improve his on-base abilities if he wants to stay near the top of the lineup, but he throws his body around on defense and seems to be one of the club’s few unquestioned positional building blocks. He also works well with shortstop Pedro Florimon, the deceptively strong defender who ranked behind only Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons in defensive runs saved at the position in 2013. The switch-hitting Florimon still needs work with the bat, but he’s wiry strong and still has enough upside at age 27 for the Twins to stick with him for at least another year.
The timing couldn’t have been more convenient. Just as the Twins were getting set to trade former American League Most Valuable Player Justin Morneau to Pittsburgh, Joe Mauer was suffering the serious concussion that ultimately caused him to give up catching for good in November. Mauer, 30, has made 54 starts at first base over the past three seasons and should have no trouble making the transition. Less wear and tear also could boost his offensive production, not that he needs too much work in that area anyway. Versatile Trevor Plouffe returns at third base, but most believe it’s only a matter of time before he’s on the move again, this time to make way for 20-year-old slugger Miguel Sano. Issues in his throwing elbow have slowed Sano’s progress a bit, but he could start knocking on the door with a strong first half in the minors.
Defense could again be a concern unless former first-rounder Aaron Hicks can re-assert himself and win a spring battle with Alex Presley. The Twins are lumbering at the corners with Josh Willingham in left and bat-first slugger Oswaldo Arcia in right. Presley is slightly above average as a defender, but he needs to prove he can get on base against major-league pitching and use his speed more productively as a base-stealer. Willingham is coming off a frustrating season interrupted by cleanup surgery on his left knee. This is the final year of a three-year, $21 million deal that had been the largest the Twins ever granted to an outside free agent. The streaky Arcia struggles to hit lefties, but his upside and potential importance are obvious, especially for a power-challenged lineup.
Rookie Josmil Pinto is the first option after a breakout season in 2013, including a highly productive September audition in the majors. However, his defensive limitations and nagging issues in his throwing shoulder caused the Twins to dump Ryan “No Mitt” Doumit on Atlanta and use the savings to sign veteran Kurt Suzuki as insurance. Now it appears the club is cashing in on the insurance and committed to going with Suzuki as the regular. Suzuki’s power and throwing numbers have dropped off, but he can still handle a pitching staff and blocks balls with the best of them. The most likely scenario is that Pinto will be sent back to Triple-A for more seasoning, but the hard-working Venezuelan should return by midseason. Either journeyman Eric Fryer or versatile Chris Herrmann will serve as Suzuki’s backup until then.
Former Twins standout Jason Kubel was brought back on a minor-league deal that could pay him up to $3 million if he reclaims his former hitting prowess. Kubel’s brother-in-law is Tonkin, the hard-throwing relief prospect for the Twins. With Mauer’s move to first, former first-rounder Chris Parmelee and indy-league survivor Chris Colabello must battle for playing time. Eduardo Escobar is an energy guy with a better glove than you think at shortstop. Another ex-Twin, Jason Bartlett, was brought back on a minor-league deal as well after missing the past season-and-a-half with knee issues.
Twins president Dave St. Peter proudly calls Terry Ryan “the most disciplined general manager in the game,” a title that remains even after the targeted spending of this offseason. Organizational stability is of vital importance to the Pohlad family, a belief shown once more by the decision to give Gardenhire a two-year extension coming off 291 combined losses the past three seasons. Ryan, 60, essentially has a lifetime contract after building the clubs that reeled off six American League Central titles in nine seasons from 2002-10. The highly respected GM has brought back trusted scouting associates such as Wayne Krivsky and Larry Corrigan since returning to the role in November 2011.
After bolstering their rotation, the Twins are closer to competing again in the American League Central but recognize that their true return to prominence won’t come until top-shelf prospects such as Byron Buxton, Sano and Meyer begin to arrive. A frustrated fan base has filled more seats than you might expect at well-regarded Target Field, but they will need to see another winning product before too long. What’s more, Mauer’s prime years are being wasted.
CF Alex Presley (L)
Has a career .377 OBP in 1,242 Class AAA plate appearances, but just a .304 OBP in the majors.
2B Brian Dozier (R)
His 18 homers broke Tim Teufel’s 29-year-old franchise mark for most homers by a Twins second baseman.
1B Joe Mauer (L)
His career .323 average leads all active players by nearly two full points. Albert Pujols is second.
LF Josh Willingham (R)
Combined on-base/slugging percentage of .709 was lowest of his career when playing 13 or more games.
DH Jason Kubel (L)
Before falling off in 2013, he had posted adjusted OPS between 105 and 137 for six straight seasons.
3B Trevor Plouffe (R)
His WAR (per Baseball Reference) nearly doubled (to 1.9) despite seeing homer total drop from 24 to 14.
RF Oswaldo Arcia (L)
Streaky slugger torched Oakland and the White Sox for combined eight (four apiece) of his 14 rookie homers.
C Kurt Suzuki (R)
Hit 11 homers combined past two seasons after averaging 14 from 2009-11 with Oakland.
SS Pedro Florimon (S)
Trailed only Braves Gold Glover Andrelton Simmons for Defensive Runs Saved (12) among shortstops.
UT Eduardo Escobar (S)
Showed league-average range at shortstop last season but was poorly rated defensively at third.
OF Darin Mastroianni (L)
Surgery on his left ankle limited him to 30 games in 2013, but he can handle all three outfield spots.
INF Jason Bartlett (R)
Hasn’t played since May 2012 but says his knee is fully recovered.
C Josmil Pinto (R)
Posted an adjusted OPS of 165 in dazzling 21-game September audition.
RH Ricky Nolasco
Has thrown more than 1,151 innings over the past six seasons, 24th in MLB.
RH Phil Hughes
Has gone 34–21 over past two even-numbered seasons, 9–19 in past two odd years.
RH Kevin Correia
ERA and adjusted ERA have dropped three straight years even as innings have climbed.
RH Mike Pelfrey
Fielding Independent stats were more encouraging than his 5.79 home ERA.
LH Scott Diamond
His 3.57 K/9 rate ranked fourth-worst out of 496 pitchers with at least 20 innings.
LH Glen Perkins (Closer)
First-time All-Star had only four save chances over the final 25 games.
RH Jared Burton
WHIP spiked by 37 percent to 1.258 after career year in 2012.
RH Casey Fien
Had a 1.016 WHIP with 73 strikeouts in 62.0 innings pitched last season.
LH Caleb Thielbar
Held left-handed hitters to .482 OPS, among the best for any situational lefty.
LH Brian Duensing
Lefties hit 40 points higher (.303) against him than right-handed hitters in similar number of chances.
RH Anthony Swarzak
Long reliever’s WAR (1.7) per Baseball Reference trailed only Perkins on the Twins.
RH Ryan Pressly
Rule 5 pick stuck all year but struggled to 5.59 ERA after mid-June (28 outings).
2013 Top Draft Pick
Kohl Stewart, RHP
A star quarterback from Houston, Stewart passed up a chance to follow Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. The Twins took Stewart fourth overall and signed him for a $4,544,400 bonus. A Type 1 diabetic, Stewart missed close to three weeks in the Gulf Coast League after cutting his foot on a seashell. He was shut down for the final two weeks of the Appalachian League season due to shoulder soreness and was kept off the mound at instructional league, but he should be fine for spring training. Stewart’s fastball touches 96 mph with above-average life and command. He puts hitters away with a mid-80s power slider. His curve and change are improving, meaning he could brandish four above-average big-league pitches.
CF Byron Buxton (20)
Blessed with all five tools, the No. 2 overall pick blew through Class A in his first full pro season and swept Minor League Player of the Year honors.
RHP Kyle Gibson (26)
Taken three spots before Mike Trout, Gibson also had to overcome Tommy John surgery en route to 10 uneven big-league starts (6.53 ERA) last season.
3B Miguel Sano (20)
The Dominican super prospect pounded 35 combined homers last season at Class A and AA.
RHP Alex Meyer (24)
A shoulder strain cost him 10 weeks last season, but he was hitting 100 mph again in the Arizona Fall League.
2B Eddie Rosario (22)
The former fourth-rounder was suspended 50 games after testing positive for a drug of abuse for the second time.
RHP Jose Berrios (19)
The highest-drafted pitcher from Puerto Rico has a fastball that touches 95 mph, but he struggled with his command in the Midwest League.
LHP Lewis Thorpe (18)
Used a 95-mph fastball to dominate Team USA at the 18U World Championships in Taiwan.
Beyond the Box Score
Franchise player Even while missing the final 39 games after suffering a concussion on Aug. 19, Joe Mauer still finished second in the American League with a .324 batting average. His .404 on-base percentage ranked third in the league. The Twins went 49–61 (.445) with Mauer in the starting lineup and 17–35 (.327) without him. Good thing they have him signed through 2018 at $23 million per season ($115 million total).
Escape from New York Phil Hughes, a former 18- and 16-game winner, had little trouble handling the pressures of New York. A bigger issue for the 27-year-old righthander was his former workplace, Yankee Stadium. While going 4–14 in 2013, Hughes posted a 6.32 home ERA that ranked fourth-worst among the 184 pitchers to work at least 40 home innings. On the road, his 3.88 ERA ranked 78th out of 165 pitchers with at least 40 innings. Hughes’ home OPS allowed was .909 compared to .735 on the road. To put it another way, that was the difference between the OPS of National League MVP Andrew McCutchen (.911) and ex-Twins first baseman Justin Morneau (.734).
Short list In bringing back Ron Gardenhire after three straight 90-loss seasons, the Twins hope to repeat history as well as buck it. Of the past eight managers brought back after three straight 90-loss seasons since World War II — according to Jacob Pomrenke of the Society for American Baseball Research — just one has ever managed that team to another winning record: Tom Kelly. Gardenhire’s predecessor and mentor followed four straight 90-loss seasons (1997-2000) with an 85–77 record and a second-place finish in 2001 before retiring at age 51.
Back for more Ricky Nolasco’s only previous career start at Target Field came last April 23 in the nightcap of a day-night doubleheader necessitated by a snowout the previous day. Originally scheduled to pitch the afternoon game, Nolasco switched places at the last minute at the insistence of Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who didn’t want rookie phenom Jose Fernandez pitching in extreme cold. It was 42 degrees at first pitch for the second game, which Nolasco won after allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits and a walk over five innings.
Over the winter, the Tigers underwent the type of overhaul befitting a disappointing loser, not a 93-win division champ that came within two wins of a second straight World Series berth. They switched managers, traded their cleanup hitter, jettisoned their starting shortstop and swapped a front-line starting pitcher for a trio of younger players. Not every move made sense on its own (the return for righthander Doug Fister seemed egregiously light), but taken as a whole, the Tigers got younger, more athletic and more versatile — traits that could serve them well in 2014, when they should again be favorites in the AL Central. When your roster includes the best hitter in the game (Miguel Cabrera) and two of the last three AL Cy Young winners (Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer), you have a very good head start.
The Tigers, looking to shed a starting pitcher for some usable pieces and payroll flexibility, may have preferred to move righthander Rick Porcello, but everyone else wanted Fister. And so, it was Fister who was sent to Washington for two young lefty pitchers and a utility infielder. Hard as it was to say goodbye to a pitcher who had won 32 games in two-plus years in Detroit — plus three more in the postseason — the Tigers have the pieces to make fans forget Fister, as long as things go according to plan. This is still a formidable rotation, headed by Scherzer and Verlander, and with Anibal Sanchez and Porcello slotting in as Nos. 3 and 4. At the back end, the trade of Fister gives young lefty Drew Smyly, whom the organization is very high on, the chance to move from the bullpen to the rotation as the fifth starter.
The loss of Joaquin Benoit to free agency and the signing of veteran Joe Nathan to a two-year deal means the Tigers will be sporting their fourth closer in three years in 2014. Nathan may be 39 now, but he is coming off a resurgent season that saw him post career bests in WHIP (0.897) and home run rate (0.3 per nine innings). Flamethrowing phenom Bruce Rondon will be back in the eighth inning role, and while Smyly’s move to the rotation will cost the bullpen its top lefty from 2013, the Tigers hope Ian Krol, acquired in the Fister trade, can handle that role. Veteran Phil Coke and 25-year-old Jose Alvarez present additional options from the left side. And on the right side, free-agent signee Joba Chamberlain, returning from elbow surgery, is an intriguing addition, joining Rondon, veteran Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen.
The Tigers are basically starting over here, after letting double-play combo Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta walk away via free agency and replacing them with Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias. The former, a three-time All-Star in Texas, was acquired in November in the blockbuster Prince Fielder trade, while the latter won the Tigers’ trust with his excellent fill-in work during Peralta’s 50-game PED suspension in 2013. Perhaps most important, the Tigers got a combined nine years younger up the middle with these moves, and both Kinsler and Iglesias are better defenders than the men they replaced — which should go over well with the Tigers’ pitching staff.
The combination of Cabrera and Fielder sounded great in theory when the Tigers added the latter via a nine-year megacontract in January 2012. But in reality, the lack of defensive range at the corners was difficult to overcome, especially when Fielder’s power fell off a cliff in 2013 (a career-low .457 slugging percentage). By trading Fielder over the winter, the Tigers allowed Cabrera to move back to first base, his natural position, while opening third base for top prospect Nick Castellanos. The rising star, just 22, completed his minor-league apprenticeship with a .276/.343/.450 season at Triple-A Toledo in 2013. Together, the Castellanos/Cabrera combo at the corners should be significantly better defensively than the Cabrera/Fielder combo it replaces.
The Tigers’ plan to return the same outfield they used in 2013 was derailed by Andy Dirks’ back injury, which led to surgery. He’ll be out until June. Supersub Don Kelly and speedster Rajai Davis will share the duty until Dirks in healthy enough to play everyday. Austin Jackson is still in center and veteran Torii Hunter in right. Of immediate concern is stopping Jackson’s offensive slide, which saw his OPS suffer a 100-point fall in 2013 over the year before. At his best, Jackson is a top-flight leadoff man. But he hasn’t been at his best in while. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jackson batting fifth with Kinsler leading off. Meantime, like clockwork, you can put Hunter down for his usual .300 batting average, 15-to-20 homers and above-average defense in right field.
Since his spectacular 2011 breakthrough (.295/.389/.506), Alex Avila has seen his OPS fall nearly 200 points. Now, at 27, he is best described as a decent-hitting catcher, good for a dozen homers or so and a respectable .700 OPS. Avila’s real value, though, is behind the plate, where he has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the best game-callers in baseball. Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez all saw their ERAs rise by a half-run or better whenever someone other than Avila caught them in 2013. He may never have another year at the plate like he did in 2011, but the Tigers don’t necessarily need that.
Victor Martinez, now two years removed from the knee injury that cost him all of 2012, returns as the Tigers’ primary DH and occasional spot-starter at first base and catcher. He is now Cabrera’s personal protector. The team made solidifying its bench a major part of their offseason plan, and the additions of Davis (as a fourth outfielder or possibly the right-handed half of a platoon in left field) and Steve Lombardozzi (as a utility infielder) have accomplished that mission. One other key: Davis can serve as a late-inning pinch-runner, something they sure could have used in the 2013 postseason. These additions also should make the Tigers less reliant on Kelly — who remains useful, but in limited quantities. Because Lombardozzi isn’t a great option to back up at shortstop, the Tigers could also give infielder Hernan Perez a roster spot. At backup catcher, the Tigers appear poised to go with organizational man Bryan Holaday, after Brayan Pena was allowed to walk via free agency.
The Jim Leyland/Dave Dombrowski duo produced four playoff berths, three division championships and two American League pennants in eight years together in Detroit, and while the lack of a World Series title will taint that legacy in some minds, there were few GM/manager combinations in this generation that worked better together or produced more success. While Leyland retired, Dombrowski remains — at least for now. (He is considered to be a candidate to replace Bud Selig as commissioner.) In Brad Ausmus, the Tigers have a young and highly inexperienced manager, but one for whom communication appears to be a strong suit. Ausmus has a long way to go to match Leyland’s 1,769 career wins, but even Leyland had to start somewhere.
The Tigers underwent a lot of change for a team with such a winning pedigree — not all of it with a win-now mantra in mind. But the goal was to remain a World Series contender while keeping one eye pointed towards the future. It will be difficult for them, in the short term, to replicate Fielder’s power, Fister’s consistency and Leyland’s grizzled brilliance. But they also got better in some small (and not-so-small) ways, most notably the improved infield defense and the increased versatility of their bench. In the AL Central, the Indians made a surprising run at the Tigers’ dominance in 2013 and figure to be right there again in 2014, along with the emerging Royals. The Tigers’ ability to hold them off for another year will probably depend on the health of those horses at the front of their rotation and the big fella at first base.
CF Austin Jackson (R)
With Ian Kinsler also capable of leading off, Jackson needs to produce to keep spot.
2B Ian Kinsler (R)
Career .349 on-base percentage will play well at top of Tigers’ lineup.
1B Miguel Cabrera (R)
Two-time defending AL MVP is best right-handed hitter in the game.
DH Victor Martinez (S)
Cleanup spot is key because of protection for Cabrera; was mostly Prince Fielder in ’13.
RF Torii Hunter (R)
Batted primarily in No. 2 spot in ’13, but can be run-producer further down.
C Alex Avila (L)
Now three years removed from career year in ’11, but he’s still a capable hitter.
LF Don Kelly (L)
Jim Leyland favorite can play all three outfield spots, plus first, second and third.
3B Nick Castellanos (R)
Tigers think he’s ready to play every day; Fielder trade opened up third-base spot.
SS Jose Iglesias (R)
Filled in admirably for Jhonny Peralta in ’13; now gets the everyday job.
INF Steve Lombardozzi (S)
Versatile infielder can hit from both sides and also play some left field.
OF Rajai Davis (R )
Could start in left field against lefties, and should have great value as pinch-runner.
OF Ezequiel Carrera (L)
Played everyday for Indians during last two months of 2012 hitting a respectable .272.
C Bryan Holaday (R)
Has only 46 plate appearances in big leagues, but played well in spot duty.
RH Max Scherzer
Moved from front-line starter to true ace with Cy Young season in ’13.
RH Justin Verlander
Wins, innings, strikeouts, ERA+ were all five-year lows for veteran ace.
RH Anibal Sanchez
Had career year in first full season with the Tigers; fourth in Cy Young voting.
RH Rick Porcello
In fifth big-league season, had career-bests in WHIP and K rate.
LH Drew Smyly
Tigers hope his swing-and-miss stuff as reliever in ’13 translates to rotation.
RH Joe Nathan (Closer)
Four years removed from elbow surgery, appears to have regained stuff.
RH Bruce Rondon
Hard-throwing youngster will close someday, but not in ’14.
LH Ian Krol
Part of Doug Fister trade, he will try to reprise Smyly’s role as lefty setup man.
RH Al Alburquerque
Struggled for consistency in ’13, but has big arm and misses bats.
RH Joba Chamberlain
Former Yankees phenom gets new chance in new organization.
LH Phil Coke
Veteran swingman had an awful ’13 — career-high 1.670 WHIP — but he’s valuable when on his game.
RH Luke Putkonen
Performed well in sixth- and seventh-inning roles in spot duty in ’13.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Jonathon Crawford, RHP
After not having first-round draft picks in 2011 or 2012, having the 20th overall pick in 2013 felt like a luxury, and the Tigers made a relatively safe pick by choosing Crawford, a righthander out of the University of Florida. While Crawford doesn’t have enormous upside, he projects as a No. 3 starter in the big leagues and could get there relatively quickly. He possesses a fastball that touches 95 mph, but his best pitch is probably his slider, which he throws in the mid-80s and can throw in any count. He had a successful pro debut in 2013, posting a 1.89 ERA in eight starts in the short-season New York-Penn League, and could start 2014 in Low-A ball. It’s not out of the question that he could make the big leagues in 2015.
RHP Jake Thompson (20)
Strong showing in Low-A (3.13 ERA, 9.8 K/9 IP) and new curveball made 2013 a solid year for this second-round pick.
C James McCann (23)
Made big strides at plate (.277/.328/.404) and was rewarded with spot on Futures Game roster. Likely to start in Class AAA but could earn a roster spot in bigs at some point.
3B Nick Castellanos (22)
Organization’s top prospect hit his way to big leagues in 2013, gets everyday third-base job in 2014 thanks to Miguel Cabrera’s move to first.
LHP Robbie Ray (22)
Centerpiece of the Tigers’ haul from Nationals in Doug Fister trade; has front-line-starter upside.
OF Steven Moya (22)
Massive (6'6", 230 pounds) specimen has top-flight power, but struggled with strike zone at High-A, whiffing 106 times in 388 plate appearances.
SS Eugenio Suarez (22)
Took step forward with strong showing at Double-A, but projects as more of a utility type in majors.
2B Devon Travis (23)
Great athlete, emerged as prospect during strong 2013 (.351/.418/.518, 22 steals in Class A).
RHP Corey Knebel (22)
The former University of Texas closer took the Midwest League (Low-A) by storm last summer. He held opponents to a .133 average and whiffed 41 over 31 innings.
Beyond the Box Score
Health watch Miguel Cabrera’s health will continue to be a major concern for the Tigers. Though he played in 148 games in 2013, it was the fewest since his rookie season of 2003, as he dealt with nagging injuries to his hip, back, groin and abdominal wall. He underwent surgery after the ALCS to repair a sports hernia and is expected to be ready for spring training. But he’ll be 31 in April, and for a player with his size, any minor problem can quickly become a major one.
Solid fit Rajai Davis was the perfect addition as an extra outfielder, given his ability to hit lefties (.294/.354/.425 for his career). He will likely wind up in a platoon with Andy Dirks in left field, given the latter’s struggles against lefties (.234/.306/.325 last season).
Planning ahead Part of the Tigers’ motivation for their big offseason moves (the trades of Prince Fielder and Doug Fister) was to gain some payroll flexibility, in anticipation of the looming contract battles with Cabrera and Max Scherzer, both of whom could become free agents after the 2015 season. Including the $30 million they paid to Texas, the Tigers saved about $76 million in the Fielder trade alone.
Bullpen woes The Tigers’ bullpen issues in 2013 were laid bare in the postseason, when, in 11 total games, they gave up 18 runs after the sixth inning — including 12 to the Red Sox in the six-game ALCS, essentially costing them a World Series berth. The Tigers initially targeted Brian Wilson as a closer candidate but were rebuffed and turned their attention to Joe Nathan, whom they eventually signed to a two-year deal.
Veteran closer Can Nathan fix the Tigers’ ninth-inning problems? He did have an excellent year in 2013, but that was partly attributable to a difficult-to-sustain .228 BABIP. Few closers in history have had success at such an advanced age (39). In fact, since 2000, only three pitchers — Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Todd Jones — have finished 50 or more games at age 39 or older.
Questionable deal Many industry observers ripped the Tigers for the Fister trade, arguing that they didn’t get enough in return for a pitcher whom they perhaps undervalued. Indeed, as measured by fWAR, Fister was the ninth-most valuable pitcher in the game from 2011-13, just behind David Price and just ahead of Cole Hamels.
Rebuild and restructure are words the Chicago White Sox have preferred to avoid for decades, primarily because that has not been the game plan. They were a Go For It franchise. Maybe these two words fit better for the Sox strategy for 2014 — overdue overhaul. The message was pretty clear long before the Sox finished with 99 defeats and went 26–50 inside the AL Central. General manager Rick Hahn moved briskly to shed payroll, dealing Jake Peavy and Alex Rios in July, and then got more determined to build a younger, more athletic team during the offseason. It’s unlikely to translate into a 2014 contender, but if the young players Hahn collected from the Tigers (Avisail Garcia), Diamondbacks (Adam Eaton, Matt Davidson), Rangers (Leury Garcia) and Cuba (Jose Abreu) deliver, then the White Sox already have the young pitching to become factors in the AL Central soon.
There is a reason Chris Sale finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting with a losing record (11–14). Sale averaged better than a strikeout per inning and limited opposing hitters to a .230 average. He’s the most dominant lefthander in a rotation that will feature three lefties — and White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper is convinced that Sale, 25, is the best southpaw in the league. Sale has pitched in consecutive All-Star games, winning the 2013 game while pitching two hitless innings. The White Sox lefthander who is not as well known is the staff’s second starter — Jose Quintana. He pitched 200 innings, 64 more than his rookie season, but finished 9–7 because Sox hitters didn’t do their part. He mixes four pitches well, walking less than two batters per start. The top rotations excel at spots three, four and five, and that’s where the White Sox have work to do. John Danks, another lefty, leads the rotation on payday ($14.25 million) but is working to regain velocity after 2012 shoulder surgery. Although Danks recovered to make 22 starts, he allowed an alarming 27 home runs in 138.1 innings and didn’t match his pre-surgery strikeout ratio. If his velocity does not improve, his control must. The final two spots opened with the trades of Peavy (Red Sox) and Hector Santiago (Angels). Erik Johnson is a durable righthander who dominated the Southern League and also excelled in the International League before getting five solid September starts. Andre Rienzo was actually promoted ahead of Johnson. He throws harder with less command. That pair and former Royal Felipe Paulino, on the mend from 2012 elbow surgery, are the top righthanders. The White Sox signed former Giant Eric Surkamp, which means they are considering a four-lefty rotation.
The Sox sent Addison Reed and all 40 of the team’s saves to Arizona, but Cooper never worries about finding a closer. He’ll remind you that the 2005 World Series champs used three. Nate Jones is likely to move his triple-digit fastball from the eighth inning to the ninth. But if he’s not ready for prime time, veterans Matt Lindstrom and Ronald Belisario have pitched in the ninth inning. The Sox have two other young powerful right-handed arms in Daniel Webb and Jake Petricka. Cooper would love to see Mitchell Boggs rediscover his command that allowed him to collect 34 holds and strand 83 percent of inherited runners for the Cardinals in 2012. Manager Robin Ventura likes to have left-handed specialists, so the Sox acquired Scott Downs. Donnie Veal has the edge for the second spot, but if his control disappears, watch for rookie Charlie Leesman.
Shortstop Alexei Ramirez delivered the strangest season of his six-year career, stealing a career-high 30 bases while hitting a career-low six home runs and making a career-worst 22 errors. The Sox need more pop and reliability. Second baseman Gordon Beckham started fast and then suffered a fractured hamate bone. He failed to hit with power and did not deliver on Gold Glove predictions, either. If the Sox deal either veteran at some point this season, they will have to rely on a fading Jeff Keppinger or rookies Luery Garcia or Marcus Semien.
The corners are not as settled as the middle. Paul Konerko’s 15-season reign as the team’s first baseman will end as he moves to a part-time role. The Sox expect Abreu, a 27-year-old free agent from Cuba, to replace Konerko’s middle-of-the-order power. His next big-league game will be his first professional game in the U.S. There is also a plan for third base, but the transition might not be as swift. Davidson, the MVP of the Futures Game, should be the guy by midseason, but he might not be ready in April, so look for Conor Gillaspie (lefty) and Keppinger (righty) to share the spot in a strict platoon.
Hahn was not thrilled with much from his outfield last season — hitting, baserunning, catching the ball, thinking the game. So he has started almost completely fresh. Avisail Garcia was a prize in the Tigers’ system, and the Sox expect him to grow into a 25-homer, 100-RBI middle of the order stud who will play an All-Star right field. In a perfect world, Garcia also steals 20 bases. The expectations for center fielder Eaton are different, but equally high. Hahn sees an on-base machine who will take walks and pepper the gaps. Eaton’s arrival moves Alejandro De Aza into a left-field platoon with Dayan Viciedo. De Aza’s power spiked last season with 17 home runs, but he struck out 147 times and was repeatedly thrown out on the bases. Viciedo’s power took a vacation. He slipped from 25 home runs to 14 while driving in 56 and also making fielding mistakes. The Sox expected more.
Hahn has work to do here if Tyler Flowers and Josh Phegley struggle again. Flowers failed to hit and lost the spot to Phegley in July and then underwent shoulder surgery in August. Phegley started fast, hitting three home runs in his first five games. But pitchers took advantage of his aggressiveness. He hit .206 with five walks in 204 at-bats. Neither was great defensively; the Sox were second in the AL with 21 passed balls. Adrian Nieto, a 24-year-old switch-hitter is a remote possibility this season. He spent last year in Single-A.
Can a team win with two first basemen/designated hitters on its bench? The White Sox will find out, because Konerko’s move to part-time player means he is likely to share the DH role with Adam Dunn, a free agent in 2015. With three guys (add Abreu) who can only play first base, the Sox will need flexibility from their other reserves. That’s good news for Leury Garcia, a swift middle infielder who can also play third and the outfield. Gillaspie can also play first and Keppinger can play across the infield. Jordan Danks could win the 25th spot because of his left-handed bat.
Ventura learned the realities of managing last summer. In 2012, he was calm and consistent. When the White Sox nearly won the division, he was credited with transferring those qualities to his players. In 2013, Ventura was calm and consistent. When the White Sox disappeared, he was blamed for not stirring any energy within the group. Ventura remains perplexed by the team’s defensive meltdowns. For a team with solid starting pitching and offensive issues, Ventura knows that fixing the defense must be a spring training priority. He and Hahn are working to address another issue — a smarter approach to hitting. The Sox ranked last in the AL in walks and next-to-last in on-base-percentage. Hitting coach Jeff Manto was fired with one game left in the season, replaced by Todd Steverson. He arrives from Oakland where he served as the minor-league hitting instructor for an organization that preaches on-base percentage daily.
After you lose 99 games, the first goal has to be .500 baseball, not contention. That is only realistic for this team if the starting pitching, led by Sale, Quintana and Danks, performs like one of the best units in the AL. The bullpen has a nice mix of young power arms and veterans but lacks a proven closer. But offense and defense are the issues. With their reliance on pitching, the Sox have to catch the ball the way they did in 2012 — and hope that Avisail Garcia, Abreu, Eaton and Davidson begin to form the core that will make this franchise contenders in 2015 and beyond.
CF Adam Eaton (L)
Hit .252 with 17 extra-base hits in 250 at-bats while battling injuries with Diamondbacks.
2B Gordon Beckham (R)
Started fast, but wrist and leg injuries erased his power, limiting him to 24 RBIs and five home runs.
RF Avisail Garcia (R)
Has been compared to his pal, Miguel Cabrera, and showed a nice bat during his stint with the Sox.
DH Adam Dunn (L)
Still the team’s primary power threat (34 homers, 86 RBIs) but those Ks (189) crush too many rallies.
1B Jose Abreu (R)
Signed six-year, $68 million contract thanks to power he flashed for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic.
SS Alexei Ramirez (R)
Sox need him to hit more than six home runs and make fewer than 22 errors while continuing to steal 30 bases.
3B Conor Gillaspie (L)
Hits righties (.261) considerably better than lefties (.159), which makes him a perfect platoon candidate.
C Tyler Flowers (R)
Had first crack at replacing A.J. Pierzynski, but 94 Ks in 256 at-bats (plus eight passed balls) a major red flag.
LF Alejandro De Aza (L)
Making overdue shift from center field and bringing his 48 extra-base hits and 84 runs scored with him.
1B Paul Konerko (R)
Power numbers slipped to 12 home runs and 54 RBIs, but plans to make a rousing farewell tour.
UT Leury Garcia (S)
Can play six positions but will never secure any of them hitting .204 without power.
OF Dayan Viciedo (R)
Sox expected 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, but he gave them 14 and 56 with sub-par defense.
INF Jeff Keppinger (R)
Makes consistent contact but failed to score (38) or drive in (40) nearly enough runs.
C Josh Phegley (R)
Started with three home runs, eight RBIs in his first five games; added one HR and 14 RBIs in final 60 games.
LH Chris Sale
Will be a prime Cy Young contender if he continues to strike out 226 hitters in 214.1 innings with a 3.07 ERA.
LH Jose Quintana
Contender for Mr. Unappreciated finished 9–7 while allowing 188 hits in 200 innings with 164 strikeouts.
LH John Danks
Made determined return from shoulder surgery with drop in velocity that resulted in 28 home runs in 138 IP.
RH Erik Johnson
Looked major-league ready in five September starts, winning three games and striking out 18 in nearly 28 IP.
RH Felipe Paulino
Struggled at two minor-league levels in the Royals organization in first season back from Tommy John.
RH Nate Jones (Closer)
Has shown he can deliver more than a strikeout per inning, getting 89 in 78 last season.
RH Matt Lindstrom
Possible closer because of his ability to generate double plays (15) and keep the ball in the park.
LH Scott Downs
Durable veteran returns for 13th season because of his ability to retire left-handed hitters.
LH Donnie Veal
The Sox loved the 29 strikeouts in 29 innings but worry about the 16 walks.
RH Ronald Belisario
Inconsistent veteran makes his American League debut after striking out 49 in 68 innings with the Dodgers.
RH Daniel Webb
Looked promising during September call-up, striking out 10 in 11.1 innings
2013 Top Draft Pick
Tim Anderson, SS
The White Sox have always been a franchise attracted to players with tools, and they proved that again when they drafted Tim Anderson, a shortstop from East Central Community College in Decatur, Miss., with the 17th overall selection. Anderson grew up playing basketball in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and did not seriously pursue baseball until his junior year, one reason SEC programs did not heavily recruit him. The White Sox hope that he develops as a leadoff hitter who can steal bases. Many scouts evaluated him as the fastest player in the draft, and Anderson showed that speed by stealing 24 bases in 68 games in Low-A ball. He hit .277 with little power and will have to improve his contact rate after striking out 78 times in 267 at-bats. Anderson prefers to play shortstop, but many believe that he’ll have to move to center field.
OF Courtney Hawkins ()
The youngest player in the Carolina League, Hawkins showed power, but struck out in nearly 42 percent of his at bats.
RHP Erik Johnson (24)
Powerful 6'3" righthander struck out 149 across three pro levels and went 3–2 with a 3.25 for the big club in 2013.
3B Matt Davidson (23)
Futures Game MVP launched 17 home runs in Class AAA and three more with the Diamondbacks.
2B/SS Marcus Semien (23)
Southern League MVP showed solid glove and speed while hitting .261 in September call-up.
RHP Chris Beck (23)
The 6’3” righthander walked only three in 28 innings after promotion to Class AA.
2B Micah Johnson (23)
Led the minor leagues with 84 steals while advancing from Low-A to Class AA.
Beyond the Box Score
Face of the franchise The White Sox acquired Paul Konerko from the Reds before the 1999 season, and by 2000 he replaced Frank Thomas as the team’s everyday first baseman. Now he's embarking on a farewell tour. This season, officially his last, Konerko will have three official roles — part-time first baseman, part-time designated hitter and full-time clubhouse sage. Konerko has officially served as the team’s captain since 2006. He says the primary reason he decided to return for his 16th and final season was to serve as a mentor to younger players and re-create the winning culture the Sox lost in 2013.
Cuban ambassador Minnie Minoso’s popularity has never subsided with White Sox faithful — and neither has his legacy. Minoso, who made his debut with the Sox in 1951, was the team’s first Cuban-born player. Now 88, Minoso remains a White Sox ambassador as well as a guy who has helped the franchise become a favored destination of three key Cuban players. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez joined the Sox in 2008. Left fielder Dayan Viciedo followed in 2010. This season the Sox should have a threesome because first baseman Jose Abreu elected to sign with Chicago over other interested franchises.
Latin America's Team Cuba won’t be the only Latin American country with baseball fans trying to track White Sox games. When righthander Andre Rienzo pitched against Cleveland last July 30 he became the first Brazilian-born player to pitch in the major leagues. Rienzo added to his resume by winning his first game against the Royals on Aug. 21. He finished 2–3 and will compete for a spot in the Sox rotation. Don’t forget the folks in Colombia, either. With 15 career wins, Jose Quintana has more victories than any pitcher from that nation.
Forecasting the future Conor Gillaspie is in a battle to keep his job as the White Sox third baseman. He’s not ready to give in. But when the time comes for Gillaspie to try something else, he’ll be ready. Gillaspie is a confirmed weather nerd. He studied meteorology at Wichita State and loves a complex Midwest forecast. “I love blizzards, heavy snow,” Gillaspie says. “I love that stuff. You have to find something you are interested in outside this game just in case.”
This is the year, finally, the Royals believe that everything comes together after an often-tortuous reconstruction project over the last seven-plus years under general manager Dayton Moore. The youthful core showed signs of blossoming last year in compiling a 43–27 record after the All-Star break, which enabled the Royals to play meaningful games in September for the first time in a decade. This offseason saw Moore address the club’s three biggest questions by signing two free agents, pitcher Jason Vargas and second baseman Omar Infante, and acquiring right fielder Norichika Aoki in a trade from Milwaukee. So everything appears in place, but the clock is ticking. Staff ace James Shields, acquired a year ago in a franchise-defining trade that sent outfielder Wil Myers to Tampa Bay, will be a free agent after the 2014 season.
Vargas arrives on a four-year deal for $32 million as the replacement for Ervin Santana, who chose free agency by rejecting a qualifying offer. While Vargas projects as the unit’s No. 2 starter behind Shields, which is where Santana slotted, club officials dismiss that label. They simply want Vargas to make 30 starts, give them 200 innings and give the team a chance to win every time out. In effect, they want him to be a left-handed Jeremy Guthrie, who achieved a career high last season with 15 victories by pitching to contact and using the Royals’ magnificent defense (and the spacious Kauffman Stadium dimensions) to his benefit. Beyond Shields, Vargas and Guthrie, the Royals will hold a spring audition to determine the final two slots. It figures to be a high-quality battle with three of the organization’s prize prospects — Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer — in the mix. Club officials prefer that at least one of them (Duffy is the best bet) breaks camp with the club. Once again the Royals will bring back veteran Bruce Chen. Over the past four seasons, the lefthander is 44-33 (.571). During that time the club has played at a .457 clip, so he must be doing something right. The only other real alternative at this point is Wade Davis, who struggled as a starter, but excelled as a reliever. Another youngster, Chris Dwyer, could also pitch his way into consideration. Duffy, Ventura and Zimmer all have front-of-the-rotation potential. If one of them reaches that level, and Vargas, Guthrie and Chen effectively become the No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 guys, this could be an imposing rotation.
All-Star closer Greg Holland will be hard-pressed to repeat his 2013 success (a 1.21 ERA in 68 games, 47 saves in 50 chances and 103 strikeouts in 67 innings) but, even if he slips from superhuman to stellar, he still provides the bullpen with an air-tight anchor. Beyond Holland, the Royals have an enviable mix of power arms from both sides in righties Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow and lefty Tim Collins; tough side-armers in righthander Louis Coleman and lefty Donnie Joseph, and a number of other guys — such as lefty Francisley Bueno and righty Michael Mariot — who would be prime setup guys on other clubs. And that doesn’t even include Davis, who is likely to be the unit’s top setup reliever. Luke Hochevar held that role at the end of last season, when he fashioned a 1.92 ERA in 58 games. But he went under the knife with Tommy John surgery in early March, so the Royals won’t see him throwing in earnest until this time next season.
Utilityman Emilio Bonifacio blossomed last season when installed as the regular second baseman after arriving in an August trade from Toronto. He batted .285 with a .352 on-base percentage in 42 games while adding a speed element with 16 steals in 18 attempts. He also helped stabilize the lineup by serving as the No. 2 hitter. That seemed to solve a longstanding problem. So what did the Royals do? They upgraded by signing Infante to a four-year deal, with a club option for a fifth year, at $30.25 million. Infante batted .318 last season in Detroit, and his arrival made Bonifacio expendable. Alcides Escobar regressed sharply last year at the plate, falling from a .293/.331/.390 slash to .234/.259/.300, but he remains one of the game’s best defensive shortstops. If Infante and Aoki perform as expected, it probably won’t matter what Escobar hits. But, yes, the Royals are hoping for an offensive rebound.
First baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas are, no pun intended, the two most visible cornerstones of Moore’s effort to rebuild the Royals through the draft. Hosmer appeared to find himself last season after a disappointing sophomore slide in 2012, but Moustakas remains more potential than production. That potential is still considerable, and the Royals likely will continue to show patience in waiting for it to emerge, but that patience isn’t endless. They made a proactive move in December to get Danny Valencia from Baltimore for outfielder David Lough. Valencia batted .304 last season in 52 games, primarily against left-handed pitchers.
An already crowded outfield grew still more crowded — prior to the Lough trade — when the Royals acquired Aoki from the Brewers for lefty swingman Will Smith. Really, though, that deal did much to stabilize the roster and lineup. Aoki becomes the right fielder and leadoff hitter, which enables All-Star left fielder Alex Gordon to shift lower in the lineup, where the Royals need additional pop. Gordon, the No. 2 pick in the 2005 draft, might never be a star, but he should provide 20-plus home runs and 80-plus RBIs on a consistent basis. Oft-injured Lorenzo Cain, when healthy, is one of the game’s top defensive center fielders. Those injury concerns mean the Royals probably will hold onto speedy Jarrod Dyson as a hedge. That puts Justin Maxwell at risk, although he performed well in a platoon role — slugging .505 in 111 plate appearances — after arriving in a July 31 trade from Houston.
Salvy Perez is well on his way to becoming the face of the franchise as an All-Star who, at age 23, combines offensive pop (a .301 career average and growing power) with Gold Glove defensive skills. His contract also might be the most club-friendly in baseball — a combined $5.25 million over the next three seasons with club options totaling for $14.75 million for 2017-19. The only issue, and it’s a major one, is that he’s already missed time for concussions — primarily from taking foul tips off his mask.
Billy Butler drew scads of criticism from Royals’ fans after showing a sharp decline from 2012 and, yet, he still led the club with a .374 on-base percentage and 82 RBIs. The Royals also showed a willingness to trade Butler as they worked to refine their roster; a trade loomed as likely if they had succeeded in signing free-agent Carlos Beltran. A desire to free up the DH role in future years, to keep Perez’s bat in the lineup (for example), probably means Butler’s future with the Royals is limited. Still, he’s a potent bat and, in a go-for-it year, a commodity worth holding onto. The backup catcher figures to be Brett Hayes. If he plays more than a handful of games due to a Perez injury, it will be a problem. That leaves space for three other reserves if, as expected, the Royals go with 12 pitchers. Dyson seems to be a near-lock because of Cain’s injury history. That leaves the final spots likely to go to Valencia and Maxwell.
Moore and his staff loaded up this season for a big roll of the dice because Shields and Aoki are pending free agents. The Royals probably overpaid, at least in terms of years, to sign Vargas and Infante. The hope is that both will be sufficiently productive in the first few years to make that gamble pay off. So, the Royals took some risks, but they needed to do so. This franchise hasn’t tasted the postseason since its 1985 World Series title.
This is the best team, on paper, the Royals have fielded in at least 20 years. It still might not be good enough to chase down Detroit in the American League Central Division, but it should, at minimum, make a real charge at a Wild Card berth.
RF Norichika Aoki (L)
Newcomer provides lineup with true leadoff hitter. He stole 50 bases over last two seasons with the Brewers.
2B Omar Infante (R)
Should fill club’s long-time hole at second base after hitting .318 with the Tigers in 2013.
1B Eric Hosmer (L)
Shows signs of blossoming into a genuine star. Hit .302 with 79 RBIs last season.
DH Billy Butler (R)
Homers dropped from 29 in 2012 to 15 in ’13, but he should benefit from better lineup protection.
LF Alex Gordon (L)
Dropping down aids need for mid-order pop. Has been durable, with 600-plus ABs in three straight seasons.
C Salvy Perez (R)
Only concern, really, is whether Perez — one of the team’s three ’13 All-Stars — avoids concussions.
3B Mike Moustakas (L)
Pivotal year for former top prospect — the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft — whose clock is ticking.
CF Lorenzo Cain (R)
Can he stay healthy? That’s all that matters for one of the game’s elite defensive outfielders.
SS Alcides Escobar (R)
Glove alone makes him a plus, but more bat needed. Dropped to .234 after hitting .293 in ’12.
C Brett Hayes (R)
Fine as a backup who is needed only once a week — as long as Perez is healthy.
OF Justin Maxwell (R)
Last season he hit. 347 when ahead in the count, .210 when even or behind.
3B Danny Valencia (R)
Offers a solid alternative if Moustakas struggles at third. Hit .304 with the Orioles last season.
OF Jarrod Dyson (L)
Speed and defense make Dyson a nice extra outfielder. Stole 34 bases in 2013.
RH James Shields
Proved last year — his first in Kansas City — to be staff leader the Royals had long needed.
LH Jason Vargas
A contact lefty who should benefit from superb defense. On his third team in last three years.
RH Jeremy Guthrie
No reason he can’t repeat last year’s success, when he won a career-high 15 games.
LH Danny Duffy
Former third-round pick has all the tools to be an impact starter.
LH Bruce Chen
The Royals were 9-6 in his 15 starts last season, all coming after July 11.
RH Greg Holland (Closer)
Is there a better closer in the American League? Gave up 40 hits in 67 innings last season.
RH Wade Davis
Got hit hard last season, but the guess is he gets one more chance as a starter.
RH Kelvin Herrera
Rebounded well last year after rough first half. Allowed 15 hits in final 23.1 innings.
LH Tim Collins
When he has command, he dominates. Strikeout rate dipped from 12.0 per 9 IP in ’12 to 8.8 in ’13.
RH Aaron Crow
Royals’ first-round pick in 2009 has the tools, just needs to throw strikes.
RH Louis Coleman
Seems to get overlooked despite 3–0 record, 0.61 ERA in 2013.
LH Donnie Joseph
Third-round pick of the Reds in 2009 could be that situational lefty that all clubs covet.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Hunter Dozier, 3B
It raised eyebrows when the Royals chose Dozier, a shortstop from Stephen F. Austin, with the eighth overall pick when he was generally viewed, at best, as a late first-round talent. By getting Dozier to agree to a below-slot price, the Royals had enough pool money left to grab lefty Sean Manaea — a top college lefthander who dropped due to injury concerns — with the 34th overall pick. Dozier then made the maneuver look masterful with a breakout pro debut that helped short-season Idaho Falls win the Pioneer League crown. Dozier also spent a few weeks at Low-A Lexington, where he shifted positions to accommodate shortstop Raul Adalberto Mondesi, one of the organization’s top prospects. Now, Dozier is a fast-track third baseman who could be ready to challenge for big-league time within two years.
RHP Kyle Zimmer (22)
Turned dominant last year after a small tweak in his delivery seemed to unlock his potential; will get a long look in big-league camp.
OF Bubba Starling (21)
Club officials insist they’re pleased by the progress of this raw-but-toolsy player, but it’s time for him to take a major step forward.
RHP Yordano Ventura (22)
Even if he isn’t the next Pedro Martinez (and he might be), there’s no longer talk of shifting him to bullpen because of diminutive size.
SS Raul Adalberto Mondesi (18)
Scouts continue to rave over his advanced skills and label him a virtual can’t-miss as an impact shortstop.
LHP Sean Manaea (22)
Was a potential No. 1 overall pick last June before dropping due to pending hip surgery; he could be an absolute steal.
OF Jorge Bonifacio (20)
Missed time last year because of a broken hand, but his potential is a big reason the Royals were willing to trade Wil Myers.
RHP Miguel Almonte (20)
Shows advanced stuff and poise; could move quickly after strong first full season of stateside ball.
Beyond the Box Score
All-Star talk The Royals had three players selected last season to the All-Star Game for the first time since 1988. All three took the field in the seventh inning at Citi Field in New York — catcher Salvy Perez, left fielder Alex Gordon and relief pitcher Greg Holland. Further, Perez’s single in the eighth inning marked the first All-Star hit by a Royals player since Bo Jackson went 2-for-4 with a homer and a stolen base in the 1989 All-Star Game at Anaheim, Calif.
Moore extended General manager Dayton Moore received a two-year contract extension in late November, which binds him to the club through the 2016 season. Moore took the post in June 2006 and will, if he remains in place for the full term of his extension, become the longest-serving GM in franchise history.
Gold Standard The Royals had three Gold Glove recipients for the first time in franchise history. Gordon won a third straight award in left field, while Perez and first baseman Eric Hosmer were first-time recipients. The Royals also had two players who were finalists at their position — shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain.
Record Payroll It’s getting harder and harder to cast owner David Glass as a penny-pinching tightwad. The Royals set a franchise record for payroll for the second straight year at an estimated $95 million. The payroll was $38.2 million as recently as 2011.
Revamped staff Manager Ned Yost received a new two-year contract after the season and revamped his staff by adding two ex-managers and one long-time manager from the club’s minor-league system. Former Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu is the new bench and catching coach; former Cubs manager Dale Sveum is the new third-base and infield coach; and Mike Jirschele, who spent the last 11 seasons as the manager at Class AAA Omaha, will fill unspecified duties on the big-league staff.
Extra sauce DH Billy Butler introduced his own brand of barbecue sauce last spring to barbecue-mad Kansas City as a fund-raising project for his Hit-It-A-Ton foundation, which provides food for needy families. Butler also contributes with his bat: a ton of food (roughly $250) for every homer and a half-a-ton of food (roughly $125) for every double.