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They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.

No. 26: Paul Casey

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

Brandel Chamblee's Take

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

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 43
Wins: 0

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

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

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

 

Athlon's 2015 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Billy Horschel, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.

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

 

Rotation

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


Bullpen

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

 

Middle Infield

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

 

Corners

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

 

Outfield

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

 

Catching

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

 

DH/Bench

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

 

Management

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

 

Final Analysis

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

 

2015 Prediction: 2nd in AL Central

 

Projected Lineup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bench

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

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

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

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

 

Rotation

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bullpen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beyond the Box Score

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

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

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

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

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Carlos Rodon, LHP

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

 

Top 10 Prospects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1. Golden State Warriors (46-12)

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

 

2. Atlanta Hawks (47-12)

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

 

3. Memphis Grizzlies (42-16)

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

 

4. Houston Rockets (41-18)

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

 

5. Cleveland Cavaliers (37-24)

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

 

6. Portland Trail Blazers (39-19)

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

 

7. Los Angeles Clippers (40-21)

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

 

8. Oklahoma City Thunder (33-27)

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

 

9. Toronto Raptors (38-22)

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

 

10. Chicago Bulls (37-23)

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

 

11. Dallas Mavericks (40-22)

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

 

12. San Antonio Spurs (36-23)

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

 

13. Washington Wizards (34-26)

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

 

14. Milwaukee Bucks (32-27)

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

 

15. Indiana Pacers (25-34)

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

 

16. Phoenix Suns (31-30)

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

 

17. New Orleans Pelicans (32-28)

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

 

18. Miami Heat (26-33)

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

 

19. Charlotte Hornets (24-33)

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

 

20. Boston Celtics (23-34)

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

 

21. Detroit Pistons (23-36)

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

 

22. Utah Jazz (23-35)

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

 

23. Sacramento Kings (20-37)

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

 

24. Brooklyn Nets (25-33)

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

 

25. Denver Nuggets (20-39)

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

 

26. Orlando Magic (19-42)

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

 

27. Minnesota Timberwolves (13-46)

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

 

28. Philadelphia 76ers (13-47)

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

 

29. Los Angeles Lakers (16-42)

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

 

30. New York Knicks (12-46)

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

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

 

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

 

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

 

 

Angels' Time Running Out?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Seattle Reign

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Houston’s Big Leap?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

- by Jake Rose

Teaser:
American League's Top Storylines to Watch for 2015
Post date: Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2015-fantasy-baseball-rankings-catchers
Body:

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

 

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

 

Rankings Key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Catchers

 

TIER 1

1. Buster Posey, Giants (A)

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

2. Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers

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

 

TIER 2

3. Salvador Perez, Royals

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

4. Devin Mesoraco, Reds

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

5. Yan Gomes, Indians

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

6. Yadier Molina, Cardinals

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

 

TIER 3

7. Russell Martin, Blue Jays

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

8. Matt Wieters, Orioles (F)

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

9. Wilson Ramos, Nationals (B, F)

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

10. Jason Castro, Astros

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

11. Travis d’Arnaud, Mets (B, F)

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

12. Brian McCann, Yankees

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

13. Miguel Montero, Cubs

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

14. Wilin Rosario, Rockies (F)

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

15. Mike Zunino, Mariners

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

 

TIER 4

18. John Jaso, Rays (F)

17. Derek Norris, Padres

16. Stephen Vogt, A’s (F)

19. Francisco Cervelli, Pirates (B)

20. Yasmani Grandal, Dodgers

21. Alex Avila, Tigers (F)

22. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Marlins

23. Tyler Flowers, White Sox

24. Nick Hundley, Rockies

25. Rene Rivera, Rays

 

TIER 5

26. Kurt Suzuki, Twins (E)

27. Josmil Pinto, Twins (C)

28. Chris Iannetta, Angels

29. Robinson Chirinos, Rangers

30. Christian Bethancourt, Braves

31. Blake Swihart, Red Sox (G)

32. Welington Castillo, Cubs (D)

33. Brayan Pena, Reds

34. Ryan Hanigan, Red Sox

35. A.J. Pierzynski, Braves

36. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies

37. Hank Conger, Astros (D)

38. Peter O’Brien, Diamondbacks (G)

39. Christian Vazquez, Red Sox

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

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

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

 

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

 

Rankings Key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Designated Hitters

 

1. Victor Martinez, Tigers (A)

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

 

2. Nelson Cruz, Mariners (E)

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

 

3. David Ortiz, Red Sox (E)

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

 

4. Adam LaRoche, White Sox

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

 

5. Billy Butler, Athletics

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

 

6. Chris Carter, Astros

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

 

7. Kendrys Morales, Royals

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

 

8. Kennys Vargas, Twins

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

 

9. Mitch Moreland, Rangers (F)

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

 

10. Nick Swisher, Indians (F)

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

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

They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.

No. 27: Luke Donald

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

Brandel Chamblee's Take

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

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 41
Wins: 0

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

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

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

 

Athlon's 2015 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Billy Horschel, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 17:11
All taxonomy terms: Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Golf
Path: /golf/tiger-and-phil-end-era
Body:

Is this the end?

 

There are many pressing questions facing golf in 2015 — Can Rory complete the career Grand Slam? Is Michelle Wie for real? Will Ian Poulter’s next Ferrari be red or white? — but the biggest unknown by far is whether the Tiger and Phil era is, in fact, over. Last season marked the first time in nearly two decades that neither Woods nor Mickelson won a professional tournament. Tiger will be 40 in December, and his body has broken under the strain of his obsessive workout routine and a lifetime of grinding on the range. (In fact, he’s been at it for so long his age should probably be measured in dog years.)

 

Woods will arrive at Augusta (we presume) nearly seven calendar years removed from his last major championship victory, a drought that has extended through what should have been the prime of his career. He will be attempting to become the first player ever to win a Masters with four different swings. Tiger ended 2014 at 32nd in the World Ranking, but such is his cult of personality that CBS analyst David Feherty recently said: ”It would surprise me if, by the end of this season, he’s not No. 1 in the world again. The only mistakes I’ve ever made with Tiger Woods are underestimating him. If you think he can’t do that, well, he kind of thinks he can.”

 

Mickelson is an arthritic 44-year-old who looked strangely disinterested for most of the 2014 season. He found a little inspiration at the PGA Championship and could have salvaged his year with a victory, but he looked drained coming down the stretch, bogeying the 70th hole to open the door for McIlroy. Yet Mickelson, like Woods, has towered over the game for so long that we can’t quit him, either. Phil spent the offseason dropping 20 pounds and has rejiggered his early-season schedule to be fresher for Augusta and his continued, quixotic quest to win a U.S. Open. According to Mickelson’s wife, Amy, Phil has not lost the belief that has sustained him through some of the most heart-wrenching defeats of the modern era. “He’s the most positive person in the world,” she says. “He’ll be working on some part of his body that’s been injured, and I can tell he’s uncomfortable, but he’ll say, ’I’m fine. I feel great — best shape of my life.’ The thing is, he tells himself that so much he really believes it.”

 

Do either or both of these proud champions have one last run in them to put an exclamation point on their Hall of Fame careers? The mind says no but the heart can’t resist hoping for a yes.

 

• • •

 

Tiger and Phil grew up in middle-class Southern California suburbia, separated by 100 miles but linked by their talent — both were prodigies from the earliest age. Older by five and a half years, Mickelson loomed over Woods’ early golfing life. “Phil was an icon to us,” says one of Tiger’s friends from junior golf, Chris Riley, who would also go on to a career on the PGA Tour.

 

Woods’s late father Earl always received most of the credit for his son’s competitive spirit, but it was mom Tida who sharpened Tiger’s killer instinct. With her, it was personal. Any player who was as accomplished as the young Tiger was considered not just a competitor but a threat. So as Woods chased Mickelson’s numerous junior records, he was imbued with a certain disdain for a flashy counterpart he barely knew.

Tiger is still Tiger. And Phil is still Phil. Is that enough any more? We'll find out for sure this year.

All these years later Tiger and Phil are still measuring themselves against each other. Woods’s career achievements — 14 major championships and 79 PGA Tour victories — are untouchable, but Tiger is keenly aware that since his last major win (2008 U.S. Open) Phil has nabbed a Masters and a British Open. What hurts just as much is that Mickelson has repeatedly outplayed him in head-to-head matchups, notably the 64-75 thrashing on Sunday at the 2012 AT&T Pebble Beach, which was Mickelson’s 40th career victory. A decade ago, Mickelson had a question he loved to trot out in press conferences: “If Tiger is the best player of all time and I start beating him regularly, what does that make me?” Woods has many motivations to keep pushing for a return to glory, but surely he doesn’t want to be eclipsed by his old rival in the last act of his career.

 

Meanwhile, Mickelson remains motivated by the pursuit of the one thing he seemingly can’t have. His entire 2014 season was reduced to a single tournament: the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where 15 years earlier he had begun his ritualistic heartbreak at the national championship. This year’s venue is Chambers Bay, a quirky neo-links in Tacoma, Wash. Since it’s never hosted a professional tournament, it’s hard to say for sure what kind of player Chambers favors, but it’s a big, rollicking ballpark that will be more generous off the tee than most Open venues and will demand more creativity around the greens. Sounds about right for Mickelson, no?

 

The highlight of the summer will be a return to St. Andrews, where Woods has won two of his three British Opens, in 2000 and ’05. This famous auld sod used to be his private playground, but Tiger long ago stopped being a sure thing there, or anywhere else. Last year he hit rock-bottom, with a serious back injury and related maladies limiting him to seven tournaments, only two of which he lasted for the full 72 holes. In an attempt to regain his old mojo, he has gone back to the future, hiring someone named Chris Como as swing “consultant” to help him refashion his swing into something close to what it was in the halcyon days of his youth. (Woods’ goal has always been to “own” his swing, and thus he prefers the verbiage of the business world — consultant — as opposed to “coach,” which would imply that he actually has something to learn.) At the World Challenge in December 2014, Woods gave the golf world a sneak peek at his action, and the reviews were guardedly optimistic, as he seemed to be swinging with more freedom and conviction.

 

Of course, the story of that week was his shocking chip-yips. Woods chalked up his struggles around the greens to rust, but by all reports he was wedging it beautifully in the practice rounds. The stunning yippiness continued during early-season starts at Phoenix and Torrey Pines, and it was baffling and more than a little sad to watch Woods duff, blade, chunk, skull and chili-dip chip after chip. Woods withdrew midway through the second round at Torrey, citing "deactivated" glutes. This became the butt of endless jokes, which masked a larger problem: Tiger had quit again. Shortly thereafter he announced he was taking a sabbatical to work on his game — and, presumably, his mind — without millions of fans and critics passing judgment. For Woods to cry uncle and flee tournament golf was the most graphic evidence yet that for all the questions about his body, his biggest problems are metaphysical.

 

During his heyday, Woods could hit any shot and he putted better than anybody ever has, but what separated him from everyone else came from his heart and his head. His belief in himself was absolute, and unshakeable. Under pressure he was the clearest thinker and the most resilient. Success begat success. But Woods is a different person now. His sense of self was destroyed after suffering through the most public humiliation of the Internet age. Being between the ropes used to be his sanctuary, but suddenly he was all alone out there, on display for the masses to pass judgment. The bulletproof confidence has been blasted away by repeated defeats large and small.

 

Meanwhile, a new generation has risen, minus the scar tissue that came with the repeated beatings Woods dished out around the turn of the century. Rory McIlroy, a once-in-a-lifetime talent on par with Woods and Mickelson, attacks and overwhelms golf courses with an insouciance that is utterly foreign to his aging rivals. Despite the pyrotechnics of a myth-making victory at the 1997 Masters, Woods always favored precision over power. His game plans became more conservative in the post-hydrant era, as he seemed increasingly afraid of the big miss with his driver. In 2014 his average clubhead speed with the big stick was 115.63 miles per hour. If he had recorded enough attempts to officially qualify for the stat, Woods would have ranked 55th on Tour — right above Mickelson, who was at 115.62. Woods’ diminished power is part of a larger decline in a game that is no longer as well suited for the major championships, with their more exacting conditions. The trajectory of his irons became significantly lower in the Sean Foley years, just as he became shakier over short putts.

 

Woods will never again be the player he was. Even if he can find some form close to that impossible standard, the competition is much stronger than when he was vacuuming up major championship victories. Mickelson used to be the only player who was even close to Woods, talent-wise. Now, the 25-year-old McIlroy is already four-fifths of the way towards Phil’s career total of majors, and he’s only getting better and more confident. Tiger forged his legend at The Masters, winning three of his first six as a pro, but in the last decade he’s won only one more while Mickelson snagged three. And yet neither can still be considered the current King of Augusta — that honorific title goes to Bubba Watson, who has won two of the last three with an unbeatable combination of power and finesse.

 

In 2013, as defending champ, Watson was asked if he was the favorite to win the Green Jacket. He shook his head no and anointed a figure from the past. “He’s still Tiger Woods,” Watson said. And Phil Mickelson is still Phil Mickelson. Is that enough anymore? The 2014 season hinted at an answer. We’ll find out for sure this year.

 

This article appears in the 2015 edition of Athlon Sports Golf annual, on sale now. Order your copy here.

 

 

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 16:41
Path: /nba/james-harden-kicks-lebron%E2%80%99s-groin-mvp-statement-game
Body:

March, the month when football’s fully asleep and baseball is still reaching for the alarm clock, is when the NBA really starts to take off.

 

James Harden seemed to understand that yesterday, delivering a sizziing, MVP-caliber performance as his Houston Rockets beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, 105-103, in a Texas overtime thriller on national television.

 

Through The Beard’s 35-point performance — including eight assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocks — there was a lot of his usual hypnotic power games in the half-court. But Harden, as he has all season, showed an extra amount of swagger in this game, like when he did this to LeBron:

 

And, oh yeah — he also made a little wine when he (accidentally?) kicked James in his grapes:

 

LeBron, for his part, was no scrub. He dropped 37 points and tallied eight of his own assists, to go with three blocks and three steals. But Houston got the win, and the glory, for the day. They also probably got a little ahead of themselves in the P.R. department, and celebrated the victory with this doozy of a tweet:

 

While both players are strong MVP candidates, Harden might have earned himself a lead over Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the pack with this iconic showing. While LeBron is still the best player in the game, no one has done as much for a contending team as Harden has for the Rockets this year. at 41-18, they’re the league’s fourth-best team despite Dwight Howard missing about half the season to injury.

 

A lot of that has to do with a much-improved defense, featuring versatile wing athletes like Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza and Josh Smith. But the Houston offense would be lost without Harden, their superstar, who has been the engine for virtually every possession he’s on the floor. 

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 14:22
All taxonomy terms: AL East, American League, Tampa Bay Rays, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/tampa-bay-rays-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

Just like that, they were gone — David Price, Andrew Friedman, Joe Maddon and Wil Myers, a fab four who, seems like yesterday, were considered the pillars of the franchise. The ace, the architect, the skipper, the hotshot — all departed in five months’ time as the Rays reeled from their first substandard season since 2007. And the upheaval didn’t stop there, as the double-play combo of Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar were shipped to Oakland in January.

 

GM Friedman’s departure to the Dodgers in October, followed by Maddon’s stunning contractual opt-out as manager 10 days later, altered the trajectory of the financially stressed franchise. Its fate now lies chiefly in the hands of former team president Matt Silverman and one-time Tampa Bay catcher Kevin Cash. Silverman, as GM/president of baseball operations, says he’s simply assuming the controls of a “well-oiled machine.” Tasked with sparking an on-field mechanism that sputtered and stalled last season is Cash, the majors’ youngest manager at 37. Lacking both impact bats and the speed to manufacture runs, he must find a way to slam it back into gear with one of the game’s five best rotations, a passable bullpen and an expectation that the defensive pendulum will swing back from dreadful to decent.

 

Rotation

The Rays have used only 23 different starting pitchers since 2008 (10 fewer than any other AL team), and they’re well positioned to sustain that stability. Even with the ace (Price) dealt off the top of the deck, there’s talent in spades. Last spring’s Tommy John surgery for Matt Moore (who was being groomed to replace Price), plus the regression and subsequent trade of Jeremy Hellickson, further thinned the herd, but the vacuum has been filled. Alex Cobb is the new, and deserved, rotation-topper. Flinging “The Thing” — his splitter-changeup hybrid — he’s posted two sub-3.00 ERAs in a row. With more run support and without two extended trips to the DL, he’d be a household name by now. Quirky Chris Archer has the best stuff and highest ceiling on the staff. “I’m not even close to my potential,” is his accurate self-assessment despite a fine 3.32 ERA in 59 career starts. The Rays found themselves a ringer in the Price trade, landing Drew Smyly, who was the better pitcher after the deal — 3–1, 1.70 ERA to Price’s 4–4, 3.59. Jake Odorizzi ran hot and cold as rookie, though he reinforced expectations of a bright future. He’s a flyball pitcher who thrived at commodious Tropicana Field (2.62 ERA there, 6.32 on the road). Moore is expected back in June, by which time the club hopes that either Nate Karns or Alex Colome will have established himself firmly enough to pose a positive dilemma.


Bullpen

There was a shocking development in December, when it was revealed that closer Jake McGee had undergone surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow. There are a lot of bodies on the loose trying to replace him. The favorite is Brad Boxberger, who mixes a 93 mph fastball with a hard cutter and a 13 mph-slower change-up. Doing masterful bridge work in 2014, he would have set the AL record (min. 50 IP) for strikeouts per nine innings at 14.47 had not Andrew Miller averaged 0.4 more. McGee’s return circa May will give the Rays the lone reliever last year to have thrown 1,000 pitches at 95 mph-plus. The rest of the pen is a jumble to be sorted out in March. Aspirants include deposed closer Grant Balfour, three former Angels (Kevin Jepsen, Ernesto Frieri and Steve Geltz), two young hopefuls (Kirby Yates and Burch Smith), the loser of the No. 5 starter derby and a pair of LOOGYs (Jeff Beliveau and C.J. Riefenhauser).

 

Middle Infield

The Rays were in full see-what-sticks-to-the-wall mode after signing Asdrubal Cabrera just before New Year’s and then trading Zobrist and Escobar to the A’s a few weeks later. Cabrera now is tasked with filling the big shoes of the steady and reliable Zobrist, whose multi-positional versatility also will be missed. A two-time All-Star, Tampa Bay is hoping there’s some more juice left in Cabrera’s bat, although his numbers over the past few seasons say otherwise. At shortstop, while being a high-maintenance guy who sometimes has motivational issues, Escobar provided good defense. Now the Rays will turn to a committee that includes Nick Franklin, jack-of-all-trades Logan Forysthe and star-crossed former No. 1 overall draft pick Tim Beckham as Escobar’s replacement. Clearly, there’s housekeeping to be done.

 

Corners

Third baseman Evan Longoria and first sacker James Loney are the team’s two best hitters and among the cream of their craft defensively. Although Longo is coming off his sketchiest season, he looks positively Ruthian in a lineup that includes no other player who hit more than 10 home runs last year. Loney is well defined as a reliable wellspring of hard-hit balls, few of which threaten fences. He was the only major league qualifier in 2014 who didn’t have a hitless streak of more than 10 at-bats.

 

Outfield

Two years ago, Myers was supposed to be the missing mid-order thumper. He was found deficient in both thump and makeup, and moved in an 11-player blockbuster that yielded Steven Souza — he of the ridiculous diving catch for the final out of Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter. The late-to-blossom 25-year-old tore through four minor league levels the last two years, showing an array of average-to-plus tools — a potential 20-20 man if he makes enough contact. Souza and Kevin Kiermaier will most often staff the corners. The latter has few peers with the glove but batted only .224 in his last 39 games. Desmond Jennings starts in center for a fourth season, still showing no signs of being anything more than serviceable.

 

Catching

The Rays bit on Rene Rivera’s career year, getting him in the Myers deal after he compiled a .751 OPS (230 points above his previous career level) as a 30-year-old in San Diego. He’s excellent defensively, and whatever he hits will amount to more than the embarrassing black hole of 2014 co-starters Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan. Tampa Bay also acquired John Jaso in the Zobrist-Escobar deal with Oakland to not only provide a left-handed option behind the plate and insurance in case Rivera’s 2014 offensive showing was a fluke, but also to see plenty of time at DH.

 

DH/Bench

The Rays’ DH options include Jaso, who is more than capable of getting on base (career OBP of .359), as well as excess corner outfielders David DeJesus and Brandon Guyer). DeJesus is more “pro” than productive, while Guyer is a tweener who does most things fairly well, but nothing well enough to play every day. The rest of the depth chart can be deciphered only after the expected trade or two, though it wouldn’t be a Rays bench without a cache of interchangeable parts.

 

Management

A once-archetypal administration drifted away from its formula in recent years, misevaluating prospects, misappropriating salary by overpaying replacement-level vets and wasting a windfall of high draft picks. When the ship began taking on water in 2014, nine-year partners Friedman and Maddon bailed, replaced by Silverman and Cash, respectively. There will be no seismic shift in the team’s small-market business plan, but the Rays have lost ground. In the face of abysmal attendance and a freshly eviscerated payroll, it will be an intricate challenge for the young button-pushers to reclaim relevance and refurbish the farm system.

 

Final Analysis

A roster with a lot of moving parts is usually an objective for the versatility-obsessed Rays, but the term took on a different meaning this past offseason as the team scrambled to fill holes without digging even more. The frenetic winter smelled like an effort to reposition the organization for the future while hoping for no worse than a zero-sum impact on the field. The offensive outage went unrectified, and the bullpen had been thinned by injury and inexperience. A last-place finish in the AL East would be less surprising than a first, but no other team has exactly cornered the division. Such parity could find Tampa Bay orbiting the .500 mark.

 

2015 Prediction: 5th in AL East

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Desmond Jennings (R)     One of two players in 2014 to toil 1,000 or more defensive innings without committing an error.

DH/C  John Jaso (L)           Only major-leaguer acquired in the Zobrist-Escobar deal with Oakland, carries a career OBP of .359.

3B       Evan Longoria (R)   Tied for the major league lead in OPS against curveballs at 1.135.

1B       James Loney (L)     Ranked third in the American League with a 26.6 line drive percentage.

LF       Steven Souza (R)     20th player to be named International League MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season.

RF       Kevin Kiermaier (L) Set a club record for most extra-base hits (12) in a player’s first 21 major league contests.     

C         Rene Rivera (R)       In only 89 defensive games at catcher, threw out the second-most runners (33) in the NL with the Padres.

2B       Asdrubal Cabrera (S)         Leads active second basemen (200+ games) with a .994 fielding percentage.

SS       Nick Franklin (S)      Homered 12 times in his first 279 major league at-bats, but only once in 171 trips since.

 

Bench

OF       David DeJesus (L)  Owns career stolen base percentage of 51.2 — easily the lowest among active players with 100 attempts.

INF      Logan Forsythe (R) Only player in 2014 to start at five positions and in all nine spots of the batting order.

OF       Brandon Guyer (R)  Despite just 259 at-bats, got down a team-leading seven of the Rays’ 20 bunt singles in 2014.

INF      Tim Beckham (R)    No. 1 overall pick in 2008 has eight career major-league plate appearances on his resume.

 

Rotation

RH      Alex Cobb      Made 12 straight starts of two or fewer runs, matching the third-longest AL streak of the past century.

RH      Chris Archer Allowed fewest HRs per 9 IP (0.55) ever by a qualifying Rays pitcher.

LH       Drew Smyly   Owns 6–0 ledger with 1.47 ERA in 20 career games versus other teams in the AL East.

RH      Jake Odorizzi            Led major league qualifiers with 4.21 pitches thrown per plate appearance and 18.0 per inning.

RH      Nate Karns   Tied for the strikeout lead (153) among all Triple-A pitchers in 2014.

 

Bullpen

RH      Brad Boxberger (Closer)    Established Tampa Bay record with 104 relief strikeouts last year.

RH      Kevin Jepsen           Finished second in the American League with 65 scoreless appearances in 2014.

RH      Grant Balfour            Has appeared in more games (448) than any other AL hurler since 2008.

RH      Alex Colome Owns Rays-record 1.30 ERA in his first six major league starts (2013-14).

RH      Ernesto Frieri           Ranked 10th in the majors with 71 saves between May 23, 2012, and June 9, 2014.

LH       Jeff Beliveau Limited left-handed hitters to six hits in 41 at-bats for a .146 average.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Cash is money New skipper Kevin Cash is no stranger to the World Series — at lower levels. He played in the College World Series for Florida State and as Tampa Northside’s second baseman in the Little League World Series. “It was like riding this gigantic wave,” he recalls of the latter. “You wish it lasted forever.”

Bad medicine Rays fans will miss Joe Maddon’s shenanigans — such as when he summoned a medicine man to expel the evil spirits from Tropicana Field last June. With the team having sunk to the worst record in baseball, Maddon brought in Bobby Henry — a Seminole Tribal elder known as The Rainmaker — to reverse the voodoo. “I don’t think it’s real bad,” was the 77-year-old’s verdict after patrolling the premises. But in fact, it got worse; the team dropped its next two games to make it 14 defeats in 15 tries. Maddon kept an open mind. “If it rains in the Trop I’ll be really impressed,” he told the Tampa Tribune. “That will be his best moment ever.”

Wrong number Desperate for runs in July, Maddon tried another gambit. Playing in Detroit on the third, the eccentric skipper fielded his “Tommy Tutone” lineup, ordering his batters by their defensive positions: 867-5309. Tampa Bay managed two hits in an 8–1 loss.

Roc star The Rays could have been much different over the past decade had Rocco Baldelli’s immensely promising career not been undermined by a disease that caused rapid-onset, severe fatigue. After two seasons of looking like a five-tool, potential 30-30 guy, the “Woonsocket Rocket” spent six more years mustering aborted comebacks. In 2015, after four years of serving the organization in various capacities, he will be — at 33 — the team’s first base coach.

Gag order There’s an ongoing debate among baseball’s number-crunchers as to whether “clutch” hitting really exists. Real or random, it did not exist in Tampa Bay last year. The Rays led the majors with 1,193 runners left on base, 13 of whom were stranded in scoring position as the potential tying/winning run in the ninth inning of home games. They scored a runner from third base with less than two outs less than half the time, and hit the fewest home runs (eight) in “close-and-late” situations by any team in 22 years.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Casey Gillaspie, 1B

The Rays attempted to halt a long string of draft whiffs by selecting a presumably safe college bat in Gillaspie at 20th overall. The brother of Conor Gillaspie, he’s a different animal than the contact-focused White Sox third baseman. Far more oriented toward the home run and the walk, he ranked fifth in the NCAA with 15 of the former and led with 58 of the latter for Wichita State in 2014. “He’s made the way you want a big-leaguer to be made,” says scouting director R.J. Harrison. Gillaspie made a sound first impression at short-season Hudson Valley with seven homers and 42 walks in 71 games, but his .262 batting average and 65 strikeouts illumined the holes in his swing. The switch-hitter is expected to be stationed at an A-ball outpost this season.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Daniel Robertson, SS (21) The key piece in the Ben Zobirst-Yunel Escobar trade with Oakland, Robertson immediately becomes Rays’ No. 1 prospect. At Class A Stockton last season, he hit .310 with 15 homers and 60 RBIs.

2. Willy Adames, SS (19) By the time the Rays got him in the David Price trade, Adames had surfaced as an elite prospect. “The capability to play in an All-Star Game,” said Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski.

3. Steven Souza, OF (25) Shredded Triple-A pitching with an 1.022 OPS last year while stealing 26 bases and playing plus defense.

4. Adrian Rondon, SS (16) The most highly ranked (No. 1 in 2014 by some accounts) and most expensive international prospect club has ever signed. His ceiling: Hanley Ramirez with a better glove.

5. Justin O’Conner, C (23) Might have the best arm strength/pop time parlay in the minors. Bat caught up last year (35 doubles in 399 ABs), but there’s too much swing-and-miss to hit for average.

6. Brent Honeywell, RHP (20) Drafted 72nd out of a junior college in 2014. Used a mid-90s fastball, a screwball, deception and a head for his trade to flummox rookie league hitters.

7. Alex Colome, RHP (26) Stuff plays at the upper end of the system, but has yet to prove he has the fastball command and durability to start every fifth day. May make the staff as a reliever.

8. Casey Gillaspie, 1B (22) One of only three college hitters the club coveted with its No. 1 pick last summer. Has plus power; would have led the NCAA Division I in OBP if HBPs didn’t count.

9. Andrew Velazquez, 2B (20) Set minor league record by reaching base in 74 straight games before arriving from Arizona in the Jeremy Hellickson deal.

10. Ryan Brett, 2B (23) Pedroia-like size and bat-to-ball skills, and is faster, but with nowhere near the strike zone discrimination or hands. 

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Tampa Bay Rays 2015 Preview and Prediction
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When the Kansas City Royals reached the playoffs last season after a 29-year absence, it put Toronto on the clock. The Jays’ postseason drought, at 21 years, is now the longest in the four major North American sports leagues. The Jays acted aggressively to stop it two years ago, without success, but this winter they doubled down on their core, adding to it with a five-year deal for catcher Russell Martin and an inspired trade for All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson. There’s no excuse for the Blue Jays to miss the party again. 

 

Rotation

The Blue Jays’ rotation was expected to be a weakness last season, but it turned out to be a source of stability. They do not have a true ace, but they had five starters who earned at least 11 victories apiece, and by trading J.A. Happ to Seattle in December, they opened a spot for top prospect Aaron Sanchez. In Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison and Sanchez, they seem to have found long-term building blocks, with Daniel Norris coming up right behind. The Blue Jays valued their young pitchers so highly that they passed on the chance to trade them for more obvious veteran upgrades at the trading deadline. As it turns out, they need those pitchers now, to slot in behind — or eventually, perhaps, in front of — veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. Dickey is the majors’ reigning knuckleball master, and while he’s unlikely ever to repeat his 2012 Cy Young Award season with the Mets, he’s still durable at 40, and nobody likes to face him. Buehrle, 36, is the epitome of consistency; he started fast last season, but by the end, his stats wound up where they always do.


Bullpen

Toronto had one of the worst bullpens in the majors last season, with a 4.09 ERA that ranked 25th in the major leagues. The left side, though, is fairly settled, with Aaron Loup and former All-Star Brett Cecil, who averaged 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings last season. The right side is less settled, with Todd Redmond and Marco Estrada capable of giving length, although Estrada is prone to surrendering the long ball. Manager John Gibbons said in December that righty Steve Delabar, like Cecil a 2013 All-Star, remained in the mix despite spending much of last season back in the minors. Chad Jenkins pitches to contact, a risky approach, but managed a 2.56 ERA in 21 games last season.

 

Middle Infield

Jose Reyes returns for his third season with the Jays, and while he’ll never be as electric as he was for the Mets, he remains, at 31, one of the game’s best shortstops. Reyes had a .726 OPS last season, the highest of all qualifying AL shortstops. Ryan Goins is in position to take over at second base, but his lackluster 2014 major league performance (.188 average) gives an opportunity to Devon Travis, 24, who came over from the Tigers. The Blue Jays think highly of Travis, who had an .817 OPS at Class AA Erie. Veteran Maicer Izturis, coming off knee surgery, also has a shot.

 

Corners

It’s no coincidence that Toronto’s season turned when Edwin Encarnacion hurt his right quadriceps on July 5. The Blue Jays were just a half-game out of first then, and when Encarnacion returned on Aug. 15, they were seven-and-a-half back. Encarnacion is perhaps the majors’ most obscure elite hitter, a monster power threat who also finds a way to put the bat on the ball consistently in an era of high strikeouts. He split his time last season between DH and first base, where he started 78 games. With Adam Lind gone now, Encarnacion will share time with Justin Smoak, the former Seattle first baseman who gets another chance to harness the power that never really broke out with the Mariners. Across the diamond is Donaldson, a skilled defender with power who replaces the talented but injury-prone Brett Lawrie in a trade with the A’s. The Jays have four years of contractual control over Donaldson, who is 29 and blossomed as a hitter with the A’s after studying film of the Jays’ Jose Bautista. Donaldson’s WAR has ranked second only to Mike Trout over the last two seasons.

 

Outfield

The Blue Jays swallowed hard in February 2011 when they committed $64 million through 2015 (plus a 2016 option) to Bautista, who had failed to distinguish himself with four other teams and had enjoyed just one strong season. Now, the deal looks like a steal, because Bautista has become a consistent offensive machine, with the combination of power and plate discipline that every team craves. His modest (for a superstar) salary has also made it easier for the Blue Jays to add around him, although mostly in areas other than the outfield. Toronto plans to try the untested Dalton Pompey in center. Pompey, who rocketed from Class A to the big leagues last season, will be expected to show excellent range in center field. Pompey was expected to complement Michael Saunders, who was acquired in a left trade from Seattle. But Saunders tore cartilage in his knee after stepping on a sprinkler head shagging fly balls in spring training and is expected to miss at the first few weeks of the season, at minimum. Following Saunders' injury, the Blue Jays signed Dayan Viciedo, who hit 21 home runs with the White Sox last season, as insurance.

 

Catching

The Blue Jays struck early in free agency, elbowing out the Dodgers and the Cubs for the services of Martin, who agreed to a five-year, $82 million contract to play in his home country. The Blue Jays’ marketing department loves the fact that Martin is Canadian, but for the baseball operations folks, the move was all about the player. The Jays targeted Martin for his skills behind the plate — framing borderline pitches, blocking balls in the dirt — but also for his leadership, which will be pivotal. The Jays believe Martin has gotten back to the hitter he was in his early years with the Dodgers, with a swing that sprays balls to all fields and refined plate discipline that led to a .402 on-base percentage last season. Josh Thole is a backup with the important asset of familiarity with Dickey’s knuckleball.

 

DH/Bench

Dioner Navarro, displaced at catcher, could fit as the primary DH as a switch-hitter who batted .274 last season and had a .365 OBP for the Cubs in 2012. The Blue Jays could also use Smoak, after claiming him on waivers, non-tendering him but then quickly re-signing him for $1 million. Izturis, who can play second, short and third, was limited to 11 games in 2014 due to injury. Kevin Pillar, who hit .323 in the minors last year, could be the fourth outfielder.

 

Management

General manager Alex Anthopoulos enters his sixth season with the Blue Jays, and fans can’t question his desire to build a winner. Anthopoulos has used a solid farm system to build a team that is relevant again, but he kept an eye on the future last summer by holding onto his best prospects. The signing of Martin shows that Anthopoulos still believes in this core, and the trade for Donaldson was another go-for-it move that could help the Jays this year and beyond. Gibbons, a popular players’ manager, returns for the third season of his second dugout tour with the team. Gibbons has always had a close bond with Anthopoulos, but without a contract for 2016, it would be good for his job security to guide an improved roster to the playoffs.

 

Final Analysis

With most teams struggling to score these days, the Blue Jays’ deep and powerful offense should set them apart from the pack. They improved it over the winter while managing to strengthen their shaky defense in several spots. The Jays’ staff lacks many in-their-prime performers, but the rotation has some pitchers with youthful promise. If one or two break out as stars, and the bullpen does its job, it’s reasonable to expect the Blue Jays’ first AL East championship since 1993.

 

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

 

Projected Lineup

SS       Jose Reyes (S)        Led big-league shortstops in hits (175) and times on base (214).

C         Russell Martin (R)   Blue Jays love his leadership, pitch-framing and all-fields swing.

RF       Jose Bautista (R)    Only one active player, Alex Rios, has more career games without a postseason appearance.

1B       Edwin Encarnacion (R)      Only player to hit 30 homers while striking out fewer than 85 times in each of last two seasons.

3B       Josh Donaldson (R)           Top 10 in MVP voting two years in a row; he brings power and defense to Jays.

DH      Justin Smoak (L)     For a player with one tool, power, his slugging percentage was a meager .339 for Seattle in 2014.

LF       Michael Saunders (L)         Prone to injury, but hit 19 homers with 21 steals as recently as 2012.

2B       Ryan Goins (L)        Just one error in 241 chances last season, but didn’t hit at all.

CF       Dalton Pompey (S) Jays hope to ease in the speedy Ontario native in the No. 9 spot in the order.

 

Bench

C         Dioner Navarro (S) Hit .301 in DH role for Jays last season; will see time there if not traded.

C         Josh Thole (L)          Adept at catching R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball, and he hit a solid .248.

2B       Devon Travis (R)      Turns 24 in spring, so time is right to bring power/speed combo to majors.

INF      Maicer Izturis (S)      Missed nearly all season after surgery to repair torn ligament in left knee.

OF       Kevin Pillar (R)         May compete with Pompey for the job in center, though he’s spent most of his big-league time in left.

 

Rotation

RH      R.A. Dickey    Veteran knuckleballer went 6.0 innings or more in 19 of last 20 starts.

LH       Mark Buehrle            Durable southpaw is the fastest-working pitcher in MLB at 17.3 seconds between pitches.

RH      Marcus Stroman      Allowed a 53.8 percent ground ball rate and just six home runs in 20 starts.

RH      Drew Hutchison       Only American League pitcher to beat division-champ Orioles three times.

RH      Aaron Sanchez         Will get a chance to start, but Jays know he can be an asset in pen, too.

 

Bullpen

LH       Brett Cecil (Closer)             Ended season with longest scoreless streak of any AL pitcher (19.2 IP).

LH       Aaron Loup   Led the major leagues in inherited runners, with 66, and stranded 51.

RH      Steve Delabar          The 2013 All-Star struggled with control and split season between Class AAA and majors.

RH      Todd Redmond       His 75 innings led all Jays who pitched only in relief last season.

RH      Chad Jenkins           Fractured his right hand during batting practice in September.

RH      Marco Estrada          Prone to the home run ball; profiles as long man/spot starter/trade bait.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Wins, but no playoffs If you think it’s rare for a non-playoff team to have five pitchers with double-digit victories, you’re correct. The 2014 Blue Jays became the first team with that dubious distinction since the 2006 Chicago White Sox. The sting couldn’t have felt quite so bad for that Sox team, because it had won the World Series the year before.

Oh, Canada! The Blue Jays announced their signing of Russell Martin with a press release written in English and French. Martin, of course, went to high school in Montreal and will have broad national appeal to Blue Jays fans. And he’s not alone — Michael Saunders was acquired to play left field, and Dalton Pompey has a chance to win the job in center this year, which would give the Jays by far their most Canadian-flavored lineup ever. Other Canadians who have played for the team include Matt Stairs, Paul Quantrill, Corey Koskie, Rob Ducey and the departed Brett Lawrie.

The shortstop of steel Jose Reyes wears a cutoff Superman T-shirt under his uniform most games, and he showed up last season with a more permanent salute to his favorite superhero: a Superman logo tattooed high up on his chest, right at the base of his neck. The tattoo is in full color — red S, yellow background, red border. Reyes has also been known to wear Batman and Spider-Man gear if the mood strikes.

Buehrle and Cy Mark Buehrle is known for consistency, durability and control. He’s never won a Cy Young Award (in fact, he’s received votes in only one season, 2005), but he has a streak that is almost unmatched in baseball history. Buehrle has gone 14 seasons in a row with more than 200 innings and 61 walks or fewer. The only other pitcher in history with a streak that comes close to those criteria is Cy Young himself, who did it from 1897-1909.

New hitting coach After losing Kevin Seitzer to the Braves, the Blue Jays hired another 1980s third baseman, Brook Jacoby, to be their hitting coach. Jacoby, who made two All-Star teams for Cleveland, was the Reds’ hitting coach from 2007-13 and a minor league instructor for the Rangers in 2014. He is the Jays’ fourth hitting coach in four years and says, “I’m not going to try to make a big splash in the water. Just let the guys know that I’m here for them.”

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Jeff Hoffman, RHP

Hoffman’s career at East Carolina ended last spring when he needed Tommy John surgery, but his confidence remained intact. “Whatever team takes the so-called risk and drafts me is going to get the best player in the draft,” he told the New York Times, a few days before Toronto scooped up him up with the ninth overall pick. A 6’4” righthander, he has a drop-and-drive delivery and profiles as a top-of-the-rotation starter. Hoffman’s fastball has touched 98, and he adds a heavy sinker, a decent slider and improving changeup. The surgery kept him out last summer, but he was throwing off flat ground in the fall and should be back in action by midseason. Hoffman would seem to be on track to make an impact in Toronto in 2016.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Daniel Norris, LHP (21) He had a 5.40 career ERA before a breakout 2014 that ended in Toronto. In the minors, he struck out nearly 12 per nine innings with mid-90s fastball and sharp slider.

2. Aaron Sanchez, RHP (22) Offered tantalizing glimpse of the future with strong bullpen cameo for Jays (1.09 ERA in 33 innings), but he’s a starter for the long term.

3. Dalton Pompey, OF (22) Has made a dramatic improvement in recent seasons and will have a chance to play every day in 2015.

4. Roberto Osuna, RHP (20) Returned to action last summer after Tommy John surgery; Jays hope he regains mid-90s fastball and feel for changeup.

5. Jeff Hoffman, RHP (22) Dominated in the Cape Cod League before his junior season at East Carolina. Still went No. 9 overall after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

6. Max Pentecost, C (22) Drafted two slots behind Hoffman in the first round in 2014; hit over .300 in two minor league stops but needed labrum surgery in October.

7. Franklin Barreto, SS (19) Jays gave him a $1.45 million bonus out of Venezuela in 2012, and he hit .311 with 29 steals at short-season Vancouver last year.

8. Devon Travis, 2B (24) Acquired from Detroit for Anthony Gose, he’s a good contact hitter with some power and speed who could easily win starting job at second base.

9. Richard Urena, SS (19) Toolsy athlete and lefty bat who hit .318 for rookie-level Bluefield last season.

10. Miguel Castro, RHP (20) Generates strikeouts and groundballs consistently, and will work on secondary pitches at High-A this season.

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Fear not baseball fans — Sunshine and warmer weather are on their way, and spring training is knocking on Old Man Winter’s door. Thankfully, it is almost time for baseball, as camps are in full gear in Arizona and Florida.

 

Many players are getting acclimated to new spring training surroundings, as these past few months proved to be busy for general managers, agents and players alike. Between blockbuster trades and free agents signing robust contracts with new teams, there has been no lack of player movement this offseason.

 

Lucky for you, Athlon Sports has kept a close watch on the MLB Hot Stove while you’ve been shoveling snow. So get your pencils and scorebooks ready as we list the Five American League Players on New Teams to Watch in 2015.

 

Related: Five National League Players on New Teams to Watch in 2015

 

Hanley Ramirez, OF, Boston Red Sox

Yes, you read that correctly — Hanley Ramirez, outfielder. Fenway Park’s Green Monster in left field is now Ramirez’s responsibility, which is somewhat perplexing since Hanley has never played outfield — ever. The Boston Globe reports that Hanley has bulked up to 240 pounds, which seems excessive for his slender 6’2 frame, but whatever keeps Ramirez in the lineup will certainly be welcomed by the Red Sox.

 

Ramirez has struggled to stay healthy in recent years, playing in over 150 games just once in the past four seasons. When Ramirez has been healthy, he’s been outstanding. In just 86 games in 2013, Ramirez hit .345/.402/.638 with 20 homers and 25 doubles. With the Marlins in 2009, Hanley was second in MVP voting as he led the NL in batting, posting a robust .342/.410/.543 slash line, hitting 24 homers, 42 doubles, with 106 RBIs.

 

The Red Sox have made Ramirez a key ingredient in their rebuild after their 2014 first-to-worst slide, signing the Dominican native to a four-year, $88 million contract. Ramirez is just one the fresh faces in Boston that also includes new additions Pablo Sandoval, Wade Miley and Rick Porcello. The Sox hope that with Ramirez’s new, fine-tuned figure, he’s able to return to the player he was for the Marlins, a three-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, MVP candidate, and 2006 NL Rookie of the Year.

 

If HanRam can remain fit for duty, look for him to park a few long balls over the Monster in left field — and then have no clue how to play the giant green wall on defense.

 

Nelson Cruz, DH/OF, Seattle Mariners

Cruz was the steal of last winter when he signed a one-year deal with the Orioles for $8 million. Cruz went on to have a career year, hitting 40 homers, 32 doubles, and knocking in 108, as the O’s clinched their first AL East title since 1997.

 

Cruz was seen to be a risky signing in 2014 as he was coming off his suspension for his connection with the Biogenesis scandal. Since the suspension, Cruz has shown contrition and done well for himself, signing a four-year, $57 million dollar free-agent contract with the Mariners this winter. The M’s desperately needed a bat in a lineup that ranked 27th in doubles, 19th in runs scored, 19th in RBIs, and 15th in home runs in 2014.

 

Cruz spent a lot of his time in Texas (2006-13) splitting time between corner outfield spots and DH. Similar to his time in Baltimore, Cruz won’t be playing in the field. Cruz’ job will be simple, drive in runs and hit the ball out of Safeco Field — no easy task.

 

The Mariners know what they are getting in Cruz, as his career numbers have been generally consistent over his 10-year career. The question is how will the rest of Seattle’s lineup develop around Cruz’ big bat? The addition of Cruz could very easily help All-Star third baseman Kyle Seager reach yet another level and lead to more pitches for Robinson Cano to crush into the short porch in right field. Our eyes will be locked on the Emerald City this summer as the Mariners push for their first AL West crown since 2001.

 

Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Detroit Tigers

The last nine months have been a wild ride for Cespedes.

 

Last July, Cespedes won his second straight Home Run Derby crown and was becoming a household name for his cannon throws from left field, gunning down runners at the plate from the depths of O.co Coliseum. On the July 31 trade deadline, A’s GM Billy Beane shocked the baseball world by trading the Cuban outfielder to the Red Sox for Jon Lester — typical Beane.

 

Cespedes put up marginal numbers in Boston, including a .240/.296/.423 slash line and only five homers and 33 RBIs in 51 games, making him expendable during the Red Sox' facelift this past winter. On Dec. 11, Red Sox GM Ben Cherington pulled the trigger on a trade with the Tigers, landing starting pitcher Rick Porcello and sending Cespedes to Motown.

 

Cespedes is now part of a Tigers lineup that features aging stars Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera, both of whom are recovering from offseason surgery, a starting rotation that lost Max Scherzer and Porcello, and also is banking on Justin Verlander to return to 2011 form, and a Tigers bullpen that ranked 27th in ERA in 2014.

 

This 2015 Tigers team is not the same squad that won four straight AL Central titles. Unless names like Nick Castellanos, Anthony Gose, and J.D. Martinez can produce, the Tigers will have a hard time competing with the likes of the Royals and White Sox later in the summer. If for some reason the Tigers are once again in the postseason hunt come September, Cespedes will be a major reason why.

 

Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Chicago White Sox

If you are still debating whether or not Samardzija should have picked the NFL over playing baseball, you've missed his transition into a certifiable top of the rotation hurler.

 

The righthander known as Shark was traded to the A’s last July along with fellow Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel, as part of Billy Beane’s effort to make a deep October run. The trade between Oakland and the Cubs sent A’s top prospect and Athlon’s No. 4 overall prospect, Addison Russell, to the Windy City.

 

Since Theo Epstein & Co. took over the Cubs' front office four seasons ago, there was always a disconnect between Samardzija and the brass. Shark wanted a long-term deal worth top-end money, while the Cubs liked Samardzija but were hesitant to sign him long term.

 

After being traded to Oakland, Samardzija pitched admirably. In 16 starts for the A's, Samardzija had a 3.14 ERA with 99 strikeouts and a 0.931 WHIP. Beane, in his constant state of wheeling and dealing, dealt Samardzija back to the place where his major-league career began — Chicago. But this time, Shark would be pitching on the Southside. Samardzija became an integral part of Chicago’s Executive VP/President of Baseball Operations, Kenny Williams’, personal episode of Extreme Makeover: White Sox Edition.

 

Samardzija is now featured at the top of a Sox staff that includes ace lefty stud Chris Sale and newly acquired closer David Robertson, along with new faces in the field: Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche to complement Cuban sensation Jose Abreu. The White Sox are now in prime position to overthrow the Tigers as kings of the AL Central and Shark is a big reason why.

 

Didi Gregorius, SS, New York Yankees

The one person in all the world that is genuinely excited about Alex Rodriguez back in Yankee pinstripes is Didi Gregorius. You might be asking yourself — who is Didi Gregorius?

 

And why is he happy A-Rod is back?

 

Gregorius is the shortstop replacing Derek Jeter, and he is really, really happy A-Rod is back. Rodriguez’s return means less spotlight on the Captain’s replacement as he gets antiquated to baseball’s biggest stage, Yankee Stadium — which probably makes skipper Joe Girardi happy too.

 

Once all the Rodriguez hoopla dies down, all eyes in New York will be on Gregorius. Every at-bat, every ground ball to short, every strikeout, error, and base hit will be compared to that of Jeter. It’s unfair, but also inevitable.

 

Gregorius was originally signed by the Reds in 2007 as a free agent from Amsterdam — yes, baseball is played in the Netherlands, too. He spent the previous two seasons in the Diamondbacks' organization where he appeared in 183 games. Gregorius’ bat is a work in progress. His best year was in 2013 where he appeared in 108 games, batting .256/.313/.366 with 16 doubles, 28 RBIs, 7 HRs, and 37 walks. Defensively, Gregorius is considered average to below average in terms of defensive runs saved or prevented — but that’s okay, so was Derek Jeter.

 

What Gregorius does have going for him (maybe), is his age and he is inexpensive. At 26, he is four years younger than the second-youngest player expected to be a regular for the Yanks (Chase Headley) and is making approximately $500K this season. Maybe that is enough to save him from the New York media on a Yankee team that is a long shot to make the postseason — but probably not.

 

Welcome to the Bronx Zoo, Didi.

 

- by Jake Rose

Teaser:
Five American League Players on New Teams to Watch in 2015
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Chicago Bulls, NBA
Path: /nba/jeff-van-gundy%E2%80%99s-feud-chicago-bulls%E2%80%99-front-office-rages
Body:
Jeff Van Gundy was always a thorn in the side of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. Taking over for Pat Riley when he left the New York Knicks for the Miami Heat, he persisted in coaching squads that did everything they could to batter MJ and the Bulls to death.

 

Now Van Gundy is all but retired from coaching, working color commentary for ESPN and ABC. But his ire for Chicago’s basketball club doesn’t seem to have changed as his job has.

 

Among swirling rumors of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau — a former assistant to Van Gundy with the Knicks and Houston Rockets — potentially being on the hot seat, JVG let loose on the Bulls’ front office on a January 23, ESPN telecast of a Bulls game against the Dallas Mavericks.

 

“I think right now, it’s almost criminal … what [Thibodeau is] having to endure with some of the fringe media,” Van Gundy said. “Attacking his job status, attacking his personality. This isn’t new to Chicago Bulls basketball, all the way back to Phil Jackson. The team has publicly supported their coach while privately, oftentimes, undermining that same person. You saw it with Vinny Del Negro, Scott Skiles. Think about it, they ran Phil Jackson out after winning all those championships.

 

“Listen, I read every Chicago story and there is no doubt that the Bulls organization has the media, with a few exceptions, in their hip pocket. And for whatever reason, they have taken their sights on Thibodeau when all he’s done is deliver greatness here in his five years.”

 

Van Gundy has been told to cool it by Thibodeau’s agent, among others, but he’s apparently not getting the message. During the Bulls’ 98-86 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on ABC yesterday, Jeff poured some salt in Bulls general manager John Paxson’s wounds.

 

"John was really mad at me,” Van Gundy said. “I mean, it's not like I traded LaMarcus Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas.”

 

Cruelly bringing up bad moves of management past? This sounds eerily similar to the way our president recently ripped on Michael Jordan

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 10:03
All taxonomy terms: AL East, American League, New York Yankees, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/new-york-yankees-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

The Yankees committed almost $500 million to new players before 2014, yet their record actually got worse. Their first multi-year playoff drought of the wild card era seems likely to stretch to three years in 2015. The Yankees, as usual, have the flashy names and the gaudy payroll, but they again won’t have the elite-level production to go with it. Almost all of their important players are over 30, making them prone to injury and increasingly less likely to rediscover their youthful primes all at once.

 

Rotation

The Yankees have two starters on contracts worth more than $150 million, and neither is a safe bet to hold up all season. CC Sabathia, 34, made only eight starts last season because of knee injuries, and it could be that the traits that made him such a highly respected ace — always taking the ball, willing himself deep into games — have irreparably worn him down. With Masahiro Tanaka, it’s all a matter of his elbow: Tanaka, 26, was every bit as good as advertised last season, until a partial UCL tear cost him most of the second half. Uncertainty clouds his immediate future. Michael Pineda has been prone to injury, but with his lethal slider, he’s overpowering when available. As the Yankees await Ivan Nova’s return from Tommy John surgery, which he underwent last April, they will see what they get from Nathan Eovaldi, the hard-throwing righthander they acquired from Miami in December. Eovaldi’s high-octane fastballs have yet to match his production, but he’s only 25 and worth a long look. The veteran Chris Capuano is his opposite in every way: a lefthander who relies on guile. 


Bullpen

The Yankees have spent the last few years trying to hit Andrew Miller in the American League East, and they gave up on solving him when they signed the former first-round pick to a four-year, $36 million contract. It was a smart way for the Yankees to use their payroll advantage on a mid-level star who carries less risk but can still make a major impact. Miller and All-Star Dellin Betances both struck out over 100 hitters last season and will form a nasty bullpen endgame for the Yankees, no matter which one ultimately ends up as the closer. Justin Wilson, a hard-throwing lefty with control issues, joins the middle relief corps with right-handed strikeout specialists David Carpenter Adam Warren and versatile long man Esmil Rogers. The swing-and-miss stuff of the Yankees’ relievers will make the bullpen the team’s strength.

 

Middle Infield

The good thing about Derek Jeter’s replacement at shortstop, Didi Gregorius, is that he is only 25 years old and is a high-impact defender with a strong arm and the kind of range Jeter never had. The bad thing is that he’s already with his third team and could not stick as the starter for the woeful 2014 Diamondbacks. Gregorius is a left-handed hitter with decent pop, but he struggles to hit lefties and projects to be, at best, a .240-.250 hitter. Brendan Ryan, another smooth defensive player, is also a light hitter but will start for Gregorius against lefthanders, at least sometimes. At second base, the Yankees brought back Stephen Drew on a one-year deal to solidify the position after trading Martin Prado to Miami. The team also will try and determine if prospects Jose Pirela or Rob Refsnyder can be the long-term answer. Pirela, 25, has played every position but catcher and pitcher in the minors, but he has played second more than any other spot and hit .305 with 42 extra-base hits and 15 steals at Class AAA last season. Refsnyder, 24, had never played above Class A before last season but hit .318 at the two highest minor league levels.

 

Corners

Mark Teixeira started his Yankees career by finishing as the runner-up for the AL Most Valuable Player Award and making the final putout of a World Series championship. That seems like a long time ago. Minor injuries nag at Teixeira, who turns 35 in April, but he still managed to come back from a serious wrist injury and make 508 plate appearances. The Yankees’ best hope is that the further removed Teixeira gets from his wrist trouble, the more closely he’ll resemble the feared slugger of old. But just in case, they have Garrett Jones to help out. Jones, the former Pirate and Marlin whose power will play well at Yankee Stadium, will play first base when Teixeira needs a rest or a day at DH. Across the diamond, the Yankees brought back Chase Headley on a four-year contract. They loved him in the field, at the plate and in the clubhouse last summer, and if Headley can match his Yankees on-base percentage (.371) with decent power and solid play in the field, that’s enough. His switch-hitting is also appealing to the Yankees. On Headley’s days off, Alex Rodriguez could spend some time at third. The Yankees won’t over-expose Rodriguez in the field, though, so he’ll get most of his playing time at designated hitter and some at first base.

 

Outfield

While Jacoby Ellsbury’s on-base percentage slid to an unacceptable .298 in the second half, the Yankees were mostly pleased with the first season of his extravagant seven-year, $153 million contract. Ellsbury excelled in center field and teamed with left fielder Brett Gardner to form a dangerous slashing tandem atop the order, with respectable power and game-changing speed. Right fielder Carlos Beltran, however, was a bust in his first season in the Bronx, unable to perform as he did in St. Louis because of a bone spur in his elbow that required surgery on Sept. 30. Beltran should be healthy now, but he turns 38 in April, and the rigors of everyday duty in right field might be too much to withstand, especially for a player the Yankees signed through 2016. The Yankees need to play him at DH as much as possible, but other creaky veterans need time there, too. 

 

Catching

The Yankees like to perpetuate the narrative that Brian McCann figured things out in the second half, but the numbers don’t back that up. He had a better slugging percentage after the All-Star break, but he hit just .221 with a pitiful .274 on-base percentage — both figures even worse than they were in the first half. The Yankees plainly need a lot more to justify their five-year, $85 million investment. It paid off with a steady hand behind the plate and a team-leading 23 homers, but the .286 OBP made McCann, on the whole, an offensive liability. 

 

DH/Bench

If only the Yankees could use three or four players at DH, they’d have a much better chance of holding up through the season. Teixeira still has value in the field, although his body could use the occasional rest at DH. Beltran, with his surgically repaired elbow, could also use more time here. But as long as Rodriguez is on the team, he should get the bulk of the playing time at DH. If A-Rod stays away from performance-enhancing drugs, he’s going to need a natural way to heal that crumbling body every day. Beating it up by playing in the field won’t help, so DH looks like his best spot.

 

Management

Joe Girardi usually knows how to juggle a roster of veterans, but he hasn’t been able to cajole a successful playoff push since 2012. That’s hardly his fault, though, since neither of his last two teams had any right to produce a winning record, given their meager statistics. Even so, a third straight year out of the playoffs can’t be good for Girardi’s job security, even in the more rational world of Hal Steinbrenner. General manager Brian Cashman made deft deadline moves last summer, proving his worth to Steinbrenner, but the Yankees’ biggest organizational advantage remains their ability to spend on free agents or afford to take on other teams’ unwanted contracts.

 

Final Analysis

The Yankees always have hope, because most of their players have, at one point in their careers, ranked among the game’s best. The question is whether they can do it again. Don’t bet on it. It’s increasingly a young man’s game, and if the Yankees continue to rely on the overpaid and over-the-hill, they could be stuck on 27 championships for a long time.

 

2015 Prediction: 4th in AL East

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Jacoby Ellsbury (L) Success rate of 84.6 percent on steals is second among active players, trailing only Carlos Beltran.

LF       Brett Gardner (L)      His 17 HRs were a career high, but .327 OBP was lowest since 2008 rookie season.

RF       Carlos Beltran (S)   With 373 HRs, trails only Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones among switch-hitters.

C         Brian McCann (L)    Hit only four of his 23 homers on the road in unimpressive Yankee debut.

1B       Mark Teixeira (S)      Still owed $45 million for next two seasons after batting just .216.

3B       Chase Headley (S)             Has just 26 HRs, 99 RBIs since his 2012 breakout (31 HRs, 115 RBIs) with Padres.

DH      Alex Rodriguez (R) Will collect $6 million when he hits sixth HR of the season to tie Willie Mays on career list, with 660.

2B       Stephen Drew (L)    Back with Yankees after hitting just .150 in 46 games following July 31 trade from Red Sox.

SS       Didi Gregorius (L)   Substantial upgrade over Derek Jeter in the field, he must learn to hit lefties to fulfill offensive potential.

 

Bench

2B       Rob Refsnyder (R)  Should get a shot to play after a .297/.389/.444 slash line in three season in the minors.

C         John Ryan Murphy (R)        Strong second half at AAA gives the 2009 second-round pick from Princeton the inside edge for backup job.

OF       Chris Young (R)       Small sample, but Yanks loved what they saw after he flopped with Mets.

SS       Brendan Ryan (R)   Great glove, but bat was worse than Yankees expected, at .167.

1B       Garrett Jones (L)     Veteran has hit at least 15 homers in each of his last six seasons, including 27 with Pittsburgh in 2012.

 

Rotation

RH      Masahiro Tanaka    Two-start cameo in September wasn’t enough to quell fears about troublesome elbow.

LH       CC Sabathia             Has a 4.87 ERA in last two seasons, but expects to be healthy after knee surgery.

RH      Michael Pineda        Fragile but dominant, with a .208 opponents’ average in 41 career starts.

RH      Nathan Eovaldi        MLB hitters can handle his heat; he led National League in hits allowed last season (223 with Miami).

LH       Chris Capuano        Veteran had six quality starts in 12 tries for the Yankees late last season.

 

Bullpen

RH      Dellin Betances (Closer)   Exactly 50 percent of his outs came via strikeout (135 of 270).

LH       Andrew Miller            Fastball and wipeout slider make him a devastating late-inning weapon.

RH      David Carpenter      Acquired in early January, Carpenter gives the Yankees another strikeout specialist in the bullpen.

LH       Justin Wilson           Durable and tough on lefties, but high walk rate is worrisome.

RH      Adam Warren           Full-time relief role suited Warren, who held lefties to .178 average.

RH      Esmil Rogers           Before he was hit hard in season finale — four ER in 0.1 IP — had a 3.28 ERA for Yanks.

 

Beyond the Box Score

MVP shutout One way to measure the Yankees’ lack of 2014 impact was in the voting for the AL Most Valuable Player. Not a single Yankee got even so much as a 10th place vote from 30 members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The last time the Yankees were completely shut out of the MVP vote was 1992, their last losing season. The Yankees also had no pitchers listed on any Cy Young Award ballots.

Stability at the top Only two general managers have been in their current jobs longer than the Yankees’ Brian Cashman — Brian Sabean of the Giants (1996) and Billy Beane of the A’s (1997). Cashman, who took over as GM in 1998, isn’t going anywhere soon. Despite missing the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, the Yankees re-signed Cashman to a three-year contract in October. “We know from our fan base’s perspective that we need to do better than we’ve done for the past two years,” Cashman says. “I say that for myself as well. Being in my chair, I’m responsible for it all — offense, defense and pitching. I’ve got to find a way to get our fan base back to enjoying October sooner than later.”

International spending bonanza The Yankees were assigned a $2.19 million bonus pool for international signings last summer, but with their farm system struggling, they blew past that limit. The Yankees spent more than $14 million to sign nine of the top 25 international free agents on MLB.com’s list. As a result, the Yankees will pay a 100 percent tax on their pool overage, and they must wait two years before giving more than $300,000 to another amateur on the international market.

Filling up fast The Yankees staged four promotions last season to honor their past, giving plaques in Monument Park to Goose Gossage, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill and Joe Torre. The team also retired Torre’s No. 6. The Yankees have no set criteria for whom they honor, or how, leading to a somewhat haphazard process in which many stalwarts, including Hall of Famers like Waite Hoyt and Joe Gordon, are not represented at all. Bernie Williams is not a Hall of Famer, but he spent many more years in pinstripes than Gossage, Martinez, O’Neill and Torre, and will be honored with a plaque in 2015.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Jacob Lindgren, LHP

The Yankees’ free-agent shopping binge cost them their first-round draft choice in 2014, and they did not make a selection until No. 55 overall. But they were thrilled to land Lindgren, a left-handed reliever from Mississippi State who led the nation in strikeouts per nine innings as a junior, with 16.3. Lindgren played at four levels in his professional debut season, ending up at Class AA Trenton, where he fanned 18 in 11.2 innings. Lindgren could make an impact this season, and possibly even land on the Opening Day roster in a setup role. Lindgren has a deceptive delivery, his slider may be the best in the Yankees’ farm system, and his fastball can hit 94 mph with sink.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Luis Severino, RHP (21) A 6'0" righthander from the Dominican Republic with a high-90s fastball and a baffling changeup, Severino pitched in the Futures Game and reached Class AA Trenton, where he had a 2.52 ERA in six starts. He could make an impact as soon as this season.

2 . Gary Sanchez, C (22) Still highly regarded, but the Yankees’ commitment to Brian McCann blocks him behind the plate, where he’s shown a strong arm and improving defense. Decent power is a plus, off-field disciplinary issues a minus.

3 . Greg Bird, 1B (22) Led the minors in walks in 2013 with 107 and was the 2014 MVP of the Arizona Fall League, with a .313 average and six homers in 26 games.

4. Aaron Judge, OF (22) The 32nd overall pick in 2013, this Fresno State product hit 17 homers with 78 RBIs and reached High-A last season. He had a lot of walks, but also lots of strikeouts.

5. Rob Refsnyder, 2B (24) With a .300 average, a .389 OBP and decent power at Class AAA, line-drive hitter should have a chance to make an impact very soon.

6. Ian Clarkin, LHP (20) Added a cutter to low-90s fastball and curve last season, but has pitched only one game above Low-A.

7. Jacob Lindgren, LHP (22) Versatile southpaw was dominant as both a starter and reliever during his time at Mississippi State.

8. Eric Jagielo, 3B (22) Notre Dame product hit 16 homers with strong .354 OBP at High-A Tampa.

9. Luis Torrens, C (18) Signed for $1.3 million as a shortstop from Venezuela in 2012, he’s shown good skills behind the plate in low minors.

10. Domingo German, RHP (22) Aquired from the Marlins in the Martin Pardo deal, German is a strike thrower who has tremendous upside.

Teaser:
New York Yankees 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 09:30
All taxonomy terms: AL East, American League, Boston Red Sox, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/boston-red-sox-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

With all due respect to Space Mountain, Goliath and the Viper, the wildest roller coaster in the United States currently resides in Fenway Park. From worst to first to worst to … first again? — the Red Sox have put their fans through a stomach-churning wringer, sandwiching the elation of the 2013 World Series between a pair of lost seasons, not to mention an epic collapse in 2011. The Red Sox can only hope that this is the dawn of a new age of stability, however. They recognized the error of relying on too many youngsters simultaneously last year and imported a number of veterans this winter. They’ve remade much of the roster and virtually all of their rotation and have built the best lineup in the division. In what projects to be a down year for the AL East, that should be enough to return to contention, where the coaster can perhaps once again provide thrills instead of dread.

 

Rotation

This group will ultimately determine the team’s fate. Stalwarts Jon Lester and John Lackey are gone, and the Red Sox chose to replace them with pitchers they hope are about to make the ascension to ace. Their primary offseason target was Detroit’s Rick Porcello, 26, a six-year veteran coming off his best season (15–13, 3.43), and a pitcher the Red Sox believe is ready to take the next step. In a similar boat is 28-year-old Wade Miley, a former All-Star who struggled last year with Arizona (8–12, 4.34) but struck out a career high 183, suggesting the stuff is there. If either fails to emerge as a No. 1, there’s always old friend Clay Buchholz, a true Jekyll-and-Hyde performer, or Justin Masterson, who is expected to improve after battling injuries (7–9, 5.88). All three newcomers are groundball pitchers. Joe Kelly rounds things out.


Bullpen

The first move of the winter flew largely under the radar. The Red Sox re-signed closer Koji Uehara for two years and $18 million. Because Uehara doesn’t rely on power, the Sox believe he will remain effective into his 40s, a la Trevor Hoffman. The rest of the pen is a bit muddled. Junichi Tazawa returns as the primary setup man, even though his fastball has lost just enough steam to leave him as a borderline power pitcher. The Red Sox also retained lefty Craig Breslow, who never seemed to recover from his workload in 2013 en route to a horrible 2014 (2–4, 5.96). Virtually every other spot will be up for grabs in spring training, with veteran Edward Mujica looking to rebound, newly acquired Anthony Varvaro and Robbie Ross trying to find a home, youngsters Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes doing battle, and a lefthander like Tommy Layne perhaps claiming a specialist role. Former All-Star Alexi Ogando also could factor into the mix if he’s able to show he’s recovered from the elbow inflammation that limited him to just 27 appearances last season with the Rangers.

 

Middle Infield

Maybe this is the year Dustin Pedroia stays healthy. His will and determination remain beyond reproach, but he has undergone hand or wrist surgery in three straight offseasons. All that slicing and dicing has cut into his power, with his OPS falling in each of the last four seasons (from .861 to .797 to .787 to .712). He’s still a Gold Glover, but the Red Sox need his pop, too. Meanwhile, double-play partner Xander Bogaerts will be manning one of the most pivotal positions on the field. He’s not only coming off a down season offensively, but his defense also often appeared shaky, and the Red Sox have left him with no safety net after signing a trio of groundball starters. The team believes the 22-year-old will eventually be a star — for now it’s simply asking him to make routine plays in the field. And speaking of stars, Boston hopes it has found its next one in Yoan Moncada. The Red Sox signed the 19-year-old Cuban free agent in late February, committing $63 million ($31.5 as a signing bonus to Moncada, $31.5 to MLB as a 100 percent overage tax for exceeding their allotment of international bonus money) to the switch-hitting shortstop who could end up at second or third or even in the outfield by the time he arrives in the majors.

 

Corners

Say hello to the Panda. The arrival of Pablo Sandoval should solve the vexing problem of wildly subpar third base production the last two seasons. Sandoval is everything the Red Sox seek — a durable hitter in his prime with a flare for the dramatic, a slightly above-average fielder, and a high-energy leader who should light up the clubhouse. He’s also one of the best low-ball hitters in the game, an area of emphasis with the strike zone dropping precipitously over the last three years. The solid Mike Napoli returns at first base, presumably recovered from the injuries that slowed him last year, with his 25-homer potential and clubhouse leadership intact.

 

Outfield

The arrival of All-Star Hanley Ramirez positions the Red Sox with one of the deepest lineups in the American League. The deal wouldn’t have been possible without Ramirez volunteering to forgo a career as an infielder to take a stab at left field. Ramirez hits lefties (.307) and righties (.298) and will play every day. Center likely will go to Cuban import Rusney Castillo, who tore up the Puerto Rican winter league after impressively hitting .333 with two homers in a brief September call-up. Right field is up for grabs, although it’s hard to see the Red Sox going in any direction other than with Mookie Betts, who has all the skills to be an All-Star leadoff hitter. Betts carries himself with a swagger that has earned him the immediate respect of the team’s veterans.

 

Catching

The Red Sox have proclaimed a willingness to hand things over to strong-armed Christian Vazquez, an advanced game-caller and pitch-framer who must answer major questions about his bat. Perhaps the Red Sox will be able to carry a .200 hitter if the rest of the lineup mashes, because the feeling is that Vazquez is only a one- or two-year stopgap until prospect Blake Swihart arrives. Ryan Hanigan fills the David Ross role of veteran who can play more than the typical backup if needed. He hits lefties well (.762 lifetime OPS), though he was better against righties last year.

 

DH/Bench

The name of the game here is flexibility. Brock Holt can play anywhere and would pull on catching gear if asked. His surprising ability to hit lefties from the left side last year (.293) helped fuel an eighth-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. Daniel Nava’s skills against right-handed pitching will find him some playing time in either the outfield or at first. Ramirez, a former shortstop and third baseman, provides options in an emergency. The interesting decision will be finding a role for either Shane Victorino or Allen Craig. The remade roster likely squeezes out one, if not both. Victorino, if he heals from back surgery, has the higher upside and is the more battle-tested player.

 

Management

A year after pushing all the right buttons, manager John Farrell and general manager Ben Cherington took a step back, along with the rest of the organization. Cherington’s relative inaction left the 2014 team with too many holes, and Farrell never figured out how to make the right moves with an offense that ranked in the middle of the pack in on-base percentage but bottom of the barrel in runs scored. That was last year, however. In the big picture, the team remains in good hands. Cherington is at his best when juggling a complicated offseason, and this past one certainly qualifies, with Castillo (signed in August), Sandoval, Ramirez, Porcello, Miley and Masterson coming aboard, to name a few. Farrell, meanwhile, is a proven leader who has already helmed a World Series winner. 

 

Final Analysis

The Red Sox are right where they want to be — as $200 million underdogs, if that’s possible. They’ve built a roster in the spirit of the out-of-nowhere 2013 World Series winners, although they’ve gambled a bit more, since their buy-low acquisitions are primarily in the starting rotation. One of last year’s biggest problems — a lack of depth up and down the roster — is no longer an issue. The lineup is deep, with Betts ready to step forward and the projected seven-eight hitters possible stars in Castillo and Bogaerts. While the jury very reasonably remains out on whether the Red Sox are built to win in October, there’s no question they’re at least constructed to get there.

 

2015 Prediction: 1st in AL East

 

Projected Lineup

RF       Mookie Betts (R)      Betts has potential star written all over him. The Sox love his combination of on-base, speed and swagger.

2B       Dustin Pedroia (R)  Are Pedroia’s hands/wrists a time bomb? We’ll find out. He has vowed to return stronger than ever.

DH      David Ortiz (L)           Time keeps on ticking, and Ortiz keeps on slugging. The ageless DH seeks his third straight 30-100 season.

LF       Hanley Ramirez (R)            Ramirez has agreed to move to the outfield, where his bat still profiles as one of the best in the game.

3B       Pablo Sandoval (S) Get ready for the Panda. The Red Sox expect that Sandoval will plug their gaping hole at third.

1B       Mike Napoli (R)        It’s easy to forget that before badly dislocating his finger last year, he appeared capable of a career year.

CF       Rusney Castillo (R)            Was signed to hit leadoff, but with that job likely going to Betts, the $72.5 Million Man can ease into things.

SS       Xander Bogaerts (R)           Bogaerts shouldn’t feel the pressure to be a star hitting at the bottom of the lineup.

C         Christian Vazquez (R)         The Red Sox have built a deep lineup, but the rifle-armed Vazquez is the one potential hole. 

 

Bench

OF       Shane Victorino (R) Coming off back surgery, Victorino is a man without a position and could be moved.

OF       Daniel Nava (S)       Provides real value from the left side of the plate on a roster that is otherwise heavily right-handed.

UT       Brock Holt (L)           One of last year’s few bright spots is Holt, who’s not an everyday player, but could excel in a super-utility role.

C         Ryan Hanigan (R)   Hanigan was acquired for Will Middlebrooks and could play regularly if Vazquez struggles.

 

Rotation

RH      Rick Porcello            The Red Sox hope Porcello can continue to build off a strong 2014 and become an ace.

LH       Wade Miley   Miley had career-highs in ERA (4.34) and WHIP (1.401) in his final season in Arizona.

RH      Clay Buchholz          There’s no more enigmatic player on the team than the wildly talented, equally inconsistent Buchholz.

RH      Justin Masterson     The Red Sox believe Masterson’s struggles last year (7–9, 5.88) were purely injury-related.

RH      Joe Kelly        Kelly impressed during his two months, featuring a 95 mph fastball and winning four of his final five starts.

 

Bullpen

RH      Koji Uehara (Closer)          The indomitable closer turns 40 in April, but the Red Sox don’t expect him to slow down anytime soon.

RH      Junichi Tazawa        Tazawa has settled in as a strikeout-an-inning arm in the eighth, and will continue to fill that role.

LH       Craig Breslow          Breslow returned on a one-year deal after a brutal season that saw his ERA soar to a career-worst 5.96.

RH      Edward Mujica         Mujica lost 1 mph off his fastball (to 91 mph) and saw his walk rate climb to 2.1/9 IP last season.

RH      Anthony Varvaro       Acquired from the Braves, Varvaro posted a career-low walk rate (2.1) last year while posting a 2.63 ERA.

RH      Brandon Workman  He’s fearless and has an attacking mentality, but his stuff isn’t overpowering, and he can be taken deep.

LH       Tommy Layne          Layne impressed in 30 games (0.95 ERA) and could join Breslow as the second lefty in the pen.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Memorable debut Red Sox fans will never forget Rick Porcello’s first start at Fenway Park, in 2009, when the 20-year-old rookie drilled Kevin Youkilis and incited a bench-clearing brawl. After Porcello signed, he wasted little time when asked for his most memorable Fenway moment: “Getting thrown out in the second inning my rookie year. Getting charged by Kevin Youkilis.” It should be noted that Porcello stood his ground and body slammed the enraged Youk.

Native son Catcher Ryan Hanigan will become the fifth Massachusetts native to play for the Red Sox in the last decade. The Andover native joins Chris Capuano (Springfield), Alex Hassan (Quincy), Rich Hill (Milton) and Manny Delcarmen (West Roxbury).

No love lost Oh, what might have been. When the Red Sox signed Hanley Ramirez in free agency, it opened the possibility of reuniting Ramirez with former minor league teammate Jon Lester, who made no secret of his dislike for the then-shortstop at the 2010 All-Star Game. “I’d have a better chance of being struck by lightning than me and him getting a pizza together,” Lester said at the time.

Big-time bowler Where does Mookie Betts get his incredible hand-eye coordination and ability to perform under pressure? It might have something to do with bowling. Betts is a tremendous bowler who took up the sport as a child and still rolls regularly. He has bowled a 300 game and an 800 series and was good enough to turn pro, had he so desired. Also, take heart Red Sox fans — he’s named after Mookie Blaylock, the former NBA All-Star, not Mookie Wilson.

Fun fact Random fact about manager John Farrell — he ended Paul Molitor’s 39-game hitting streak in just his second big league start in 1987, taking a no-decision against Teddy Higuera in a 1–0 loss to the Brewers. The game ended with Molitor on deck. “Rick Manning drove in the winning run in the 10th,” Farrell said, “and got booed off the field.”

King of gluten Wade Miley did not take kindly to friction with the Diamondbacks over the composition of his diet. His former team’s biggest complaint? That he ate too much gluten. The 6'0", 220-pounder is not having any of it, telling WEEI in Boston that, “You can’t tell me Babe Ruth ever stopped eating gluten.”

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Michael Chavis, SS

The Red Sox used their first pick on one of the more intriguing power prospects in the draft. Chavis, a product of Georgia’s East Cobb baseball factory, isn’t huge (5'10", 190), but he owns tremendous bat speed and serious pop. He won a Perfect Game home run derby as a high school senior, and after a slow start to his pro career, finished with a .425 slugging percentage in the Gulf Coast League. He hit .379 with a homer and 1.057 OPS over his final 15 games. A shortstop at Sprayberry High School, Chavis will probably end up at third base in the long run. While Chavis has a big swing capable of producing loft, the Red Sox liked him because he’s calm and controlled at the plate. Another plus: His makeup and work ethic drew raves from rival scouts in the lead up to the draft.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Blake Swihart, C (23) Swihart has all the tools to be a star, with athleticism that reminds more than one observer of the Giants’ perennial MVP candidate Buster Posey.

2. Henry Owens, LHP (22) While there are questions over how Owens’ fastball (92 mph) will play in the big leagues, there’s no questioning his secondary stuff, which includes a plus changeup.

3. Yoan Moncada, IF (19) The switch-hitting Cuban is probably at least a year or two away from the majors, but the Red Sox hope their patience, not to mention the total of $63 million they invested to sign him, will pay off in a big way.

4. Rafael Devers, 3B (18) Remember how hyped Xander Bogaerts was when he arrived stateside? Devers has outperformed him at a similar age/level thus far and is the organization’s Next Big Thing.

5. Manuel Margot, OF (20) He posted one of the most tantalizing seasons in the minors as a teen, batting .293 with 12 homers and 42 steals between two levels of Class A.

6. Brian Johnson, LHP (24) Johnson’s pure stuff isn’t jaw-dropping, but he effectively mixes four pitches in the style of a crafty lefty.

7. Eduardo Rodriguez, LHP (22) Rodriguez has a changeup that rivals Owens’, but he pairs it with a fastball that regularly reaches 97 mph.

8. Matt Barnes, RHP (24) Barnes’ 2014 season ended in the big leagues, where he passed fellow pitching prospects Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster and Anthony Ranaudo (traded to Texas in January). 

9. Deven Marrero, SS (24) Marrero may never hit, but there’s no doubting his glove. He has a strong arm and tremendous instincts.

10. Sean Coyle, 2B (23) Mildly reminiscent of former Sox prospect Jed Lowrie, Coyle’s a similarly undersized infielder with surprising pop.

 

— Written by WEEI.com columnist John Tomase (@jtomase) for Athlon Sports' 2015 MLB Preview magazine.

Teaser:
Boston Red Sox 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 09:00
Path: /mlb/baltimore-orioles-2015-preview-prediction
Body:

After posting a winning record in three consecutive seasons, the Orioles could be challenged to finish above .500 in 2015 due to a lack of significant activity over the winter. They re-signed Delmon Young shortly before Christmas, but he’s more of a DH-type and not a suitable replacement for outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis, two important bats that departed via free agency. There’s no Cruz to fall into their laps this spring, as he did last year before leading the majors with 40 home runs. The Orioles should benefit from the return of catcher Matt Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado from season-ending surgeries, but making the playoffs for the third time in four seasons looks like a longer shot than it did in October.

 

Rotation

The Orioles will rely heavily on their starting pitching and depth to stay in the playoff picture. They’re carrying six starters for five spots — Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez, Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez — and are reluctant to part with an arm in order to improve in another area. They’re not going with a six-man rotation, so someone will move to the bullpen or Gausman will be optioned. Jimenez was a bust after signing a four-year, $50 million deal, but Chen won 16 games and Norris 15 to establish career highs. Gonzalez posted a 2.19 ERA in his last 11 starts. Top prospect Dylan Bundy, recovered from Tommy John surgery, likely will start the year at Double-A, but he could be an option to start later in the summer.


Bullpen

The Orioles lost lefthander Andrew Miller to free agency, and he’s going to be hard to replace after holding opposing hitters to a .119 average and posting a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings with the Orioles after being acquired from the Red Sox on July 31. They signed lefthander Wesley Wright to a one-year, $1.7 million contract after the Cubs non-tendered him. Zach Britton, in his first season as closer, registered 37 saves in 41 opportunities. Lefty specialist Brian Matusz returns, though he’s also trade bait. Righthanders Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter are quality late-inning options. Hunter brings the heat with his upper-90s fastball. Brad Brach can work in a variety of roles but is most important as a right-handed long man. T.J. McFarland could return as a lefty long man, but the Orioles may not want to carry four southpaws in their bullpen. He’s a candidate to start at Triple-A. Ryan Webb has another year and $2.75 million on his contract. The O’s selected Logan Verrett in the Rule 5 Draft and traded for Jason Garcia.

 

Middle Infield

The Orioles’ double-play combination remains intact after shortstop J.J. Hardy signed a three-year extension in October. He’s the leader of the infield and a dependable fielder. However, his home run total dropped from 25 to nine. Jonathan Schoop made most of the starts at second base as a rookie and hit 16 home runs, but he needs to improve on a .209 average. He’s got a rifle arm, and he ranked eighth among major league second basemen with 89 double plays turned. Former Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty can back up at both positions. He started the season 0-for-17 before singling on April 6 in Detroit. The Orioles signed Rey Navarro to a major league deal and view him primarily as a second baseman, though he also plays short. Manager Buck Showalter said he’s more willing now to move Machado from third base to short if Hardy is injured. The team also signed former San Diego shortstop Everth Cabrera to a one-year deal at the start of spring training. The NL stolen base leader in 2012, Cabrera was suspended for 50 games in '13 for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. With Hardy seemingly entrenched at short, Cabrera could potentially fill in at second or serve as an utilityman and late-inning pinch runner off of the bench, if he makes the team.

 

Corners

Machado returns after undergoing surgery on his right knee in August. He’s now had procedures on both knees in the last two years. He was sorely missed at third base, where he won a Platinum Glove in 2013. Machado also was suspended five games this summer for intentionally throwing his bat on the field in a June 8 game against Oakland. He could use a fresh start this season. First baseman Chris Davis was handed a 25-game suspension on Sept. 12 for a second failed test for Adderall. He has one game remaining on it, which removes him from the Opening Day lineup. Davis led the majors with 53 home runs in 2013, but he hit only 26 last year as his average dipped to .196. Flaherty can play both first and third as part of his super-utility role, and Jimmy Paredes remains an option. He’s more bat than glove, however. Steve Pearce can play first base and may be given a chance to back up at third. Pearce established career highs across the board, including doubles (26), home runs (21), RBIs (49) and games (102). The Orioles claimed Ryan Lavarnway off waivers, and he’s capable of playing first. First baseman Christian Walker, one of the top prospects in the organization, made his major league debut in September and eventually could return to the big club.

 

Outfield

Center fielder Adam Jones is the only remaining outfield starter from last season. Jones posted his fourth consecutive season playing 150 games and recording at least a .280 average, 25 doubles, 25 home runs and 80 RBIs, joining Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray as the only Orioles to accomplish the feat. But who’s playing left field and right field this year? Pearce could be the primary starter in right, and Alejandro De Aza could mostly play left and replace Markakis atop the order. De Aza batted .293 after being acquired from the White Sox on Aug. 30. He just needs to improve his splits against left-handed pitching. David Lough got off to an awful start in his first season with the Orioles, but he batted .356 in his final 52 games beginning July 6. He also provides plus-defense and much-needed speed. Young is a below-average fielder but can play left or right if needed. The Orioles also acquired Travis Snider from the Pirates in late January. Snider, who has yet to put it all together in his seven-year career, could end up stealing one of the starting corner spots, provided he makes the final roster.

 

Catching

Wieters played in only 26 games before undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow on June 17. He may not be ready for Opening Day. Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley — who wasn’t re-signed — did an admirable job as fill-ins. Joseph threw out 21 of 55 (38.2 percent) runners attempting to steal. His work behind the plate kept him in the majors as a rookie. Lavarnway, claimed in December, and Steve Clevenger are also viable options.

 

DH/Bench

Pearce could get plenty of starts as the DH, but Young was re-signed primarily for that role. Lavarnway could be a backup catcher and first baseman if he makes the team. Flaherty and/or Cabrera figure to make the club as super subs, and Lough should be an extra outfielder again. The Orioles signed Hassan off waivers and will give him a chance to win a backup outfield job. Paredes can move around the infield. Joseph is the favorite to serve as the backup catcher, but the position is unsettled.

 

Management

Executive vice president Dan Duquette was named Major League Executive of the Year by several media outlets. The Orioles have posted winning records in all three seasons since they hired Duquette, who has a knack for making under-the-radar moves that pay huge dividends. Showalter won his third BBWAA Manager of the Year Award, and he remains one of the best acquisitions in franchise history. He changed a losing culture, which isn’t easy. Owner Peter Angelos, heavily criticized in the past for meddling, has stepped back in recent years and trusted his baseball people. With two playoff appearances in the last three years, it’s hard to argue with the results.

 

Final Analysis

The Orioles have a nice core of players and a rotation and bullpen that could carry them back to the playoffs. They’re set in center field and at third base, second base, first base and catcher. But getting back to the American League Championship Series, where they appeared for the first time since 1997, will be difficult without Cruz, Markakis and Miller. The Orioles aren’t willing to spend big in free agency or make a bold trade, and their reluctance to dip into their pitching depth to acquire a big bat could come back to haunt them.

 

2015 Prediction: 3rd in AL East

 

Projected Lineup

LF       Alejandro De Aza (L)           Acquired last year from the White Sox, he’s the leading candidate to replace Nick Markakis atop the order.

3B       Manny Machado (R)           Former Platinum Glove winner recovering from second knee surgery in two years.

1B       Chris Davis (L)         Home run total dropped from 53 to 26, but he received exemption to use Adderall in 2015.

CF       Adam Jones (R)       Made his fourth All-Star team and won his fourth Gold Glove last season.

DH      Delmon Young (R)  Batted .302 in 83 games and went 10-for-20 as a pinch-hitter during the regular season.

C         Matt Wieters (S)        Could be final season as an Oriole after undergoing Tommy John surgery on right elbow.

RF       Steve Pearce (R)      Manager Buck Showalter said in December that Pearce would be in right if season started that day.

SS       J.J. Hardy (R)            Needs to rediscover his power stroke after home runs dropped from 25 to nine.

2B       Jonathan Schoop (R)         Hit 16 home runs as a rookie in 2014 but a .209 average leaves much room for improvement.

 

Bench

C         Caleb Joseph (R)     Nice story as a 27-year-old rookie who threw out 38.2 percent of runners.

OF       David Lough (L)       Plus-defender who can play all three outfield positions and bring needed speed element.

INF      Ryan Flaherty (L)     Valuable reserve played all four infield positions and the outfield last season.

INF      Everth Cabrera (B)           Made first trip to All-Star Game in 2013 as a Padre then missed 50 games because of ties to Biogenesis scandal.

 

Rotation

RH      Chris Tillman            Former second-round pick started on Opening Day and in Game 1 of the ALDS and ALCS.

LH       Wei-Yin Chen          Orioles resisted trade offers for Chen after he won career-high 16 games.

RH      Bud Norris     Won a career-high 15 games and posted career-low 3.65 ERA in first full season with the Orioles.

RH      Miguel Gonzalez      Vastly underrated despite posting 2.19 ERA in final 11 starts last year.

RH      Kevin Gausman       Has minor league options and could be sent down or sent to the bullpen.

 

Bullpen

LH       Zach Britton (Closer)           First year as closer was a rousing success with 37 saves in 41 opportunities.

RH      Ubaldo Jimenez       Could get back in rotation after disastrous first season with Orioles.

RH      Darren O’Day           Posted career-low 1.70 ERA and didn’t allow a run in 58 of 68 outings.

RH      Tommy Hunter          Lost closer’s job in May but posted 1.77 ERA in final 43 appearances.

LH       Brian Matusz            Would prefer to start, but the Orioles like his splits vs. left-handed hitters.

RH      Brad Brach    Didn’t get much attention after arriving from San Diego but won seven of eight decisions.

LH       Wesley Wright          Signed to one-year, $1.7 million deal to help ease loss of Andrew Miller.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Home sweet home The Orioles captured their ninth AL East title last season, but it was the first time they clinched via a win at home since 1969. That’s a big reason why players celebrated so enthusiastically on the field. The Orioles clinched in Milwaukee in 1997, 1983 and 1973, in Detroit in 1974, in New York in 1971 and in Washington in 1970. They clinched in 1979 despite losing to the Indians at home.

Double-figure winners The Orioles had four starters — Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez — record at least 10 wins for the first time 1997. They matched Mike Mussina, Jimmy Key, Scott Erickson and Scott Kamieniecki.

Big hitters The Orioles led the majors with 211 home runs, 25 more than the Rockies and 34 more than the Blue Jays. Their 107 home runs at home were the most by an American League club. The Orioles have hit 200 or more home runs in three straight seasons for the first time in franchise history.

Back to back The Orioles became the fourth team since 1920 to have two different players win the home run title in consecutive years. Chris Davis won it in 2013 and Nelson Cruz won it in 2014. They joined the Yankees’ Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio in 1936-37, the Athletics’ Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco in 1987-88, and the Giants’ Barry Bonds and Matt Williams in 1993-94.

Saves from the southpaw Zach Britton, in his first season as closer, became only the seventh AL lefthander to record 37 or more saves in a season. Britton is just the second Oriole, joining Randy Myers, who had 45 saves in 1997.

Road kill Chris Tillman was undefeated in his first 15 road starts until he lost in Toronto on Sept. 26. Tillman’s 8–1 record away from home tied for the second-best road winning percentage in a season by an Orioles pitcher. Scott McGregor holds the record by going 14–1 in 1983. Had he won or taken a no decision in that game vs. the Blue Jays, Tillman would have had the most road starts in a season without a loss (16) since 1914.

Deep roster The Orioles used 23 different players on Sept. 7 against the Rays, the most by the club since also using 23 on Sept. 14, 1960 at Detroit.  The franchise record is 24 in a Sept. 7, 1958 game against Boston.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Brian Gonzalez, LHP

The Orioles forfeited their selections in the first two rounds after signing Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz as free agents. They took Gonzalez with the 90th overall pick after he went undefeated in his senior season at Archbishop McCarthy High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Gonzalez committed to the University of Miami before signing with the Orioles and went a combined 0–1 with a 1.34 ERA in 10 starts between the Gulf Coast League and short-season Class A Aberdeen. He allowed 21 hits, walked 10 and struck out 36 in 33.2 innings. He could move up to Low-A Delmarva in 2015. There’s no way to project his arrival date in the majors at such a young age, but the Orioles love his potential.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Dylan Bundy, RHP (22) The former first-round pick is recovered from Tommy John surgery and trying to climb back to the majors. He should start 2015 at Double-A Bowie.

2. Hunter Harvey, RHP (20) First-round pick in 2013 with a plus-fastball and plus-curveball is recovered from a flexor mass strain in his right arm that ended his second professional season.

3. Christian Walker, 1B (24) Walker, a fourth-round pick in 2012 out of the University of South Carolina, was named the Orioles’ Minor League Player of the Year.

4. Chance Sisco, C (20) The top catching prospect in the system won the South Atlantic League batting title with a .340 average at Class A Delmarva.

5. Dariel Alvarez, OF (26) Alvarez, the second Cuban player signed by the Orioles, projects as a right fielder with a plus-plus arm. He hit above .300 at Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk last season.

6. Zach Davies, RHP (22) Davies’ stock is really on the rise since the Orioles chose him in the 26th round of the 2011 draft. He may possess the best changeup in the farm system.

7. Tim Berry, LHP (24) Berry slipped to the 50th round of the 2009 draft after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. He posted a 2.53 ERA in his last eight starts at Double-A Bowie.

8. Mike Wright, RHP (25) He’s got a mid-90s fastball and a possible future as a late-inning reliever if there’s no spot in the Orioles’ rotation.

9. Mike Yastrzemski, OF (24) The grandson of Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski played at three levels of the system in 2014, finishing up at Double-A Bowie.

10. Jomar Reyes, INF (18) This is all about upside. Reyes is raw but he’s got impressive tools, including a strong arm and developing power.

Teaser:
Baltimore Orioles 2015 Preview
Post date: Monday, March 2, 2015 - 08:30
All taxonomy terms: Dallas Mavericks, Rajon Rondo, NBA
Path: /nba/things-are-going-south-fast-between-rajon-rondo-and-mavericks
Body:

It looks like it’s becoming safe to say that the Dallas’ Mavericks December trade for Rajon Rondo was a mistake.

 

The former Boston Celtics point guard was suspended for the Mavs’ 104-87 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, after a dispute with head coach Rick Carlisle in a Tuesday night victory over the Toronto Raptors:

 

And now, we’re starting to see reports of Rondo’s desire to leave Dallas this summer — when he’ll be an unrestricted free agent.

 

Rondo has previously been linked to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, particularly because of a well-publicized breakfast the two shared, and because of Bryant’s very transparent attempt to recruit Rondo to Tinseltown.

 

For Dallas, such a story can’t exactly be devastating. Before bringing Rajon to Texas, they were boasting the league’s best offense and winning at a .700 clip with a 19-8 record. They’ve been 20-13 since Rondo came to town — good for just a .610 mark — and they now trail the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers in offensive efficiency.

 

Rondo has visibly depreciated as a player. His shooting percentages have plummeted, especially his almost unbelievable 31 percent from the free throw line, and he can no longer take it to the rack and finish with flourishes of brilliant, spontaneous creativity like he used to.

 

When Rondo was one of the best players in the league during the Celtics’ run to the 2010 NBA Finals, his famously difficult personality was worth the trouble. But injuries and age caught up to him fast, and now he’s caught battling with a coach who wants him to keep the ball moving through pre-planned sets, instead of taking his time with the shot clock to try bending and breaking the court against the power of his vision.

 

When you’re great, you can get away with a lot. But Rondo looks more mediocre than great these days, and he’d likely do well by himself to keep his head down and trust the championship culture he’s in, instead of trying to transcend it.

 

But if he doesn’t, and he goes to the Lakers after a failed stint in Dallas, we can all look forward to an even more tragicomic NBA spectacle in Hollywood, where Bryant and Rondo run inefficiently amok on the fuel of former glory.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, February 27, 2015 - 14:37
All taxonomy terms: Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James, NBA
Path: /nba/lebron-scores-42-cavs-spank-warriors-statement-win
Body:
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers have now won 18 of their last 20 games, with their most recent victory being arguably their most impressive.

 

Cleveland tallied a 110-99 victory over the vaunted Golden State Warriors Thursday night, keyed by LeBron’s 42 points and 11 rebounds. The Cavs, for the most part, cruised through this one — they held double-digit leads through much of the second half. And the Warriors looked a rare form of frustrated, with head coach Steve Kerr getting so heated during a lecture to the referees that he had to remove some clothing:

 

Things are looking real good for Cleveland these days. With perhaps their biggest roadblock to the NBA Finals in a state of crisis — the now Derrick Rose-lesss Chicago Bulls — there’s seemingly only the Atlanta Hawks between them and a shot at the Western Conference champion in June. And if last night was any indication, the Cavs aren’t exactly intimidated by the West.

 

Maybe the most encouraging thing about their recent run is the chemistry of it. Kevin Love has begun to find his spot in the team’s system, crashing the defensive glass and throwing dazzling outlet passes to several strong finishers on the break, and getting loose for scoring assaults from behind the three-point line.

 

The Cavs’ acrimony of earlier in the season is becoming a distant memory, and it’s hardly difficult to see why: they’ve got the best player in the world. LeBron is not just a freak athlete; he’s also a one man system, and when he’s happy and healthy, his locomotive breakdown of defenses and passing vision is really all you need to get everyone involved.

 

Right here, right now, Cleveland looks every bit like the favorites to win the NBA title.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, February 27, 2015 - 10:46
All taxonomy terms: Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/alex-rodriguez-con-man-returns-baseball
Body:

Alex Rodriguez asked for this. Remember that. On Feb. 17, 2009, upon reporting to the Yankees’ spring training camp for the first time as an admitted steroid cheat, Rodriguez told a packed news conference, with typical grandiosity: “The only thing I ask from this group today and the American people is to judge me from this day forward. That’s all I can ask for.”

 

Well, judgment day is upon us. Rodriguez returned to the Yankees’ active roster after the last out of the 2014 World Series, ending a season-long suspension for his latest dalliance with performance-enhancing drugs.

 

Incredible, isn’t it? Even in an era of rampant doping across the sports landscape, Rodriguez stands out as one of the slimiest characters of all. When he asked for that fresh start, it seemed like a reasonable request. Sure, his misdeeds with the Texas Rangers would always stain his glittering career record. But most fans are willing to forgive a lapse in judgment.

 

Yet look at what Rodriguez did with that second chance: The very next season he went right back to cheating, scheming for an illegal chemical advantage through a shady Florida clinic and its sleazy head, Anthony Bosch. When he was caught, Rodriguez did what he does best: lie. He didn’t know Bosch at all! He never used banned drugs! He’ll expose this “witch hunt” in court!

 

Wrong. The richest baseball player ever could not buy his way out of this one. Major League Baseball banned Rodriguez for all of 2014 — and, oh yeah, he admitted everything to the DEA anyway, as revealed by the Miami Herald.

 

Rodriguez did, in fact, pay Bosch about $12,000 a month for roughly two years. He did, in fact, get pre-filled syringes for hormone injections into his stomach. Bosch did, in fact, draw A-Rod’s blood in the bathroom of a nightclub.

 

What a guy.

 

The Yankees could have made a bold statement. They could have cut Rodriguez and told the world that the kind of person who makes such despicable decisions has no place in their uniform. But that’s not how things happen in the real world.

 

While the Yankees were thrilled to have Rodriguez’s $25 million off their payroll for 2014, they still want to save more from the ludicrous 10-year, $275 million contract they gave him after the 2007 season. The Yankees owe Rodriguez $61 million in salary for the 2015-17 seasons, and for all of their animosity toward him, the money talks loudest.

 

Athlon Sports' 2015 MLB Preview magazine covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy today!

If the Yankees had released Rodriguez before he suited up for them again, they would have been obligated to pay him everything they owe. But if Rodriguez breaks down physically while employed by the team — if he re-injures his hip, for example, and is forced to retire — then insurance could cover 80 percent of his remaining salaries.

 

Yet there is also a somewhat unsettling reason the Yankees are keeping their most notorious player in pinstripes: They just might need his bat.

 

Yes, Rodriguez missed all that time. Yes, he turns 40 in July, with a body he has treated like a science experiment for more than a decade; who knows the real effects of all those injections, testosterone “gummies,” surgeries and everything else? But when Rodriguez played for the Yankees in 2013, he wasn’t all that bad — at least by the low standards of the team he left behind in 2014. As the Yankees staged a year-long farewell tour for captain Derek Jeter, they staggered through their worst offensive season in more than two decades. Rodriguez’s OPS over 44 games in 2013 was .771. Of the 11 players with the most plate appearances for the 2014 Yankees, nobody had an OPS that high.

 

The Yankees have been careful to keep their expectations guarded. They say that they do not know what to expect from Rodriguez. They have talked to him about playing first base and getting starts at designated hitter in addition to his old spot at third. But they have also tried to advance a storyline that Rodriguez’s work ethic will serve him well.

 

“He’s fit,” owner Hal Steinbrenner said late in the season. “Alex is a hard worker. Alex will be ready. We’ll just have to go from there, see how he does, see how he responds to playing every day in spring training. Point is, he’s in good shape. And that’s not surprising.”

 

Rodriguez, a hard worker? Spare us, Hal. This is one of the all-time con men in sports history. Plenty of athletes deserve the honorific “hard worker.” The painfully insecure Rodriguez, who has repeatedly chosen to take shortcuts in his career, is not one of them.

 

Rodriguez was so desperate for a boost in the 2012 playoffs that he flew Bosch to Detroit. He and Bosch had code words for drugs: Rodriguez insisted on calling them “food” in their text messages. When Bosch slipped once, Rodriguez texted him back: “Not meds, dude. Food.”

 

That sounds like the ham-handed ploy of a Scooby-Doo villain, but Rodriguez was sophisticated enough to beat all the drug tests he took. That is part of the reason baseball investigated Bosch’s Biogenesis clinic so aggressively. It served as a warning to any other would-be cheaters: Even if you pass the tests, we will hunt you down and suspend you.

 

Now that Rodriguez has served his penalty, he faces the harsh judgment he said he welcomed in 2009.

 

Yankees fans largely cheered him in 2013, while he was denying wrongdoing while appealing what was first a 211-game ban. Chances are, those fans will cheer him again, simply because he is wearing their team’s uniform. Road fans will taunt Rodriguez, but that will be nothing new. Neither will the avalanche of attention from the news media, which is also familiar to the Yankees as a team.

 

“We’ll deal with it,” manager Joe Girardi said in November. “I know there’s going to be a lot of attention. But very similar to when he came back a couple of years ago, there was a lot of attention the first week and then everybody disperses and covers other stories around the country. We’ll have to deal with a lot in the beginning, but it’ll spread around the country. It always does.”

 

Girardi is probably right about that, and nobody seems to care much that the vibe around the team will be so polluted by the presence of baseball’s biggest disgrace. What matters to the Yankees now is the faint hope of saving money — and the perhaps even fainter hope that Rodriguez might actually be able to help the team win.

 

Even if he does, though, Rodriguez’s past decisions have put him in a box. How can he possibly play well without cheating when he has shown repeatedly that he believes he must cheat to succeed? If he somehow does play well, few will be gullible enough to believe it.

 

Rodriguez has 654 career home runs. His 660th, if it ever comes, will trigger a bonus of $6 million. So will career homers No. 714, 755, 762 and 763. The bonuses were supposedly included in his deal as part of a marketing arrangement between the player and the team to celebrate his pursuit of the career home run record. Really, though, it was a clever way to make an extra $30 million and push the total value of his contract over $300 million.

 

Knowing Rodriguez, he will feel no shame if he hits No. 660, which would tie Willie Mays for fourth all-time. Here’s hoping he does it on the road, so his magic moment is drowned out in boos — a full-throated verdict for a fraud who literally asked for it.

 

— Written by Tyler Kepner for Athlon Sports

Teaser:
Alex Rodriguez: A Con Man Returns to Baseball
Post date: Friday, February 27, 2015 - 10:00
Path: /nba/kevin-garnett%E2%80%99s-return-minnesota-was-very-exciting
Body:

Like Odysseus before him, Kevin Garnett has gone through a long, weird journey that’s led him back to the only true endpoint: home.

 

After a trade returned him to the Minnesota Timberwolves last Thursday, Garnett made his first appearance in his new/old jersey with the ‘Wolves last night, as they beat the Washington Wizards 97-77 at home.

 

A standing ovation and overall roaring performance from the crowd accompanied KG’s return. 

 

"I've been back before and I never paid attention to how much love is here still for me because I'm too busy being focused on the game," Garnett told reporters. "And tonight it was just over the top. I did not know the city missed me like this. I don't think that you can ever wish or ever think the city loves you like this. But to see it is reality and I'm very appreciative.”

 

His impact on the floor was minimal — despite starting, Garnett played only 19 minutes, scoring five points to go with eight rebounds. That’s about as much as the 38-year-old can offer now, statistically.

 

But there’s no mistaking the extra energy and inspiration his homecoming gave the team. A hungry young squad keyed by the burgeoning rookie superstar Andrew Wiggins completed a 35-point swing after a 15-point deficit early on, to wallop the slumping Wizards. Washington’s 77 points marked a season-best defensive outing from Minny.

 

"Tonight's event was bigger than the game," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders told reporters later. "It's about bringing a family member back home.”

 

The ceiling is high for Minnesota. Wiggins is surrounded by a lot of talented players his age, like Gorgui Dieng, Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne, Shabazz Muhammad and the recently overlooked Ricky Rubio. Let’s see if Garnett can help this roster mature quickly, and be more than the sum of its unseasoned parts.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, February 26, 2015 - 13:34
All taxonomy terms: Chicago Cubs, National League, NL Central, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/joe-maddons-arrival-signals-next-step-chicago-cubs-resurgence
Body:

The characters in that long-running Windy City disaster known as the Chicago Cubs’ World Series Disappointment are well known to all baseball fans. There is the Billy Goat. And Bartman. The Miracle Mets. Leon Durham and his “Gatorade glove,” not to mention a supporting cast both great (Ernie Banks) and small (Ernie Broglio, part of the infamous Lou Brock trade), all of whom have contributed to American sports’ most celebrated failure. If you don’t know that the Cubs haven’t won a title since 1908, you must be a soccer fan.

 

Over the past few months, there have been some names added to the marquee, and hope has returned to soon-to-be-renovated Wrigley Field. It actually began in 2011, when Red Sox architect Theo Epstein took over the team’s front office, spawning a small delirium among those who expected he could erase the goat’s curse, just as he had made the Bambino’s go away. Since the first three years of Epstein’s regime produced a record of 200–286, North Siders weren’t exactly camped out along the parade route in anticipation of a championship celebration.

 

That changed during the fall, when Epstein took advantage of a crack in Joe Maddon’s contract and extricated the Tampa Bay manager from baseball’s discount store. Maddon made friends immediately by promising to talk of contending in 2015 and even tried to curry favor with the media with an offer to buy a round of drinks. (Q: What are a reporter’s favorite two beers? A: Free and Free Lite.) Suddenly, that magic touch Epstein was supposed to possess looked a little more legitimate. Maddon’s ability to keep the Rays in contention — and reach the 2008 World Series — with an ever-changing roster of young players whose contracts never reached luxury levels would no doubt help the Cubs grow.

 

“What does it mean to have a dynamic manager?” Epstein asked at the November press conference announcing Maddon’s arrival. “It means that you have the potential to have an edge in everything related to the events on the field. Whether it’s preparation, decision-making in the game, knowing you can get the most out of your players, trying to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. All those things … it’s really nice to just have complete trust and faith that the person in charge of running that on-field operation is going to put you in the best possible position.”

 

That sounds pretty good, and in Maddon the Cubs have a manager with the kind of track record guaranteed to attract respect in the dugout and wins on the field. In December, the party continued when Chicago outbid Boston, among other suitors, for the opportunity to pay 31-year-old left-handed starting pitcher Jon Lester $155 million over the next six years. It was the kind of splashy signing the Cubs hadn’t had for a while, and Lester’s decision to join the team demonstrated the faith he had in the organization’s push for success. He wanted to play for Maddon. He wanted to be with a club that had an abundance of young talent. And he didn’t seem one bit worried that it has been 107 years since Chicago last won it all.

 

Lester has posted a career mark of 116–67 in nine seasons with Boston and the A’s. He’s a three-time All-Star who has won 15 or more games six times, and he gives Chicago the No. 1 starter it has lacked. More than that, his decision to be a Cub validates Epstein’s efforts and provides a big reason for the team’s fans to get excited. When he was introduced, Lester sounded as if helping the team win a championship would be as satisfying for him as it would be for those Chicagolanders who have experienced so much diamond anguish over the past century-plus.

 

“It’s one of those things you put at the top of the list,” Lester said, referring to winning a World Series title. “To be a part of something like that would truly be special and unbelievable. Obviously, that’s our goal, to do that.”

 

Athlon Sports' 2015 MLB Preview magazine covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy today!

Most baseball fans — even some on Chicago’s South Side — would agree that a Cubs World Series title would indeed be special. But after so many seasons, the unbelievable part is more appropriate. The franchise hasn’t just had a short run of misfortune, or even a long stretch of despair. This has been 107 years of misery. Sure, teams like the Mariners have never won a championship, but they have only been around since 1977. By then, the Cubs had endured 69 seasons of disappointment and at times comic failure. Their Wrigley home is “friendly,” but decades of day-only baseball might have contributed to the trouble. Then again, the Bartman playoff debacle took place at night. No one can pinpoint a reason for the failure; we just know the Cubs haven’t won it all for more than a century. Maddon and Lester are the biggest names on the latest edition trying to change that.

 

“Why wouldn’t you want to accept this challenge?” Maddon asked at his press conference. “In this city? In that ballpark? Under these circumstances, with this talent? It’s an extraordinary moment, not just in Cubs history, but also in baseball. This confluence of all these items coming together is pretty impressive.”

 

• • •

 

Maddon’s talk about contending for the NL Central title in 2015 is great Hot Stove fodder, and his track record and confidence have made the Cubs’ sales staff’s jobs much easier during the offseason. That’s what December and January are all about: the possibility of success. Maddon’s tenure in Tampa Bay gives him the bona fides in the dugout. But signing Lester and pitcher Jason Hammel — whom the Cubs traded away last year — and acquiring catcher Miguel Montero from the Diamondbacks aren’t necessarily enough to guarantee contention for a team that finished 2014 with a 73–89 record and was outscored by 93 runs.

 

That’s the reality behind the celebration. Chicago is headed in the right direction, but to herald the arrivals of Maddon and Lester as the final answers to a championship riddle simplifies the Cubs’ plight. There is really only one top-shelf hitter in the lineup — first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who hit .286 with 32 homers and a robust .527 slugging percentage (.913 OPS) last year. Fans may point to the excessive accumulation of talent in the Chicago farm system, and indeed Epstein has been hoarding young studs for future use or as trade bait. Names like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell may not mean a lot to fans in other cities, but Cubs supporters invoke them regularly as evidence of future success. The trouble is that they aren’t ready to be key pieces of a winner yet, and while Rizzo, Montero and shortstop Starlin Castro comprise a solid nucleus, too many of the others on the roster are not championship pieces. Even with Maddon in the dugout, it’s going to take some time.

 

“I like where we are as an organization,” Epstein says. “It’s nice to have an eye on competing, and we’re going to try to build it the right way and not force it or rush it. We’re mindful of the next offseason, as well as this offseason to find the right fits and the right moves and compete.”

 

If that doesn’t sound like a man who has job security, nothing does. Perhaps Epstein believes that if a city has waited more than a century for a championship, another few years won’t matter. But he is right that it’s important to build the right way. When quick fixes don’t deliver, a franchise is often left with a collection of underachieving veterans and no young talent on the horizon. By constructing a farm system that has been rated the majors’ best, Epstein has given the Cubs plenty of options. He can wait for the youngsters to blossom, or he can dish them for established stars. More likely, he will create a hybrid of new and old that is capable of winning for a while.

 

That’s why the Lester signing is so important. Chicago didn’t have to sacrifice any of its key pieces to get the top-of-rotation pitcher it needed. Lester has made at least 31 starts in each of the past seven seasons. Last year, he had a career-best 2.46 ERA with Boston and Oakland, and his 3.58 ERA in a career spent exclusively in the American League would indicate that the Cubs won big by signing Lester.

 

“This signing really marks a transition of sorts for the Cubs, the start of a period where we are clearly very serious about bringing a World Series to the Cubs and the people of Chicago,” Epstein said at Lester’s introductory press conference. “It’s a great day for our fans. They’ve been so patient with us, incredibly patient, over the past few years, and they truly deserve a pitcher and a person of this caliber to call their own.”

 

Epstein’s comments about a new chapter demonstrate that it is no longer time for assessing and accumulating potential future stars. This is his fourth year with the Cubs, and despite his praising the fans’ tolerance, it’s unlikely they will remain so docile if the next couple seasons don’t bring real progress. At a time when Pittsburgh can end a 21-year postseason drought with back-to-back playoff appearances, and Kansas City can reach the World Series, fans don’t want to hear too much talk about building, even if the Pirates and Royals did have long journeys to the postseason. There is a feeling that the NL Central is not as formidable as it once was, what with Ryan Braun’s post-suspension drop-off, Cincinnati’s pitching fire sale and St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina’s mortality-proving injury providing evidence that there is room to grow.

 

Make that win.

 

When Epstein took over the Cubs, he invited former Chicago pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, the 1984 NL Cy Young Award winner and three-time All-Star, to spring training and asked Sutcliffe to evaluate the team’s pitchers. Epstein probably wasn’t expecting a glowing report, but he couldn’t have been prepared for what he heard.

 

“I thought he would hit me when I told him the truth,” says Sutcliffe, who is now an ESPN analyst. “I told him that of the 60-some prospects I saw, there might have been three of them who could pitch in the majors.”

 

Sutcliffe has since seen the Cubs’ farm system develop into one of the best — if not the best — in the business. “I don’t think Theo would trade his farm system for anyone else’s,” Sutcliffe says. But someone has to take that talent and translate it to a successful team on the field. That’s where Maddon comes in. It’s not an understatement to say that he did some remarkable things in Tampa Bay. Five of his nine teams won 90 games or more, and four reached the postseason. And it was all accomplished without big-money stars or collections of proven veteran winners. Tampa Bay would hold on to its young talent as long as it could before free agency and then try to get something for it to avoid paying big money. Trying to win consistently under that constriction is not easy, yet Maddon did it.

 

“Being able to bring Joe Maddon is way above signing Jon Lester,” Sutcliffe says. “He has a proven ability to evaluate, and someone has to evaluate for the team to evolve. Nobody did it better or quicker than Joe Maddon did it in Tampa Bay.

 

“He has his five steps of success, and the fifth step is, ‘All I want to do is win.’”

 

Managers don’t hit or pitch. They don’t field or throw, but they are responsible for everything else on a team. During his time in Tampa, Maddon developed a reputation for knowing how to handle players, individually and as a group. He never showed up his team, and he always appeared — and by all accounts was — in control. Sutcliffe is right that adding Maddon is much bigger than signing Lester. First off, Lester only throws every fifth day. Maddon is in the dugout, clubhouse and office every game — and on off days, too. Secondly, without Maddon, there is no Lester in Chicago.

 

“When you make a statement like bringing in a Joe Maddon, that just adds to the decision-making,” Lester said about his choice to join the Cubs. “Makes it that much more interesting.”

 

Plenty of people in the Rays’ orbit groused about Maddon’s departure, since it came during a tiny window of availability. For many people, he was the franchise’s personality, with his northeastern Pennsylvania working-class sensibility, serial unflappability and ability to keep Tampa Bay in contention no matter how elastic his team’s roster was. He is now the Cubs’ face, and the team is elated that he has taken on that responsibility.

 

“Joe is a combination of just about everything we look for in a manager,” Epstein says. “Everyone associates him with new school, because they’ve used analytics in Tampa, and he’s so open-minded and progressive. But this is an old-school baseball guy with a wealth of knowledge. It’s hard to find that. It’s hard to find old-school and new-school in the same package.”

 

The Cubs have found that in Maddon. Now, all he has to do is lead the team to a World Series title.

 

What could be so hard about that?

 

— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports

Teaser:
Joe Maddon's Arrival Signals Next Step in Chicago Cubs' Resurgence
Post date: Thursday, February 26, 2015 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: NBA
Path: /nba/nbpa-director-michele-roberts-thinks-media-access-should-be-reduced
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Chris Paul is the president of the NBA Players Association — better known as the union — and LeBron James was recently named the vice president.

 

But the fearless leader of the organization is undoubtedly 58-year-old lawyer Michele Roberts, who continued to prove herself as a hard-liner in a recent interview with ESPN W’s Kate Fagan. The most telling piece of Fagan’s story was Roberts’ thoughts on media availability.

 

"Most of the time I go to the locker room, the players are there and there are like eight or nine reporters just standing there, just staring at them," Roberts said to Fagan. "And I think to myself, 'OK, so this is media availability?' If you don't have a f---ing question, leave, because it's an incredible invasion of privacy. It's a tremendous commitment that we've made to the media — are there ways we can tone it down? Of course. It's very dangerous to suggest any limitation on media's access to players, but let's be real about some of this stuff.

 

"I've asked about a couple of these guys, 'Does he ask you a question?' 'Nah, he just stands there.' And when I go in there to talk to the guys, I see them trying to listen to my conversation, and I don't think that's the point of media availability. If nothing else, I would like to have a rule imposed, 'If you have a question, ask it; if you don't, leave.' Sometimes, they're waiting for the marquee players. I get that, but there is so much standing around."

 

This one’s a prickly pear. The press has classically been an instrumental part of the NBA product, but revolutions in technology and media have made it increasingly easier for players to reach their fans directly — be it through social media or otherwise. Reporters who used to be essential middlemen are now fighting a difficult battle, in which it’s harder and harder to prove that their place in the locker room results in salient material.

 

For what it’s worth, I’ve been in a number of NBA locker rooms, a number of times, and yes: it’s awkward. Gigantic men covering themselves with puny towels before and after showers — and before they do their very difficult jobs — are not the best conversationalists, and quote-hungry reporters don’t tend to ask questions that exactly ease the tension of the situation.

 

Roberts, though, is simply playing a form of hardball that looks likely to be a trend for her in this new role. While the current system of media availability leaves some emotional comfort to be desired, and while it could very well be wise to reform the existing format, there are definitely more important fights to be fought in the name of players — like the probably impending work bargaining in 2017.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, February 26, 2015 - 10:18
All taxonomy terms: National League, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/five-national-league-players-new-teams-watch-2015
Body:

Fear not baseball fans — Sunshine and warmer weather are on their way, and spring training is knocking on Old Man Winter’s door. Thankfully, it is almost time for baseball, as camps are in full gear in Arizona and Florida.

 

Many players are getting acclimated to new spring training surroundings, as these past few months proved to be busy for general managers, agents and players alike. Between blockbuster trades and free agents signing robust contracts with new teams, there has been no lack of player movement this offseason.

 

Lucky for you, Athlon Sports has kept a close watch on the MLB Hot Stove while you’ve been shoveling snow. So get your pencils and scorebooks ready as we list the Five National League Players on New Teams to Watch in 2015.

 

Max Scherzer, SP, Washington Nationals

It seemed like a foregone conclusion that the 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner was going to test the free agent market this offseason after Scherzer turned down a six-year, $144 million contract offer from Detroit last March. Instead of re-signing with the Tigers and fighting for a fifth straight AL Central division title, Scherzer headed to the National League and Capitol Hill, as he penned a seven-year deal worth approximately $210 million with Washington.

 

Last season the Nationals were the poplar pick to win the NL pennant, and rest assured they will be even more favored in 2015 with the addition of Scherzer. The Nats’ 2014 rotation was special, but this season has the opportunity to be historic. Manager Matt Williams’ starting five will feature (in some order) Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister, a teammate of Scherzer’s on the Tigers in 2011-13. While some in-season tinkering cannot be ruled out, if this quintet lives up to lofty expectations, it could be a historic season on the mound for the Nationals. And hopefully, it also will produce winning results in October.

 

With the Braves in full-on rebuilding mode and the Mets and Marlins considered fringe postseason contenders, the NL East is the Nationals’ to lose, and all eyes will be fully fixed on their new $210 million dollar ace.

 

Matt Kemp, OF, San Diego Padres

Four years ago Matt Kemp was the darling of MLB after he fell one home run short of the elusive 40/40 club and posted a slash line of .324/.399/.586 along with 126 RBIs, 115 runs, 195 hits, 353 total bases, an OPS of .986 and an OPS+ of 172. Sadly, Kemp fell short in the MVP voting to Ryan Braun, who was suspended 65 games in 2013 for his part in the Biogenesis scandal.

 

What’s even more despairing is that Kemp has never been the same since that 2011 season. Kemp, who is easily one of the most genuine and likable guys in sports today, was robbed of his prime due to constant, nagging injuries. Kemp has yet to top 30 homers, 100 RBIs, or 10 stolen bases since his near-MVP campaign, and baseball has been lesser for it.

 

In 2014, Kemp had a resurgence. He appeared in 150 games for the Dodgers, hitting .287/.346/.506 with 25 homers, 89 RBIs and 38 doubles. The bat was back for Kemp, but the range and defensive prowess in the outfield and speed on the base paths weren’t the same. The recipient of two Gold Gloves as a center fielder, Kemp spent most of his time manning the corner outfield spots last season, which led to noticeable frustration with manager Don Mattingly. 

 

Kemp is now 30, suffering from arthritis in both hips, and is just one of three brand-new outfielders San Diego acquired in the offseason, along with Wil Myers and Justin Upton. Kemp swears his hips won’t be a nuisance, that he’s happy in his new home, and ready for a full slate in 2015. Kemp and the Padres might be the biggest question marks coming into spring training. Most pundits don't know what to make of new Padres GM A.J. Preller’s extensive roster makeover, but here’s hoping that we witness the next chapter of the Matt Kemp Comeback that began in 2014. Baseball is better when Kemp is at his best.

 

Wil Myers, OF, San Diego Padres

Speaking of the Padres’ outfield…It’s funny how baseball works itself out. In December 2012 Myers, a third-round draft pick by Kansas City, was shipped to Tampa Bay for pitchers Wade Davis and James Shields. Last season, Shields and Davis helped the Royals reach their first World Series since 1985, while Myers was named the AL Rookie of the Year in 2013 when he hit .293/.354/.478 with 13 homers, 23 doubles and an OPS of .831 in just 88 games for the Rays.

 

After a disastrous 2014 in which Myers hit just .222 in 87 games due to a broken wrist, the Rays shipped him to San Diego in December in a three-team trade that also involved the Nationals. The funny thing is, Shields also wound up in a Padres uniform after signing a four-year, $75 million free-agent contract a few weeks ago. See, baseball is a funny game.

 

Myers, like fellow new teammate Matt Kemp, is looking for somewhat of a resurrection on the West Coast. Myers has already been named the starting center fielder by skipper Bud Black, and will find a spot somewhere in the heart of the lineup. Perhaps the opportunity of a fresh start in San Diego will be welcomed by Myers, who was tabbed as a “can’t miss” prospect.  However, the increased expectations of the new-look Padres could be a bit cumbersome for a player who just turned 24 in December and has yet to play a full season in the majors.

 

Jon Lester, SP, Chicago Cubs

As if breaking a 107-year old curse wasn’t stressful enough, tack on the pressure of $155 million over six seasons for a 31-year old pitcher. No big deal, right? Oh, don’t forget the eyes of the entire baseball world are upon Wrigley Field, as some publications are picking the Cubs as a World Series contender. Not to mention Chicago is home to one of the most loyal, obsessed, and passionate fan bases in all of sports. No pressure, Mr. Lester — no pressure at all.

 

Theo Epstein and the Cubs’ brass, and their rabid fans, are ready to start winning, and start winning now. The signing of one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball over the past decade is proof of this win-now mindset. After three seasons of sub-.500 baseball, prospect collecting, sign-and-trades, and big contract expulsion, the Cubs finally made their power play to sign Lester, the ace they so desperately needed. But there are still too many questions for this team before we anoint them as World Series-bound.

 

The Cubs know what they’ve got in Lester, a pure professional who has improved with age, who commands the strike zone as well as any pitcher, and delivers 200-plus innings of work.

 

Lester isn’t the issue. This issue is most of this Cubs lineup is still wildly unproven. Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Addison Russell, and Kris Bryant are all fantastic prospects but none of them have a full season of big-league ball on their resumes. Heck, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are considered cornerstones, but are just 25 and 24 years old, respectively. That is a lot of pressure to put on a team built with kids in their early 20s.

 

The only way this contract proves to be a winner is if the Cubs win —Duh, right? But if Lester lights up the NL only to see the offense falter, the deal is a wash. If the Cubs’ young lineup lives up to the hype, but it’s Lester who doesn’t deliver over time, the deal will be regarded as too pricey for the results.

 

The only way this deal works is by winning an NL pennant, which seems plausible. But who are we kidding — it’s the Cubs we’re talking about. No matter the outcome of the 2015 season, the signing of Lester will be the signature of the Epstein regime in Chicago, for better or worse.

 

Jason Heyward, OF, St. Louis Cardinals

Remember when Heyward homered in his first big league at-bat off of Carlos Zambrano in 2010? Remember how quickly Heyward was anointed as the next big thing? That seems so long ago…

 

Since 2010, when Heyward finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting, his inaugural batting average of .277 hasn't gotten higher than .271. Heyward’s power numbers are also a thing of the past, not hitting more than 15 homers or driving in 70 runs or more in three of the past four seasons. In his career, Heyward has never slugged over .500.

 

Maybe it’s time to simply accept that Heyward isn’t the big bat we all thought he might turn into. He did show flashes of what could be in 2012 when he hit 27 homers and drove in 82 runs, but has totaled just 25 homers and 96 RBIs the last two seasons.

 

The falling numbers and the Braves’ rebuild made Heyward expendable to the new Atlanta brass. After the death of elite prospect Oscar Taveras, the Cardinals needed outfield help, and Hayward became a perfect trade target — great glove with possible offensive upside.

 

Heyward, a first-round pick in 2007 and two-time Gold Glove winner, will only strengthen what already is one of the NL’s better defensive teams. If Heyward can tap into what worked at the plate in 2010 and ‘12, that would be a much-needed bonus for a Cardinals offense that lacked consistent run-producers a season ago.

 

Heyward’s glove has never been a question, which begs another question — where does Heyward’s bat fit in this lineup? Lead off? Second? Fifth? Seventh?

 

Heyward is just 25 years young, yet this will be his sixth season in The Show, so he’s no longer a kid in baseball time. The Cardinals, ripe with experienced veterans, are looking for Heyward to be the player that he was projected to be just a few seasons ago. How will Heyward respond in the baseball-crazed city of St. Louis?


- By Jake Rose

Teaser:
Five National League Players on New Teams to Watch in 2015
Post date: Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 16:00
Path: /nba/russell-westbrook-surging-mvp-conversation
Body:

Not since the 1950’s has the NBA seen a team have consecutive MVP campaigns from two different players. Bob Cousy won it for the Boston Celtics in 1957, followed by Bill Russell in 1958.

 

The Oklahoma City Thunder currently look as close to matching that feat as anyone has since. With reigning MVP Kevin Durant sidelined about half of the year with foot issues, point guard Russell Westbrook has all but put the team on his back with his terrific play.

 

Westbrook has missed a number of games himself — 14, to be exact — or else he’d be mentioned as frequently as Steph Curry and ex-teammate James Harden in the MVP conversation. Russell’s been one of the very best players around this year — scoring at will, distributing with as much poise as ever, and affecting offenses from all angles with his relentless defensive athleticism.

 

Only Anthony Davis has a higher player efficiency rating than Westbrook’s 29.25 mark, as No. 0 is also second in the NBA in scoring — behind only Harden — fifth in assists, second in steals and first among fellow point guards in rebounding.

 

And, as has long been the case, Westbrook’s signature emotional style has keyed his team. The Thunder rally around his ceaseless energy and swagger, and perhaps no superstar can say they do a better job of leading by example in the intensity department.

 

The missing games and the Thunder’s relatively low .554 winning percentage are the best arguments against Westbrook’s candidacy. But if Durant continues to miss time and OKC keeps up their current pace (they’ve won eight of their last ten) with Westbrook’s excellence at the lead, more heads will start turning.

 

Whether or not Russell grabs the coveted trophy, though, he’s certainly playing at a level that has the rest of the league on edge as we approach the postseason.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 14:04
All taxonomy terms: Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose, NBA
Path: /nba/derrick-rose-has-torn-his-meniscus-again
Body:

The NBA has experienced a lot of bad injury news lately — Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Chris Bosh, Kobe Bryant and Blake Griffin are all out of action at the moment.

 

But the latest development might be the hardest to swallow. Perennially injured 2011 MVP Derrick Rose has a torn meniscus in his right knee; the same one he tore in November of 2013, causing him to miss all but ten games of the season a year after missing every game due to a torn ACL in his left knee, suffered in the first game of a promising Chicago Bulls postseason run.

 

There’s no denying it at this point: Rose is a tragic figure. Like Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill and Brandon Roy before him, the 26-year-old Chicago native is chock full of the kind of talent that truly gets fans’ butts moving, but he simply can’t stay healthy for long enough to wield that skill in important moments. The promise of Rose’s scintillating early career has been broken by the cruel hand of fate, and the NBA and its fans are all worse off for it.

 

Social media experienced an outpouring of sympathy and upset feelings that reached levels of nausea, when the news hit last night. Competitors, allies, and neutral bystanders alike all hate to see this happen, again and again.

 

The Bulls, in the meantime, haven’t announced a ton about Rose’s status. His surgery will be scheduled, and a timetable for a return will be determined when it is complete. Rose and his team opted for a full repair to the meniscus when he tore it last time, which made a longer career more likely. But, depending on how things look when the doctors dig in, a quicker “clean-up” procedure may be the better option, and may allow Rose to return in time for the playoffs. Stay tuned as this story progresses.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 10:18

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