Articles By Athlon Sports

All taxonomy terms: Los Angeles Lakers, Steve Nash, NBA
Path: /nba/steve-nash-still-getting-paid-lakers
Body:

Maybe you forgot that Steve Nash is on the Los Angeles Lakers — we couldn’t blame you. He’s played just 65 games for L.A. over three seasons, including only 15 last year, and none this season.

 

But the 41-year-old is, in fact, still being paid $9.7 million by the team this year, despite being eliminated from the action before the action even began. An injury caused by lifting his bags was a sure omen that Nash should retire, but he hasn’t made that official yet.

 

You can’t blame him for waiting out his contract, and wanting to cash in on the last year’s worth of money on it — any one of us would likely do the same, in his shoes — but Nash’s involvement in any off-court Lakers duties has reached a level that’s straight-up comic. He didn’t even participate in a recent team photo:

 

Nash has been working a bit with rookie point guard Jordan Clarkson (one of the few bright spots on a sunken franchise), but has otherwise seemed totally absent from team affairs. Jeremy Lin said his invite for Nash boot camp was lost in the mail.

 

 

With Nash’s minimal input into Lakerland, it’s easy to imagine that he’s exacting a sort of revenge on the team that repeatedly thwarted him during his multiple-MVP-winning prime with the Phoenix Suns. While Nash is probably not doing that, his circumstances today are still funny and surreal when viewed through the lens of yesteryear — his poetically strange end with a broken Lakers team goes to show the weird ways in which fate and karma can work in the NBA.

 

Let’s try to remember the good times we had with Steve, though. He was once an innovative, electric player who turned every game he played into event viewing. And, of course, he also took part in one of the most memorable fan-athlete moments of our times, when he completed this epic highway beer handoff:

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, March 12, 2015 - 10:09
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2015-fantasy-baseball-rankings-outfielders
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: Outfielders

 

TIER 1

1. Mike Trout, Angels (A)

Trout’s recent proclivities to muscle up at the dish and gear down on the bases dent his overall fantasy yield. His AVG fell .036, his SBs from 33 to 16, and his line drive percentage from 23.0 to 18.9. Yet, even after the “worst” of his three seasons, he’s cavernously better than anyone else.

2. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins (A,B)

Pujols and A-Rod are the only active players to have hit 150 roundtrippers at a younger age than Stanton, and with the roto-value of a home run greater than at any point since 1992, he’s a monumental property. Furthermore, he’s settled contractually and will be playing on his best team yet.

3. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (A)

He’s not what could be termed “elite” in any category, but Cutch is close enough in all of them to comprise a package that can serve as a the hub of a roster. The only squishy spots are that he’s yet to drive in 100 runs, and he’s at an age when SBs are going to be a lesser component of his game.

 

TIER 2

4. Yasiel Puig, Dodgers (B)

He may be a flake at times, but not a fluke. Although Puig didn’t take a major stride forward as a sophomore, he held his own as pitchers made adjustments. This could be the year the stats — not just the flashes of ability — cascade out of him.

5. Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies (F)

Gonzalez would be an easy Tier 1 if not for the knee surgery and generalized fragility that threatens to age him before his time. No more 20-SB seasons, but if he can approach his .311-27-91-91 average from 2010-13, he’s still in rarefied air.

6. Michael Brantley, Indians

Brantley renovated solid numbers in five categories into superlative ones. He hit .050 above his career average, doubled his HR high to 20, and added personal bests of 97 RBIs and 23 SBs. Because improvement has come in steps, it’s apt to be sustainable.

7. Adam Jones, Orioles

Fellow center fielder McCutchen gets more run but, since 2011, Jones has held the edge in HRs by 19 and RBIs by 17. The divergences are in steals and AVG, but at least he’s kept the latter predictably between .277 and .287 six straight times.

8. Hanley Ramirez, Red Sox (F)

Because he’s sat out between 34 and 98 games in three of the last four years, Ramirez’s bidders typically do so while squinting, making strange sounds and mumbling disclaimers. A healthy Hanley in Fenway rivals McCutchen as a five-category force.

9. Carlos Gomez, Brewers

Gomez’s 66 HRs the last three years are more than twice as many as any other player who’s also stolen 100 bases. He’s hit exactly .284 with 73 RBIs two years in a row and, as an all-or-nothing type, those are about his upper limits.

10. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays

With 187, Bautista is the game’s home run king of the past five seasons despite missing 135 games. He was relatively healthy in three of those — each 100-run/100-RBI blockbusters. Medical memoir and middlin’ batting averages keep him out of Tier 1.

11. Hunter Pence, Giants

Pence is a baseball-playing machine. You can throw a rosin bag over his seven full, unerringly productive seasons. The metric of the 162-game average — .280-24-89-88-13 — is extra-meaningful in his case because he’s played at least 154 in all seven. A broken forearm in his first spring training game will limit his numbers this season, as he likely won’t make his debut until the middle of May.

12. Christian Yelich, Marlins

The only 2014 player in a 22-or-younger season with more hits or runs scored than Yelich was Trout, and the Marlins rookie stole more bags (21). A batting title contender-in-the-making, he never seems to slump.

13. Justin Upton, Padres (E)

Once enigmatic, Upton has finally clarified that he is a “star” without the “super.” Which is just fine, since he averages .279-24-80-90-16 since 2009. He’s been unfazed by Petco’s dimensions — a .900 career OPS there.

14. Ryan Braun, Brewers (F)

Whether it was his lack of “vitamins,” an obstinate thumb injury or just the normal ebbs and flows of the game, Braun was a shadow of the masher who led the NL in TBs and runs between 2007 and 2012. That said, he’s capable of a “Nelson Cruz.”

15. Yoenis Cespedes, Tigers (B)

Playing at a park far more suited to right-handed power than his last two, Cespedes has his best opportunity to finally unleash his purported promise. His failure to make adjustments compromises his upside, but this could be his first 30-HR season.

16. Jacoby Ellsbury, Yankees

Ellsbury is caught in a vortex between being a power player and a speed player. Joe Girardi couldn’t decide either, starting him 49 times at leadoff and 93 times in the three-hole. His 16-HR/39-SB campaign split the difference and probably best represents who he is.

17. Bryce Harper, Nationals (B)

It wouldn’t take much for Harper to crack Tier 1, but until he finds a way out of this star-crossed loop he’s in, he’s tough to trust. He saved 2014 from being a washout with power spurts in August and October.

18. Starling Marte, Pirates

If a 2013-14 output of 25 HRs, 71 SBs and a .286 AVG doesn’t dazzle you, take note that Marte is the only player in the game to have done it. His power is still embryonic, and his AVG must be viewed through the lens of an MLB-high .373 mark on balls in play.

 

TIER 3

19. Jason Heyward, Cardinals

Heyward is a short cab ride from Bustville, and now he’ll have to regroup in a park where he’s batted .234. Addressing his 2014 OPS of .477 against lefties would be a good place to start. He’s just 25, so there’s still a pulse to his promise.

20. Jay Bruce, Reds

Bruce called 2014 “the most embarrassing year of my life.” To which scores of fantasy players who squandered a premium pick on his .217-18-66-71-12 responded: “Tell me about it.” This isn’t a very accommodating era for extreme-strikeout, extreme-pull power hitters.

21. Ben Revere, Phillies

Revere takes a lot of grief for power that extends to the edge of the outfield grass, but as a two-category role player on an otherwise well-appointed fantasy team, he can be the exclamation point. He’s doinked .301 since 2012, averaging 46 SBs per 150 games.

22. J.D. Martinez, Tigers

What do Alex Presley, Jesus Guzman, Robbie Grossman and L.J. Hoes have in common? They were outfielders the Astros chose to keep ahead of Martinez last spring. Starting in Detroit by June, he outstripped his career AVG by 64 points (.315) and, with 23, nearly doubled his HR/AB % to 5.2.

23. Billy Hamilton, Reds

Still a rudimentary hitter (.195 AVG when infield hits are discounted), but he’s not entirely without punch (39 XBHs, solid line drive rate of 21.1%). Though his 70.9% success rate was in the bottom 10 of 50-SB men over the past 25 years, he has historic thievery aptitude.

24. Matt Kemp, Padres (E,F)

Kemp is a Tier 1 talent with a Tier 5 skeletalature moving to a park where good hitters go to commit statistical suicide. His past glories and fast finish (MLB-high .606 second-half slugging) are not to be slighted, but there’s a lot of push-back to his comeback.

25. Lorenzo Cain, Royals (B)

Because his rep is “glove first” and he doesn’t clear fences, Cain has been a soft fantasy play. We tagged him as a “C” last year, and he added .050 to his AVG (.301) and doubled his SBs (28). There’s still some evolution left, and we’re projecting .310-70-10-60-35.

26. Leonys Martin, Rangers

Martin is precisely where Cain was two years ago, comparably styled and with a similar ceiling. He’s a more aggressive thief, though — one of only eight players with 30-plus steals each of the last two years.

27. Gregory Polanco, Pirates

There are only two questions with Polanco: “How good can he be?” and “How fast can he get there?” A young Vladimir Guerrero comes to mind. Reluctantly promoted by the Bucs last summer due to need, he interspersed wows and warts.

28. Alex Gordon, Royals (F)

Gordon has severely underperformed and overperformed at times in his career, but his last two seasons have been identically positioned in the upper (but not close to elite) strata of outfielders. Underwent wrist surgery on Dec. 30.

29. Jayson Werth, Nationals (E)

Werth, Cabrera, Trout, Beltre, McCutchen, V-Mart and Cano are the only players with a triple crown line of at least .304-41-164 the last two years. He’s at the bottom end of that array, though, and he turns 36 in May.

30. Mark Trumbo, Diamondbacks

Revere turned inside-out — a two-trick pony (HRs, RBIs) best-suited for a roster than can absorb 450 empty outs. Homered only once in his first 55 games back from a foot injury last year, but had five in the final eight days.

31. Marcell Ozuna, Marlins

Homered his age (23), but he’s at the crossroads where many young power hitters need to decide whether they’re going to round out their craft or just sell out for the longball.

32. Denard Span, Nationals (E)

Had the year we’ve long waited for, three-category-wise: .302 AVG, 94 runs, 31 SBs. We’d advise banking only on his more established levels of .285, 70 and 20. Unexpected muscle core surgery also will delay his arrival to the end of April or early May.

33. Charlie Blackmon, Rockies

Surviving a mad scrum for a Rox outfield post last spring, a late-developing Blackmon put a death grip on it with a .288-19-72-82-28 shocker. He was ordinary the last two months, though, so stay wary.

34. Rusney Castillo, Red Sox (C)

Castillo is a wild card, but he passed every test after signing in August. Comparables? We searched for players who hit .285-.300 with 10-to-15 HRs and 20-to-30 SBs, and came up with such names as Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino — and some guy named Jackie Robinson.

35. Brandon Moss, Indians (F)

Since Moss stopped pinballing around the “4-A” landscape at age 28 in 2012, he’s concocted one of the 10 highest percentages of HRs/100 ABs (6.28) in the game. AVGs are plunging in inverse proportion to his prodigious strikeout totals.

 

36. Melky Cabrera, White Sox (F)

37. Corey Dickerson, Rockies (E)

38. Brett Gardner, Yankees (E)

39. Adam Eaton, White Sox (E)

40. Carl Crawford, Dodgers

41. Kole Calhoun, Angels

42. Matt Holliday, Cardinals (E)

43. George Springer, Astros (F)

 

TIER 4

44. A.J. Pollock, Diamondbacks

45. Alex Rios, Royals

46. Joc Pederson, Dodgers (C)

47. Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers (F)

48. Dexter Fowler, Cubs

49. Steven Souza, Rays (C)

50. Khris Davis, Brewers

51. Josh Hamilton, Angels (F)

52. Austin Jackson, Mariners

53. Nick Markakis, Braves (F)

54. Angel Pagan, Giants (F)

55. Michael Cuddyer, Mets (E)

56. Desmond Jennings, Rays

57. Wil Myers, Padres (F)

58. Jorge Soler, Cubs (C)

59. Dustin Ackley, Mariners (B,C)

60. Oswaldo Arcia, Twins

61. Michael Saunders, Blue Jays (C)

62. Mookie Betts, Red Sox (C)

63. Avisail Garcia, White Sox (C)

64. Evan Gattis, Astros

 

TIER 5

65. Danny Santana, Twins

66. David Peralta, Diamondbacks

67. Allen Craig, Red Sox (F)

68. Drew Stubbs, Rockies (D)

69. Jon Jay, Cardinals

70. Michael Bourn, Indians

71. Nori Aoki, Giants

72. Chris Coghlan, Cubs

73. Curtis Granderson, Mets

74. Josh Reddick, A’s

75. Arismendy Alcantara, Cubs

76. Torii Hunter, Twins (E)

77. Marlon Byrd, Reds (E)

78. Shane Victorino, Red Sox (F)

79. Juan Lagares, Mets

80. Kevin Kiermaier, Rays

Teaser:
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Third Basemen
Post date: Thursday, March 12, 2015 - 10:00
Path: /mlb/st-louis-cardinals-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

Ten days after the Cardinals’ postseason run ended just shy of their intended destination, a tragedy stunned the organization and sent its future in an unplanned direction. The prospect the Cardinals intended to unleash in right field and one who could partially answer their offensive needs, Oscar Taveras, was killed with his girlfriend in a single-vehicle crash in the Dominican Republic. Taveras was 22. Within a month the Cardinals had moved swiftly to reshape the lineup, even at the expense of a valued starter. In a four-player trade, the Cardinals acquired Jason Heyward from Atlanta to play right field. At 25, Heyward is entering the final year of his contract, but the Cardinals believe he’ll star and then stay as the club’s next cornerstone.

 

Adding a jolt to the offense was essential after the Cardinals averaged a run less per game in 2014. The division-champ Cardinals’ wheezing bats burdened the pitching staff, as 47 of their 90 wins came by a margin of two runs or fewer.

 

While the front office reshaped the roster in the weeks after Taveras’ death, manager Mike Matheny became a unifying force for the club. He felt the Cardinals would find “strength in being a family.” The Cardinals may have a new look, a new face and, they hope, a renewed lineup, but they are still defined by familiar October aspirations.

 

Rotation

Two trades cost the Cardinals two young members of their 2014 Opening Day rotation, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly. Filling those spots is the least of the Cardinals’ pitching questions. Pillars of the rotation, ace Adam Wainwright and upstart Michael Wacha, are returning from ailments. Wainwright had an elbow cleanup after his second career 20-win season and expects to be at full strength for spring, something he rarely was last season despite success in the second half. Wacha missed several months with a stress reaction in his right shoulder — an unusual injury that has the Cardinals altering his workouts and budgeting his innings. Budding No. 2 Lance Lynn and veteran John Lackey offer required stability. Carlos Martinez and rookie Marco Gonzales will audition for the rotation’s vacancy, though the club has openly shown its eagerness to see how Martinez’s fastball allows him to sizzle as a starter.

 

Bullpen

The trade for Heyward also brought an arm that will add to the late-inning heat index. Righthander Jordan Walden, who signed a two-year extension, brings a hefty fastball and closing experience to the setup role. He, groundball guru Seth Maness and possibly Gonzales or a healthy Kevin Siegrist will build the bridge to closer Trevor Rosenthal and give Matheny the bullpen blueprint to maintain success like last year’s. Rosenthal overcame a heavy workload to fall just shy of being the Cardinals’ first 50-save closer. Adding multitasking veteran Matt Belisle to the bullpen frees up lefty Randy Choate for a specialist role and gives Matheny more flexibility to utilize Gonzales.

 

Middle Infield

For eight consecutive seasons, a new Cardinals shortstop arrived like tax day, every April. Jhonny Peralta brought an end to the turnstile position as he emerged as the NL’s best all-around shortstop in 2014. The veteran topped the team with 21 home runs and led all big-league shortstops with a .779 OPS and a .443 slugging percentage to go with dependable defense. He was the club’s isolated power early last season, though he’ll get added support this season from his sidekick at second, Kolten Wong. The Hawaiian finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting, punctuating his season with a superb October. A jubilant player, Wong is set to emerge at second with what Peralta provided at shortstop — only for years to come.

 

Corners

A third baseman for most of his life, Matt Carpenter was an All-Star in 2013, his first year as a second baseman. Asked whether he’d prefer to be an All-Star at second or an everyday player at his natural position, Carpenter grinned: “Why not an All-Star at third?” The move back to third in 2014 didn’t slow his ascent as a top leadoff hitter or keep him from a second All-Star invite. His next move could be in the order. Carpenter, who hit three homers in the NLDS, could see swings at No. 2 or 3. The thunder to hit behind Carpenter should come from first baseman Matt Adams. In 231 more at-bats in 2014, Adams hit two fewer home runs than in 2013. Vexed by defensive shifts, Adams seems to favor hitting for average over hitting for damage. He’s got the strength to hit over the shifts and will get the at-bats for a defining season.

 

Outfield

A rut in the Cardinals’ offense was right field, where the club had a .326 slugging percentage (30th in the majors) and a .609 OPS (also 30th). At a traditional power position, the Cardinals got the equivalent of an average middle infielder. Enter Heyward. The left-handed-hitting outfielder says he altered his approach to be the leadoff hitter Atlanta required. The Cardinals will use him elsewhere in the lineup to ignite his offense. He averaged 20 homers in his first three seasons and a .447 slugging percentage — the boost the Cardinals crave. Matt Holliday, a fixture hitting No. 3, had a career-low slugging percentage. He’ll elevate the offense with health and an early start to his annual second-half surge. Jon Jay was the only regular to hit better than .300, and he returns as the stated starter in center for the first time in his career. Peter Bourjos, a defensively gifted speedster, had hip surgery that should increase his comfort at the plate and allow him to run away with some additional at-bats.

 

Catching

The soul of the team and the shepherd of its rotation, Yadier Molina is entering the phase of his career where the Cardinals intend to be more proactive with time off. Molina, 32, remains a force behind the plate and strives to lead the majors in innings caught, a feat that knee soreness has interrupted in recent seasons. To keep him fresh and productive at the plate, the Cardinals want to script rest, preserving his strength for a late-season push. Tony Cruz remains the valued backup who models his game-calling after Molina’s.

 

Bench

Corner infielder Mark Reynolds is the right-handed complement at first base and brings seven consecutive seasons with at least 20 homers to a part-time role. His reputation and Randal Grichuk’s budding talent give the Cardinals pinch-hit pop that’s been lacking. Pete Kozma or newcomers Dean Anna and Ty Kelly offer the versatility required of infielders by Matheny.

 

Management

A nurturing defender of his players and gifted motivator, Matheny acknowledges that having never managed at any level means some of his learning is coming while contending. The club sees the questions of October adding to his answers going forward. A general manager who treasured the team’s young pitching depth has dipped into it twice for short-term and necessary moves. The Cardinals have “payroll muscle” they can flex in coming seasons, and John Mozeliak has used talent and financial wherewithal to stay ahead of the market. He calls it “pre-emptive.” It comes with a trace of urgency because the “sustained success” ownership seeks implies winning now and later.

 

Final Analysis

The Cardinals reached the NLCS for a fourth consecutive year but ended their season with a three-game losing streak for the third consecutive year. A 12th World Series title has eluded them, as an aging core and pitching depth thinned by trades now put the Cardinals at a pivot in this era, one of the most successful in franchise history. Changes may be afoot — forced upon them by tragedy or invited by them to address flaws — but one thing in St. Louis remains the same: championship expectations.

 

2015 Prediction: 1st in NL Central

 

Projected Lineup

3B       Matt Carpenter (L)    Since he moved to No. 1, no leadoff hitter in the NL has a higher on-base percentage than Carpenter’s .384.

RF       Jason Heyward (L)  Credited with 32 runs saved by Baseball Info Solutions, among the highest at any position.

LF       Matt Holliday (R)      Second-half surges the past three seasons have seen his SLG spike from .451 before the break to .509 after.

1B       Matt Adams (L)         Averaged a homer every 17.4 at-bats in 2013. At that pace as the starter in 2014, Adams would have hit 30.

SS       Jhonny Peralta (R)  Sure-handed fielder warmed to NL with 75 RBIs, the most by a Cards SS since Edgar Renteria’s 100 in 2003.

C         Yadier Molina (R)     Injury kept him from catching 1,000 innings for seventh straight year. Pitchers had a 3.38 ERA in his innings.

CF       Jon Jay (L)    A .295 hitter, Jay enters 2015 designated — for the first time in his career — as the planned starter in center.

2B       Kolten Wong (L)       First Cardinal in a decade with at least 10 homers and 20 stolen bases.

 

Bench

CF       Peter Bourjos (R)     Hip surgery should correct issue that slowed the speedster and had him unsteady at the plate.

INF      Mark Reynolds (R)   Will get chance to be right-handed-hitting complement at first and a power implement off the bench.

OF       Randal Grichuk (R) Athletic outfielder hinted at his potent power with two homers in October as he seized starting job.

INF      Pete Kozma (R)        Two years removed from his turn as everyday shortstop, Kozma either makes team or must clear waivers.

C         Tony Cruz (R)           Entering his fourth season as Molina’s trusted backup and scouting voice.

 

Rotation

RH      Adam Wainwright    Cardinals ace has finished second or third in Cy Young Award voting four times in the past six seasons.

RH      Lance Lynn   His 48 wins since joining the rotation in 2012 trail only four other pitchers, including Wainwright.

RH      John Lackey Had 2,202.2 innings in the AL before throwing his first pitch in the NL after trade to Cardinals.

RH      Michael Wacha        In 33 starts in two seasons (including playoffs), intriguing dynamo has 3.11 ERA, 13 wins in 202.2 IP.

RH      Carlos Martinez        Opportunity to start will give electric, lithe righty the role he wants and a stage to flaunt his 96 mph sinker.

 

Bullpen

RH      Trevor Rosenthal (Closer)  No closer threw as many pitches (1,263) or innings (70.1) as Rosenthal did on his way to 45 saves.

RH      Jordan Walden         Power righty Walden signed a two-year, $6.6-million extension to be setup man for Cardinals.

RH      Seth Maness            Sinkerballer will take a strong second half (2.76 ERA) into larger late-inning role.

RH      Matt Belisle   Cardinals targeted the versatile veteran reliever to fill several roles to free others for specialized jobs.

LH       Randy Choate          Held lefties to a .093 average with 28 strikeouts and seven hits allowed.

LH       Kevin Siegrist           Power lefty must show recovery from muscle tears in his left hand to reclaim shutdown reputation.

LH       Marco Gonzales       Polished prospect will be ticketed for prominence in bullpen if he’s not in the rotation.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Remembering Oscar While the Cardinals considered ways to memorialize Oscar Taveras after his death in October, his boyhood friend and closest teammate Carlos Martinez already had one. He wanted to wear Taveras’ No. 18 and approached the Cardinals with his idea. The process is more intricate than simple approval because of jersey merchandising. Martinez received permission, and a friend said he was “really moved” by the chance to wear 18 in 2015.

Curious clause John Lackey made a promise to the Cardinals when they traded for him in July that he hadn’t made in Boston: He would honor his 2015 contract, as odd as it is. Lackey, a 12-year veteran, will play this season for the minimum salary, $507,500. Lackey’s alternative was to retire. The reason for the unusual salary is an option on his five-year, $82.5-million contract with the Red Sox that triggered when he missed a year to injury.

Gold standard Although he missed a month with a thumb injury, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina still won his seventh consecutive Gold Glove. Among catchers, only Ivan Rodriguez (13) and Johnny Bench (10) have more than Molina’s seven career Gold Gloves. They are the brightest ornaments on a career that Bench suggests could lead to Cooperstown. “If he stays healthy,” the Hall of Famer says, “call me in 10 years.”

Hitter homecoming St. Louis-area native Bill Mueller had never put on the hometown jersey until this spring. Displeased with his situation in Chicago, Mueller resigned as Cubs hitting coach and later accepted an assistant hitting coach role with the Cardinals. The former batting champ says he found the situation he wanted, and it was closer to his home. “It’s familiar, St. Louis,” Mueller says. “You can turn any corner and run into a friend.”

Going international The Cardinals expanded their international interests in 2014, signing a Cuban infielder and bidding on a Korean shortstop. GM John Mozeliak wanted the club to start acting on years of scouting and be more active in “emerging markets.” In March the Cardinals signed infielder Aledmys Diaz, but they failed in December to have the highest bid for Jung-Ho Kang. Diaz would be a top prospect if not for injuries interrupting his 2014.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Luke Weaver, RHP

The Cardinals revisited a familiar well with the 27th overall pick in the draft, selecting a refined starting pitcher from a major Division I college program. Less likely to zoom to the majors than Michael Wacha and Marco Gonzales before him, Weaver has some similar traits: an athletic delivery, potential velocity sizzle, and a strong changeup. As Florida State’s ace last spring, Weaver worked with an 88-92 mph fastball that scouts saw tickle 96 mph. Weaver has a wiry 6'2" frame that should add strength as he matures. He had a humbling start to his pro career — eight earned runs in 3.1 innings at High-A — but that’s barely a hiccup in his development. The Cardinals wanted to control his innings and will continue to do so in 2015 as they look for him to start in a Class A rotation and see where his stuff takes him.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Marco Gonzales, LHP (23) Former Gonzaga standout has poise and a wily changeup. Future is in the rotation, but his present assignment will be a multitasking and late-inning reliever in the majors.

2. Stephen Piscotty, OF (24) A high-average batter who sports a strong arm from right field. His tools should get him to the majors this summer.

4. Alexander Reyes, RHP (20) Has blossomed as a power pitcher who has used 98 mph fastball to record 205 strikeouts in 167.1 pro innings.

4. Randal Grichuk, OF (23) Known as the player the Angels drafted before Mike Trout; made a name for himself with slick fielding and a livewire bat.

5. Rob Kaminsky, LHP (20) Kaminsky flips a biting curve, and with a plus fastball, scouts believes he has burgeoning combo that will excel in relief.

6. Jack Flaherty, RHP (19) Flaherty’s $2 million bonus was the Cardinals’ second largest in 12 years. Young, strapping righty has four quality pitches, including a popping fastball.

7. Luke Weaver, RHP (21) The Cards’ top pick in the 2014 draft boasts a fastball that sits in the low 90s and an effective changeup.

8. Tim Cooney, LHP (24) Closest Cardinals pitching prospect to the majors who hasn’t already thrown a pitch there. Has a safecracker’s feel for his fastball, a good changeup and elite command.

9. Sam Tuivailala, RHP (22) Former infielder hits 100 mph on his fastball and has more strikeouts (170) than walks and hits (151) in the minors.

10. Charlie Tilson, OF (22) A strong 2014 allowed the high-energy center fielder to regain pace as a prospect after losing a season to injury.

Teaser:
St. Louis Cardinals 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 13:00
Path: /mlb/pittsburgh-pirates-2015-preview-and-prediction
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It is almost hard to believe the Pittsburgh Pirates were the laughingstocks of baseball not long ago. They had 20 consecutive losing seasons from 1993-2012, the longest such streak of futility in major North American professional sports history.

 

However, the Pirates have put that in the past by winning the first NL wild card in each of the last two seasons. The expectations of the organization far exceed finishing .500 now, as the goal has become to reach the World Series for the first time since 1979. The Pirates are in position to contend again this season, and also for many years to come, as they have a talented core group of players in the major leagues — led by superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen — and a solid farm system.

 

“Somewhere along the way I was asked if we were content not being one-year wonders,” says general manager Neal Huntington, who enters his eighth full season on the job. “Our goal is to not be two-year wonders. We’ve set the goal from the day we got in here, the day we arrived in Pittsburgh, our goal was to be a consistent championship-caliber organization.”

 

Rotation

Hard-throwing righthander Gerrit Cole is eventually going to be the ace of the staff and has already shown he can win big games. However, he is still just 24, and the Pirates have surrounded him at the top of the rotation with a pair of veterans in lefthander Francisco Liriano and righthander A.J. Burnett to ease some of the transition into being a No. 1 starter. Liriano was re-signed to a three-year, $39 million contract as a free agent in December after going 23–18 with a 3.20 ERA in 55 starts in his first two seasons with the Pirates. Burnett returned on a cut-rate deal, signing for one year and $8.5 million after spending last season with the Philadelphia Phillies, where he led the MLB in losses while going 8–18 with a 4.59 ERA in 34 starts. However, the 38-year-old wanted to pitch one final season before retiring and do so with the Pirates after going a combined 26–21 with a 3.41 ERA in 61 starts with the team in 2012-13. Righthander Charlie Morton will likely begin the season on the disabled list after undergoing hip surgery in late September but could be back sometime in May. Lefthander Jeff Locke, two years removed from being an All-Star, likely will begin the season in the rotation, and Vance Worley has the edge over fellow righty Brandon Cumpton and veteran lefthander Clayton Richard for the final spot. Worley was a revelation last season, going 8–4 with a 2.85 ERA in 18 games.

 

Bullpen

Huntington has consistently built first-rate relief corps on a tight budget. Closer Mark Melancon will anchor the bullpen again. In his two seasons with the Pirates, the righthander has compiled a 1.65 ERA in 144 games while allowing just 1.2 walks and 0.2 home runs per nine innings. Lefthander Tony Watson is an outstanding setup man and was selected to play in his first All-Star Game last season. He has a 2.63 ERA in his four-year career. Towering righthander John Holdzkom came out of nowhere — he was signed off the Amarillo roster in the independent American Association in June — to pitch high-leverage innings late last season. The Pirates are hopeful he can be their top setup reliever from the right side with his 100-plus fastball. Righthander Jared Hughes has compiled a 2.95 ERA in his first four seasons in the major leagues. Lefthander Antonio Bastardo was acquired from the Phillies in a trade for lefty pitching prospect Joely Rodriguez at the winter meetings after holding opponents to a .201 batting average in his six seasons in Philadelphia. Stolmy Pimentel has pitched just 42 major league innings but will almost certainly make the team out of spring training as a long reliever. He is out of minor league options and would be subjected to waivers if the Pirates tried to send him to Triple-A. The Pirates were so impressed by how well Radhames Liz pitched in winter ball in his native Dominican Republic that they signed him to a major league contract, even though the one-time top prospect is 31 and hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2009 with the Baltimore Orioles.

 

Middle Infield

The Pirates’ biggest offseason splash came when they signed 27-year-old Korean shortstop Jung-Ho Kang to a four-year, $11 million deal plus $5 million posting fee. Kang put together a monster season in the Korean league in 2014, hitting .356 with 40 home runs and 117 RBIs, but it remains to be seen how this will carry over to much stiffer competition in the U.S. Kang’s no lock for significant playing time, as he will need to unseat Jordy Mercer at shortstop. Seemingly an afterthought in the Pirates’ farm system for many years, Mercer spent his first full season as a starting shortstop in the major leagues last year and did well after an awful start. He ended up hitting .255 with 12 home runs in 149 games, but the biggest surprise was his above average defense. Switch-hitting second baseman Neil Walker is a dependable player and a hometown hero — he grew up in the northern suburb of Gibsonia, Pa. The six-year veteran belted a career-high 23 home runs last season while hitting .271 in 137 games.

 

Corners

Pedro Alvarez will make the move across the diamond from third base to first base in spring training after he developed a problem making routine throws last season that led to him leading the major leagues with 25 errors. He also hit just 18 home runs in 122 games, half of his NL-leading total of 36 in 2013. Josh Harrison will begin the year as the everyday third baseman after being one of the best stories in baseball last season. Harrison barely made the team in spring training and wound up playing in the All-Star Game as he hit .315 with 18 stolen bases in 143 games while, at various times, filling holes at second base, third base, left field and right field.

 

Outfield

McCutchen anchors a talented and athletic outfield that includes Starling Marte in left and Gregory Polanco in right. McCutchen had a better season in 2014 than when he won the NL MVP award the year before, hitting .314 with 25 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 146 games while leading the majors with a .410 on-base percentage. Marte didn’t have the breakout season many expected as he was distracted by tragedies in his personal life. Yet he still hit .291 with 13 homers and 30 steals in 135 games. Arriving to great fanfare in June, Polanco responded with a hit in each of his first 11 games. However, the league caught up to Polanco, and he finished with a .235 batting average in 89 games, though he hit seven homers and stole 14 bases.

 

Catching

Francisco Cervelli gets his long-awaited chance to be a starter after logging seven years as a backup with the New York Yankees, who traded him to the Pirates in November for left-handed reliever Justin Wilson. Cervelli is outstanding defensively and has a .278 lifetime batting average. However, he has been hampered by injuries throughout his career, and the Pirates plan to limit him to around 100 starts in an attempt to keep him healthy.

 

Bench

The Pirates could have their most powerful bench in years, especially if Kang’s power translates to his new league. Pittsburgh also added right-handed-hitting first baseman/outfielder Corey Hart, who was signed to a one-year, $2.5-million contract as a free agent. The Pirates traded with the Tampa Bay Rays for Sean Rodriguez, who can play all four infield spots and each of the three outfield positions. He also provides some pop. Slick-fielding middle infielder Pedro Florimon was claimed off waivers after spending the last three seasons with the Minnesota Twins. Veteran Chris Stewart will be the backup catcher to Cervelli, his former Yankees teammate.

 

Management

Clint Hurdle enters his fifth season as manager and has been the perfect fit in Pittsburgh. His positive attitude and the ability to connect with people and inspire them have not only left a mark on the franchise but also the city.

 

Final Analysis

The Pirates’ goal this season is to win the NL Central and avoid the wild card. They will have their hands full in a strong division but once again have the look of contenders with a good pitching staff, solid lineup and increased depth.

 

2015 Prediction: 2nd in NL Central (Wild Card)

 

Projected Lineup

3B       Josh Harrison (R)    Earned a promotion to full-time third baseman after thriving as utility player last season.

RF       Gregory Polanco (L)            Has more raw talent than anyone in the lineup but needs polish.

CF       Andrew McCutchen (R)      Missed out on back-to-back MVPs despite having another brilliant season.

2B       Neil Walker (S)         He is a steady run producer — especially for a middle infielder.

LF       Starling Marte (R)     A burgeoning star who seems poised for a breakout after two solid seasons.

1B       Pedro Alvarez (L)     Will be interesting to see how he handles making the transition from third base to first base.

SS       Jordy Mercer (R)       Not flashy in the field, but he gets the job done and can also hit.

C         Francisco Cervelli (R)         Longtime Yankee is a solid defensive backstop who has hit well when given the opportunity.

 

Bench

C         Chris Stewart (R)     Had his best offensive season in 2014 but is in the major leagues because of his defense.

1B/OF Corey Hart (R)         Will likely start at first base against lefthanders while trying to get his career back on track.

INF      Pedro Florimon (S) Provides excellent defense at the middle infield positions, but don’t expect any offense.

UT       Sean Rodriguez (R)            Versatility is his strength, and he can also pop an occasional home run.

SS       Jung-Ho Kang (R)   Everyone waiting to see if Korean League star can handle transition to MLB.

 

Rotation

LH       Francisco Liriano     Re-signed after testing the free agent market and will be the de facto ace of a strong staff.

RH      A.J. Burnett   Returns from a one-year hiatus in Philadelphia with hopes of winning a ring in his last season.

RH      Gerrit Cole     Former top pick is the No. 1 starter in waiting — and the wait might not last much longer.

LH       Jeff Locke      Former second-round pick of the Braves is a very capable major league starter — when he throws strikes.

RH      Vance Worley           One of the Pirates’ many pitching reclamation projects, Worley won eight games in 2014.

 

Bullpen

RH      Mark Melancon (Closer)     Thanks to an unhittable cutter, he’s had a sub-1.000 WHIP each of the last two seasons.

LH       Tony Watson            One of the most talented and durable left-handed relievers in the game.

RH      John Holdzkom        Pirates found a gem when they signed him from an independent league last June.

RH      Jared Hughes           Former fourth-round pick has been excellent at escaping mid-inning jams.

LH       Antonio Bastardo     Former Phillie provides a solid lefty option in the middle innings.

RH      Stolmy Pimentel       Has yet to be given the chance to show if he can pitch in high-leverage situations.

RH      Radhames Liz          One-time Oriole looks to return to the major leagues after a three-year stint in Korea.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Destination job There was a time not long ago when free agents who signed with the Pirates felt like they were going to the end of the baseball world. However, perceptions have changed following back-to-back postseason trips that came on the heels of 20 straight losing seasons. Throw in the fact that the Pirates have one of the most scenic homes in the major leagues in PNC Park, and Pittsburgh has become a destination. “We’re in a position now where agents are calling us, versus us having to chase their guys,” general manager Neal Huntington says. The Pirates were able to sign a pair of veteran starting pitchers as free agents in the offseason, bringing lefthander Francisco Liriano back on a three-year, $39 million contract and righthander A.J. Burnett on a one-year, $8.5 million deal. Both said they turned down more lucrative offers from other clubs.

Show me Agent Scott Boras isn’t quite sold on the Pirates having staying power as a contender, though. “How you build that World Series contender year after year is that when you bring these young players here and they become great players you have to sign not one or two, but you have to keep a core of them,” he says. “That’s the question that has yet to be answered as we go forward.” Boras represents Pirates righthander Gerrit Cole and first baseman Pedro Alvarez along with top first base/outfield prospect Josh Bell.

Finally home Super utility player Sean Rodriguez, acquired from Tampa Bay in an offseason trade for pitching prospect Buddy Borden, has seemingly always been a National League player trapped in an American League uniform. Rodriguez has played every position but pitcher and catcher in the major leagues, and that versatility should play well in the NL. “Whatever they ask me to do, I’m going to do it,” Rodriguez says.

Shagging flies Left fielder Starling Marte and right fielder Gregory Polanco spent part of the winter working out together in their native Dominican Republic, concentrating on tracking fly balls. “I think if people hit it that way, they have no chance,” Marte says of a potentially outstanding defensive outfield that also includes Gold Glove center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Cole Tucker, SS

While the Pirates were mulling the idea of drafting Tucker from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix with the 24th overall pick, there were three people with ties to the organization who could vouch for him. Retired corner infielder Kevin Young coached Tucker in youth baseball. Current Pirates first baseman Pedro Alvarez has known Tucker, whose younger brother plays youth baseball with Alvarez’s brother-in-law, since 2008. Also, a son of former shortstop and hitting coach Jay Bell played with Tucker in high school. Though 6'3", Tucker has the athleticism, range and arm to stay at shortstop. He is a project offensively, however, as he is primarily a contact hitter and lacks pop, but the Pirates are confident that the 180-pounder will hit for at least some power as his body matures.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Tyler Glasnow, RHP (21) Fifth-round pick in 2011 has blossomed as a professional, winning the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in each of the last two seasons.

2. Jameson Taillon, RHP (23) The second overall pick in the 2010 draft missed the season after undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery

3. Josh Bell, 1B/OF (22) His development was slowed by a knee injury in 2012. Finally healthy again last season, he was the Florida State League Player of the Year.

4. Austin Meadows, OF (19) The first of two first-round draft picks in 2013, Meadows has shown five-tool ability when healthy. However, he missed most of last season with a hamstring injury.

5. Nick Kingham, RHP (23) 2010 fourth-round pick has good command of a three-pitch mix. Could be the first starter called up from Indianapolis this season.

6. Reese McGuire, C (20) The Pirates’ second first-round pick in 2013 is considered one of the finest defensive catchers in the minor leagues.

7. Alen Hanson, 2B/SS (22) The Dominican native will likely wind up at second base because of a below-average arm. He has speed and some power.

8. Cole Tucker, SS (18) Tucker shows great maturity for his age and should be able to handle the jump to Low-A West Virginia this season.

9. Harold Ramirez, OF (20) The product of Colombia has speed and emerging power. However, his 2014 season was ruined by leg injuries.

10. Mitch Keller, RHP (19) A second-round pick in last year’s draft, he has a fastball that reaches 95 mph and a curveball that is developing into a weapon.

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Pittsburgh Pirates 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 12:30
Path: /mlb/milwaukee-brewers-2015-preview-and-prediction
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Who, exactly, are the Milwaukee Brewers? Are they the team that led the NL Central for 150 days last season? Or are they the team that collapsed down the stretch? After an in-depth review of all aspects of baseball operations, general manager Doug Melvin is betting on the former, as picked up Aramis Ramirez’ option and traded for first baseman Adam Lind. However, a maxed out payroll led to one big change, trading ace Yovani Gallardo to Texas for three players. There’s still lots of proven talent returning, although much will be riding on the balky right thumb of right fielder Ryan Braun. But if he’s even close to his former MVP self and the pitching is again solid, Melvin’s gamble might well pay off.

 

Rotation

In Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse and budding ace Wily Peralta, the Brewers have a nice 1-2-3 punch atop their rotation. Peralta, a burly Dominican righty, won a career-high 17 games utilizing a fastball that ranked third in the majors in average velocity at 95.8 mph and a nasty slider that induced lots of ground-ball outs. Entering his second season in Milwaukee, Garza battled injury and inconsistency but showed flashes of his former dominance. Lohse remains a reliable workhorse, pitching right around 200 innings for each of the past four seasons. The Brewers are hoping the No. 4 spot in the rotation will be solidified by yet another righty, Mike Fiers, who came out of nowhere to go 6–4 with a 2.09 ERA in 10 late-season starts after a nondescript stint earlier in the season as a long man. Fiers was nothing short of incredible, posting a 14-strikeout game in his second turn in place of an injured Garza and then bouncing back mentally following his scary September beaning of Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton. The  Gallardo trade also opens up the final spot in the rotation for young, hard-throwing Jimmy Nelson.

 

Bullpen

Milwaukee was set to lean on veteran Jonathan Broxton, acquired from the Reds in a late-August trade, as its closer, that was until Francisco Rodriguez was brought back at the start of spring training. K-Rod signed a two-year deal to reclaim his closing duties, something he was quite effective at (44 of 49 opportunities) last season. His return and Broxton’s move back to a setup role gives the Brewers two veteran options to pair with its collection of ascending, but relatively unproven, arms. Lefty Will Smith and righty Jeremy Jeffress both figure to serve as the bridge between the starter and the finishers. Smith was a revelation early on with his devastating slider befuddling left-handed hitters, but he faded badly after being overused. Still, with 86 strikeouts in 65.2 innings, he certainly has stuff befitting a late-inning reliever. Jeffress, with a fastball that routinely touches the high 90s, does as well, and he went 1–1 with a 1.88 ERA in 29 appearances after the Brewers — the team that drafted him back in 2006 — rescued him off the scrap heap. The longest-tenured reliever is righty Brandon Kintzler, who scuffled his way to a 3–3 record and 3.24 ERA after a dynamite 2013. He had a lingering knee injury repaired in the offseason, and the hope is he’ll return to his old form. Melvin found himself in the hunt for another lefty when Zach Duke signed with the White Sox, which is why veteran Neal Cotts was signed in late January. Righties Jim Henderson and Tyler Thornburg are coming off shoulder and elbow injuries, respectively.

 

Middle Infield

There are major questions here. Most center around shortstop Jean Segura, who slumped badly in 2014 after turning down a $38 million extension from the Brewers in spring training and then having his newborn son unexpectedly pass away just before the All-Star break. The free-swinging Segura did himself no favors by continuing to swing at pitches out of the zone, giving opposing pitchers no reason to throw him strikes. He was expected to employ some changes at the plate while playing winter ball in the Dominican in the offseason, and if he can regain some consistency it would help solidify the bottom of the Brewers’ lineup. At second base, budding star Scooter Gennett finally gets a chance to be the full-time starter. He hit .289 with nine homers and 54 RBIs in a platoon in 2014, but the question remains: Can he hit left-handed pitching? He comes into 2015 having hit just .128 against lefties in 78 career at-bats.

 

Corners

Melvin hopes he solved the offensive black hole at first base by trading for Lind, whose left-handed bat should be a perfect fit in the middle of the lineup. And the belief is he can at least be an adequate defender. Lind has battled nagging injuries in recent years, but when healthy he murders right-handed pitching — a major plus in a division that features a lot of it. Jonathan Lucroy will likely be called upon in place of Lind with a lefty on the mound. At third base, Ramirez is coming off an All-Star season, but one in which he posted his worst offensive numbers since becoming a full-time player. He turns 37 in late June and announced at the start of spring training that this would be his last season. Ramirez has battled numerous leg issues since becoming a Brewer, but the hope is he can turn in one more respectable campaign.

 

Outfield

Braun’s return from his Biogenesis suspension did not go according to plan. A painful nerve issue in his right hand returned and got progressively worse over the course of the season. He underwent a little-known cryotherapy treatment in the offseason in hopes of eliminating the pain. Left fielder Khris Davis acquitted himself fairly well in his first season as a starter, banging 22 homers and driving in 69 runs. But his .244 average needs to improve, as does his selectiveness at the plate. Center field remains locked down by Carlos Gomez. He became the Brewers’ full-time leadoff hitter and displayed better plate discipline.

 

Catching

The Brewers might be better positioned here than any other team in the majors with an All-Star in Lucroy and an above-average backup in Martin Maldonado. Lucroy was a doubles machine, leading the majors with 53, while also improving defensively. He’s regarded as the finest pitch-framer in the game. Catching 133 games wore him down, so playing him more at first base should help keep him fresh this year. The next step for Lucroy is to become a bigger presence on a team with plenty of veterans but precious few vocal ones.

 

Bench

Switch-hitting Luis Sardinas was acquired in the Gallardo trade and can play all over the infield. In the outfield, the Brewers have a terrific insurance policy in two-time Gold Glover Gerardo Parra, who can play all three spots as well as provide a left-handed bat on a righty-heavy team. Luis Jimenez, a waiver claim from the Angels, is expected to be a backup at the corners. Outfielder Logan Schafer, another left-handed bat, will probably round out the bench.

 

Management

Principal owner Mark Attanasio was livid after his team’s slide out of playoff contention. After cooling off, he and Melvin chose to keep manager Ron Roenicke, determining that an offensive funk was mostly to blame. New hitting coach Darnell Coles will be tasked with teaching a more consistent approach at the plate, and it will be on Roenicke to rein in a group that has continually run into some baffling outs on the bases. The Brewers’ expected payroll of $110 million signals Attanasio’s desire to win despite his team’s small-market status.

 

Final Analysis

The Brewers’ struggles against the Cardinals have been well documented. Now, with the Cubs going all-in on the strength of their active offseason, the Central becomes that much tougher. Avoiding major injury and playing more consistently will be crucial for Milwaukee, which proved last year it had all the pieces needed to contend.

 

2015 Prediction: 3rd in NL Central

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Carlos Gomez (R)    Hit five leadoff homers in 2014, providing the Brewers with a terrific mix of power and speed atop the lineup.

2B       Scooter Gennett (L)             Diminutive gamer has plenty of pop in his bat, but he needs to show more patience at the plate.

RF       Ryan Braun (R)        A healed right thumb for the former NL MVP would do wonders for a team that badly needs his punch.

1B       Adam Lind (L)           Provides much-needed pop and lineup balance from the left side of the plate. But can he stay healthy?

C         Jonathan Lucroy (R)           Backstop was the model of consistency in 2014. More time at first base might help save his legs.

3B       Aramis Ramirez (R)             Milwaukee is hoping for one more productive year out of the aging slugger.

LF       Khris Davis (R)         Must become more selective and consistent to harness his full potential.

SS       Jean Segura (R)      Got himself out far too often in 2014 by swinging at everything.

 

Bench

INF      Luis Sardinas (S)     Came over from Texas in the Yovani Gallardo trade, can play everywhere in the infield but first.

OF       Gerardo Parra (L)     By virtue of his left-handed bat and two Gold Gloves, Parra will play much more than the usual substitute.

C         Martin Maldonado (R)         Solid backup catcher who could see more time behind the plate if Lucroy plays a lot at first.

INF      Luis Jimenez (R)      Backup corner infielder who was acquired off waivers in the offseason from the Angels.

OF       Logan Schafer (L)    Left-handed bat could be an asset on a righty-heavy team, but plate production (.181 in 116 AB in 2014) must improve.

 

Rotation

RH      Kyle Lohse    Coming off a fourth consecutive 30-start season, the veteran has been a model of consistency.

RH      Matt Garza     Alternated between terrific and troubling in 2014. Can be great when he’s healthy.

RH      Wily Peralta   Budding future ace who could well be Milwaukee’s next 20-game winner.

RH      Mike Fiers      Reclamation project who will have to prove this spring that his strong finish to 2014 was no mirage.

RH      Jimmy Nelson           Yovani Gallardo trade opens up spot in rotation for young righty after going 2-8 with 4.76 ERA in 12 starts last season.

 

Bullpen

RH      Francisco Rodriguez (Closer)       Back with Brewers after saving 44 in 49 chances last season.

RH      Jonathan Broxton (Closer) K-Rod’s return pushes Broxton back to setup role, but he could get his opportunities to close too.

RH      Jeremy Jeffress        Possessing a power arm, Jeffress might well find himself in a setup role if he can hit his spots consistently.

LH       Will Smith      Nasty slider makes him ultra-tough on lefties. Could also set up or even close on occasion in 2015.

RH      Brandon Kintzler      If he’s healthy, Kintzler could reclaim a big role in the Brewers’ bullpen.

RH      Jim Henderson         Former closer hoping to return from second career shoulder surgery.

LH       Neal Cotts     Could grab last bullpen spot simply because he’s a southpaw.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Doubling down Jonathan Lucroy became the first primary catcher in modern baseball history (since 1900) to lead his league in doubles by pounding out 53. Lucroy tied his 2014 teammate, Lyle Overbay, for the franchise record, with Overbay racking up 53 in 2004. Lucroy’s 46 doubles as a catcher set a new major league record, breaking the previous mark of 45 set by Ivan Rodriguez in 1996. It was a season to remember for Lucroy, who also started in the All-Star Game in his first trip as he replaced an injured Yadier Molina. Lucroy was just the second catcher in Brewers history to start an All-Star Game, joining Ted Simmons (1983).

Go-go Gomez Center fielder Carlos Gomez furthered his reputation as one of baseball’s pre-eminent speed and power threats by finishing with 24 home runs and 34 stolen bases. That gave him his second consecutive 20-homer, 30-stolen base season after hitting 23 homers and stealing 40 bases in 2013.

On Fiers Mike Fiers joined the Brewers’ rotation on Aug. 9 and made a total of 10 starts. Over that span, the righthander ranked second in the National League in strikeouts with 71 — second only to NL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, who had 82. Fiers also ranked 10th in the NL in ERA at 2.09 from Aug. 9 on.

Khrush Davis Since July 23, 2013, the date of his first major league homer, left fielder Khris Davis is tied for third among NL outfielders in homers with 33. The top two long-ball outfield artists? Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton with 51 and San Diego’s Justin Upton with 40. Davis also finished 2014 tied for 10th in the NL with 61 extra-base hits.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Kodi Medeiros, LHP

With three picks in the top 50 overall, the Brewers went for upside in the 2014 draft, selecting three high schoolers. Medeiros was the first, coming off the board 12th overall. He impressed the Brewers during a late-spring workout at Miller Park with a fastball that consistently reached the mid-90s and a slider that was considered one of the best breaking pitches among all prep pitchers. Medeiros also throws from a low arm slot, making his breaking pitches even tougher to pick up. Many believed he profiled as a reliever coming into the draft, but the Brewers are going to give him every opportunity to prove he can start. Medeiros, a product of Waiakea High School, is the highest-drafted native Hawaiian ever, a great source of pride for him. He turned down a scholarship to Pepperdine to sign with Milwaukee.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Tyrone Taylor, OF (21) Speedy center field prospect who was drafted by the Brewers in the second round in 2012. He reached Class AA at the end of 2014 and should start there in 2015.

2. Orlando Arcia, SS (20) Terrific defensive shortstop whose hitting has improved, albeit without much power. He could push Jean Segura. 

3. Clint Coulter, OF (21) First-round pick of the Brewers in 2012 who has moved from catcher to the outfield. Had a big year at Class A Wisconsin.

4. Monte Harrison, OF (19) Big-time athlete who turned down a football/baseball scholarship with Nebraska to sign with the Brewers as the 50th overall pick in 2014.

5. Kodi Medeiros, LHP (18) At 6'2" and 180 pounds, Medeiros has a solid frame with room to grow. He struggled with command in the Arizona Rookie League in nine appearances.

6. Jacob Gatewood, INF (19) Had maybe the most raw power potential coming out of high school in 2014, when he was picked between Medeiros and Harrison at No. 41 overall.

7. Jorge Lopez, RHP (22) Long and lanky at 6'4", 165 pounds, Lopez is a starter who has a terrific curveball and developing fastball.

8. Devin Williams, RHP (20) The Brewers’ top pick in 2013 averaged around a strikeout per inning in rookie league in his first full season as a pro.

9. Victor Roache, OF (23) Roache is the classic boom-or-bust hitter with tons of power but the strikeouts to match. Taken 28th overall in 2012.

10. Taylor Jungmann, RHP (25) It’s been a long, slow climb for Jungmann. He’s finally on the big-league radar as a back-end starter.

Teaser:
Milwaukee Brewers 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 11:30
Path: /mlb/cincinnati-reds-2015-preview-and-prediction
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The way the Reds dealt with their four free-agent-to-be starters was supposed to indicate their intentions for the upcoming season. By trading Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, it showed the team wasn’t all-in for 2015, but by hanging on to Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, the Reds showed they weren’t in complete rebuilding mode either. Instead, they are doing what they did in 2014, hoping that things fall their way. It didn’t work last year, but they hope … hope Joey Votto is healthy, hope Jay Bruce is back to his old ways, hope Brandon Phillips stays healthy, hope the bullpen bounces back and hope that the rotation is good enough.

 

Rotation

With Latos and Simon gone, there are openings in the rotation, but with Cueto, Leake and Homer Bailey back, the open spots are in the back end. Cueto proved to be a bona fide ace in 2014, putting together probably the second-best season in baseball. He won 20 games for the first time and either led or tied for the league lead in starts (34), innings (243.2) and strikeouts (242). Despite Cueto’s unquestioned status as the team’s ace — or at least unquestioned after last season — it is Bailey who received the ace’s ransom in the form of a six-year, $105 million deal signed last February. Bailey’s 2014 season ended after undergoing elbow surgery in September, and while he is progressing in his recovery, he is not expected to be ready to pitch by Opening Day. Leake is often overlooked because he lacks the pure stuff of some of the Reds’ recent top-line starters, but he’s done nothing but produce solid numbers. The 27-year-old has 142 starts under his belt, going 53–42 with a 3.92 ERA. Lefthander Tony Cingrani and righty Dylan Axelrod are in position to earn the final two spots in the rotation. Cingrani was terrific in 2013 — he went 7–4 with a 2.92 ERA — but took a step back in ’14 as he went 2–8 and his ERA ballooned to 4.55. Axelrod started four games last year, his first with the Reds.

 

Bullpen

The Reds had the most dominant closer in baseball — and still their bullpen was an issue. It wasn’t the ninth inning that was a problem; even when Aroldis Chapman was sidelined due to his horrific injury in spring, Jonathan Broxton ably held down the fort. It was the rest of the bullpen that was lacking. Even with Chapman (2.00 ERA) and Broxton (1.86 ERA with the Reds), the team’s 4.11 bullpen ERA was the second worst in the National League. Take away those two, and it was an astronomical 5.13. That many runs from the bullpen means a lot of losses, especially for a team that struggled to score runs. Except for Broxton, the Reds expect to have mostly the same faces — J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure, Jumbo Diaz, Manny Parra and Sean Marshall. Parra and Marshall dealt with injuries, while Hoover and LeCure were simply ineffective. The team didn’t tender contracts to Logan Ondrusek and Curtis Partch and traded for Matt Magill from the Dodgers. The Reds could also decide to bring up righthander Raisel Iglesias to help fortify the bullpen, but they will look at him as a starter first.

 

Middle Infield

Defensively, few teams can boast a better middle infield than Zack Cozart and Phillips. Offensively? Not so much. Cozart played Gold Glove-caliber defense, but his .221/.268/.300 slash line left much to be desired. Newcomer Eugenio Suarez could push him in the spring. While not the defensive shortstop Cozart is, Suarez does have more offensive upside. In 2011, Phillips won the Silver Slugger and the Gold Glove, but every season since, his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage have fallen. The former 30–30 man had just eight home runs in 2014 and was caught stealing (three) more times than he was successful (two).

 

Corners

The Reds will be better off if Todd Frazier only starts at third base in 2015. He started 37 games at first in 2014, weakening the team’s defense at both positions. That was necessary because Votto was limited to 62 games because of a knee injury. While Frazier made his first All-Star team, Votto missed it for the first time since 2009. The best-case scenario is for the Reds to have All-Stars at first and third — both have the potential, but Votto has to bounce back from knee surgery. Even when healthy, Votto didn’t look like the guy who slugged 37 home runs in his MVP season of 2010. In 62 games, he hit .255 with only six home runs and 23 RBIs.

 

Outfield

The trio of Bruce, Billy Hamilton and Marlon Byrd could be one of the best defensive outfields in the game — but this isn’t a team hurting for defense. The Reds traded for Byrd in hopes that he could be an impact bat in the middle of the order. He’s had at least 24 home runs and 85 RBIs in each of the last two seasons; the Reds got just 10 homers and 57 RBIs out of their left fielders in 2014. Bruce had the worst season of his young career while dealing with a knee injury. He missed only 15 games after undergoing knee surgery but never fully recovered. In center, Hamilton was one of the game’s most exciting players — or at least he was for half of the season. At the All-Star break, Hamilton was hitting .285/.319/.423 with 38 steals and was running away with the Rookie of the Year Award. Then he hit a wall, hitting .200/.254/.257 after the break and .123/.219/.154 in September, a month that had him caught stealing more times (three) than he was successful (two). Reds manager Bryan Price has reiterated this offseason that the team is committed to Hamilton in the leadoff spot, believing he can improve his on-base skills and be a game-changer on the bases.

 

Catching

GM Walt Jocketty sent a message to Devin Mesoraco last offseason, trading away Ryan Hanigan, more or less handing the keys to the position to Mesoraco. The former first-round pick delivered, making his first All-Star appearance despite two first-half trips to the disabled list. He still played a career-best 114 games and hit .273 with 25 home runs and 80 RBIs, developing into a middle-of-the-order slugging catcher. Brayan Pena is in the second year of a two-year deal as the backup, but Tucker Barnhart is ready to take over at any time.

 

Bench

For years, outfielder Chris Heisey was among the game’s most dangerous bats off the bench. He’s gone, however, after the team traded him to the Dodgers to free up payroll. It’s unclear who will get those at-bats now. Utility man Skip Schumaker, signed to bolster the bench, started and ended his first season as a Red on the disabled list and sandwiched his least productive season in between. Rookie Yorman Rodriguez, who showed promise in his September call-up, could be in line for more work. Kristopher Negron, a shortstop in the minors, showed he can be an offensive spark, but that was in a limited role late in the season. Of all the Reds’ question marks, the bench seems to have the fewest answers.

 

Management

Jocketty signed a new two-year deal after the 2014 season, and Price, the team’s manager, enters the second of a three-year deal. This team is not built to contend this season, but there will no doubt be pressure on Price to show improvement after the Reds dipped to 76 wins a year ago — the franchise’s fewest since 2008.

 

Final Analysis

In the ultra-competitive NL Central, the Reds seem to have done the least among the five teams to improve their fortunes from the year before, and a failure to keep up with the Cardinals, Pirates, Brewers and Cubs is hardly a reason for optimism. But if this team stays healthy and some of the ‘ifs’ that management is counting on come through, the Reds could compete. If they don’t, the fourth-place finish in 2014 could seem like the good ol’ days.

 

2015 Prediction: 5th in NL Central

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Billy Hamilton (S)     Rookie season marred by second-half slide; he hit just .200 after the All-Star break.

1B       Joey Votto (L)            Played in just 62 games for the Reds because of a knee injury, but was still second on team with 47 walks.

C         Devin Mesoraco (R)            Rewarded team’s decision to make him the starter by hitting 25 homers, the most by any catcher in baseball.

3B       Todd Frazier (R)       Led all MLB third basemen with 29 home runs — though he played 43 games at first base.

RF       Jay Bruce (L)            Must bounce back from career lows in average (.217), on-base percentage (.281) and home runs (18).

LF       Marlon Byrd (R)        Walt Jocketty said he wanted Byrd at the trade deadline in 2013; finally got him this offseason.

2B       Brandon Phillips (R)           He still produces defensively at a Gold Glove level, but his Silver Slugger days appear to be behind him.

SS       Zack Cozart (R)        Had just four homers after hitting double-digits in each of his first two full seasons.

 

Bench

C         Brayan Pena (S)      Signed to be a backup, Pena was forced into a career-high 115 games due to injuries.

UT       Skip Schumaker (R)            Utility man was a non-factor in his first season with the Reds, due in part to injuries.

INF      Kristopher Negron (R)         Made the most of his opportunity to play at the big-league level, hitting .271 with six homers.

INF      Eugenio Suarez (R)            Acquired from Detroit, he can provide some offense at shortstop and can also play second.

OF       Jason Bourgeois (R)           Can be a valuable piece off the bench with his defensive prowess and speed.

 

Rotation

RH      Johnny Cueto          In nearly any other year, Cueto would have had a real shot at the Cy Young after going 20–9 with a 2.25 ERA.

RH      Homer Bailey            September surgery to repair a torn flexor mass tendon in his right forearm cut his season short.

RH      Mike Leake    The righthander pitched 200-plus innings for the first time in 2014 but lost a career-high 13 games.

LH       Tony Cingrani          Was demoted in June and didn’t pitch the rest of the year because of a shoulder issue.

RH      Dylan Axelrod           Made four starts before oblique injury; battled back to pitch in relief in the season’s penultimate game.

 

Bullpen

LH       Aroldis Chapman (Closer) Struck out a record 52.5 percent of the batters he faced in 2014 and allowed only 21 hits in 54.0 IP.

RH      Sam LeCure Finished the season with a 3.81 ERA, but it was 5.45 in his final 42 appearances.

RH      Jumbo Diaz   The 30-year-old made his big-league debut after dropping more than 60 pounds in the offseason.

LH       Manny Parra Despite dealing with multiple injuries, Parra pitched in 53 games but logged only 36.2 innings.

LH       Sean Marshall          The Reds hope he is finally healthy enough to help for a full season, something he hasn’t done since 2012.

RH      J.J. Hoover    The hard-throwing righthander was demoted during the 2014 season after suffering his 10th loss.

RH      Matt Magill     A starter with the Dodgers, the Reds believe he’s better suited for the bullpen.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Streaking Devin Mesoraco’s solo home run against the Pirates on June 19 started a streak in which he hit a homer in five straight games in which he played. But more interesting was perhaps what kind of homers he hit. The home run against the Pirates was a solo shot. The next day he hit a two-run homer against Toronto, followed by a three-run homer against the Blue Jays the next game. After a day off, Mesoraco hit a grand slam off of the Cubs to complete the homer cycle. He tried to start the cycle over again, hitting a solo homer in his next game, but his next long ball was another solo shot. He did tie a team record for consecutive games with a home run.

Wasted money The Reds will be paying Ryan Ludwick and Jack Hannahan a total of $6.5 million not to play for them this season after declining options on the two veterans.

Queen City Classic The 2015 All-Star Game will be held at Great American Ball Park, the fifth time the game will be held in the Queen City. Crosley Field hosted in 1938 and 1953, while the game was at Riverfront Stadium in 1970 and 1988.

Revolving door Since Adam Dunn was traded to the Diamondbacks on Aug. 11, 2008, the Reds have had 26 different players start in left field: Chris Dickerson, Jolbert Cabrera, Jerry Hairston Jr., Wilkin Castillo, Laynce Nix, Jonny Gomes, Wladimir Balentien, Darnell McDonald, Drew Sutton, Chris Heisey, Jim Edmonds, Fred Lewis, Dave Sappelt, Yonder Alonso, Jeremy Hermida, Todd Frazier, Ryan Ludwick, Xavier Paul, Willie Harris, Derrick Robinson, Donald Lutz, Shin-Soo Choo, Skip Schumaker, Jason Bourgeois, Roger Bernadina and Yorman Rodriguez.

Second-half struggles The Reds hit just .222 after the All-Star break, the lowest mark in team history since the All-Star Game debuted in 1933. It’s the lowest by a team since the 1974 Padres hit .212 after the break.

Heavy workload Cinncinnati’s starting pitchers threw a combined 1,023.1 innings in 2014, the most in the major leagues. Two starters threw well over 200 innings — Johnny Cueto (243.2) and Mike Leake (214.1) — and a third came close (Alfredo Simon with 196.1).

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Nick Howard, RHP

Over the last few years, the Reds have drafted several college closers and turned them into starters. They did it with Tony Cingrani in 2011, as well as with Michael Lorenzen in 2013. Howard was one of the college game’s best closers in 2014, recording 20 saves for Virginia. Howard features a hard fastball and a plus slider. He pitched in 11 games and made five starts at Low-A Dayton before working exclusively as a starter in the Arizona Fall League. Because of the depth of righthanders in the system, the Reds can let Howard develop at his own rate and don’t have to rush him. If Howard doesn’t develop as a starter, he could quickly move up the system as a reliever.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Robert Stephenson, RHP (22) Stephenson’s numbers at Double-A weren’t all that great (7–10, 4.74), but the stuff is undeniable. He has the chance to be a front-line starter in the big leagues.

2. Jesse Winker, OF (21) Winker’s left-handed swing is a thing of beauty. He led the Arizona Fall League in batting average and on-base percentage and was second in OPS and slugging.

3. Raisel Iglesias, RHP (25) The Reds signed Iglesias out of Cuba for $27 million over seven years. They want him eventually to be a starter, but he could end up in the bullpen in the short term.

4. Nick Howard, RHP (22) Fastball hit the high 90s during his time as a closer at Virginia; was in the 90-93 range when he was a weekend starter.

5. Michael Lorenzen, RHP (23) Perhaps the system’s best athlete, Lorenzen can throw in the high-90s. He shined at Double-A (4–6, 3.13) in his first year as a starter.

6. Anthony DeSclafani, RHP (24) Acquired from the Marlins in the Mat Latos trade, DeSclafani should challenge for a spot in the Reds’ rotation this spring.

7. Jonathon Crawford, RHP (23) The Tigers’ first-round pick in 2013 came over to the Reds in the trade that sent Alfredo Simon to Detroit.

8. Phil Ervin, OF (22) The center fielder struggled in his first full pro season, hitting just .237/.305/.376 at Low-A Dayton.

9. Nick Travieso, RHP (21) The team’s first-round pick in the 2012 draft, big righthander went 14–5 with a 3.03 ERA at Low-A Dayton.

10. Alex Blandino, SS (22) Taken No. 29 overall in the 2014 draft, Blandino will play shortstop until he proves he can’t. He’s shown the ability to hit, no matter the position.

Teaser:
Cincinnati Reds 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 10:30
All taxonomy terms: Graeme McDowell, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2015-majors-no-21-graeme-mcdowell
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. 21: Graeme McDowell

 

Born: July 30, 1979, Portrush, Northern Ireland | Career PGA Tour Wins: 2 (10 on European Tour) | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $2,077,387 (41st) World Ranking: 22

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take

McDowell is one of the game’s brightest players and perhaps its best interview, which is a good thing, because we will very likely being hearing a lot from the Ulsterman this year in the majors. Having grown up in Portrush, Northern Ireland and won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, McDowell is clearly comfortable in the windy conditions one faces by the sea or water, particularly relevant this year at three of the four majors. His ability to hit fairways and go on flag-hunting tears combined with his talent on the greens (he led the tour in strokes gained putting in 2014) make him an almost certain multiple winner around the globe this year, as he has been in each of his last two seasons.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 37
Wins: 1

2014 Performance:
Masters - Cut
U.S. Open - T28
British Open - T9
PGA Championship - T46

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T12 (2012)
U.S. Open - 1 (2010)
British Open - T5 (2012)
PGA Championship - T10 (2009)
Top-10 Finishes: 5
Top-25 Finishes: 15
Missed Cuts: 13

 

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

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 10:18
Path: /nba/lebron-shedding-his-headband-again-amar%E2%80%99e-pissed-mavs
Body:

When somebody enters the rare air that LeBron James has, we tend to overanalyze their most minute details. Like, you know, a headband.

 

James took the fixture off during a win over the Phoenix Suns in Cleveland over the weekend, telling reporters that “it just happened.” He hasn’t worn it since, going with a naked head through the Cavs’ 127-94 stomping of the Dallas Mavericks in Texas last night.

 

Is there any difference in the way LeBron plays, with or without fabric around his forehead? Not really — he’s excellent either way. He had 27 points, eight assists and seven rebounds to lead the way over the Mavs, while also breaking the record for most career assists with the Cavs in the contest. For LeBron, that’s standard fare.

 

The surreal vision of James without his trademark accessory is about as weird to see as footage of Michael Jordan with a head of hair. It also evokes the last time James lost the garment, which was in the sixth game of the 2013 NBA Finals.

 

That time — unlike this one — losing the headband was not intentional, as it simply fell off, and the King led his team to one of the most memorable comeback wins of all time, against the San Antonio Spurs. James’ aggressive, unbridled play seemed to be symbolized by the loss of the headband, back then.

 

The losing Mavericks, meanwhile, have been on a slow decline for months. Their trade for Rajon Rondo seems to have backfired, as their offense has become less efficient and the defensive improvement they expected on the perimeter has not materialized.

 

Newcomer Amar’e Stoudemire is pissed. "This is something we can't accept,” he told reporters after the loss. “We've got to find a way to refocus. We've got to key into the details of the game of basketball.”

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 10:08
All taxonomy terms: Chicago Cubs, National League, NL Central, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/chicago-cubs-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

After three years of rebuilding the farm system at the expense of the major league roster — and big-league results — the Cubs are back in the hunt for the first time in team president Theo Epstein’s regime. Not “all in,” not “selling out” for 2015, says Epstein, who makes clear the focus is still on a sustained competitive window. But several players said in September they expected to compete in ’15, and the front office bolstered the expectations with a $250 million holiday shopping spree that included one of the top managers in the game, Joe Maddon, and new $155 million ace Jon Lester. Since those two additions, the Las Vegas odds on a Cubs championship went from 50-1 to 10-1.

 

Rotation

Even before the Cubs landed their top free-agent target in Lester, they seemed to strike gold at the front of the rotation with Jake Arrieta, the righthander with exceptional stuff who finally had a breakout season in ’14. By bringing back effective veteran Jason Hammel as a free agent a few months after trading him to Oakland, and installing 2014 rookie success Kyle Hendricks into the top four, the Cubs have a rotation to build on — and, along the way, might have eliminated the need to rely on free-agent bust Edwin Jackson (the NL’s worst starter the past two seasons). Arrieta still hasn’t thrown more than 176.2 innings — his total last year between a minor league rehab stint and 25 big-league starts — in a season at any level, and Hendricks has all of 13 big-league starts to his name. But in Lester, the front office believes it has not only a reliable, durable No. 1 but also a focused, driven tone-setter who can show others the way to play playoff-caliber baseball.

 

Bullpen

What the front office believes Lester can do for the young guys in the rotation it hopes Jason Motte can do in the short term for a group of young, back-end bullpen arms. The former NL saves leader and World Series winner in St. Louis appears to be at full strength following 2013 Tommy John surgery. Motte joins a crew that includes power-armed, young back-end righthanders Hector Rondon (the de facto closer in a pen without a labeled ninth-inning guy), Neil Ramirez (1.44 ERA as a rookie) and Pedro Strop (2.21 ERA). For all the inherent volatility of bullpens, the front office considers this the deepest and most talented pen it’s had since taking over. After losing their top lefty relievers to a trade and a non-tender decision, the Cubs could have two lefties fall to the pen from the spring rotation mix. Also, southpaw Joe Ortiz, a 5'7" strike-thrower, is an intriguing waiver pickup who could serve as a matchup specialist.

 

Middle Infield

The Cubs front office has spent three years stockpiling and hoarding shortstops, from three-time All-Star Starlin Castro to Addison Russell, a top-five MLB prospect acquired in July from Oakland in the Jeff Samardzija/Hammel deal. Second baseman Javier Baez is a converted top shortstop prospect who has the best power on the projected Opening Day roster — along with one of the most vicious, strikeout-prone swings in baseball. Defensively, Baez is a downgrade, at least in the short term, from departed Gold Glover Darwin Barney. The Cubs have the potential for the most prolific keystone tandem in the league, or a strikeout-filled work in progress that requires plugging in some of the alternatives in the system.

 

Corners

Slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo, already a patient hitter, matured into an All-Star run-producer with a more aggressive approach in the zone that led to the No. 2 homer total in the NL. He also dramatically improved his performance against lefthanders (including a .421 OBP) in an impressive bounce-back after struggling much of his first full season in the big leagues a year earlier. But the Cubs’ corner guy under the biggest spotlight is not expected to be on the roster until around the first of May (for service-time reasons) — top prospect Kris Bryant, the third baseman who led pro baseball with 43 homers in his first full season out of college. The trade of Luis Valbuena for center fielder Dexter Fowler gives Mike Olt another shot at winning the starting job. Olt struggled mightily at the plate last season and even if he turns it around, he’s likely just a placeholder until Bryant arrives.

 

Outfield

Fowler’s arrival from Houston not only gives the Cubs a solid glove in center, it also gives them the leadoff option they have lacked in recent seasons. Right fielder Jorge Soler was impressive enough in a month-long debut to enter 2015 on a short list of Rookie of the Year candidates, assuming he can reverse a three-year trend of landing on the DL. And left fielder Chris Coghlan, a minor league free agent a year ago, capitalized on increased playing time as the season wore on, producing his best season since winning Rookie of the Year in 2009. He’s earned a big place in the Cubs’ plans this year.

 

Catching

The Welington Castillo era ended before it had much of a chance to gain steam as the physically gifted starter didn’t hit well enough, stay healthy enough or improve his receiving skills (framing, etc.) enough to keep his job. After the front office finished second to the Blue Jays in their pursuit of top free-agent catcher Russell Martin, the Cubs turned their focus toward trading for their next choice — All-Star Miguel Montero. The front office considers Montero another clubhouse-presence acquisition, and he’s under contract for the next three seasons. He’s also the kind of left-handed bat they coveted to help balance a lineup in which most of the top-rated young hitters coming through the system are right-handed.

 

Bench

Backup catcher David Ross serves not only as an accessory to the Lester signing — as Lester’s favored catcher in Boston — but also as a clubhouse glue-guy the brass emphasized over the winter. Arismendy Alcantara, another intriguing prospect, already has been a regular starter at two positions. He could be Maddon’s jack-of-all-trades or he could end up stealing starts away from either Baez at second or Olt at third. The Cubs also traded for second baseman Tommy La Stella for his low-strikeout, strong-on-base skills that the roster lacks. Ryan Sweeney and Chris Denorfia provide several platoon options in the outfield for a bench that should only improve with the arrival this year of Bryant — and other projected cornerstone players behind him.

 

Management

A year after firing hand-picked manager Dale Sveum and casting the first big doubt on whether the magic in Boston could translate to the Cubs, Epstein pounced when he got the chance to hire Maddon. It required mistreating sitting manager Rick Renteria, leaving him to twist in the wind before firing him with two years left on his contract. But from a sheer baseball/business standpoint, Maddon was universally seen as the right manager at the right time for the Cubs’ process — a motivator, innovator and communicator who consistently did more with less in Tampa Bay for nine years.

 

Final Analysis

Conventional wisdom among believers in Epstein’s rebuilding plan had the first year of competitive traction coming in 2016, but a strong player development year for the organization’s top prospects in 2014 moved up the timeline. A .500 season is probably a reasonable expectation for the pivot-point year of a process transitioning into the buildup phase. The only thing for sure is that the clock is ticking again on the pursuit of a title — and on Epstein’s plan to start producing results on the field.

 

2015 Prediction: 4th in NL Central

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Dexter Fowler (S)     Fowler is a dynamic player when healthy because of his ability to get on base and hit the occasional homer.

LF       Chris Coghlan (L)   Best season since winning ’09 Rookie of the Year included .317/.371/.489 leading off an inning.

SS       Starlin Castro (R)    At 24, has as many career All-Star selections (three) as Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins.

1B       Anthony Rizzo (L)     All-Star was third in NL with .913 OPS last year; even better vs. LHP: .300, .421 OBP, .928 OPS.

RF       Jorge Soler (R)        Tailed off after blistering start but .903 OPS in 24-game debut; Rookie of the Year in ’15?

C         Miguel Montero (L)  Cubs plan to ease workload some after MLB-leading 516 games caught last four years.

2B       Javier Baez (R)         Struck out 225 times in 156 combined games at Class AAA (130) and major leagues (95) in 2014.

3B       Mike Olt (R)   Trade of Luis Valbuena offers another shot to start, but production must improve with Kris Bryant looming.

 

Bench

C         David Ross (R)        Veteran should catch Lester’s starts (as he did in Boston) and see time vs. lefthanders.

UT       Arismendy Alcantara (S)    Versatility could make him Maddon’s new Ben Zobrist, playing all over the diamond.

2B       Tommy La Stella (L)           Cubs brass coveted him for on-base skills in minors for years before November trade.

OF       Ryan Sweeney (L)   Played only 147 games last two years because of injuries; career .290 hitter with men on base.

OF       Chris Denorfia (R)   Veteran struggled last year with the Padres and Mariners, hitting .230 with three HRs in 330 ABs.

 

Rotation

LH       Jon Lester     Quality frontline lefthander has won at least 15 games in six of the last seven seasons.

RH      Jake Arrieta   His 2.53 ERA would have ranked sixth in NL if he had pitched 5.1 more innings to qualify.

RH      Jason Hammel        Coming off career year fueled by renewed health, rapport with pitching coach Chris Bosio.

RH      Kyle Hendricks         Hitters not so smart vs. Dartmouth grad with men on (.216) or in scoring position (.232).

LH       Travis Wood At crossroads after huge decline (5.03 ERA) in ’14 following All-Star season in ’13 (3.16).

 

Bullpen

RH      Hector Rondon (Closer)    2013 Rule 5 Draft pick grew into closer in ‘14, dominated second half (0.62, 18 saves).

RH      Jason Motte Tommy John grad looked close to former closer self by end of last season.

RH      Neil Ramirez            Cubs’ top rookie last year (1.44 ERA) gets chance to increase role, workload.

RH      Pedro Strop  One-time Cubs closer candidate thrives in eighth inning (2.52 ERA career; 1.52 last year).

RH      Justin Grimm           Former starter made successful switch to relief after ‘13 trade to Cubs.

RH      Edwin Jackson        Worst starter in baseball in 2013-14 has two years, $26 million left on a brutal contract.

LH       Tsuyoshi Wada        Japanese veteran especially tough on lefties (.184); will compete for fifth starter job.

 

Beyond the Box Score

No seats for the bums The ballpark more famous for its bleachers than any other will open the season on Sunday night national TV against rival St. Louis — without the iconic bleachers in either left or right fields. Unforeseen problems with a water main and record cold weather has conspired to delay the $375 million renovation work, forcing the Cubs to make contingency plans for relocating bleacher season-ticket holders. Between the work stoppages and other delays, the left and center field bleachers are tentatively scheduled to open on May 11 with the right field section looking at an early June time frame. The bleachers needed to be removed to allow for new structural support both in left and right fields for new video boards and signage.

My kind of interview Because Joe Maddon already was on his annual cross-country trip in the 43-foot RV he calls “Cousin Eddie” when the Cubs tried to beat the market to set up an interview, Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer agreed to intercept him on his route. Maddon found an RV park on a beach near Pensacola, Fla., and waited for the execs to drive in from the nearest airport they could find. Most of the “interview” was done in lawn chairs, on the beach behind the RV, along with Maddon’s wife, Jaye, and a bunch of cold beers. “It was really cool,” Epstein says. It turned out pretty cool for Maddon, too. After five 90-win seasons with the Rays — then promises of a Cubs’ World Series during his first Chicago media conference — Maddon gets more resources, more expectations and more scrutiny than he’s had in almost 40 years in the game.

Tenement on wheels Within a day or two of Maddon’s hiring, “Cousin Eddie” pulled into Mesa, Ariz., where Maddon’s kids live, where the Cubs train and where the RV sat the rest of the winter — not far from where Maddon will reside in it during spring training. It’s nicer than any condo or hotel room, he says.

On the hunt With $155 million in guaranteed money on the table from the Cubs, $168 million in potential guaranteed money from the Giants and the heartstrings tugging from Boston despite far less money, Jon Lester found his way to Chicago by going deep into the woods. To shoot something. “I went duck hunting in the morning and then deer hunting in the afternoon,” he said. “I had to clear my brain a little and get back to neutral before we could make a decision.” The next day he accepted the Cubs’ offer.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Kyle Schwarber, C

The Cubs felt sure he would hit when they took the lefty slugger fourth overall in June out of Indiana, and he did a lot of that at three levels throughout the summer. But nobody  knew if he could improve enough behind the plate to become a big-league catcher and avoid the move to an outfield corner that many scouts project. Cubs officials, however, believe in Schwarber’s makeup even more than his bat — a focused, driven player whose passion they view as a future clubhouse force. They sent him to Mesa during instructional league to work solely on catching skills with Cubs minor league coordinator Tim Cossins. If he succeeds, his value as a hitter soars.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Kris Bryant, 3B (23) Less than two years out of college, the 2013 No. 2 overall pick was an Arizona Fall League MVP (in ‘13) and led all of professional baseball with 43 homers last year.

2. Addison Russell, SS (21) Some say the centerpiece of last July’s trade of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the A’s is the best shortstop in an organization loaded with them.

3. Jorge Soler, OF (23) Prior to his 24-game big-league debut, Soler had an incredible slash line of .340/.432/.700 at three minor league levels in 2014, with 40 extra-base hits in 62 games.

4. Kyle Schwarber, C (22) Hitting .344 with 18 homers in 72 games overall, Schwarber earned Player of the Week honors in three different leagues during his 11-week professional debut.

5. C.J. Edwards, RHP (23) After the Cubs forced a long, cautious rehab for a bout of April shoulder inflammation, the tall, thin, hard-throwing Edwards finished strong at Double-A.

6. Albert Almora, CF (20) Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs (No. 6 overall in 2012) salvaged a strong finish after a slow start at Double-A.

7. Pierce Johnson, RHP (23) Hamstring and calf injuries disrupted his Double-A season, and control issues didn’t help.

8. Billy McKinney, OF (20) The “other” prospect in the Samardzija/Hammel trade is a bona fide center fielder and lefty hitter with on-base skills.

9. Jen-Ho Tseng, RHP (20) In his first season after signing as a $1.6 million free agent, the Taiwanese prospect was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

10. Dan Vogelbach, 1B (22) Seems likely to get to the majors with another team because of a lack of defensive versatility and a 25-year-old All-Star at first for the Cubs.

Teaser:
Chicago Cubs 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 10:00
Path: /nba/ranking-nbas-best-hair
Body:

6. Joakim Noah

The Chicago Bulls’ emotional leader has long, flowing, wavy hair that acts as a metaphor for his generous spirit. Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, excellently referred to by some as “The Lion King,” is as goofy as he is relentless, with his locks matching the insane energy he brings to the floor. With Derrick Rose’s most recent knee injury hitting Chicago hard, we’ve had the silver lining of watching Noah run the Bulls’ offense again. And seeing his mane bounce around in a bun is almost always a sign that we’re in for some fun.

 

5. Dennis Schröder

The Atlanta Hawks have been basketball’s best team this season, alongside the Golden State Warriors. They’ve done it with depth and an amazing, taut, selfless system that sees hardly any drop-off when substitutes jump in for starters. Sophomore Dennis Schröder, from Germany, has been part of Atlanta’s vaunted second unit as the backup to All-Star point guard Jeff Teague. He’s also quite the NBA eccentric as an admitted skateboard addict, and he has a touch of endearing gold in his hair. The youngster known as “Baby Rondo” will be charming fans for years.

 

4. Iman Shumpert

The Cleveland Cavaliers made a big trade earlier this season, sending Dion Waiters away and bringing in some loot from the New York Knicks. A resurgent J.R. Smith has paid major dividends, and a subsequently acquired Timofey Mozgov has worked miracles in the paint. But Cleveland also upgraded big time in the style department with their flurry of player movement, because they brought Iman Shumpert’s towering, crisp flat top onto the roster. Shumpert is a hounding perimeter defender, with the veritable monument that grows from his follicles making for a difficult obstacle to shoot or pass over.

 

3. Elfrid Payton

One of the season’s most exciting rookies plays for the struggling Orlando Magic. While winning may be at a low point in central Florida, personality is certainly not. Elfrid Payton’s madness of a hairstyle, in tandem with the cocky Victor Oladipo, has made for one of the most entertaining backcourts in recent memory. How else to describe Payton’s style? Like Noah’s, he must hope that it becomes even more symbolic of his playing style than it already is; an unpredictable, cagey defender who can turn a simple inbounds play into a sudden scrum, Elfrid should aspire to create stormy confusion as consistently as his locks do.

 

2. James Harden

James Harden’s indelible beard has long been imprinted in the imagination of the NBA. As an upcoming star with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he turned heads with his unusual style off the court before impressing onlookers by what he was doing on it. Eventually, though, his singular footwork and creativity in the open court came to define the offense of the Houston Rockets, and the imitation strap-on beards that Thunder fans once wore so proudly began to seem like a dooming omen, as Harden now thrives through an MVP campaign and OKC fights for their playoff lives.

 

1. Nerlens Noel

The winner of our hair-off plays for a club that seems to value economic victories more than basketball victories — the Philadelphia 76ers. Nerlens Noel is having a superb rookie season beneath the moralist roar about whether what Philly’s doing is okay or not. A rim-protector who could very well be one of the game’s best in a few years, Noel has sky-high hair that makes him almost impossible to forget. Nerlens is just 20 years old, and already the seventh most effective paint-clogging center, with a defensive real plus-minus of 3.17. Just imagine how big that number will get when he grows into his towering 'do.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 15:02
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2015-fantasy-baseball-rankings-shortstops
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: Shortstops

 

TIER 1

1. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies (F)

Tulo was the third player (Ted Williams, Pudge Rodriguez) with a .340-21-52 line in fewer than 100 games. And if he had sustained his 1.035 OPS over qualifying PAs, it would have been the third-highest ever by a shortstop. Those statements are fraught with mixed messages, since he’s been able to marshal just one proper season since 2009.

2. Ian Desmond, Nationals

Desmond is queued up to become the second shortstop ever to string together four straight 20-20 seasons. He’s yet to drive in 100 runs or score 80, and his AVG (.255) is being cannibalized by an alarming mid-career SO spike (183).

3. Jose Reyes, Blue Jays

Reyes isn’t the force of nature he once was, but he assembled a nice sequence of 30 (SBs), 31 (age), 32 (SBAs), 33 (doubles). Hasn’t hit below .279 since 2005, and scores reams of runs when healthy. The confluence of age and a spindly lower half must be considered. 

4. Starlin Castro, Cubs (F)

Polarizing because of his great talent, “unusual” makeup, adventurous defense and ubiquity in trade rumors. More objectively, Castro is on pace for a 2,500-hit career with enough power to have been the Cubs’ first shortstop to hit cleanup since Ernie Banks.

5. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox

Ramirez shrugged off his worst season to sweep the power categories for AL shortstops with 15 HRs, 75 RBIs, 52 XBHs and a .408 slugging percentage. He’s also twice as good a base-stealer in his 30s (24 per year) as he was in his 20s (12).

 

TIER 2

6. Elvis Andrus, Rangers

At 26, Andrus is going in the wrong direction, his two weakest seasons coming back-to-back. If Texas can follow him in the lineup with something better than last year’s sub-4.0 runs/game bunch, he could be that 90-run/60-RBI/30-SB asset again.

7. Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox

Bogaerts’ full-season debut began with one homer in 43 games, peaked in June when he was hitting .304, slogged through a 22-for-151 tarpit and wrapped with a .320 AVG after Aug. 30. He’ll regain equilibrium to be a top-10 shortstop now and top-three later.

8. Alcides Escobar, Royals

If you’re looking for a shortstop to tag-team 90 runs, 50 RBIs and 30 SBs, the only other place you would have found that grouping in 2014 was Reyes. Escobar’s power is nil and his AVG erratic, but since 2011, he’s normed 28 thefts and has missed only 15 games.

9. Jean Segura, Brewers

Nagging injuries and a family tragedy conspired to make Segura a shell of the player he was in 2013. After a June/July/August in which he batted .204 with no pop whatsoever, his .319 in September resuscitated hope. At the least, his 20 SBs should creep back towards 40.

10. Chris Owings, Diamondbacks (C,F)

Batting .300 into May, Owings was corroborating our sleeper code, but then he slumped, recovered and got hurt. A smoother ride in 2014 could make him one of the value plays of the summer. Recall his .330-12-81-104-20 Triple-A campaign of two years ago.

11. Jed Lowrie, Astros

Lowrie’s robust two-year run ended with an unexplained thud, and the A’s let him walk. He quickly chose to return to Minute Maid Park, where he’s hit 11 HRs in only 222 ABs. He’s not a candidate for stardom, but he is for a resilient comeback.

 

TIER 3

12. Erick Aybar, Angels

Aybar is the flannel pajamas of shortstops — not one of the more aesthetic options, but very comfy. Over six look-alike seasons, he’s normed .280-7-52-70-19 and played in 88% of possible games. Stolen base element is evaporating.

13. Brad Miller, Mariners (C)

If Miller doesn’t win the Seattle shortstop post it’s only because Chris Taylor out-gloved him. If he does, he’s going to hit enough to be one of the year’s better buys. That’s not readily apparent from his results to date, but — trust us — he can rake.

14. J.J. Hardy, Orioles

His fantasy value has been tied to his five 20-HR years. His collapse to nine pushed him deep down into the pack. Despite a pathetic SO/BB ratio (3.6), the O’s re-upped him at nearly double his salary. You, conversely, should pay half.

15. Jordy Mercer, Pirates

Mercer, another of our 2014 sleepers, weathered an appalling start (.199 AVG, 1 HR through May) to do a .278-11-48-44-4 the last four months and cement himself as a top-half shortstop. Further advancement would not surprise.

 

16. Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals (E)

17. Andrelton Simmons, Braves

18. Brandon Crawford, Giants (B)

19. Jimmy Rollins, Dodgers (E)

 

TIER 4

20. Eduardo Escobar, Twins (B,C)

21. Wilmer Flores, Mets

22. Adeiny Hechavarria, Marlins

23. Jose Ramirez, Indians

24. Jose Iglesias, Tigers (F)

25. Marcus Semien, Athletics

26. Didi Gregorius, Yankees

27. Yunel Escobar, Rays

28. Zack Cozart, Reds

29. Freddie Galvis, Phillies

 

TIER 5

30. Francisco Lindor, Indians (G)

31. Nick Ahmed, Diamondbacks

32. Alexi Amarista, Padres

33. Chris Taylor, Mariners

34. Ruben Tejada, Mets

35. Jonathan Villar, Astros (D)

36. Clint Barmes, Padres

37. Eugenio Suarez, Reds

38. Stephen Drew, Free Agent

39. Marwin Gonzalez, Astros

40. Andrew Romine, Tigers

Teaser:
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Shortstops
Post date: Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Fantasy Baseball, MLB, Fantasy
Path: /fantasy/2015-fantasy-baseball-rankings-third-basemen
Body:

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

 

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

 

Rankings Key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Third Basemen

 

TIER 1

1. Anthony Rendon, Nationals

More of a jolt than Rendon’s .287 AVG* and 21 HRs were his 17 SBs and NL-leading 111 runs. Those are serious numbers at a position that, in fantasy terms, has become something of a joke. (* Exactly .287 in the first half, in the second half, in August and on grass fields.)

2. Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays

Having been a much better hitter away from O.co, the thinking is that Donaldson can edge past the 30-HR/100-RBI levels that have barely eluded him. Average-wise, he’s closer to his .255 of 2014 than the .301 of the year before.

3. Kyle Seager, Mariners

As Seattle’s batting order deepens, Seager’s RBI total — up to 96 from 69 last year — reaps the rewards. While he’ll stay steady in the 25-HR/.265-AVG neighborhood, there’s no reason he can’t score a lot more than 71 times.

4. Adrian Beltre, Rangers

Beltre’s .324 AVG was his best in a decade, but an accumulation of dings and the pall in Texas trimmed 42% off his three-year HR average and 23% off his RBIs. He’s a warrior with plenty left, though. Passed Brooks Robinson last year as the all-time total base leader at the hot corner.

 

TIER 2

5. Evan Longoria, Rays

“Stagnation” would be a positive in this case, but “regression” is the more appropriate word for Longoria, whose .881 OPS of his first three seasons has tumbled to .815 since (.724 in 2014). He’s capable of boomeranging back, but opponents have zero reasons to pitch to him.

6. David Wright, Mets (F)

Another former fantasy VIP whose decline has diluted the position. His OPS is .133 lower at Citi Field than it was at Shea, and he’s missed major time in three of the last four seasons. Still, no NL player has had more hits over the past decade, and it’s not like he’s too old to pull it together.

7. Nolan Arenado, Rockies (B)

Had he not been sidelined almost two months, Arenado’s numbers might have paralleled Rondon’s. He constructed a hitting streak of more games (28) than his final walk total (25), which denotes both his merits and chief shortcoming.

8. Matt Carpenter, Cardinals

The synthesis of an epic 2013 season at second base and a just-OK 2014 at third is that Carpenter was the NL leader in hits and runs (by a whopping 28) during that span. Despite what you saw in the playoffs, his big-boy categories are deficient for the position.

 

TIER 3

9. Pablo Sandoval, Red Sox

It would seem at first blush that Panda and Fenway are a match made in sabermetrics, but AT&T (where his OPS was .853, compared to .771 on the road) was never a deterrent to him. Five-year average of .283-16-70-59-1 should hold up if his body does.

10. Josh Harrison, Pirates

The waiver wire pickup of the milennium. Harrison began the year without a real job (two April starts) yet nearly won the batting title. His .315-13-52-77-18 line was one of only two of its kind (Michael Brantley). There weren’t any fluke flags, but betting big on upstarts is rarely prudent.

11. Todd Frazier, Reds (E)

Speaking of flukes and upstarts, Frazier’s 29-HR/20-SB combo was no more predictable than Harrison’s emergence. His three-year average of .259-22-73-69-10 is more illustrative of his reality.

12. Manny Machado, Orioles (F)

We’re flying blind here for the second year in a row, trying to reconcile his potential with the warning shots of two blown-out knees at the age of 22. Before his second, last August, his HR and BB percentages were up significantly from 2013.

13. Yasmany Tomas, Diamondbacks

Grades out as Longoria at the top end and Mike Moustakas at the bottom. Scouts agree that this year’s Cuban “it guy” will hit the longball, but that’s where the comparison to Jose Abreu ends. If he can’t cut it third, he’ll move to left, with Jake Lamb sliding in.

14. Martin Prado, Marlins

Prado has long been a stealth fantasy fav for his stability, deceptively useful numbers and positional versatility. You could do a lot worse than his six-year means of .290-12-63-74-6.

15. Brett Lawrie, Athletics (F)

Lawrie’s unrelenting medical bills are now someone else’s problem, and he’s got a new one of his own: the park dimensions in Oakland relative to Toronto. He’s only 25 and has flashed stardom in spurts (mid-20s HR pace last year before hurting his back), so he can’t be written off.

 

16. Chase Headley, Yankees

17. Nick Castellanos, Tigers

 

TIER 4

18. Mike Moustakas, Royals

19. Trevor Plouffe, Twins

20. Casey McGehee, Giants (E)

21. Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians

22. David Freese, Angels

23. Juan Uribe, Dodgers (E)

24. Kris Bryant, Cubs (C,G)

25. Chris Johnson, Braves

26. Aramis Ramirez, Brewers (E)

27. Matt Dominguez, Astros

28. Cody Asche, Phillies

29. Conor Gillaspie, White Sox (E)

30. Will Middlebrooks, Padres

31. Maikel Franco, Phillies (G)

32. Luis Valbuena, Astros

33. Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks (D)

34. Ryan Flaherty, Orioles

35. Mike Aviles, Indians

36. Yangervis Solarte, Padres

37. Danny Valencia, Blue Jays

38. Justin Turner, Dodgers (E)

39. Cory Spangenberg, Padres

40. Mike Olt, Cubs

Teaser:
2015 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Third Basemen
Post date: Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: Brooks Koepka, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2015-majors-no-22-keegan-bradley
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. 22: Keegan Bradley

 

Born: June 7, 1986, Woodstock, Vt. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 3 | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 0 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $2,828,638 (28th) World Ranking: 34

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Bradley spent last year working with a new coach, and his game suffered, if only slightly. But it was enough to keep him from reaching the season-ending Tour Championship for the first time in his career. Those swing changes and the impending anchored putting ban may slow Keegan down in 2015, but he is just too good to ignore in key areas. He has length, a good wedge game and is one of the best on Tour with a mid to long iron, which is why from 2011-2014 he has finished 13th, 10th, 11th and 28th, respectively, on the money list. Winless for the last two years, if he finds a level of comfort with the swing changes, Bradley will put an end to that drought.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 13
Wins: 1

2014 Performance:
Masters - Cut
U.S. Open - T4
British Open - T19
PGA Championship - Cut

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T27 (2012)
U.S. Open - T4 (2014)
British Open - T15 (2013)
PGA Championship - 1 (2011)
Top-10 Finishes: 3
Top-25 Finishes: 6
Missed Cuts: 3

 

—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: Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 10:48
All taxonomy terms: NBA
Path: /nba/heat%E2%80%99s-hassan-whiteside-ejected-cheap-shot-elbow-video
Body:

The NBA’s out-of-nowhere big man sensation, Hassan Whiteside, showed us his not-so-bright side last night.

 

During his Miami Heat’s 100-90 loss to the Boston Celtics, Hassan surprised Celtics center Kelly Olynyk with this nasty elbow to the back of the head:

 

The incident gave people cause to remember why Whiteside, despite being super talented, flailed around in the minor leagues and abroad for so long: There were major concerns about his personality.

 

 

The Heat have him on a minimum salary through next season, so the 25-year-old will have to avoid too many more incidents like this one if he doesn’t want to give fuel to his skeptics and potentially damage his earning power.

 

Whiteside was also ejected last week, for a fight that he didn’t start — Phoenix Suns sophomore Alex Len was the responsibility party there — but that he did help to escalate.

 

“It was about the fourth or fifth time I dunked on him and I feel like he was really frustrated,” Whiteside said to the Palm Beach Post, about the Len scuffle. “I shouldn’t have came back and retaliated the way I did because it really hurt my team … but every day is a learning day for me. But that’s what it was – it was just because I just kept dunking on him.”

 

 

Teammate Dwyane Wade is not too impressed with the big man’s increasing extra-physical activity — dunks or not. “He’s had enough veteran advice,” Wade said after the loss to Boston. “There comes a time where you have to do it yourself. There’s only so many words people can continue to say to you… You’re part of an organization. We all have our moments, selfish moments. But you can’t continue to keep having them, because you’ve got to be reliable and you’ve got to be able to be counted on. And right now, if he continues to act that way then he’s not reliable.”

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - 10:26
All taxonomy terms: MLB, News
Path: /mlb/al-easts-top-storylines-watch-2015
Body:

The American League East is completely up for grabs in 2015. For most teams in the East, scoring runs won’t be much of a problem, but the fact there is not one single, proven, ace in any team’s rotation is telling.

 

No team in the division can boast about either their benches or bullpens which could make for some high-scoring affairs throughout the summer.

 

Here are a few storylines to keep you focused on the ailing American League East.

 

Red Sox Reload

It might feel like the Red Sox are just toying with the emotions of the Fenway faithful. The Sox went from choke in 2011 to worst in '12, to World Series champions in '13, back to worst last season, and are once again gearing up for a major postseason run this season.

 

General manager Ben Cherington spent this past winter wheeling, dealing and spending, adding major veteran talent to a team that was essentially a conglomerate of prospects late last summer. Cherington used the free agent market to sign a new third baseman and October standout in Pablo Sandoval for $95 million and shortstop Hanley Ramirez for $88 million. Sandoval is not seen as a long-term option at third, but will do for the time being. Ramirez, after adding about 25 pounds of muscle, is leaving the infield and being shifted to play in front of the Green Monster in left field — defensive comedy could ensue as Ramirez has never played outfield in his career.

 

Adding Ramirez and Sandoval should improve this Red Sox lineup that ranked 18th in runs last season. With a full season of Cuban prospect Rusney Castillo in center, resurgent campaigns from Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli, to go along with the big bat of David Ortiz, the Red Sox lineup should prove to be much more productive in 2015.

 

After Jon Lester and John Lackey were dealt last summer, holes needed to be filled in the rotation. Cherington sent Yoenis Cespedes, whom he acquired from the A's in the Lester deal, to Detroit for his prized target, Rick Porcello. Porcello is just 26 and coming off his best season ever (3.43 ERA, 204.2 IP, 129 K). Boston is hoping Porcello can mold into the ace of this Red Sox staff.

 

Behind Porcello, there is plenty of quality depth. Wade Miley, acquired from Arizona, has what it takes to be a top of the rotation arm if he can put it all together for an entire summer. Clay Buchholz has been streaky, but will remain the Sox’ number three arm, followed by veterans Justin Masterson and Joe Kelly.

 

While the Red Sox might not run away with the AL East crown this summer, they are certainly the most well-rounded team in the division and in prime position to return to the postseason in 2015.

 

Blue Jays Ready to Take Flight

Blue Jays’ General Manager Alex Anthopoulos has made it quite clear that this Toronto team is ready to win in 2015. The Jays haven’t been to the postseason since 1993 when “touch em allJoe Carter’s walk-off homer in Game 6 of the World Series locked up back-to-back titles.

 

Speaking of home runs, the heart of the Jays’ lineup could be the scariest in the American League. Between Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and newcomer Josh Donaldson, the Jays feature 98 home runs and 298 RBIs from 2014 in spots three through five on the lineup card. With shortstop Jose Reyes leading off, and newly acquired catcher Russell Martin in the two hole, the top half of this Blue Jays’ lineup has serious potential — it’s the bottom half that is going to be an issue.

 

If Toronto is hoping to end its 22-year postseason skid, simply put, their young arms are going to have to deliver in 2015. The raw talent is there, but Toronto is hoping that one or two of these arms grow into an ace while the others develop into quality starters. The Jays have three young righthanders 25 or younger that need to produce in Marcus Stroman (2014: 20 GS, 3.65 ERA, 103.2 IP) Drew Hutchison (32 GS, 184.2 IP, 184 SO), and Aaron Sanchez (24 G, 1.09 ERA, 0.697 WHIP). Waiting in the wings is top prospect and lefty Daniel Norris, who could cut his teeth in the bullpen or spot start this season. The addition of Martin behind the plate adds a fantastic teacher that can lead these young hurlers to take the next step. 

 

At the top of the rotation are veterans R. A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. Buehrle and Dickey had a resurgence in 2014, throwing a combined 417 innings and averaging a 3.55 ERA and 1.29 WHIP —not shabby for 39 and 35 years old. While Dickey and Buehrle both proved they can still be effective in The Show, it's time for the young guns of the Blue Jays to prove they can lead this team to the postseason.

 

Aging Yankees

While the Alex Rodriguez circus will be in New York headlines for the foreseeable future, the true story of the 2015 Yankees can be found in the box score under letters DNP — as in Did Not Play. Last season the Yankees were the walking wounded, and this summer probably won’t be any different considering how old this team is.

 

Ace CC Sabathia claims that he is ready to roll in 2015 after season-ending knee surgery limited him to just eight starts last year. The Yankees' highlight signing of last offseason was Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka to the tune of $155 million. Tanaka didn't disappoint when he was on the mound, posting a 2.77 ERA and striking out 9.3 batters per nine innings. The honeymoon didn't last as Tanaka, however, as he was sidelined for a portion of 2014 with a partially torn UCL. Righty Michael Pineda was only able to start 13 games for the Yanks in 2014 after missing '12 and '13 with shoulder injuries. When Pineda did pitch, he was outstanding, posting a 1.89 ERA over 76 innings, surrendering just 56 hits.

 

While the pitching staff has a tendency to get beat up, the defense behind them isn’t too much healthier. Carlos Beltran wasn’t able to produce much for the Bronx Bombers in 2014 due to bone spurs in his elbow, causing him to miss 53 games. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury has a long and painful history of not being able to stay fit for duty, playing 140 games or more just four times in his eight-year career. And Mark Teixeira, who played in just 15 games in 2013 before undergoing major wrist surgery, hit just .216 last summer, almost 60 points under his career average.

 

If the Yankees' roster of full of aging and hurting veterans has any hope at competing in the AL East in 2015, the training staff may want to make sure the players take the field in bubble wrap instead of pinstripes — or just find the nearest time machine.

 

- By Jake Rose

Teaser:
AL East's Top Storylines to Watch in 2015
Post date: Monday, March 9, 2015 - 13:30
Path: /nba/russell-westbrook-notches-seventh-triple-double
Body:
Welcome to history, Russell Westbrook.

 

The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard has been carving out a pretty significant page in the NBA encyclopedia these days. With his seventh triple-double of the season — his fifth in six games — Westbrook pushed the Thunder to a 108-104 home victory against the Toronto Raptors yesterday, and entered some pretty rare air.

 

"If you can find somebody who has slowed him down, let me know,” said Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan. “But it's definitely tough. You've got to give him credit.”

 

Russ collected 30 points, 17 assists — tying a career high — 11 rebounds and four steals in the win. With Kevin Durant sidelined with prolonged foot troubles, Westbrook has put OKC on his back, and created a fleeting circumstance: If he continues this fantastic play, he could win the MVP, which Durant won last year. Not since the dominant Boston Celtics of the 1950’s have we seen a team field two different MVP winners in consecutive seasons.

 

Westbrook was named the Western Conference Player of the Month for February, and also won the MVP nod in the All-Star game in New York City — there’s not much he isn’t doing these days.

 

More than any statistical achievements, though, Westbrook’s biggest feat has been leading the Thunder through weird times. With KD out and a huge roster shake-up underway in the midst of a playoff run, he’s provided the consistency that’s kept them in the postseason picture.

 

Regardless of who you’re rooting for, this is a run worth appreciating. We have to reach back more than 25 years and evoke a nascent Michael Jordan to find a streak of performances that can compare to what Westbrook is doing right now. This is one of those “where were you when” stretches in the NBA, and we suggest you get in front of a TV for it.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, March 9, 2015 - 13:13
Path: /mlb/washington-nationals-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

The Nationals’ talented but underachieving roster reached a crossroads this winter, with a slew of critical players heading into their walk years in 2015. The choices were clear: Keep the band together for one more run at a title, even if it meant losing some key pieces at season’s end, or trade a major piece or two for a chance at perpetuating this run of success. The third choice — pony up and re-sign everyone — never appeared to be a viable option. In the end, the Nationals more or less stood pat other than adding another weapon to an already loaded rotation, giving this core one last chance for glory. A quick look at this roster, which changed little from the one that won 96 games in 2014, tells you it should be a World Series contender, but folks have been saying that for a few years now, and the Nationals still haven’t gotten past the Division Series.

 

Rotation

Even before signing Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract, this rotation was in fine shape. Jordan Zimmermann is perhaps the most important name on that list of Nationals who will be heading into their final season before free agency in 2015. Though he was the subject of many trade rumors, the team ultimately kept the understated righthander who has been the most consistent member of this high-powered rotation for several years now. With Zimmermann returning, this rotation — also featuring Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister — will rank as the best in the game. Fister, in particular, was a revelation in 2014, his first season in the NL following the trade that brought him to D.C. from Detroit. In most other rotations, he would be a solid No. 1 starter. Here, he either will be the No. 4 or 5 guy option. All told, Nationals starters went 70–49 with a 3.04 ERA in 2014, including Tanner Roark, who has been squeezed out because of the quality arms ahead of him. And now this group adds Scherzer (18-5, 3.15 ERA with the Tigers) to the mix. There’s every reason to believe this quintet can match, if not exceed, those numbers in 2015, as long as everyone stays healthy.


Bullpen

Two winters ago, the Nationals made the surprising move to sign free-agent closer Rafael Soriano, widely interpreted as a sign the team didn’t trust holdover Drew Storen with the ninth inning. Soriano did a decent enough job in 2014, converting 32 of 39 save opportunities. But the Nationals made no effort to keep him, preferring to turn the ninth back over to Storen, who saved 43 games in 2011 and last year was one of the most unhittable relievers in the game. Tyler Clippard, who had handled eighth-inning duties the past few seasons, was traded to Oakland for Yunel Escobar. Casey Janssen, who saved 87 games for Toronto over the past three seasons, signed in early February and will likely take over Clippard’s role. The rest of this highly functional bullpen appears mostly set, with righthanders Craig Stammen and Aaron Barrett and lefties Jerry Blevins and Matt Thornton holding down spots. The seventh spot is up for grabs from among a group that includes righty Blake Treinen, lefties Matt Grace and Xavier Cedeno, as well as veteran Heath Bell, a December minor league free agent signee.

 

Middle Infield

Second base has been the Nationals’ most volatile position the last couple of years, going from Danny Espinosa to Anthony Rendon, then back to Espinosa and — following a trade deadline move last July — to veteran Asdrubal Cabrera. The Nationals acquired Escobar from the A’s in January if anything to give Espinosa competition. Escobar is a career .276 hitter who provides excellent defense when his head is in the right place. However, don’t rule out veteran Dan Uggla, signed to a minor league deal in December. Shortstop is an interesting position for the Nationals, if only because veteran Ian Desmond, a three-time Silver Slugger winner and cornerstone of the clubhouse, is in his final season before free agency. The Nationals can take comfort in penciling him in for 20 homers and 90 RBIs in 2015, but it will be unsettling to not have him signed beyond that.

 

Corners

The long-speculated move of erstwhile third baseman Ryan Zimmerman across the diamond to first base — forced by his shoulder injuries and a decline in his ability to throw — became official when the Nationals declined their 2015 option on Adam LaRoche. The estimable “Face of the Franchise” is still an elite glove man (though he will have a tough act to follow in LaRoche), and the Nationals hope some closure to the inevitable position-switch, which found him mostly in left field in 2014, will help his bat. Third base thus is bequeathed — for good this time — to Rendon, whose first full big-league season produced a dazzling .287/.351/.473 line, a league- leading 111 runs scored and a fifth-place finish in MVP balloting.

 

Outfield

Picking up Denard Span’s $9 million club option for 2015 was a no-brainer after a resurgent 2014 in which he set career highs in hits, extra-base hits and stolen bases. As a result, the Nationals return their entire 2014 outfield intact, with Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth at the corners — with their positions expected to be flip-flopped (Harper shifting to right and Werth to left). Though Harper will play the entire year at age 22, this is his fourth big-league season, and the way he closed out 2014, with 10 homers in his final 46 games, portends what could be a monster 2015. That, however, assumes Harper can stay healthy, which has proven to be a problem since he burst on the scene. Werth, meantime, will turn 36 in May — as he enters the fifth year of his seven-year deal with the Nationals — but shows few signs of slowing down, with 2014 numbers more or less in line with his career norms.

 

Catching

Injuries continue to confound Wilson Ramos, who has played more than 90 games in a season only once in a four-plus-year career. But when he is healthy, he is one of the best catchers in the game. His litany of maladies grew in 2014 to include a broken hamate bone suffered on Opening Day and a hamstring strain that nagged him much of the year. In an ideal world, Ramos replicates his breakout 2011 season — 113 games and a .267/.334/.445 line. But that may be more than the Nationals can expect.

 

Bench

The Nationals’ bench situation was clarified by the December trade that sent outfield prospect Steven Souza to the Rays, a move that elevates fellow prospect Michael Taylor into the discussion for a big-league bench job in 2015. Veteran Nate McLouth returns to the primary fourth outfield role, but the Nationals may keep Taylor as well for his combination of speed and power. Otherwise, he would go to Class AAA and stay on the ready. Tyler Moore will also be around as a reserve first baseman/corner outfielder, as will the loser of the second base battle between Escobar and Espinosa, barring a trade. Backup catcher Jose Lobaton is a solid enough replacement for those days (or weeks) when Ramos can’t go.

 

Management

Matt Williams’ rookie season as the Nats’ manager was a rousing success, producing 96 wins and earning him NL Manager of the Year honors. October, however, was a different story, as the Nationals’ surprising exit in the NLDS pivoted on Williams’s decision to remove Zimmermann with 100 pitches, one out from a complete-game shutout. Despite the Nationals’ loaded roster, this wasn’t as easy a managing job as some would argue, as Williams had to navigate numerous crises and work without his ideal everyday lineup for most of the season. In Year 2, he brings his entire coaching staff back, a significant mark of stability. General manager Mike Rizzo has built the Nationals into a perennial contender, but the move that has defined his tenure — the decision to bench Strasburg due to an innings limit late in the 2012 season — continues to resonate all these years later.

 

Final Analysis

Every season is crucial, of course, but 2015 takes on even more significance for the Nationals, with so many important players about to reach free agency and having made the huge commitment to Scherzer. One does wonder whether they will miss LaRoche, a steady influence in the lineup and clubhouse, more than they anticipated. But on most days of the week, the Nationals will run a starting pitcher to the mound who is significantly better than the guy on the other team. With a roster this loaded, anything short of a trip to the World Series will be considered a disappointment.

 

2015 Prediction: 1st in NL East

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Denard Span (L)      Led the National League in hits with 184 and hit a sizzling .346/.403/.459 in second half.

3B       Anthony Rendon (R)           The Nats’ best position player in 2014, with 6.5 WAR and league-leading 111 runs scored.

1B       Ryan Zimmerman (R)        Injured shoulder has also hurt his power at plate; 42.8 AB/HR was worst ratio of his career.

RF       Bryce Harper (L)      Nationals believe Harper is due for a 40-homer breakout season if he stays healthy.

LF       Jayson Werth (R)     At age 35, Werth ranked third in the National League in OBP, eighth in OPS and fifth in walks.

SS       Ian Desmond (R)    Effort to hit deeper in counts led to career highs in walk rate (7.1%) and K rate (28.2%).

C         Wilson Ramos (R)  Has played only 191 games last three seasons — 88 in 2014 — due to series of injuries.

2B       Yunel Escobar (R)   After entering 2014 at plus-46 for his career, cost the Rays 24 runs on defense (Baseball Info Solutions).

 

Bench

C         Jose Lobaton (S)     Capable backup, but total non-factor (.234/.287/.304) at the plate in 2014.

2B       Danny Espinosa (S)           Acute strikeout problem (554 in 1,761 career ABs) could be lessened by abandoning switch-hitting.

1B/OF  Tyler Moore (R)      The Nats’ top bat off the bench back in 2012, Moore had only one pinch-hit (in 14 ABs) in 2014.

OF       Nate McLouth (L)     Shoulder surgery ended season in August, but expected to be fully healthy for spring training.

OF       Michael Taylor (R)   Spent most of the 2014 season in Double-A, where he hit .313 and stole 34 bases.

INF      Kevin Frandsen (R) Saw time at four different positions in 2014 and had some big hits for Nationals off bench.

 

Rotation

RH      Stephen Strasburg  Once babied, former No. 1 overall pick now horse of the Nationals’ rotation (34 starts, 215 IP in 2014).

RH      Max Scherzer            The 2013 AL Cy Young winner followed up with another top-five showing (18-5, 3.15 ERA).

RH      Jordan Zimmermann         Reliable veteran coming off best season of career in terms of ERA, ERA+, WHIP and FIP.

LH       Gio Gonzalez            His 10 wins, 158.2 IP and 162 strikeouts were all his lowest totals since 2009.

RH      Doug Fister   In first year in NL, this former Detroit Tiger led a star-studded rotation in wins, ERA and ERA+.

 

Bullpen

RH      Drew Storen (Closer)         In dominating season, most important number was 10 straight saves during September fill-in.

RH      Casey Janssen       Potential Tyler Clippard replacement saved 25 games in 30 chances for Toronto last season.

LH       Jerry Blevins Splits tell the story of his 2014: .298/.398/.423 vs. righties, .160/.202/.217 vs. lefties.

RH      Aaron Barrett            Unheralded rookie from Ole Miss became trusted seventh-inning man by midseason.

LH       Matt Thornton           August waiver claim pitched brilliantly (0 ER, 11.1 IP) down stretch in first NL tour.

RH      Craig Stammen       Jack-of-all bullpen roles pitched two-plus innings in 17 of his 49 regular-season appearances.

RH      Tanner Roark           Squeezed out of loaded starting rotation despite going 15–10 with 2.85 ERA last season.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Spot secured Tanner Roark may have been the best healthy pitcher ever left off a postseason rotation, getting relegated to bullpen duty last October despite winning 15 games and pitching to a 2.85 ERA. Pressed into relief duty in the 17th inning of the pivotal Game 2 against the Giants in the NLDS, he gave up the winning run in the 18th. A year ago, he had to fight to earn a roster spot, but after his stellar 2014, Roark has a rotation job already locked up this spring.

Trouble in paradise? The relationship between the Nationals and star outfielder Bryce Harper took a contentious turn this winter over a contract grievance regarding Harper’s arbitration eligibility. Although the matter was eventually settled before a hearing, Harper skipped the team’s “NatsFest” fan event, for which GM Mike Rizzo criticized him in some pointed remarks. Harper is eligible for free agency in 2019.

Clean bill of health On a positive note, Harper is expected to enter 2015 completely healthy, after battling a knee injury for much of 2013 and a torn thumb ligament that required surgery in 2014. The latter affected him at the plate even after he returned from the disabled list, but as the thumb improved so did Harper’s production. Over his last 31 games, including the postseason, Harper batted .315 with a .967 OPS — which could portend a huge 2015.

Switch to no-switch? Whether or not he winds up starting the season as the everyday second baseman, Danny Espinosa may be preparing to make a significant change at the plate — by batting exclusively right-handed instead of switch-hitting. Espinosa’s career splits (.213/.284/.362 as a left-handed hitter, .271/.343/.460 as a right-handed hitter) would indicate the move is long overdue.

Player named Turner The Nationals appear to have prepared themselves for Ian Desmond’s eventual departure by acquiring a potential replacement in Trea Turner, a top shortstop prospect and the “player to be named later” in a December three-way trade between the Nationals, Padres and Rays. Because Turner was drafted in 2014, he cannot officially be traded until this June, which has spawned an awkward situation in which Turner must play the first few months of the season for a team that has already traded him. Once he joins the Nationals, he will automatically become the top position player prospect in the organization.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Eric Fedde, RHP

For the second straight year, the Nationals used their top pick on a pitcher who needed Tommy John surgery, hoping to find value in a talented but injured arm. Fedde, taken 18th overall out of UNLV, had his surgery shortly after the draft and started a throwing program in December. If he pitches at all in 2015, it will be minimal, with careful monitoring by the team. Without the injury, Fedde likely would have been a top-10 pick, complementing a hard, sinking, low-90s fastball with a tight slider and a developing changeup. The Nationals have a strong track record in rehabbing pitching prospects, and the team still believes Fedde can develop into a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the big leagues.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Lucas Giolito, RHP (20) Elbow injury dropped him to 16th in 2012 draft, but since surgery he has blossomed into one of best arms in the minors, going 10–2 with a 2.20 ERA at Low-A in 2014.

2. Reynaldo Lopez, RHP (21) Mechanical tweak in 2014 sent him zooming into top echelon of Nats prospects.

3. A.J. Cole, RHP (23) Fourth-round pick in 2010 is on big-league doorstep after going 13–4, 3.16 combined at Class AA/AAA, but Nationals’ loaded rotation has no space for him.

4. Trea Turner, SS (21) The player to be named later in three-way Steve Souza trade, he won’t officially join Nationals organization until June, but his talent already makes him franchise’s top position player prospect.

5. Michael Taylor, OF (24) Former prep shortstop has developed into tools-laden outfielder, with plus power and speed. Appears headed to big leagues to stay in 2015 after impressive 2014 in Class AA/AAA.

6. Erick Fedde, RHP (22) The Nationals took him in first round despite knowing he needed elbow surgery. Could be pitching in minors by midseason.

7. Joe Ross, RHP (21) Brother of Tyson Ross reached Class AA as 21-year-old with Padres in 2014, then dealt to Nationals in Steven Souza deal. Has mid-90s fastball, good slider.

8. Brian Goodwin, OF (24) Saw progress slowed by injuries at Class AAA in 2014, but speed and batting eye make him a possible call-up in 2015.

9. Wilmer Difo, SS/2B (23) Dominican product blossomed at Low-A, hitting .315/.360/.470, staking his claim as Nationals’ future second baseman.

10. Jakson Reetz, C (19) Third-round pick in 2014 has the tools to remain at catcher and the bat to advance quickly through minors.

Teaser:
Washington Nationals 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Monday, March 9, 2015 - 13:00
Path: /mlb/philadelphia-phillies-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

After several years of hoping to coax one more run out of the rusting frame of the team that won five division titles, two pennants and a World Series from 2007-11, the Phillies have finally given in to a full rebuilding effort. Consecutive 89-loss seasons and the organization’s first last-place finish since 2000 did the trick. “What we have isn’t working,” said embattled general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who started the rebuild by trading franchise pillar Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers. “It’s time to turn the page. We need to get younger and more athletic.”

 

More changes are coming. Everyone except the Phanatic has a For Sale sign attached to his back as the Phils look to ship out the old (and expensive) and bring in the new. Despite spending more than a half-billion on payroll (only the Yankees and Dodgers spent more), the Phillies have missed the playoffs three straight seasons, and attendance at once-pulsating Citizens Bank Park has dropped by 1.2 million since 2011. Nothing was done this winter to improve a dreadful offense. It will probably be another three years before this team sniffs the playoffs again.

 

Rotation

With Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, the Phils have a dynamic duo at the top. However, it remains to be seen how long these guys will be around. Both are available for trade and will be attractive to contenders. Hamels, 31, is signed through 2018 (with an option for 2019), and the Phillies are under no pressure to move him. But come at them with some game-breaking young talent, and they will pull the trigger. Hamels remains one of the game’s best starters. He reached 30 starts for the seventh straight season in 2014 and had a career-best 2.46 ERA, including a glistening 2.06 in his final 27 starts. Lack of run support has dogged Hamels for several years. At 9–9, he was the first pitcher since Orel Hershiser in 1989 to post an ERA under 2.50 and not have a winning record. At 36, Lee is eager to pitch for a winner again. The possibility of being traded last summer might have been the reason he pushed to come back from a strained elbow in July. All signs point to Lee being healthy in 2015 — and if that’s the case, he will be prime trade bait. There’s a big drop-off after Hamels and Lee. Veteran Aaron Harang, signed to a one-year deal in January, is all but assured of a spot in the rotation. Right-handed sinkerballer David Buchanan will look to build on a solid rookie season, and journeyman Jerome Williams is back on a one-year deal. Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, held back by a sore shoulder in 2014, and Chad Billinglsey, the former Dodgers who hasn’t pitched since 2013, also will get chances to impress and possibly win a job in the spring.


Bullpen

This is the one area where there is reason for encouragement. You can hear it in the hiss of Ken Giles’ 100-mph fastball. The 24-year-old righthander overcame health and control issues and turned himself into a cornerstone of the rebuilding effort in 2014. He came up in June and used his fastball and wipeout slider to strike out 64 of the 166 batters he faced. He finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. The emergence of Giles and hard-throwing lefty side-armer Jake Diekman, as well as the consistent work of veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon, helped the Phils’ bullpen record a majors-best 2.41 ERA after Aug. 5. Youngsters Justin De Fratus and Mario Hollands also showed promise in 2014. Giles is clearly the team’s closer of the future, but for now the job belongs to Papelbon, whose outstanding command helped him overcome a dip in velocity. Like Hamels and Lee, Papelbon is a prime trade candidate, and he’d love to be dealt to a contender. However, his big salary and headache-causing antics have scared off closer-needy teams. If the Phils finally find a taker for Papelbon, Giles will be ready to step in and fire.

 

Middle Infield

After serving as Rollins’ double-play mate for 1,187 games, the most in NL history, Chase Utley will break in 25-year-old shortstop Freddy Galvis, a defensive whiz who struggles with the bat. Utley, 36, turned back the clock and played in 155 games in 2014, his most since 2009. While Utley’s across-the-board numbers were good — he led NL second basemen in extra-base hits (53) and RBIs (78) — his second-half decline was alarming. He hit .335 with a .937 OPS in 47 games through May 28 and just .239 with a .657 OPS over 108 games the rest of the season. He enters 2015 mired in a homerless streak of 153 at-bats, the longest of his career. Utley is still a solid defender, but more days off or a move to first base, if circumstances permit, could serve him well.

 

Corners

Age and injury have taken a toll on Ryan Howard, and his production no longer matches his $25 million paycheck. Yeah, Howard drove in 95 runs in 2014, but his .690 OPS ranked 20th among big-league first basemen and 120th overall. Howard is a poor defender and baserunner. He has become the symbol of a once-great team gone stale, and the Phillies are willing to eat a significant amount of the $60 million that remains on his contract to trade him. Across the diamond, Cody Asche returns at third base, but he has much to prove as he tries to hold off Maikel Franco, a top defender with a big bat.

 

Outfield

The Phillies unloaded Marlon Byrd, who led the team with 25 homers in 2014, to the Reds for prospect Ben Lively in late December. There wasn’t much pop at the other two spots, and that’s a big reason the Phils ranked 27th in the majors with a .665 OPS last season. Domonic Brown had just 10 homers and a dreadful .634 OPS in 2014, and Ben Revere is the definition of a slap hitter — all but 22 of his NL-high 184 hits were singles in 2014. Both Brown and Revere are poor defenders. Brown could make the move from left field to right field, where he played in the minors. Darin Ruf and Grady Sizemore could be in line for a platoon in left field, though Ruf likely will get some at-bats at first base again. Rule 5 Draft pick Odubel Herrera and Jordan Danks, who was claimed off of waivers from the White Sox, also will get a look.

 

Catching

Carlos Ruiz returns for his ninth season as the starting catcher. Though still a fine receiver, thrower, game-caller and favorite of the pitchers, Ruiz is 36, and nagging injuries have hurt his overall production. A decent backup must emerge from the cast of Cameron Rupp, Koyie Hill and John Hester as Ruiz would be best kept to about 110 games.

 

Bench

After numerous injuries, Sizemore is best suited for a part-time role. Ruf has shown an ability to hit lefties, so he and Sizemore could be a productive platoon in left as well as pinch-hitting options. Ruf could also get time at first base against lefties. Cesar Hernandez will serve as the utility infielder, and veterans Andres Blanco and Chase d’Arnaud will get a look in the spring. Herrera’s speed and bat are attractive for a team looking to get younger and more athletic.

 

Management

The playing field isn’t the only area where changes are brewing. Longtime club president David Montgomery took medical leave in August, and billionaire investor John Middleton — compared to George Steinbrenner for his big wallet and passion for winning — is taking on a more prominent role. Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick is back in a position of power with lame-duck GM Amaro answering to him. On the field, the jury is still out on low-key skipper Ryne Sandberg. Several players openly disrespected his authority in 2014.

 

Final Analysis

The reconstruction is just beginning. Several older, high-priced vets must still be cleared out, the offensive is feeble, and the farm system, hampered by recent poor drafts, is weak. Another visit to the NL East basement is likely before this thing begins to turn around.

 

2015 Prediction: 5th in NL East

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Ben Revere (L)         Hit .333 after June 25 and finished at .306, fifth in the National League.

SS       Freddy Galvis (S)     Good glove, but he went 2-for-42 at the plate to start 2014 and hit .176 for the season.

2B       Chase Utley (L)        Fans voted him an All-Star starter for the sixth time in 2014.

1B       Ryan Howard (L)     Led majors with 190 Ks in 2014 and slugged career-worst .380.

C         Carlos Ruiz (R)        Threw out 27 percent of base-stealers and had team-best .347 OBP in 2014.

LF       Grady Sizemore (L)             Hit .328 in 14 starts in July, but was 4-for-41 in September.

RF       Domonic Brown (L)             His .634 OPS ranked 139th in the majors in 2014, and his average dipped to .235.

3B       Cody Asche (L)        Made 105 starts at third in 2014 and committed team-high 16 errors.

 

Bench

1B/OF Darin Ruf (R)            Former 20th-round pick has 20 homers and .805 OPS in 447 big-league plate appearances.

INF      Cesar Hernandez (S)         He can run and play three positions but has yet to hit consistently in majors.

C         Cameron Rupp (R)             Could be backup catcher if Phils go homegrown route. Only has 22 MLB games on his résumé.

UT       Odubel Herrera (L) Solid minor-league hitter with Texas; recent move to the outfield impressed Phillies.

3B       Maikel Franco (R)    Dominican native will have a chance to earn everyday job at third and could see time at first. 

 

Rotation

LH       Cole Hamels            Had a 1.82 ERA in 16 road starts in 2014 and finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting.

LH       Cliff Lee         His 3.93 career strikeout-to-walk ratio is second to Dan Haren among active pitchers.

RH      Aaron Harang           Once led the NL in wins (16 in 2006) and losses (17 in ‘08) in a three-year span. Went 12–12 in Atlanta in ‘14.

RH      Jerome Williams     Had a 2.83 ERA in nine starts after being claimed on waivers in August.

RH      David Buchanan      Averaged less than six innings in 20 starts in 2014, but allowed three or fewer earned runs in final 16.

 

Bullpen

RH      Jonathan Papelbon (Closer)        First closer to record 200 saves in one league and 100 in the other.

RH      Ken Giles      Ranked third among NL relievers in WHIP (0.79) and K rate (38.6) in 2014.

LH       Jake Diekman          Appeared in career-high 73 games and struck out 12.68 per nine in 2014.

LH       Mario Hollands        Had 19 straight scoreless appearances in 2014, a Phils rookie record.

RH      Justin De Fratus      Made 50 appearances after late May recall, and 42 were scoreless.

LH       Cesar Jimenez        Had 1.51 ERA and allowed one homer in 65.2 innings between AAA and the majors in 2014.

RH      Luis Garcia   Power stuff rates only a tick behind Giles’, but hasn’t carried minor-league success to majors.

 

Beyond the Box Score

The Papelbon problem When the Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon to the richest contract ever for a reliever (four years, $50 million), they envisioned him closing out postseason wins. Three seasons later, the Phils have not been to the postseason, and Papelbon, with his big contract and volatile ways, has become an albatross that the team has not been able to escape despite repeated efforts to do so. Things could get interesting this season. Papelbon needs to finish just 48 games to guarantee a $13 million option for 2016. With Ken Giles waiting in the wings and the Phils looking to get younger and cheaper, the team would prefer that not happen. Will the Phils try to limit Pap’s finishes in 2015? If they do, they might be in for a fight.

Money is the root … Ryan Howard played with much on his mind in 2014 as he waged a legal battle against his brother and parents over control of his fortune. The matter was settled out of court. Close friend and former teammate Jimmy Rollins later said the painful matter affected Howard’s play. Maybe a clearer head will help Howard in 2015.

Chomp, chomp, chomp Lefty Jake Diekman continued his maturation in 2014. He struck out 100 batters, third most by an NL reliever and most by a Phillies reliever since 1983. Diekman felt more in control on the mound, and for that he credited a performance-enhancing substance — bubble gum. “It makes me think less,” he said. “I think I’m conscious of not chomping on the gum so I don’t look like a horse on TV. It slows everything down for me. At least it feels like it does.”

New top scout Signs of a franchise retooling began to show in June when the Phillies departed from a long-held philosophy of drafting high-upside athletes regardless of experience level. Looking for more polished, projectable players after a number of poor drafts and several first-round flops, the Phils went the college route with 27 of their first 28 picks. The retooling continued in September when longtime scouting director Marti Wolever was let go. Johnny Almaraz, a longtime scout with the Reds and Braves, was hired as the new boss after six years running Atlanta’s Latin American operation. He will be an important cog in the rebuilding effort.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Aaron Nola, RHP

Painfully thin in quality starting pitching at the top of their system, the Phillies were intent on landing an advanced talent with the seventh overall pick. Aaron Nola is just that. Polished. Mature. Poised. A fast-tracker. These are just some of the descriptions that have been attached to the 21-year-old righthander from LSU. Nola backed up his lofty selection with a 2.93 ERA in 55.1 innings at High-A and Double-A last summer. He struck out 45 and walked just 10. Nola made a good showing with a 2.62 ERA in five starts at Double-A and finished the season with five walk-free shutout innings against the Yankees’ club. Rival scouts and club officials rave about Nola’s ability to command three pitches, particularly his fastball. It’s not the Phillies’ style to push prospects too quickly, but this guy has the stuff and the intangibles to be the exception.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. J.P. Crawford, SS (20) Team’s top pick in 2013 projects as franchise-type shortstop. More than held his own in the Florida State League in 2014 and should get to Double-A in 2015.

2. Aaron Nola, RHP (21) He should open at Double-A and could be in Philadelphia by season’s end.

3. Maikel Franco, 3B/1B (22) Organization’s top hitting prospect batted .324 with 11 homers, 47 RBIs and a .924 OPS over final two months at Triple-A in 2014.

4. Roman Quinn, OF (21) Switch-hitter with game-changing speed on bases and in center field. Led the Arizona Fall League with 14 steals. He could be ready for Double-A.

5. Zach Eflin, RHP (20) Phillies liked him in the 2012 draft, but he was off the board, going 33rd overall to the Padres. Phils finally got him in the Jimmy Rollins trade with the Dodgers.

6. Tom Windle, LHP (23) The other piece in the Rollins trade, Windle was 56th overall pick in 2013. Throws three pitches, including mid-90s fastball.

7. Dylan Cozens, OF (20) Second-rounder in 2012 is 6'6", 235 with huge power and upside. Struck out a lot, but had 16 HRs, 25 doubles, six triples and 23 steals at Low-A in 2014.

8. Ben Lively, RHP (23) Was Reds’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year after going 13–7 with a 3.04 ERA in 26 starts at Single-A and Double-A in 2014.

9. Matt Imhof, LHP (21) Second-rounder in 2014 out of Cal Poly stands 6'5". Command of three pitches, deception could make him a quick mover.

10. Deivi Grullon, C (19) He hasn’t hit yet in the low minors, but the tools are there. Has a rock-like presence behind the plate and a rocket arm.

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After six consecutive losing seasons, tied with Houston for the longest active streak in the majors, the Mets believe they can finally break the .500 mark — and these days, if you do that, you can contend for a wild card. Anything less would be a bitter disappointment for the Mets. Some of their young players made meaningful strides last season, and their veterans should still have enough left to make a positive impact. After a strong September (15–10), and with a rotation on the rise, the Mets are poised to be relevant again.

 

Rotation

A dynamic young rotation is the primary strength of this team. Matt Harvey returns after missing a full year following Tommy John surgery. An alpha dog in the mold of Roger Clemens, Harvey is eager to reclaim his role as staff ace and dominant force. He may be rusty, of course, and don’t expect him to throw 230 innings. But the innings he throws should be high quality. Harvey’s sidekick, the hard-throwing Zack Wheeler, finished with a strong second half, and the duo acquired another running mate along the way in Jacob deGrom, who burst onto the scene to win the NL Rookie of the Year award with a 2.69 ERA in 22 starts, with more strikeouts than innings. Noah Syndergaard could join that trio soon enough, but for now there’s a logjam, with lefty Jon Niese and righties Bartolo Colon and Dillon Gee — all solid, if unspectacular pros who combined to make 83 starts last season, going 31–32. Another option, Rafael Montero, was shaky at times but showed that he could hold his own.


Bullpen

In his first three years with the Mets, Terry Collins’ bullpen ranked 28th, 29th and 22nd in the majors in ERA. Last year, though, the Mets’ relief corps jumped to eighth, with a 3.14 mark. Collins found a young closer in Jenrry Mejia, who converted 28 of 31 save chances and made a habit of dancing off the mound after the final out. The four relievers with the most appearances besides Mejia — Carlos Torres, Jeurys Familia, Vic Black and Josh Edgin — all had ERAs below 3.10. Another standout performance, though, is no sure thing, as Mejia, Black and Edgin all dealt with injury problems in the second half and Torres absorbed a heavy workload. Look for former closer Bobby Parnell, who went down to Tommy John surgery after pitching on Opening Day, to return early in the season.

 

Middle Infield

The ever-consistent Daniel Murphy is good for a lot of singles and doubles every year, and an average of roughly .290. Even his error total at second is steady: 15 or 16 in each of the last three years. His double-play partner is a source of frustration for Mets fans, many of whom still pine for the flash of the long-departed Jose Reyes. After a strong September, it’s Wilmer Flores’ turn to get the starting job that Ruben Tejada never really seized. Flores is only 23 and hit better at each level in the minors. He’s had only 375 plate appearances in the majors, and he just might be the Mets’ long-term answer. Now Flores needs a little patience from fans and media to see if he is.

 

Corners

The Mets finally settled their first base quandary early last season, trading Ike Davis to Pittsburgh and giving Lucas Duda the position. The quiet slugger gained confidence and blossomed, smashing 30 home runs. His patient approach at the plate fits with the Mets’ organizational strategy, and the power should only rise now that the walls in center and right are closer to the plate at Citi Field. At 29, Duda should be right in the middle of his prime, and with teams starving for power, his emergence is a big reason the Mets are so optimistic about 2015. They would feel even better if their captain, David Wright, were coming off a better season, but shoulder problems kept Wright from having his usual standout performance. He avoided surgery on his bruised rotator cuff and was cleared to begin baseball activities in December. Barring a setback, Wright, at 32, should resume his place among the game’s best all-around players: about a .300 average with 20 or so homers and 90 or more RBIs, plus about 15 steals and his usual stellar defense.

 

Outfield

The Mets’ outfielders will have a bit less ground to cover at Citi Field this season, with portions of the walls in center and right field pulled in from three to 11 feet. Of course, the change had nothing to do with the Mets’ defense and everything to do with their offense. Had these dimensions been in place last season, the Mets say, their hitters would have hit 17 more homers, and their pitchers would have allowed 10 more. The pull-hitting Curtis Granderson should benefit most from the new dimensions, but on defense he’ll have to adjust to left field, where he started eight times last season and 11 times in 2013. Granderson says he is fine with the switch, which accommodates newcomer Michael Cuddyer, who takes over in right. Cuddyer missed most of last season with a fracture to his left shoulder socket, but he passed his physical and should be a solid bat in the middle of the order. Granderson, age 34, and Cuddyer, age 36, will benefit from flanking the majors’ best defensive center fielder, Juan Lagares, who won his first Gold Glove last season while improving his batting average from .242 to .281. Lagares still doesn’t walk much, but his bat is viable enough and his glove is so dazzling that he’s earned the right to start every day.

 

Catching

Travis d’Arnaud was hitting .180 with a meager .544 OPS when he was demoted to Class AAA Las Vegas last June. The hitting coach there, George Greer, told him to try to hit a double every time he came to bat. He learned how to better cover the outer half of the plate, and hit like he always has in the minors, where he is a .290 career hitter with an .838 OPS. d’Arnaud was better after he returned, hitting .270 with an .805 OPS and 10 homers in 69 games. The Mets would gladly take that production for a full year, and at 26, d’Arnaud needs to put together that kind of season — a demand that takes on greater urgency because Kevin Plawecki, a top catching prospect, is coming on fast in AAA. Backup Anthony Recker’s .197 career average obscures his decent power and his skill at working with the pitching staff.

 

Bench

The Mets won’t plan to use many, if any, platoons this season, but their corner outfielders will need a break now and then to stay fresh. Matt den Dekker and Kirk Nieuwenhuis are used to the backup role and play excellent defense when called upon. Eric Campbell can play five positions, and he hit .263 in a part-time role last season. Outfielder John Mayberry Jr. is dangerous against lefties.

 

Management

The Mets have seen enough progress to give Sandy Alderson and Collins more time. Alderson signed a three-year contract extension in September and said that Collins would return as manager for 2015. The team has a 2016 option for Collins, the majors’ oldest manager at age 65. The Mets failed to meet Alderson’s goal of 90 wins last season, but this offseason Collins spoke optimistically of a playoff run, so both GM and manager are expecting a lot. If Collins fails to deliver, it’s safe to wonder if the Mets will make a change. But in his fifth season, Collins should have his first legitimate chance to make a playoff push.

 

Final Analysis

Teams often follow years of losing with a transition year in which they contend for a while but ultimately fall short, absorbing the lessons of a pennant race and applying them the next season. This could easily happen for the Mets in 2015, and if so, it would ultimately be an improvement over the last few years. But their goals are higher than that, and they should be. This team features a playoff-caliber rotation, and the offense showed real signs of life last season. The Mets will be a legitimate factor in the chase for a spot in the postseason.

 

2015 Prediction: 3rd in NL East

 

Projected Lineup

CF       Juan Lagares (R)    Gold Glover’s bat came around late, with .323 average from Aug. 22 through end of season.

2B       Daniel Murphy (L)    Mets’ only All-Star in 2014 has had at least 35 doubles three years in a row.

3B       David Wright (R)      Rotator cuff problems limited his effectiveness and ended season early. Mets need him to bounce back.

1B       Lucas Duda (L)        A monster vs. righties, but had just four of his 57 extra-base hits off lefties.

RF       Michael Cuddyer (R)           Turned down $15.3 million for one year from Rockies to sign with Mets for $21 million over two years.

LF       Curtis Granderson (L)        Hit just seven HRs at Citi Field, a figure that should rise with fences moved in.

C         Travis d’Arnaud (R)             Oft-injured catcher had surgery Oct. 1 to remove bone chips from elbow.

SS       Wilmer Flores (R)    Venezuelan hit four homers and scored team-best 15 runs in September.

 

Bench

C         Anthony Recker (R)             Since Recker joined team in 2013, Mets are 44–33 (.571) when he starts.

OF       Matt den Dekker (L)             Strong defender was leading Class AAA PCL in hitting when recalled on Aug. 9.

OF       Kirk Nieuwenhuis (L)          Oddly, Nieuwenhuis had 18 extra-base hits and only 11 singles.

OF       John Mayberry Jr. (R)          Free-agent acquisition has strong .857 career OPS against lefties.

UT       Eric Campbell (R)   Has started games at first, second, third, left field, right field and as a DH.

SS       Ruben Tejada (R)   Went 778 at-bats without a HR at Citi Field until going deep in final AB of 2014.

 

Rotation

RH      Matt Harvey   Challenge, for player and fans, will be understanding his limits in first year back after Tommy John surgery.

RH      Bartolo Colon           One of five active pitchers with 2,000 Ks (CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson).

RH      Jacob deGrom         Former ninth-round pick earned Rookie of the Year honors — and also hit a respectable .217.

RH      Zack Wheeler           Went 8–3 with a 2.71 ERA from June 30 through end of season.

LH       Jon Niese     ERA was more than a full run higher on the road (3.96) than at home (2.74).

 

Bullpen

RH      Jenrry Mejia (Closer)          Converted last 11 save chances, then had offseason surgery for sports hernia.

RH      Jeurys Familia         After rocky start, had 1.81 ERA from April 25 through season’s end.

RH      Dillon Gee     Should wind up in some team’s rotation — Mets or elsewhere — before end of spring training

LH       Josh Edgin   Did not allow an earned run in 10 innings after Aug. 1, but also battled sore elbow.

RH      Vic Black        Ended a fine year (26 hits allowed in 34.2 IP) with a strained rotator cuff.

RH      Carlos Torres           First Met to pitch 90-plus relief innings since Terry Leach in 1988.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Awesome autograph For most ballplayers, the signature has devolved into a mess of unintelligible lines and squiggles. As long as they include their uniform number, players say, fans can find out who they are. Fortunately, Mets newcomer Michael Cuddyer appreciates quality penmanship. Cuddyer was raised in the Minnesota Twins organization at a time when the late Harmon Killebrew implored young players — sometimes loudly — to take pride in the way they wrote their names, so future generations would always know who they were. Cuddyer took the lesson to heart, with a neat, legible autograph that is a true keepsake for fans. He is such a disciple of Killebrew that he wears his No. 3 to honor him.

No Strasburg scenario In Stephen Strasburg’s first full year after Tommy John surgery, 2012, the Nationals infamously shut him down because of a pre-determined innings limit and did not allow him to pitch in the playoffs, even though he was healthy. Matt Harvey, like Strasburg, is a Scott Boras client, but the Mets will take a different strategy. While general manager Sandy Alderson says the Mets have a “soft” number of innings for Harvey in the regular season, he insists that the workload will be managed so Harvey can pitch in the postseason if the Mets make it there.

Long answer The Mets fired their hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, last May and re-assigned his replacements after the season. In October, they found a solution across town. Kevin Long, who guided the Yankees’ hitters the last eight seasons, makes the move to Citi Field as the new hitting coach for the Mets. Long, a tireless worker with a relentlessly positive approach, is eager to work again with Curtis Granderson, whom he helped with the Yankees, where Granderson twice topped 40 homers.

Silent tweeter   Mets general manager Sandy Alderson had fun when he first joined Twitter in 2012, cracking wise about the Mets’ money problems, showing off pictures of his dog, and joking (we think) about giving his wife an IHOP gift card for Valentine’s Day. Alas, Alderson was all business last season. After tweeting about an MLB Network promotion a few times last February, @MetsGM went all season without a single message for his 66,000 followers.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Michael Conforto, OF

Conforto comes from an interesting athletic background. His father, Mike, played football at Penn State. His mother, the former Tracie Ruiz, won two gold medals in synchronized swimming at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and a silver medal at the Seoul Olympics four years later. Michael dove into baseball and has played in the Little League World Series and the College World Series, for Oregon State, where he was the Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2013. A lefty hitter with power, he possesses plate discipline that appealed to the Mets, who stress that trait throughout their farm system. He had a .403 on-base percentage while hitting .331 in his professional debut at Brooklyn, and he projects to have decent power in the major leagues. Conforto is 22, and if he progresses as the Mets hope, he should be ready to take over a corner outfield spot in 2017, after Michael Cuddyer’s contract expires.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Noah Syndergaard, RHP (22)  A 6’6” right-hander acquired in the R.A. Dickey trade, Syndergaard had 145 strikeouts and just 43 walks while allowing only 11 homers in a full PCL season.

2. Kevin Plawecki, C (24) He would seem blocked by Travis d’Arnaud, but given d’Arnaud’s injuries and inconsistency, it’s plausible to think that Plawecki, at 24, could make a move up.

3. Brandon Nimmo, OF (22) The athleticism and instincts the Mets saw in him as an amateur in Wyoming started to show at Class AA last season; solid in all five tools.

4. Dominic Smith, 1B (19) Showed excellent strike-zone discipline in first full pro season, but managed just one homer.

5. Michael Conforto, OF (22) First-round pick last June had one of the best power bats in college baseball the last few years.

6. Dilson Herrera, 2B (21) Skipped AAA to go to Mets last season, hitting three HRs in 18 games.

7. Matt Reynolds, SS (24) After hitting .343 at two levels and reaching AAA, Reynolds may force his way into the mix in New York.

8. Rafael Montero, RHP (24) Solid mid-rotation prospect who made eight respectable starts for Mets last season; trade bait?

9. Amed Rosario, SS (19) Excellent defender who hit .289 at age 18 in Brooklyn last season; possible long-term answer at shortstop.

10. Steven Matz, LHP (23) Former second-rounder got the Mets’ attention with a 2.24 ERA in 24 starts between High-A and AA last season.

Teaser:
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Post date: Monday, March 9, 2015 - 12:00
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As Marlins manager Mike Redmond pointed out during the winter meetings, it was difficult to envision a scenario in which his team would be better without right fielder Giancarlo Stanton. The Marlins, in spite of a widely held belief that Stanton’s departure was imminent, locked up the slugger with a 13-year, $325 million contract, the largest in North American professional sports history. In conjunction with the Stanton announcement, the Marlins promised they would surround their superstar with sufficient talent to become a factor in the NL East.

 

In the team’s estimation, contending for a division title meant building around arguably the best outfield in baseball. Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna excelled both offensively and defensively in 2014. With that trio in place, changes would have to come on the infield. The Marlins replaced three-quarters of that group with first baseman Mike Morse, second baseman Dee Gordon and third baseman Martin Prado.

 

With ace righthander Jose Fernandez on the shelf until June or July while recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Marlins came to terms with the Reds on a deal for Mat Latos and secured Dan Haren from the Dodgers along with Gordon.

 

“They want to win,” Morse says. “They’re proving it. They’re showing it right now. … We’re right on the cusp of doing something great.”

 

Rotation

Whether the Marlins do something great will hinge on their rotation. That group expects a midseason boost when Fernandez completes his rehab from Tommy John surgery. The 2013 National League Rookie of the Year was limited to eight starts before a torn ulnar collateral ligament ended his sophomore season. With Fernandez on the shelf, several other pitchers stepped up. Henderson Alvarez logged a 2.24 ERA over his final 21 starts. Tom Koehler did not allow more than three earned runs in 15 of his last 18 outings. At the July 31 trade deadline, the Marlins struck a deal with the Astros for Jarred Cosart, and the NL agreed with him, evidenced by his 2.39 ERA. Those who didn’t raise their games in 2014 will be pitching elsewhere in 2015. Nathan Eovaldi, in spite of boasting one of the biggest fastballs in the game, did not blossom, and the Marlins dealt him to the Yankees in the Prado deal. Latos was limited to 16 starts last season with the Reds but has been one of the NL’s top pitchers when healthy. Aaron Crow, acquired from the Royals, has pitched exclusively as a reliever in the majors, but the Marlins may give him a look as a starter. David Phelps, a former Yankee who arrived as part of the Prado deal, also will be in the mix for a back-end rotation spot along with lefthanders Brad Hand and possibly Justin Nicolino. The X-factor is Haren, who after mulling retirement following his trade from the Dodgers to a non-West Coast team has decided to give it a go with the Marlins.


Bullpen

Steve Cishek in 2015 can become the first closer in Marlins history to record 30 or more saves in three consecutive seasons. During his two full seasons on the job, Cishek has converted 73 of 79 chances. The Marlins have an abundance of right-handed power arms to bridge the innings from starter to Cishek. Acquired from the Pirates last season, Bryan Morris did an exceptional job in the setup role. He had a 4–1 record and 0.66 ERA in 39 games with Miami. A.J. Ramos is a bulldog who has had more strikeouts than innings pitched in each of his two full seasons. The Marlins are hoping a healthy Carter Capps fulfills his potential. What the bullpen lacks is a true lefty specialist. Mike Dunn, who retires right-handed hitters as effectively as lefties, fills that role. Rule 5 pick Andrew McKirahan will get a look in spring training, as will Hand and prospects Adam Conley and Grant Dayton.

 

Middle Infield

The Marlins believe shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria is on the verge of winning a Gold Glove. His defensive skills have been as good as advertised, and the bat is catching up. Hechavarria improved his average from .227 in 2013 to .276. Before the 2014 season, the Marlins signed free agent Rafael Furcal to be their everyday second baseman. Injuries limited him to nine games last season, and the team never found a suitable replacement. The Marlins, who won their second of two World Series in 2003 with speedsters Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo atop the order, wanted to recapture that element and targeted Gordon. He stole 64 bases and earned an All-Star selection in 2014. The question with Gordon is whether he can maintain a high enough on-base percentage to remain atop the order.

 

Corners

The Marlins supplanted both of their corner infielders. Signed to a two-year deal before last season, first baseman Garrett Jones struggled defensively and wasn’t a consistent run-producer. They traded him with Eovaldi and pitcher Domingo German to the Yankees for Prado, Phelps and cash. Morse, who hit 16 home runs for the World Series champion Giants last season, was signed to a two-year deal to replace Jones. The Prado acquisition set off alarms for Casey McGehee, whom the Marlins signed to be their third baseman after a 2013 championship-winning season with Rakuten in Japan. McGehee hit cleanup most of 2014 and was NL Comeback Player of the Year, but not long after the Marlins landed Prado they shipped McGehee to the Giants. The Marlins love Prado’s athleticism and ability to hit anywhere in the lineup.

 

Outfield

In addition to Stanton, one of the game’s superstars and arguably its top right-handed power hitter, the Marlins feature a pair of homegrown studs in Yelich and Ozuna. The left-handed hitting Yelich is a future three-hole hitter and already has a Gold Glove. Ozuna probably is more suited for right field, but center did not prove a challenge, even in cavernous Marlins Park. He has one of the top arms in the game. MLB Network ranked the Marlins’ trio as the majors’ top outfield in 2014. Miami also signed veteran Ichiro Suzuki, who is 156 hits away from 3,000 in his MLB career, to a one-year deal for depth.

 

Catching

Coming off a World Series-winning season with the Red Sox in 2013, free agent Jarrod Saltalamacchia signed a three-year deal with the Marlins. Year 1 was a fiasco. Saltalamacchia led all NL catchers with 15 errors, and he didn’t make up for the substandard defense with his bat. Saltalamacchia hit .220 with a .362 slugging percentage. Backup Jeff Mathis doesn’t offer much offensively, but he possesses all the physical tools and intangibles.

 

Bench

The Marlins have an array of backup infielders with guys like Donovan Solano, Jeff Baker, Jordany Valdespin, Miguel Rojas and Derek Dietrich and only one established reserve outfielder in Suzuki. The left-handed swinging Justin Bour also will vie for a bench job this spring. He’s a natural first baseman but has logged some time in left.

 

Management

Redmond returns for his third season as the team’s manager. On the final day of the 2014 season, the club announced it had extended his contract through 2017, giving the Marlins some stability in the manager’s office and coaching ranks. Redmond was a big leaguer as recently as 2010, and his relative youth (43) has allowed him to connect with his players.

 

Final Analysis

Redmond is well aware that going from 77 to 92 wins is much more challenging than the club’s previous jump from 62 to 77. That next big leap could take more than one season, especially without 30-plus starts from Fernandez. Nonetheless, the Marlins have every expectation of playing meaningful games in late September.

 

2015 Prediction: 2nd in NL East

 

Projected Lineup

2B       Dee Gordon (L)        Speedster acquired from Dodgers stole more bases (64) in 2014 than entire Marlins team (58).

LF       Christian Yelich (L) Gold Glove winner in 2014, Yelich could hit third if Marlins opt to slot Martin Prado in two-hole.

RF       Giancarlo Stanton (R)         Led the National League with 37 homers despite missing final two-and-a-half weeks of season.

1B       Mike Morse (R)         Fort Lauderdale native will play his best defensive position on hometown team.

3B       Martin Prado (R)      Hit .316 with .877 OPS in 137 plate appearances after 2014 trade from Diamondbacks to Yankees.

CF       Marcell Ozuna (R)    Hit 23 homers and knocked in 85 runs, second on club in 2014 behind Stanton’s 37 and 105.

C         Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S) Signed to a three-year deal before last season; looking to rebound offensively and defensively.

SS       Adeiny Hechavarria (R)      Gold Glove-caliber defender hit 49 points better (.276) in 2014 than he did in 2013.

 

Bench

C         Jeff Mathis (R)          Makes up for light hitting with gritty play and manner in which he handles young pitchers.

OF       Ichiro Suzuki (L)       After 2,204 career games with AL teams, Suzuki comes to the NL 156 hits shy of 3,000.

INF      Jeff Baker (R)           Rebounded well from rough first half with productive second half in 2014, his first season with the Marlins.

INF      Donovan Solano (R)           Saw extended time at second base in August and September, and can play outfield in a pinch.

INF      Miguel Rojas (R)     Ex-Dodger played second, short and third during 85-game rookie season in 2014.

 

Rotation

RH      Henderson Alvarez  Pitched like an ace after Jose Fernandez underwent Tommy John surgery in May.

RH      Mat Latos      Limited to 16 starts with Reds in 2014 due to knee injury and arm trouble, and saw dip in velocity.

RH      Jarred Cosart           Logged 2.39 ERA in 10 starts after he was acquired from Astros at July 31 trade deadline.

RH      Tom Koehler            Back-of-the-rotation workhorse finished just shy of 200-inning plateau (191.1).

RH      Dan Haren    Marlins hoped to convince Haren to pitch for them rather than retire or force trade to West Coast team.

 

Bullpen

RH      Steve Cishek (Closer)        Former fifth-round pick struck out 84 in 65.1 innings en route to a career-high 39 saves in 2014.

RH      Bryan Morris Logged 1.82 ERA with a 1.275 WHIP in 2014 between 60 appearances with Pirates, Marlins.

RH      A.J. Ramos   Allowed only 36 hits in 64.0 innings while recording a 7–0 record out of the pen in 2014.

RH      Carter Capps           Hard thrower limited to 27 appearances between majors and minors in 2014 due to elbow injury.

RH      Aaron Crow   Ex-Royals reliever may get a look as a starter, but at the least will open season in bullpen.

LH       Mike Dunn     For his career has held left-handed hitters to a .220 average and righties to .238 mark.

LH       Andrew McKirahan  Rule 5 pick split 2014 between Cubs’ High-A and Double-A affiliates and recorded a 2.08 ERA.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Tat man The trade to Miami should afford Mat Latos a chance to meet one of his idols: Heat forward Chris “Birdman” Andersen. If nothing else, the two can find some common ground when it comes to body art; both are heavily tattooed. Latos said he gave serious consideration to sporting his Birdman Heat jersey to his introductory press conference. Asked about a possible photo shoot with the two, Latos added: “That would be embarrassing for me. … I’m not as hardcore as Birdman. He has a neck tattoo. That’s awesome to me.”

Role model While in the Dodgers’ organization, Dee Gordon learned from Maury Wills, one of the top base-stealers in baseball history. With the Marlins, Gordon will work under another ex-Dodgers favorite. Third base coach Brett Butler totaled 179 of his 558 career steals as a member of the Dodgers from 1991-94 and 1995-97. Unlike Gordon, who nabbed 64 in 2014, Butler never totaled more than 52 steals in a season.  “From what I’ve seen and heard, our games pretty much match up,” Gordon says. “To be able to pick (Butler’s) brain on a daily basis and learn from him is going to be amazing.”

Native sons Latos and Mike Morse have special ties to the Marlins. Both attended the franchise’s inaugural game on April 5, 1993. Morse, born in Fort Lauderdale, and Latos, a product of Coconut Creek High School and Broward College, both were raised in South Florida.

Early test The Marlins will get an early barometer of how they compare against their division rivals. With the exception of a three-game interleague home series against the Rays, the Marlins play exclusively within the National League East through May 6. Last season, the Marlins were a combined 33-43 versus the Nationals, Braves, Phillies and Mets.

Brothers … and teammates? Marlins infielder Donovan Solano has shared the same major league field with his brother Jhonatan a handful of times. Jhonatan and Donovan may find themselves in the same big-league dugout at some point. After the Nationals released Jhonatan, a catcher, the Marlins signed him to a minor league contract. The Solano brothers are two of 14 native Colombians to appear in the majors and the second set of brothers.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Tyler Kolek, RHP

The last time the Marlins had the second overall pick in the draft, they selected a hard-throwing Texas high school righthander in Josh Beckett. Picking second again in 2014, they went the same route. Kolek is a hulking 6'5", 260-pounder whose fastball touched 102 mph while at Shepherd High School about 60 miles outside of Houston. Kolek received a franchise-record $6 million signing bonus and began his professional career in the rookie Gulf Coast League. A minor back issue limited him to nine appearances. He lost all three decisions and struck out just five more batters (18) than he walked, but the Marlins were pleased with his progress. After the season, Kolek went to the instructional league, where he adjusted his delivery. After Andrew Heaney’s departure via trade, Kolek is now the club’s undisputed top prospect.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Tyler Kolek, RHP (19) The hard-throwing, physically imposing Kolek complements a triple-digit fastball with a hard curve. Among his goals in his first full pro season will be finding a changeup.

2. Jose Urena, RHP (23) Urena had an impressive 2014 season with Double-A Jacksonville. His fastball and changeup ultimately could make him a compelling late-inning reliever.

3. J.T. Realmuto, C (24) A quarterback and shortstop, Realmuto is among the organization’s best athletes. He made his major league debut last season and should open 2015 at Triple-A New Orleans.

4. Justin Nicolino, LHP (23) He was the ace of the Class AA Jacksonville rotation, going 14–4 with a 2.85 ERA, 20 walks and 81 strikeouts in 170.1 IP. 

5. Avery Romero, 2B (21) A stocky 5'8", 190 pounds, Romero projects to have above-average power for a middle infielder.

6. Isael Soto, RF (18) The Marlins believe they have a Raul Mondesi-type talent in Soto, who is coming off his first professional season.

7. Austin Dean, LF (21) Drafted in the fourth round as a shortstop in 2012, Dean made the transition to the outfield and is coming off his best pro season.

8. Trevor Williams, RHP (22) He complements a four- and two-seam fastball with a slider, curve and changeup.

9. Matt Ramsey, RHP (25) Last July, the Marlins sent the Rays their second, third and fourth international bonus slots for Ramsey, who at the time was mowing down Southern League hitters.

10. Brian Anderson, 3B (21) In his first pro season, he demonstrated an advanced hitting approach in the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League.

Teaser:
Miami Marlins 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Monday, March 9, 2015 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: San Antonio Spurs, NBA
Path: /nba/gregg-popovich-against-longer-nba-season
Body:
This season, the NBA’s talent pool enjoyed their biggest All-Star break ever. Players got a full week off — longer, in some teams’ cases. This is but one subtle new wrinkle of commissioner Adam Silver’s early reign.

 

Recent talk has suggested that even more rest could soon be in line for the league, but without losing any games. With the year’s spate of injuries to superstars and role players alike, it’s hard to argue that stretching the schedule out and giving some more relief to basketball bodies is a bad idea.

 

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, though, doesn’t like the concept. "If there is a game in July, count me out," Popovich said last week. "Count me out. Count me out. Life is too short… I think the season is long enough," Popovich said. "I will not come to work in July.”

 

The Spurs, quite famously, have gotten their rest through alternative means over the years: by simply taking it. Popovich and Co. were once fined $250,000 for sitting Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green for a nationally televised game in December of 2012, but they’ve continued to employ such strategies anyway.

For teams without as strong of a culture, though — the kind that kind win regular season games even with the back of their bench in the starting lineup — no such luxury exists. The New Orleans Pelicans can’t beat too many teams without Anthony Davis; the Los Angeles Clippers face similarly poor odds without Chris Paul… the list goes on and on. Rest is not an option for most of the NBA playoff-starved NBA, and exhausting back-to-back arrangements are a fact of life.

 

Reducing the total number of games, while being a smart idea, is probably the least probable solution of all, because less television time less means less revenue for everyone involved. So either we’ll see Popovich’s least favorite notion come to life, or we’ll likely keep seeing ragged bodies fall to the injured reserve at unfortunate rates.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, March 9, 2015 - 10:24
All taxonomy terms: Brooks Koepka, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2015-majors-no-23-hunter-mahan
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. 23: Hunter Mahan

 

Born: May 17, 1982, Orange, Calif. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 6 | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $3,097,983 (22nd) World Ranking: 30

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Mahan has not finished worse than 30th on the money list in the last nine years and is the only player in the world who has made it to the season-ending 30-man Tour Championship every year since the FedExCup’s inception in 2007. That being said, neither has he ever finished higher than 9th on the money list nor higher than 6th in the FEC. His highs are restricted by an inability to save shots around the green, and his lows are minimized by an almost unmatched repetitive game from tee to green. With top 10s in all four majors, he is a threat on any course and under any circumstances, but he needs one great week around the greens to become a major winner, something that was predicted of him over a decade ago as the country’s best amateur.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 32
Wins: 0

2014 Performance:
Masters - T26
U.S. Open - Cut
British Open - T32
PGA Championship - T7

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T8 (2010)
U.S. Open - T4 (2013)
British Open - T6 (2007)
PGA Championship - T7 (2014)
Top-10 Finishes: 7
Top-25 Finishes: 14
Missed Cuts: 13

 

—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 9, 2015 - 10:18
All taxonomy terms: Atlanta Braves, National League, NL East, MLB, News
Path: /mlb/atlanta-braves-2015-preview-and-prediction
Body:

John Hart has tried his best to convince Braves fans that the team wasn’t simply rebuilding for the opening of the new stadium in 2017. The newly named president of baseball operations tried to argue that the Braves would be “very competitive” in 2015, but after trading Justin Upton and Evan Gattis in separate deals that netted the team seven prospects, his actions seem to speak otherwise. While adding a much-needed infusion of talent into an otherwise depleted farm system, Hart shipped off a combined 51 home runs and 154 RBIs from an offense that ranked second to last in the National League last season.

The Braves’ rotation figures to be solid again — losing only Ervin Santana and gaining Shelby Miller and several other young arms — but the offense is not exactly on solid ground. Especially not with Upton, Gattis as well as leadoff man Jason Heyward all wearing other uniforms.

 

Rotation

The Braves couldn’t hang with the big spenders in the Jon Lester sweepstakes, leaving Miller as the biggest infusion of new blood into their rotation. The status quo centers on Julio Teheran, who is in his third full season and poised to lead a Braves rotation that finished fifth in the majors last year with a 3.42 ERA. Even pitching alongside Santana a year ago, the 23-year-old Teheran proved to be the Braves’ ace in his first All-Star season. He posted a career-best 2.89 ERA while pitching two shutouts and putting up career highs in starts (33) and innings pitched (221). His command of both a slider and curveball with the addition of a two-seam fastball has made him more than the power pitcher that earned him top prospect accolades in the organization for three years running. Teheran and lefthander Alex Wood give the Braves a formidable young righty-lefty combination at the top of their rotation. The Braves tried to limit Wood’s innings by bringing him out of the bullpen for stretches each of the past two seasons, but the team now needs him in the rotation. Miller and Mike Minor round out a rotation that figures to be solid Nos. 1 through 4. Veteran southpaw Eric Stults should get a chance to win the final spot in spring training, but Manny Banuelos and Mike Foltynewicz, a pair of prospects acquired this offseason, are waiting in the wings and could force their way into the discussion.


Bullpen

The Braves reshaped their bullpen around closer Craig Kimbrel after trading away Jordan Walden and David Carpenter and signing a pair of former closers looking to bounce back after subpar seasons. Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli are veteran candidates to serve as setup men for Kimbrel. Shae Simmons would have been included in this group, but he underwent Tommy John surgery in February and will miss the season. The Braves are hoping pitching coach Roger McDowell can work some magic with Johnson and his sinker. The former Orioles closer tanked last season after his trade to Oakland but posted 101 saves the previous two years. Grilli went 1–5 with 12 saves for the Pirates and Angels last year coming off his first All-Star season in 2013. Kimbrel became the first closer in MLB history to open his career with 40 or more saves in each of his first four seasons and only the third to do it in four consecutive seasons over any stretch. James Russell and Luis Avilan give the Braves some depth from the left side with the losers of the rotation competition likely to fill out the remaining spots.

 

Middle Infield

It’s only a matter of time before Jose Peraza is starting at second base and batting leadoff for the Braves. The 20-year-old Venezuelan is the pure leadoff hitter the Braves haven’t had since Rafael Furcal. The trick will be to figure out when Peraza is ready for the call-up from Triple-A to the majors. Meanwhile, Alberto Callaspo and Phil Gosselin, and possibly even Jace Peterson, will battle for the second base job and could wind up in a platoon. Shortstop is in good hands, literally. Andrelton Simmons has won two Gold Gloves and one Platinum in his first two full seasons in the big leagues. He regressed offensively last year from a slash line of .248/.296/.396 to .244/.286/.331 as he got caught up swinging for the fences. He’ll be high on the priority list for new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who made inroads with Alcides Escobar — another young shortstop — during his time as the hitting coach of the Royals.

 

Corners

Even with Upton and Heyward in the lineup, Freddie Freeman was still the Braves’ best hitter. Now even more falls on the shoulders of the 25-year-old two-time All-Star first baseman. When the rest of the lineup was defined by big swings and high-strikeout totals, Freeman was one of the few Braves to use the opposite field with any consistency. His homers (23 to 18) and RBIs (109 to 78) were down last year, but his doubles were up (27 to 43). He’s going to have even less protection in the lineup without Upton behind him, so nothing will come easy this season. Chris Johnson’s name was bandied about in trade scenarios in the offseason. If he opens the season at third base for the Braves, he’s got to prove that his 2013 season, when he made a run at the National League batting title, wasn’t the fluke — that his 2014 season was. His defense at third was much improved, though.

 

Outfield

For those puzzled by the four-year, $44 million commitment to former Oriole Nick Markakis during what otherwise appeared to be a rebuilding effort, consider that his approach is more in line with the philosophy the Braves are aiming for offensively. He’s a left-handed contact hitter who handles lefties (career .288). Markakis will take over for Heyward in right field and bat near the top of the lineup. Markakis doesn’t bring the power or speed of a Heyward or Upton, but he should be more consistently productive. The Braves are trying to move past the home run-or-bust mentality, but they still will have the other Upton brother in the lineup. B.J. changed his name to Melvin Upton Jr. during spring training, but he says it wasn’t because of his struggles (.198 with 324 Ks) since signing a five-year, $72.5 million free-agent contract with Atlanta in 2013. Adding to his woes, Upton could miss the first month of the season, if not more, after inflammation of a bone in his left foot was discovered during spring training. His injury opens up competition for the starting center field job, which could go to non-roster invitee Eric Young Jr., a switch-hitting speed threat who also is capable of playing second. Veteran Jonny Gomes was signed to a one-year deal and will try to supply some of the power that was lost in the departures of Justin Upton and Gattis.

 

Catching

Even if Gattis remained with the Braves, he wasn’t going to be able to stay behind the plate. Instead, the team will turn to Christian Bethancourt, an athletic young prospect. Bethancourt is agile and has a dynamic arm, but he’s still refining his pitch-calling and needs to increase his stamina. He wore down in September, and it showed with six passed balls. The Braves signed veteran A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year deal to serve as Bethancourt’s backup.

 

Bench

The bench will likely include both Young and Gomes, at least when each isn’t starting, as well as whomever loses the battle for the starting job at second. The remaining holdovers have very little experience — Gosselin, who’s had a total of 50 major league games, and the likes of outfielder Todd Cunningham (eight games) and outfielder/first baseman Joey Terdoslavich (64 games). However, Upton’s injury opens the door for one of these to potentially receive more playing time.

 

Management

The Braves fired general manager Frank Wren and assistant Bruce Manno and restructured their front office with Hart taking over as president of baseball operations and John Coppolella, his heir apparent, getting increased responsibility as an assistant general manager. The subplot, though, is the return to greater influence of John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox, who had eschewed much of the baseball decision-making when Wren was at the helm. The other significant change was at hitting coach, with Seitzer taking over for Greg Walker. Seitzer is charged with getting the Braves’ lineup back to a more fundamentally sound, contact-oriented approach at the plate.

 

Final Analysis

The Braves have won a total of two playoff games in the past nine seasons since their run of 11 straight division titles ended in 2005. Now they’re determined to get back to the formula that generated their run of success, which centers on scouting and developing their own players. That might take a while — the Braves hope no longer than 2017, when they open their new ballpark in the Atlanta suburbs of Cobb County. The success or failures of 2015? It’s going to depend once again on if the Braves can produce much offense to complement a solid young pitching staff.

 

2015 Prediction: 4th in NL East

 

Projected Lineup

LF       Eric Young Jr. (S)     If he wins a starting job and gets on base, his speed (30 SB in 100 G in 2014) will be an asset atop the lineup.

RF       Nick Markakis (L)     Career .294 hitter with .353 OBP in leadoff spot, which is where he’ll likely stay until Jose Peraza is ready.

1B       Freddie Freeman (L)          Second in majors with .443 average with runners in scoring position in 2013; dropped to 64th (.294) in 2014.

3B       Chris Johnson (R) Second in the majors with a .395 average against lefties last year but hit only .231 against righties.

C         Christian Bethancourt (R) Threw out five of 15 base-stealers but also charged with six passed balls in 31 games.

2B       Alberto Callaspo (S)           Braves sought this contact hitter, who has one strikeout every 11.16 career plate appearances.

SS       Andrelton Simmons (R)     Numbers were down a bit in second full season in the bigs, but his real value is with his glove.

CF       Melvin Upton Jr. (R) Set Braves’ single-season franchise record for strikeouts with 173 in 2014, likely to miss at least the first month because of injury.

 

Bench

OF       Jonny Gomes (R)    Could beat out Young for starting job, but more suited for spot and pinch-hitting duty.

INF      Phil Gosselin (R)     Hit safely in 24 of his 30 starts for the Braves last season, batting .284 (33-for-116) as a starter.

C         A.J. Pierzynski (L)    Veteran is coming off the worst offensive season of his career, hitting a combined .251 in Boston, St. Louis.

OF       Todd Cunningham (S)       The Braves need a fill-in center fielder with Upton’s injury, which gives him an edge over Joey Terdoslavich or Jose Constanza.

INF      Jace Peterson (L)    Hit .113 in first MLB action with Padres last year but is coming off back-to-back .300 seasons in the minors.

 

Rotation

RH      Julio Teheran           Sixth Braves starter since 2000 to make at least 30 starts (33) and post an ERA under 3.00 (2.89).

LH       Alex Wood     Led Braves with 2.78 ERA in 2014 but went 11–11 thanks to a staff-low 2.75 runs of support.

RH      Shelby Miller             After striking out 169 in 173.0 IP in breakout 2013 season, he K’d only 127 in 183.0 IP in ’14.

LH       Mike Minor     Shoulder soreness forced late start and early exit to 2014 season.

LH       Eric Stults      Veteran went 8-17 with 4.30 ERA in 32 starts for Padres last season.

 

Bullpen

RH      Craig Kimbrel (Closer)       Converted 47 of 51 saves and finished second in the majors behind Fernando Rodney (48).

RH      Jim Johnson            Once-dominant closer saw his ERA balloon to 7.09 last season in stints with the A’s and Tigers.

LH       James Russell        Veteran lefty was actually better against righties in 2014 (.284 vs. lefties, .165 vs. righties).

LH       Luis Avilan    Posted a 1.69 ERA in first two seasons, but it jumped to 4.57 in 2014 as he struggled with breaking pitches.

RH      Jason Grilli  Posted 2.74 ERA over three seasons with Pirates and converted 30 of 31 saves as closer in 2013.

LH       Manny Banuelos      Former Yankee pitched 76.2 innings in the minors last season in first year back from Tommy John surgery.

RH      Mike Foltynewicz      Former Astros first-round pick will get a shot to earn a spot in the rotation after working out of the bullpen last year.

 

Beyond the Box Score

Come together Shortly after signing a four-year, $44 million contract with the Braves, right fielder Nick Markakis underwent spinal fusion surgery for a herniated disc in his neck Dec. 17. His pre-spring routine will be altered, but the Braves are fairly confident Markakis will be able to make up ground during spring training and be a full go by Opening Day.

Roy returns Former Braves scouting director Roy Clark, who spent a handful of seasons helping stock the Nationals’ farm system, returned to the Braves front office, where he spent 22 years making a name for himself signing the likes of Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel, among others. As special assistant to the general manager, Clark aims to build the Braves farm system back to the “Baby Braves” days of 2005, when 18 rookies made the major league roster during the last year of the team’s run of 11 straight division titles.

Masterful advice Shelby Miller honed his sinker during the second half of last season in St. Louis with the help of Justin Masterson, who came to the Cardinals at the trade deadline from Cleveland. Miller used the two-seamer to pitch deeper into games and keep hitters from sitting on his four-seam fastball. He posted a 2.08 ERA over his final seven starts after recording a 4.25 ERA in his first 25 games (24 starts).

Otro outfielder The Braves missed out on Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas, who signed with the Diamondbacks for $68.5 million. But while evaluating Tomas in the Dominican Republic, they also got a good look at a lower-profile Cuban outfielder named Dion Toscano. The Braves signed the left-handed hitter to a four-year, $6 million contract and will send him to the minor leagues to get a better idea of how soon he might be able to help at the big-league level.

Mending fences Former third baseman Chipper Jones didn’t take too kindly when the Braves sent the mascot out to catch his ceremonial first pitch before a 2013 division series playoff game against the Dodgers, a series in which Jones had predicted on a local radio broadcast the Braves would lose in four games. Jones did not return to spring training as a guest instructor last spring like he had the year prior. Jones is expected back in the fold as a regular around the batting cages this year after manager Fredi Gonzalez asked him to serve as an occasional hitting consultant.

 

2014 Top Draft Pick

Braxton Davidson, OF

The Braves are hoping some of the T.C. Roberson High School magic will rub off with their top pick in June. Davidson, a protégé and friend of Cameron Maybin from the Asheville, N.C., area, is a left-handed, power-hitting corner outfielder hoping to follow in the footsteps of his mentor. Davidson, who attended Maybin’s draft party 10 years earlier, was taken 32nd overall, in the supplemental round. He was considered the best power hitter in the draft, and the Braves also like Davidson’s feel for the strike zone — though he took his lumps in rookie ball (batted .224 in 50 games with 42 strikeouts in 147 at-bats). He drew comparisons to Freddie Freeman and Brandon Belt as a high school first baseman, though the Braves moved him to the outfield. He had shed 35 pounds during his senior year of high school in anticipation of that move.

 

Top 10 Prospects

1. Jose Peraza, 2B (20)  Triple-A seasoning is all that stands between Peraza and a job as the Braves’ everyday second baseman and leadoff hitter.

2. Mike Foltynewicz, RHP (23) Biggest piece in the Evan Gattis trade with Houston will get shot in spring training to earn spot in starting rotation.

3. Lucas Sims, RHP (20) Jump from Low- to High-A proved to be a big one for Sims — 12–4 with a 2.62 ERA in Rome to 8–11 with a 4.19 ERA in Lynchburg. The Braves still covet his power arm.

4. Christian Bethancourt, C (23) Braves’ Opening Day catcher, barring injury or meltdown in spring training, given Evan Gattis’ move to left field.

5. Jason Hursh, RHP (23)  Braves’ 2013 first-round pick from Oklahoma State coming off solid Double-A season (11–7, 3.58 ERA).

6. Rio Ruiz, 3B (20) Acquired in the Gattis deal, likely ticketed for Double-A Mississippi after batting .293-11-77 in High-A last season.

7. Max Fried, LHP (21) The No. 7 overall pick by the Padres in 2012 who arrived in the Justin Upton trade, Fried is coming off Tommy John surgery and likely to miss all of 2015 season.

8. Ozhaino Albies, SS (18) Another talent from Curacao trying to live up to the legacy of Andruw Jones and Andrelton Simmons. He led Appalachian League in hitting (.356) and OBP (.429) as a 17-year-old.

9. Braxton Davidson, RF (18) Braves aren’t sure if 2014 first-rounder has the arm strength to play right field, but he’s slated to continue there as he opens his first full season in High-A Rome.

10. Tyrell Jenkins,  RHP (22) Shoulder injuries stalled minor league progression, but fastball back in mid-90s for former Baylor football signee who had standout Arizona Fall League.

Teaser:
Atlanta Braves 2015 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Monday, March 9, 2015 - 09:30
Path: /nba/blazers-lose-wesley-matthews-season
Body:
The basketball Gods are a relentless clan, and they don’t care about our enjoyment — this much is not news. But word of their latest victim is. Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard Wesley Matthews tore his left Achilles tendon last night, in a 94-75 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. Matthews will miss the rest of the season for Portland, who might now be out of contention for the Western Conference crown without their ever-valuable “three-and-D” starter.

 

"It's disbelief, you know?" he told reporters after he learned of the diagnosis. "I'm sitting up there in that tube having an MRI, and I don't hear noise, I don't feel my Achilles, I'm just … I can't believe I'm up there while my team's battling. I just haven't processed all of it yet … I've made that same cut hundreds of thousands of times in my life. I felt the initial pop, and I think you guys could tell on the replay, I looked back, and it feels like someone kicked you. I was praying that someone was back there. No one was back there, and I heard Ron [Garretson], the ref, he actually says, 'Oh no' like he knew.”

 

The gruesome sight was, indeed, a telling one. It evoked the moment that Kobe Bryant suffered a similar fate, at the end of the 2012-13 season. Bryant has not been the same since, playing in just 41 games over the past two seasons.

 

Matthews is just 28, so he should be able to recover better than Bryant. But this is a rough hit for the Blazers, who must feel especially fortunate to have traded for Arron Afflalo just before the trade deadline. Afflalo will almost certainly take Matthews’ spot in the starting lineup. But, in all likelihood, he won’t be able to recreate the terrific synergy Wes had with Damian Lillard.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, March 6, 2015 - 14:24
All taxonomy terms: MLB, News
Path: /mlb/al-centrals-top-storylines-watch-2015
Body:

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

 

New Look White Sox, New Central Favorites?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Motor City Uncertainty

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

- by Jake Rose

Teaser:
AL Central's Top Storylines to Watch in 2015
Post date: Friday, March 6, 2015 - 13:19

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