March Madness Preview, 2017 Edition

Another year of college basketball comes to a close, and here we sit, on the eve of “The Big Dance”, once again ready to plunge into the greatest sporting event America has to offer. 68 teams enter, and 67 games will determine which one of them will be doing snow angels in confetti bearing their colors, wallowing in their newfound glory, on the platform court at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale in just three short weeks. What a year it has been. We began the season with the Duke Blue Devils anointed as the prohibitive favorites for the crown, the unanimous preseason #1 team in the land, and oh how much has changed since that first poll was released. I’ll get to Duke in a little bit. But here we sit with Villanova, Kansas, UNC, and Gonzaga intent on hanging a banner, looking down at the rest of the field from their lofty perches as the tournament’s #1 seeds and Jim Boeheim relegated to doing SportsCenter interviews because his team was left out of the tournament. Without further ado, let’s dive into some storylines and the bracket itself.

They are who we thought they were?
Can we take a second to congratulate whichever member of the Duke Athletics’ marketing staff came up with the slogan “Uncommon” for this year’s team? He deserves a bonus, because I can’t think of a better word to encapsulate the roller coaster ride of tweets, flashbulbs, tripping incidents, back surgeries, lower leg injuries, shocking losses, and unfathomable ACC tournament runs that was the Duke regular season. Duke was heralded coming into the year as having perhaps the best blend of veteran and diaper dandy talent in a long while, but injuries to Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden, along with another knee surgery for the #1 recruit in the class of 2016, Harry Giles, hampered the freshmen’s progress. Add in the fact that essentially the entire Duke roster, Coach K included, spent at least some of this season on the DL, and you find a team that has been trying to get healthy for about the last 3 months. We saw in spots how good the team can be: a 53 point victory over Georgia Tech, and of course the four game run through the ACC tournament in Brooklyn that catapulted the team to a #2 seed and back into the national title conversation. Is this Duke team the collection of McDonald’s All-Americans that we thought it would be at the beginning of the year? Most certainly not, but the most “Uncommon” college basketball season that I can think of just might have an equally “Uncommon” ending.

Will the glass slipper fit?
The task of identifying the “Cinderella” team, the nation’s underdog darlings that make a surprise run in the NCAA tournament, is one of the parts of bracketeering (I just made that word up by the way) that leads millions to pore over KenPom adjusted efficiency rankings, gut feelings, mascot comparisons, and animal handicappers’ picks to get any possible edge about who will ruin everyone else’s brackets. I’m here to burst your bubble and say that this tournament will be one run by the top seeds. Yes, we may have a surprise team in the 8-12 range make a Sweet 16 run, but beyond that, this was a season ruled by the power programs at the top of your brackets like Villanova and UNC: the 1-3 seeds of the tournament. This isn’t to say that I think this bracket will put the chalk in Rock Chalk Jayhawk, and in fact I’ll let you in on my 100% mortal lock of the century guaranteed upset specials (guarantee not guaranteed) as we get to the bracket now.

East Region: The Pilgrimage to Basketball’s Mecca
We begin with the East region, home to the tournament’s #1 overall seed, Villanova, and 15 other teams vying for the right to play in the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. (As an aside: how did MSG get to be basketball’s most famous arena? What cool stuff has happened in there? Kemba walker’s buzzer beater? I guess that was kinda cool.) Duke, Baylor, and Florida, as the 2, 3, and 4 seeds respectively, will look to challenge Villanova’s quest to repeat as champions for the first time since Florida in ’06 and ’07. The media is seemingly willing a Duke Villanova Elite 8 matchup in MSG into existence, and I’ll go along with them, but here’s how we’ll get there.

Villanova will beat Mount St. Mary’s (it’s ok to write that one in Sharpie, Seth Davis) and face Virginia Tech after they beat Wisconsin. The Hokies boast a talented offensive club that will present matchup problems, like Zach LeDay, to Wisconsin and shoot the 3 well enough to move on. I’m identifying the Virginia vs UNC Wilmington and Florida vs East Tennessee State games as my annual “this section of the bracket goes to madness” section in which we get a couple of upsets and consequently a double digit seed moving on to the Sweet 16. I like UNC Wilmington, behind its efficient offense, to squeak past a Virginia team that is tremendous defensively but has its problems scoring. The problem with Virginia is that the Cavaliers are the ultimate front-running team: once they’re up 12-4 at the under 8:00 timeout in the 1st half, it’s impossible to come back on them because they’ll slow the game to a crawl and make just enough shots at the end of the shot clock to beat you. I think the Seahawks’ efficient offense does just enough as it wouldn’t surprise me if the first team to 55 wins this game. I like ETSU over Florida in spite of the fact that Florida is a really solid team because they’ve faded down the stretch somewhat after losing their interior force, John Egbunu. Madness ensues and we have UNC-Wilmington and ETSU in the second round. The ponies of SMU will dispatch the winner of Providence and USC to take on Baylor, who will defeat New Mexico St. Wojo, Steve Wojciechowski, a Coach K disciple, and Marquette will shoot the 3 just well enough to get past Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC player of the year, and the Gamecocks to face Duke in the second round. I think Virginia Tech will give Villanova a game, but the Wildcats move on to take on UNC Wilmington, fresh off their victory over ETSU. I like SMU to get the better of Baylor, a team that peaked way too early and also wears highlighter-yellow uniforms, and take on Duke in the other Sweet 16 matchup in the Big Apple. Villanova eases past Wilmington, and Duke plays just enough defense to overcome a versatile but short-handed SMU team to set up the matchup with the defending champs. If it’s possible for any team to match up well with the tournament’s #1 overall team, I think Duke matches up decently with Villanova. Duke has gotten hurt this season by teams that drive the ball relentlessly to the basket and have enough quality big guys to scoop up rebounds and work a pick and roll effectively. Villanova isn’t a big team and relies a lot on the 3-point shot to score its points. Duke defends the 3 much better than you would think, and as a consequence, Allen, Kennard, and especially Tatum score enough for Duke to get to the Final 4 in a thriller.

West Region: Is Gonzaga for real?
The Zags (I think they’re actually the Bulldogs) look to finally break through and make the Final 4 after going undefeated almost the entire year before tripping over BYU in their final regular season game to finish the season with one loss. They face the likes of Arizona, the 2 seed fresh off of their Pac-12 Tournament victory, along with Florida State, and West Virginia. The Zags will best the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State to face Northwestern (have you heard that this is their first year in the tournament? Just a joke, if you’ve watched any ESPN since the bracket was released, the half of ESPN that went to Northwestern won’t let you forget it) after it dispatches a 15-loss(!) Vanderbilt team in the SAT bowl. Some are speculating that Notre Dame may be ripe for an upset by Princeton, but I don’t see it. The Irish are talented and don’t turn the ball over. They make it through to set up a really intriguing game with West Virginia in the second round. These teams were supposed to play each other in the second round last year too, but West Virginia went and lost to 14-seeded Stephen F. Austin, and thus it never coalesced. A hobbled Xavier team will make turtle soup out of Maryland and move on to face the Seminoles after FSU beats FGCU. The Eagles are another trendy upset pick, but I think this is mostly due to the fact that people remember their improbable Dunk City run to the Sweet 16 as a 15 seed a few years ago. FSU is too big and too talented for that to happen. In a matchup of mid-major tournament darlings, I like St Mary’s to just squeak past a VCU team that I don’t know enough about to face Arizona in the second round. As we head towards the Sweet 16, Gonzaga is too talented to lose to Northwestern, and will move on to face Notre Dame in San Jose. The Irish are the kryptonite to Press Virginia’s Superman (that’s West Virginia’s nickname. Someone very creative gave it to them because they press a lot) in that they have great ball handlers, shoot well, and will hit their free throws down the stretch. Florida State is no Maryland, and will prove too much for the Musketeers of Xavier to handle, as they reach the Sweet 16. They will meet Arizona as they dispatch St. Mary’s in the round of 32. I went back and forth for a while about this Notre Dame Gonzaga game and I ended up going with Notre Dame. Although I think Gonzaga is very talented, I think the Irish present matchup problems to them as they do to basically every team. For every time Karnowski, Gonzaga’s big man, can take advantage of the size difference over Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame’s All-ACC 6’5″ center, Colson will be able to drag Karnowski or another Gonzaga big out to the 3-point line on defense and shoot just well enough for the Irish and Mike Brey, a low key really good tournament coach, to reach their third straight Elite 8. The Irish will meet the Wildcats as Markannen poses just enough problems to get past a Jekyll and Hyde Florida State team. I don’t think lightning strikes twice for the Irish, however, as Sean Miller gets the proverbial monkey off his back and gets to the Final 4 in the Wildcats’ home state of Arizona.

Midwest Region: (Rock) Chalk?
The Jayhawks, behind National Player of the Year candidate Frank Mason III, headline the Midwest region ahead of Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals, who should be well rested after not playing any postseason games last year, Oregon, and Purdue. I fell into a trap a number of years ago of always thinking Kansas was going to win the title just because their bird mascot looks kinda cool and they’re always a 1 seed, but I’m not eating the birdseed this year. HOWEVA (in Stephen A Smith voice), they won’t become the first 1 seed to lose to a 16, and will face Miami after the Canes blow away a strange Michigan State team in the 8-9 game. I always mess up picking Iowa State’s games, so bear with me: I think they won’t fall victim to Nevada, and will make it through to the second round to face Purdue (this means of course that they will be upset and my bracket will spontaneously combust), which does just enough to get past the Catamounts (I think those are just fancy cats) of Vermont. Choo choo. A hobbled Creighton team that lost the NCAA’s assist leader, Maurice Watson Jr, to an ACL injury earlier this year, will fall to a veteran Rhode Island team that has come on strong at the end of the year after having been ranked in the Top 25 to start the year. Speaking of hobbled, the ACL monster bit Chris Boucher, Oregon’s shot blocking big man, but the Ducks are too talented to lose to Iona in the first round. Michigan and Oklahoma State will play a first-to-87 game in which defense will be optional. I like Michigan’s story, and I think Derrick Walton will provide enough veteran leadership to squeak past Oklahoma State to play Louisville in the second round. In my first shocking upset of the tournament, I like Miami to beat Kansas. The reality is that 1 seeds often don’t go as far as we think, and I see this matchup being problematic for Kansas: Miami is a veteran club that will clamp down on defense and slow the game down. They have three quality offensive players in Davon Reed, Kamari Murphy, and Bruce Brown that will compete with Kansas, and for some reason I just don’t trust the Jayhawks this year. In spite of rolling through the Big 12, they seem to be shrouded in controversy following the Josh Jackson story and their early exit from the Big 12 tournament (even though Jackson didn’t play). I like the Canes to upset the Jayhawks as Miami backs into the Sweet 16. Iowa State and Purdue is an intriguing second round matchup because there’s such a contrast in size: the Cyclones like to play small ball, whereas Purdue boasts Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas, two enormous big men. I think Iowa State wins the battle in a testament to how weak the Big 10 was this year and moves on. In spite of losing Boucher to injury, I think Oregon has too much firepower, particularly in Dillon Brooks, to lose to Rhode Island, and so they march on to take on their avian friends from Louisville, who clamp down on Michigan’s offense to end the Wolverines’ season. In a matchup of oscillating weather patterns, the Cyclones get the better of the Hurricanes behind the Kansas City crowd to move on to the Elite 8. In what should be a tremendous contest, particularly between Oregon’s offense and Louisville’s elite defense, I think the Cardinals get the win. Louisville has a great formula for winning in March in that they boast two potent guards that can slash or shoot their way past you, and they have long, athletic players that guard like crazy. Pitino moves on to the Elite 8 after breaking out the white suit for the Sweet 16. I also like the Cardinals to clamp down on Iowa State in the regional final and make their way to the Final Four.

South Region: Daggumit that’s a tough draw
Ole Roy commandeered the Tar Heels to another #1 seed, and luckily they wouldn’t have to see Kris Jenkins until the Championship game this year. The South is packed with marquee names in Kentucky, UCLA, and Butler that look to dethrone the Heels from their top spot in the region. The sweet tea-powered offense of the Heels won’t lose to a 16 seed, and they meet Seton Hall, fresh off of their roles as extras in Pirates of the Caribbean 5, in the second round. In a strange choice of seeding, the Golden Gophers were given a 5 seed and matched up against Middle Tennessee State, that team you know because they beat Michigan State last year, in this region. Doing their best Bill Murray impression, the Blue Raiders dispatch the Gophers so Bushwood Country Club is spick and span for the second round in a 5-12 upset. One of the many facts of NCAA tournament life is that Butler doesn’t lose in the first round, and thus they move past the Winthrop Eagles to take on Middle Tennessee. I like Kansas State, fresh off a win over Wake Forest in the First 4, to beat Cincinnati and continue the trend of at least one First 4 team making it to the Round of 32. Apologies, Mick Cronin. The Wildcats will meet UCLA, fresh off of defeating Kent State by an approximate final score of 882-66, in the second round. Wichita State, a 6 seed in a 10 seed’s clothing, gets the better of the Flyers to “upset” Dayton, moving on to face Kentucky in the second round. Resetting, Carolina proves too much for Seton Hall and moves on to face Butler in the Sweet 16 as, just like last year, the slipper will only fit for one night for Middle Tennessee. UCLA will once again prove too hot to handle as they blaze past Kansas State to head to the Sweet 16 in Memphis. Wichita State and Kentucky should be a tremendous second round game. The Shockers are the 8th best team in the country per KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric, and Kentucky is also in the top 10. I think the big stage overwhelms the freshmen of Kentucky as John Calipari can’t coach his way past imposter Tom Crean’s Shockers. They get revenge for the Wildcats’ win in 2014. Carolina is simply a better team than Butler and will move on to the Elite 8. UCLA and Wichita State should be interesting once again, but I think UCLA’s offensive firepower will push them past Wichita State and propel them to face UNC in the regional final as LaVar Ball proclaims Lonzo the second coming of Magic Johnson. In what should be a tremendous regional final, UNC demonstrates the need for defense in the NCAA tournament as it does just enough to mitigate the UCLA offense, holding them to a meager 80 points and moving on to Phoenix.

Final Four: Who gets hot in the desert?
To recap, I have Duke, Arizona, Louisville, and UNC, programs that are truly the sport’s blue bloods, in the Final Four. As I mentioned earlier, I see this as a year the cream of the crop rules in the end. Both semifinal matchups should be tremendous, and I see Duke, behind a tremendous defensive performance from Amile Jefferson with the assist from Harry Giles off the bench, doing just enough to stop Markkanen and the Wildcats and getting back to the National Championship game. Louisville and UNC should be a great test to see how well Carolina handles an elite defensive team, but I think UNC, a complete team, gets the better of Pitino and, daggumit, we might just have a Tobacco Road showdown in the tournament for the first time in forever (no, actually). This Final would likely cause the sports media world to self-destruct out of pure hype, but I think, both with my brain and my Duke-fan heart, that Duke gets the better of Carolina one more time behind its versatile offense as it finds its rhythm just in time to claim the 2017 National Championship. I don’t know how we got here, but we’re sure in for a tremendous NCAA tournament. Happy bracketeering, everyone, and Go Duke.

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Mad Marchness, 2016 edition

This year’s edition of The Big Dance, March Madness, Coke Zero’s 3-week ad campaign, or whatever you’d like to call it, got off to an auspicious start when the bracket was leaked before CBS’s two-hour(!) bracket reveal show. Try to tell me karma doesn’t exist after that. And yet, we must push on with all the tools available to us. BPI, SOS, RPI, and other assorted three-letter acronyms attempt to quantify the task before each and every one of us: to determine which team will cut down the nets in Houston three weeks from tonight. Herein, I will guide you through the murky waters that are this year’s bracket (I’m on a 1-year winning streak, so I must be an expert). And this time around, the field is wide open. Let’s do it.

Themes to look for:

Senior presence: This year’s crop of freshmen is not as outstanding as last year’s group was: two of the Final Four teams last year were led by freshmen, but this year’s top freshman, Ben Simmons, didn’t even make the tournament! The teams that have enjoyed the fewest upsets this year and have come out near the top of the field generally feature veteran presence. I like teams with veterans to have the edge this year.

Outstanding Guard Play: A great guard will always help a squad out. Some guards that might have flown under the radar this year include Demetrius Jackson of Notre Dame, Tyler Ulis of Kentucky (if only because he physically flew under the radar at 5’9″), and Kris Dunn of Providence. Look for teams with good guards to weather the storms and make good runs.

Let’s move on to the bracket itself!

South Region: The Committee Failed Maps

We begin in the South Region, headlined by the overall number one-seeded Kansas Jayhawks. The committee did the Jayhawks no favors by loading their bracket with potential roadblocks in Villanova (#2), Miami (#3), Cal (#4), and Maryland (#5), and on top of the difficulty of playing against those teams, the committee forgot that Kansas should have been in the Midwest region, in which the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 will be played in Chicago, and instead decided to send them to Louisville. Kansas will beat its 16-seed victim (you can write that one in with pen) and will play the UConn Huskies after they defeat Colorado in the 8-9 matchup. Cal and Maryland, 4 and 5 seeds respectively, will also advance to the second round. This region seems quite chalky early on, but I think the First Four winner, likely Wichita State, will take down Arizona in the 6-11 matchup. Also, Temple should beat a shaky Iowa team that lost to the 12th seeded Fighting Illini in the Big 10 tourney. I think UConn will give Kansas a run for its money in the round of 32, but the Jayhawks will have just enough to squeak past and play Cal in the Sweet 16. On the other side, Miami and Villanova will advance to play each other in the Sweet 16. Kansas gets by Cal, and in a mild upset, Miami will beat Villanova behind its veteran guard play and experienced, athletic big men. I think Miami has a decent chance to beat Kansas, but I just can’t bring myself to pick it. The Jayhawks finally overcome their early exits and make it to the Final Four in Houston.

West Region: Duck Duck Sooners

Most pundits will agree that the West region seems to be the weakest of the four this year, likely because its one seed, Oregon, seems a step behind the other three number one seeds. Oregon will be tested by Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and Duke among others. I see a couple first-round upset opportunities here: in my obligatory 5-12 upset this year, I like Yale to beat Baylor (I don’t trust any teams that regularly incorporate highlighter-yellow into their uniforms), Northern Iowa to take down Texas, and VCU to beat Oregon State. The fact that Oregon State is a 7-seed is a travesty, by the way. Duke gets past UNC-Wilmington to disrupt its current streak of losing in the first round in massive upsets every other year to play Yale in the second round. As a Duke fan, I must address the fact that aside from a potential second round matchup with Baylor, Duke got a pretty friendly draw: Duke has struggled this year against big teams that hit the offensive rebounds hard, and none of the other top seeds really do this: Oregon, A&M, and Oklahoma are all guard-oriented, and so Duke has what I would qualify as a decent chance to make a run. The Sweet 16 here will feature Oregon, Duke, A&M, and Oklahoma. Look out for a feisty St. Joe’s team in the second round against Oregon. I think the Ducks squeak it out, though. I like Duke to surprise Oregon and get to the Elite 8, in which it will play Oklahoma. In many ways, Oklahoma is a lot like Duke: they rely on good shooting from the outside and lack a solid interior presence besides Ryan Spangler. If Duke is here, I think they’ll have found something shooting-wise and they will be able to get past the Sooners. I put Duke through to the Final Four mostly due to their favorable path. If you, unlike me, are not a Duke fan, I welcome you to pick Baylor to beat them. If there is a team that has a good chance to beat Duke here, it seems to be Baylor. In this alternate scenario, I would have Oklahoma in the Final Four.

East Region: Blue Bloods

The East region is headlined by UNC and pits them against the likes of Xavier, West Virginia, and Kentucky, among others. The strength of the higher-seeds here is quite apparent, and so I don’t foresee too many opening round upsets. Of the top six seeds, I think Notre Dame has the best chance to be upset in the first round, but I am not picking that upset. The Friars of Providence will give Carolina a test in the second round, but I think Carolina’s interior strength will prove too much for the Friars, and so Carolina proceeds to the Sweet 16. Indiana and Kentucky will light up the ratings board in the second round, and I think Kentucky gets by Indiana because of its hot guard play behind Tyler Ulis and our friend from the Great White North, Jamal Murray. In the bottom half, I actually like Notre Dame to get by West Virginia. This may surprise some people, but I think Notre Dame is built to beat Press Virginia’s system because it has a tremendous point guard in Demetrius Jackson and other capable ball handlers in Steve Vasturia and others. Notre Dame will meet the Musketeers of Xavier, who will dispatch Wisconsin in the second round. Carolina and Kentucky’s Sweet 16 game will be memorable. Kentucky seems to be a trendy pick for the Final Four, but I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid: Carolina’s veteran, interior presence has the athleticism to beat Kentucky, and the emergence of Joel Berry as a real outside shooting threat gives Carolina a dimension it didn’t have even six weeks ago. Carolina gets by Kentucky in a great basketball game to play Xavier in the Elite 8. Carolina also will dispatch Xavier in the Elite 8 behind its athleticism and up-and-down game to get to Houston as the East’s Final Four representative.

Midwest Region: Third Time’s the Charm?

The Wahoos of Virginia secured the 1-seed in the Midwest region behind the play of Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year in the ACC, Malcolm Brogdon. The Hoos, unfortunately, drew a potential Elite 8 matchup with their postseason nemesis, the Spartans of Michigan State, which has knocked out the Hoos the last two years in the NCAA Tourney. Utah is the three seed here, and Iowa State is the four. My upset special here is Iona over Iowa State in the 4-13 matchup. Iowa State succumbed to a 3-14 upset last year and I think they were over-seeded (as do my colleagues) as a 4. Iona and AJ English get past the Cyclones and open up the slate of games in Denver with a nice upset. Syracuse and Butler (though only technically) are the only other lower seeded teams that I think will make it through to the second round here. Many are picking Seton Hall to lose to Gonzaga, but I liked what I saw out of the Hall in the Big East tournament: veteran guards are always a good thing to have. I also like Seton Hall to get to the Sweet 16 by beating Utah in the round of 32: although Utah benefits from the inside presence of Jakob Poeltl, their guards won’t be able to keep up with Seton Hall as the Pirates advance to Chicago. They will meet Michigan State. Virginia will play Purdue in the other Sweet 16 matchup. I think Purdue has a decent chance to beat Virginia: those with more intestinal fortitude than I might be willing to pick that upset, but I’ll put the Hoos through to face the Spartans of Michigan State in the Elite 8. Alas, I do not think the third time will prove to be the charm for the Hoos, as Denzel Valentine and the Spartans will get the better of Virginia and get to the Final Four.

Final Four: Who stands alone in the Lone Star  State?

To recap: I have Kansas meeting Duke in one semifinal and UNC meeting Michigan State in the other. I think Duke’s luck runs out as Kansas beats them to face UNC in the finals. The UNC-Michigan State game should be tremendous, but I’m giving UNC the edge again because of its athleticism and inside presence. The Wooden Award candidate for Michigan State, Denzel Valentine, usually provides matchup problems for other teams due to his size and ball-handling ability. I think UNC’s defensive presence has improved a lot this year and the athletic wings/bigs of UNC will be able to mitigate Valentine’s effect on the game offensively. UNC will draw Kansas in the Roy Williams’ Sweet Tea Invitational presented by Lipton Tea (aka the National Championship game). I give Carolina the edge. They put something special together towards the end of the year. They are deep, athletic, veteran, and have found a new guard in Joel Berry to help them shoot from the outside. As much as it deeply pains me (I will likely be excommunicated from Duke University), I think the Heels cut down the nets in Houston.

My overall sentiment on this year’s tournament is that most of the traditional mid-major teams aren’t overly scary for the higher seeds. If the bracket will get mucked up, it’ll occur in the second round and later: we’ve seen throughout the year the shuffling that has gone on in the top 25 rankings, and so I think there’s a shot that someone unlikely in the 1-8 range will make a run to the Final Four. Look for veteran guards to fuel the run. As always, Go Duke (2017 national champions).

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Offseason Outlook for the New York Mets

The New York Mets had a storybook 2015 season. They captured the division crown over the favored Washington Nationals, returned to the postseason for the first time since 2006, and claimed the NL pennant for the fifth time in their history, defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs along the way. Their tremendously talented starting rotation paved the path to the World Series, along with key contributions from, among others, Yoenis Cespedes and Daniel Murphy.

The legend of the 2015 Mets became less grand, however, as the Kansas City Royals defeated the Mets in 5 games in the World Series. The Mets held a lead in every game of the series, but the resilient Royals capitalized upon defensive miscues and bullpen issues to eke out torturous victories. Murph, the NLCS MVP and provider of countless hilarious gifs (and frequently awful defense) over his years of service with the Mets, booted a key ground ball in Game 4 to allow the Royals to score the tying run. Cespedes, the prized midseason acquistion, developed a habit of kicking misplayed fly balls all around the outfield. Even Wright, the longtime star and captain of this beleaguered ballclub, made a few crucial errors on the way to defeat.

The Royals are no doubt an excellent ballclub. They came 90 feet away from tying up the San Francisco Madbums– sorry, San Francisco Giants, in last year’s World Series, and have quality players at nearly every position. But it seems that, more than anything, the Mets beat themselves in the World Series. In addition to the predictable defensive mistakes that have plagued the Mets all season long, the offense shut down when it was most needed. Excluding Curtis Granderson, Michael Conforto, and David Wright in Game 3, the bats just didn’t get the job done.

So now, the Mets head into the 2015 offseason with several goals. They are likely to lose Murphy and Cespedes, as well as backup infielders Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe and several other expendable pitchers (bye, Bartolo. I’ll miss you always). But for a team that should have a renewed focus on defense after a disastrous World Series, these losses provide an opportunity for GM Sandy Alderson to build a more fundamentally sound team. Alderson has done a great job at acquiring the building blocks for a contender. Now, he must prove he can provide the finishing touches to the roster.

With that said, here are several moves which could be the focal points for the Mets this offseason, and which would be beneficial in New York’s quest to return to the postseason and avenge the championship loss.

  1. Acquire a utility infielder

Going into the 2015 season, the question of who would play shortstop for the Mets loomed. Wilmer Flores had more power and prowess at the plate than the better-fielding Ruben Tejada, but neither seemed like the long-term solution. Amidst frequent switching back and forth between the middle infield positions, the two performed decently. Still, if the Mets are going to be serious contenders in 2016, they need to find a decent backup infielder who can provide solid defense around the diamond. This is especially important considering the uncertainty surrounding David Wright’s long term prospects at third base. Someone like free agent Asdrubal Cabrera, most recently of the Tampa Bay Rays, comes to mind. I also wouldn’t be shocked if the Mets went after Ben Zobrist, who was fairly good during the postseason for Kansas City. Also to be considered is how prospects Matt Reynolds and Dilson Herrera might factor in. If Alderson deems Reynolds and Herrera can be serviceable backups, he might focus his attention elsewhere.

  1. Find a centerfielder/ fourth outfielder

Curtis Granderson showed he was worth his contract this year, leading the way for the Mets in both the regular season and postseason, and it seems like Michael Conforto will be penciled in as the #3 hitter for the next 10 years in New York. While left and right are covered, though, centerfield remains a question mark. Juan Lagares appeared to be the long term solution in center after two seasons of dominant defensive play. The 26 year old was given a four year contract extension before the 2015 season, but a ligament tear in his right elbow sapped his once-lethal throwing arm of much of its strength and Lagares ended up ceding his starting role to Cespedes after the Cuban’s arrival. Though Cespedes will likely be gone, it’s unclear if Lagares can return to prior form or if he requires Tommy John surgery. Therefore, the Mets will be looking for a versatile outfielder who can man center, especially if Lagares is deemed to need surgery. Someone like Dexter Fowler or Austin Jackson would provide New York with something it’s not had since Jose Reyes– a true leadoff hitter. Colby Rasmus, another potential target, would add some lefty pop to the Mets lineup. It’s possible that the Mets could go after Jason Heyward, but he would come at a high cost and likely shift Granderson over to center, which would not be an ideal defensive alignment. In terms of trade targets, there have been rumblings that the Yankees are interested in dealing Brett Gardner– would the Mets be interested in bringing the speedster across town? Prospect Brandon Nimmo is also an intriguing option, but doubts linger about his defensive capabilities in center.

  1. Bullpen help

In 2015, Jeurys Familia had one of the finest seasons as a closer in the history of the franchise. Slotted in to replace PED lover Jenrry Mejia at the back end of the bullpen in the first few days of the season, Familia starred, saving 43 games in the regular season and five more in the postseason. Familia became the first pitcher to blow three saves in one World Series, but that figure is misleading; in two of those appearances, Familia didn’t give up a hit. Though in recent years there’s been a bit of a revolving door at closer for the Mets, it seems like Familia is the clear choice for the role next season and beyond. Outside of him, though, questions abound. The most reliable relievers in the postseason for the Mets were probably usual starters Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon and midseason acquisition Addison Reed. Niese will slot in as a fifth starter (at least until Zack Wheeler’s return), Colon is likely gone, and Reed is eligible for arbitration. That leaves the Mets with quite a few spots to fill. Assuming that Reed accepts arbitration, the returning members of the Mets bullpen from the World Series roster will be righties Reed and Hansel Robles, lefty Sean Gilmartin, and Familia. Logan Verrett will likely serve in long relief, and it’s possible Niese will return to the ‘pen after Wheeler returns. The makings of a solid bullpen are here, but for it to be elite, the Mets will have to invest in a quality setup man and perhaps a shutdown lefty. Internally, southpaw Josh Smoker could be an option. The 26 year old had an impressive 2015, advancing to AA ball with a heater in the mid-nineties. In addition, Josh Edgin and Jerry Blevins both will return from injury, and it seems likely the Mets can find two or three decent lefties out of the bunch to place in the bullpen. External options for a setup man are intriguing but expensive. Darren O’Day and Joakim Soria will likely fetch impressive contracts on the open market, and potential trade targets like Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel would cost the Mets some of their most prized prospects. It’s up to Sandy to determine whether a devastating one-two punch of Familia and another top reliever would be worth giving up yet another prospect from the shrinking farm system.

The Mets have work to do if they want to be playing baseball again in October and November in 2016. But the heart and soul of the team is only going to get better. The rotation of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz will be together for an entire season (barring injury– please, knock on any wood you can find) and will have another year of development under their belt. Hopefully, New York can find the right pieces to complement their staff.

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College Football’s Back (and so are we)

With college football season back in swing, what better time to awaken College Sports Town from its summer-long slumber? Yes, we are still kicking here at College Sports Town, and we’re pumped that the big hits of college football season are back, with the crisp air of fall well on its way. Here are a handful of notes and thoughts through four days of college football season.

-The Big Ten didn’t have a great weekend. Which should not be that surprising because, outside of Ohio State and Michigan State, the league simply isn’t very good. Penn State, Michigan, and Nebraska are all 0-1, and Penn State got drilled by Temple. All three of those schools were supposed to represent dark horses in the league. Wisconsin did not look ready for prime time against Alabama Saturday night. Bright Spots included Northwestern and Minnesota, which both looked the part of contenders in the talent-dry Big Ten West. Minnesota fell to TCU 23-17, but was hardly a pushover. NU meanwhile dominated Stanford up front in a 16-6 victory. Stanford probably is not all that great (unclear why they were ranked), but the Cats’ O-line looked vastly improved against the Cardinal’s vaunted front seven. The OSU-MSU race in the Big Ten East should keep the mediocre B1G relevant, but the soft underbelly of the conference is likely to keep dragging the conference down in 2015. It would be big for the league if somebody–anybody–emerged as a serious national player from the West division.

Connor Cook and Michigan State handled Western Michigan this weekend. Will Oregon be able to hang with them next Saturday?

Connor Cook and Michigan State handled Western Michigan this weekend. Will Oregon be able to hang with them next Saturday?

-News flash: the SEC is not going anywhere. The (relative) struggles of America’s most dominant conference made for a common storyline going into this year, with non-SEC teams winning the last two national titles, but the truth is the SEC was far and away the best and deepest conference in football last year. That’s not changing any time soon, either. The SEC flexed its muscles this weekend, with Alabama cruising by Wisconsin, Texas A&M blowing out 15th ranked Arizona State, and Auburn knocking off Louisville. Every SEC team that played won, aside from Vanderbilt…and the Commodores don’t really count anyway, do they?

-Bold Prediction: Oregon is going to fall off the face of the earth this year. Or at least out of the top 25. The Ducks showed some defensive cracks in their 61-42 win over Eastern Washington Saturday. Am I overreacting to a game that I didn’t even watch against one of best programs in the FCS? Maybe. Or maybe key personnel losses along the back line of their defense have left the Ducks vulnerable. We’ll see just how vulnerable they are when OU heads to East Lansing next week to face the potent passing attack of Michigan State. I expect the Ducks to get lit up. And I think they might be headed for their first single digit win season since ’07.

-We didn’t get a lot of compelling college football this weekend. Sure, it’s nice for the sport to be back, but I can’t remember an opening weekend with so few must-see games. Things got off to a rough start Thursday with UNC and South Carolina playing a sloppy game in prime time on ESPN. Both teams, unranked, looked mediocre at best. Michigan played Utah on Fox Sports 1, but that game also featured less than elite majors. Minnesota came to play against TCU, which was the best game of the night, but a 16 point Vegas spread for the game shows that it wasn’t exactly expected to be GameDay material. Saturday brought the typical barrage of FBS vs. FCS battles. Wisconsin vs. Alabama was the only game pitting ranked teams against each other. Sure, the Virginia Tech-Ohio State game tonight should be popcorn material, but college football fans deserve more than one game between ranked teams on opening weekend.

-Kansas State’s band’s got (wildly inappropriate) jokes!

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Hey, Red Sox, Play to Win the Game!

With two on and and two out in the bottom of the ninth inning of an eight run ball game against the Toronto Blue Jays this afternoon, a Red Sox legend strode to the plate, the powerful…Sandy Leon.

OK, maybe not a Red Sox legend. But a Red Sox legend was supposed to. David Ortiz was set to come to the plate before Red Sox manager John Farrell decided to pinch hit Leon, a backup catcher for the Sox. Big Papi has been swinging a hot bat of late and had smashed a ball into the bullpen in right in the fifth inning, but Farrell decided to take out the dude people come to the ballpark to see and sub in the guy nobody’s heard of.

David Ortiz homered, but the Red Sox struggled on a sunny Sunday at Fenway.

David Ortiz homered, but the Red Sox struggled on a sunny Sunday at Fenway.

My brother Dan turned to me and said, “that makes me want to leave.” And I said, “me too,” and we stood up and headed for the exits on Yawkey Way.

From a purely baseball perspective, it was a pretty brutal day at Fenway–starting pitcher Eddy Rodriguez’s stuff was pretty on point for a while, but E-Rod (idk if people call him that) fell victim to a brutally suck out-y fourth inning in which a series of bloop singles and misplays in the field led to a six run frame, and Rodriguez left after struggling again in the fifth; Pedroia kept losing balls in the sun; the bullpen sucked (per usual); and the Red Sox never led.

But the one thing that really stuck in my craw was the decision to pull Ortiz in the ninth.

Sure, the Red Sox weren’t going to win. Only a miracle would have erased the eight run deficit the Red Sox were facing. But sports fans’ fandom, particularly good fans–the masochistic ones who root on their teams through thick and thin–hinges on the idea that sports games (and seasons) are not over ’til they’re over. That old Yogi Berra quote cuts straight to the core of sports fan (or player, for that matter) psychology. It’s why we wear rally caps. It’s why we love a fantastic comeback. Or a huge underdog. Games must be played to the end. It’s not over until the clock strikes zero. Or until the fat lady sings. Or whatever cliche floats your boat.

When a team says, “eh, we’re done with this game,” it’s a big F you to its fans. Sure, exceptions can be made. When you’re down 25 late in the fourth quarter of a basketball game, or 35 in a football game, sure, throw in the scrubs and run down the clock. But, as a general principle, the white flagged is best waved as late as possible in sports.

Of all teams, the Red Sox should know that. After all, it was the BoSox that came back from down 3-0 to the Yankees in ’04. In fact, the Red Sox have had enough late-game comebacks in the past decade to devote an entire blog post to them. And Ortiz is Mr. Clutch. There is nothing better than Ortiz in the box with runners on in the ninth. (Actually, that’s a lie: Ortiz in the box with runners on in extras might top it.) And what possible benefit could come from bringing in Sandy Leon? Did Ortiz need the rest? Had sitting on the bench all afternoon exhausted him? Was Ferrell worried about Ortiz pulling a hamstring on the walk to the plate? Had Ortiz already retired to the clubhouse for some fried chicken and beer, John Lackey style?

The Red Sox are not a very fun team right now. They’re a fielding disaster, their pitching is horrendous, and half their lineup is underperforming. But they’re still a pro baseball team. It’s one thing for Sox fans to be treated to bad baseball. It’s something else entirely to be treated to a team that quits on games.

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2015 MLB Preview: AL West

(Author’s Note: Sorry about the delay in posts, I’m going to try to complete this preview within the next week or so). The AL West was one of the best divisions in baseball in 2014, despite the dreadful duo of the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros at its tail end. The Los Angeles Angels, the Oakland Athletics, and the Seattle Mariners were either in the playoffs or in the hunt until the very last day. The AL West should remain fairly vicious this year, with those same three teams winning plenty of games. I do think two playoff teams will again emerge from the division this season, but the A’s will not be one of them.

Divisional Breakdown

  1. Los Angeles Angels
  2. Seattle Mariners
  3. Oakland Athletics
  4. Houston Astros
  5. Texas Rangers

Team Breakdown

  1. Los Angeles Angels

On the strength of unexpectedly solid starting pitching and Mike Trout’s first MVP season, the Angels won the most games in the league and took home the AL West title before falling to the spunky Kansas City Royals in the ALDS. The Angels’ roster didn’t change much over the offseason, which is a good thing when talking about a 98 win team. The Angels had the top-run producing offense last year, and the lineup should remain potent. Mike Trout is an outstanding talent and a perennial MVP candidate, Kole Calhoun is very good in right field, and Albert Pujols’ remaining efficacy has often been underrated in recent years. While the loss of Howie Kendrick to the crosstown Dodgers hurts, the upgrade from C.J. Cron to Matt Joyce at DH should make up for lost production. The rotation has the potential to be very good. I’m not the biggest fan of Jered Weaver or C.J Wilson, but each had a decent 2014 and can contribute in a solid rotation. The key factors in this staff are Garrett Richards and 2014 Rookie of the Year runner up Matt Shoemaker. If Richards can return (in mid-April) pitching like he did last year, and if Shoemaker can replicate his rookie year performance, the Angels’ rotation will be in good shape. If new addition Andrew Heaney can come up and contribute to the staff at some point, even better. The bullpen is in better shape than it was at the beginning of last year, with Huston Street installed as closer. Street and setup man Joe Smith form one of the better one-two bullpen combinations in the big leagues.

Verdict

Best Case- Trout wins his second straight MVP, Richards and Shoemaker are dominant once again, and the Angels take the AL West on the way to the AL pennant.

Worst Case- Age takes its toll on Pujols, Wilson, and Weaver, Richards doesn’t look the same after the injury, and the Angels fall behind the Mariners in the division.

Trout and the Angels willl be fishing for a championship in 2015.

  1. Seattle Mariners

The Mariners had a pretty good 2014, winning their most games since 2007. Robinson Cano was a welcome addition into Seattle’s lineup, Kyle Seager showed himself to be one of the better third basemen in the leagues, and Felix Hernandez added yet another fantastic season onto his resumé. The Mariners enter the season poised to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001, thanks to several key offseason acquisitions who should complement the incumbent stars well. Nelson Cruz should provide much-needed power in the heart of the lineup, and Seth Smith and Austin Jackson will make the Mariners’ once-weak outfield respectable. Meanwhile, the Mariners have one of the most fearsome rotations in baseball. King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma are a dominant one-two punch, and hopefully 2015 will be the year that Taijuan Walker shows the hype surrounding him to be true. The bullpen arms will aim to repeat the standard they set in 2014, when Seattle had the lowest bullpen ERA of any major league team. Closer Fernando Rodney is among the best in baseball, and Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar both had sub-3 ERAs last season. The Mariners should hold on to the lead in a lot of close games this year.

Verdict

Best Case- Hernandez is a Cy Young candidate, Cano and Seager are tops at their positions, and the Mariners win the AL West for the first time since 2001.

Worst Case- Walker cannot produce at the major league level, Cruz cannot replicate his powerful production of last year, and the Mariners just miss out on a wild card spot.

Hernandez and Cano must be on the top of their games for the Mariners to reach the postseason.

  1. Oakland Athletics

The A’s looked like the best team in baseball last season, until several ill-fated trades aimed to make Oakland even more formidable ended up backfiring. The midseason acquisitions of Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija served only to rid the team of Yoenis Cespedes and prospect Addison Russell. Somewhat poetically, Lester was on the mound for the epic Wild Card Game loss to the Kansas City Royals. Perhaps in response, the 2015 offseason has been one of massive turnover for the A’s roster. Gone are Lester, Samardzija, Josh Donaldson, Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, John Jaso, and Jed Lowrie, key components of the successful A’s squads of the past few years. In their place are several promising pieces which, if everything pans out, could turn out to be extremely valuable. The lineup is interesting blend of speed and power, with Coco Crisp and Billy Butler serving as examples of each attribute. Brett Lawrie, Ben Zobrist, and Josh Reddick form a solid heart of the batting order, but it remains to be seen if Ike Davis can be a starting first-bagger at the big league level. Similarly, the rotation could be very good, but there are nagging question marks. Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir are a solid top two in the staff, but after that, things look a bit rough. Jesse Chavez appeared to revive his career, and the A’s will count on him to continue his success in 2015. The bullpen, 3rd in the league in reliever ERA last year, should be good, with former Nat Tyler Clippard assuming the closing role in place of the injured Sean Doolittle. Once the latter returns, the two should form an imposing end-of-game pair.

Verdict

Best Case- The rotation holds together, Billy Beane’s roster gambles pay off, and the new-look A’s take back the AL West title.

Worst Case- The new lineup doesn’t mesh, the rotation is a tire fire beyond Gray and Kazmir, and the Athletics fall behind– gulp– the Astros in the AL West.

Jesus- sorry, Josh Reddick and the new-look A’s hope to maintain the team’s recent success.

  1. Houston Astros

It’s difficult to imagine that a team that went 70-92 could be considered improved, but the 2014 Astros were Houston’s most successful squad since 2010. There were several brights spots for Houston– George Springer’s powerful debut, the breakout seasons of Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh — but the brightest of all was diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve, who took home the AL batting title. Although the Astros won’t quite be in playoff contention in 2015, there should be plenty of hope for the future in Houston. The lineup is improved, even with the departure of Dexter Fowler. New additions Jed Lowrie and Colby Rasmus should be solid replacements at short and in center, and Evan Gattis, Chris Carter, and Springer form a powerful middle of the lineup. The lineup will look even better if Jon Singleton can realize his potential at first, and if Carlos Correa and his impressive bat can reach the majors by September. The rotation is less impressive at the moment, but it has the potential to be fairly good. If Keuchel and McHugh continue their 2014 success, new acquisition Dan Straily produces at the level he did in his rookie season, and top prospect Mark Appel impresses enough to reach the Show this season, the Astros might begin to scare some teams around the league. The bullpen, statistically the worst in the league last year, should be much improved. Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek are two of the better righty relievers in the league, so things should be a little less hopeless in the Houston ‘pen this year.

Verdict

Best Case- Houston’s pitchers realize their potential, the position player prospects impress, and the Astros are in the wild card race until late in the year.

Worst Case-  Correa and Appel suffer more setbacks, McHugh and Keuchel struggle, and the Astros finish in the AL West cellar.

Jose Altuve waves goodbye to the 60-win seasons of the past few years.

  1. Texas Rangers

The American League’s worst team in 2014, the injury-plagued Rangers looked nothing like their competitive teams of the last several years. Even though many of the Rangers’ struggles could be linked back to injuries to star players like Prince Fielder and Yu Darvish, I don’t believe that Texas will be much better this year. Darvish is hurt again, and Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo have yet to display why Texas invested $300 million in them as free agents last offseason. The lineup is ok, with perennial All-Star Adrian Beltre at third and Elvis Andrus at short, and should become better midway through the season, when minor league phenom Joey Gallo is projected to reach the majors. Still, Jurickson Profar has been set back yet again with injury issues, and the rest of the lineup just isn’t that eye-popping. Unless Fielder and Choo can return to their past levels of performance, Texas might have a difficult time scoring runs. The rotation is pretty unintimidating, especially without Darvish. Yovani Gallardo and Derek Holland are good starting pitchers, but not good enough to carry a rotation of Ross Detweiller, Colby Lewis, and Nick Martinez to the postseason. The bullpen was already going to be a weak spot on the team after the departures of Joakim Soria and Jason Frasor over the past year, but an injury-plagued spring has made the situation even worse. Closer Neftali Feliz will have to carry the load for Texas in the ‘pen.

Verdict

Best Case- Gallardo and Holland impress, Fielder, Choo, and Beltre form a solid core of the lineup, and the Rangers reinsert themselves into the wild card conversation.

Worst Case- The rotation and bullpen are disasters, Fielder and Choo look like shells of their former selves, and the Rangers are once again one of the worst teams in the league.

For the Rangers to have a shot at the postseason, Prince Fielder will have to stay on the field.

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2015 MLB Preview: AL Central

Even though the Detroit Tigers won the AL Central for the fourth straight year in 2014, the Kansas City Royals had the more memorable season, reaching the postseason and the World Series for the first time since 1985 before losing to the San Francisco Giants in seven games. Despite the relative success of these two squads last year, however, I don’t think either one will be returning to the postseason in 2015. The Minnesota Twins will be better as their highly-touted prospects begin to arrive in the Show, and the Cleveland Indians have a formidable lineup to send out alongside AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. But I think the Chicago White Sox will be the team to end Detroit’s domination of the Central and to take the divisional crown for the first time since 2008.

Divisional Breakdown

  1. Chicago White Sox
  2. Cleveland Indians
  3. Detroit Tigers
  4. Kansas City Royals
  5. Minnesota Twins

Team Breakdown

  1. Chicago White Sox

The White Sox had a fairly discouraging 2014, with the team falling out of the AL Wild Card race after a terrible August. However, there were several bright spots, the most exciting of which being AL Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu. This year, the White Sox will depend on the 28 year old Cuban to be the key cog in a revamped lineup. The White Sox had one of the splashiest offseasons of any team in the league, adding OBP master Melky Cabrera and the powerful Adam Laroche into the fold. These two will be welcome additions into a lineup that doesn’t boast many household names. In addition to the improved lineup, the White Sox boast an imposing trio of starting pitchers: Chris Sale (my Cy Young pick), new acquisition Jeff Samardzija, and the underrated Jose Quintana. Although Sale is currently injured, and although the rest of the rotation is somewhat underwhelming, these three should serve Chicago well come October. Strides were also made to improve a bullpen that was among the worst in the league last season. New closer David Robertson and lefty Zach Duke should help the White Sox lock down a few more games over the course of 2015.

Verdict

Best Case- Sale, Samardzija, and Quintana are dominant, Abreu is an MVP candidate, and the White Sox win the AL Central.

Worst Case- Sale’s foot doesn’t heal properly, Robertson and Duke cannot fix Chicago’s bullpen troubles, and the White Sox are stuck at home in October.

I feel obligated to use this image whenever Chris Sale comes up in a post.

  1. Cleveland Indians

The Indians had a fairly good 2014 season, finishing 3 games back in the AL Wild Card race. Breakout seasons from Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and Michael Brantley, who finished third in the AL MVP race, should have Indians fans very excited for 2015. Overall, this is a pretty solid baseball team. In addition to Brantley, the lineup boasts the underrated catcher Yan Gomes, the powerful Carlos Santana, and the newly acquired Brandon Moss, who should improve production out of right field. And if Jason Kipnis can return to his 2013 All-Star form, the Indians’ lineup might be among the best in baseball. The rotation is also promising, headlined by Kluber and filled with young fireballers. Getting production out of Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer will be particularly important if the Indians hope to compete this year. The bullpen is fairly solid, with no key departures from a squad that finished 7th in the league in reliever ERA. While I don’t know if I agree with Sports Illustrated’s prediction that the Indians will win the World Series, Cleveland will certainly be a formidable opponent in 2015.

Verdict

Best Case- The rotation is overwhelming, Brantley, Gomes, and Kipnis produce at a high level, and the Indians take home the AL Central title.

Worst Case- The young guns in the rotation show little development, the breakout seasons of last year appear to be a fluke, and Cleveland misses the playoffs for the second straight year.

Tests have confirmed that Kluber is not a robot, but he does exude a machine-like efficiency from the mound.

  1. Detroit Tigers

The Tigers missed yet another opportunity to bring home their first World Series title since 1984 when they lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS. Now, they try to do so in an AL Central that has improved, and with a team that is quite different than last year’s. Any lineup with Miguel Cabrera will produce a fair amount of runs. Adding Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, and J.D Martinez into the equation in 2014 resulted in the Tigers scoring the second-most of any team last season. Jose Iglesias will return, intent on matching the offensive production and defensive wizardry of his rookie season, newcomer Anthony Gose will try to be a serviceable replacement to Austin Jackson in center, and Yoenis Cespedes will attempt to inflate the value of his next contract with a big season. While the lineup appears to be as strong as ever, Detroit’s rotation and bullpen are filled with question marks. Gone are Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and Drew Smyly. In their place stand David Price, Alfredo Simon, and Shane Greene. I don’t know that the replacements will be able to match the production of their predecessors, a statement made even more concerning by the fact that no one knows if Justin Verlander will ever be the same pitcher that he was in 2011 again. I believe the Tigers’ rotation will be solid, but I’m not sure that they’ll match the dominance of the 2013 squad. Meanwhile, the team did little to improve what was an absolute mess of a bullpen in 2014. Joe Nathan is back, coming off one of the worst years of his career, and disappointing midseason acquisition Joakim Soria returns as well. It is up to those two, as well as the resigned Joba Chamberlain, to provide some stability to what has been consistently the worst aspect of Detroit’s team.

Verdict

Best Case- Miggy and Victor Martinez are MVP candidates, Verlander and Price look like their old selves, and the Tigers win their fifth consecutive AL Central crown.

Worst Case- The aging lineup is injury-riddled, the new pitching acquisitions can’t match the production of last year’s squad, and the Tigers miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

Verlander and Price need to pitch like their old selves if the Tigers are to win this division.

  1. Kansas City Royals

The Royals shocked the world in 2014, sweeping their way to the World Series from the wild card game before finally falling to the San Francisco Bumgarners– sorry, the San Francisco Giants in seven games. Unfortunately, after losing three key members of that magical run- James Shields, Nori Aoki, and Billy Butler- and not matching some of the louder moves of their divisional rivals, I don’t think they’ll be returning to the postseason. The lineup is still quite solid and defensively elite, with Gold Glovers Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, and Alex Gordon all back at their respective posts. Newcomers Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales will attempt to produce at DH and RF, but both had fairly mediocre 2014s, which can be tough to come back from on the wrong side of 30. The rotation is solid, but will certainly miss its former ace Shields. Flamethrower Yordano Ventura and his fellow young gun Danny Duffy headline a staff that could be one of the better rotations in baseball, provided that Edinson Volquez can replicate his success of 2014. Chris Young is a nice end-of-the-rotation addition as well, and the signing of Kris Medlen (who will return later in the season from Tommy John surgery) could play a key role down the stretch. The core of the much-discussed Kansas City bullpen stayed relatively unchanged, with closer Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera all returning. If they can perform as they did last year, the Royals will win a lot of close games.

Verdict

Best Case- Perez, Hosmer, and Gordon show they’re among the best at their positions, the rotation holds together despite the loss of Shields, and the Royals snag another wild card spot.

Worst Case- Morales and Rios aren’t suitable replacements, the rotation looks weak without Shields, and the Royals drop out of the wild card race by mid-September.

Ventura, seen here at his Rockettes audition, will bring 100+ MPH heat at the top of KC’s rotation.

  1. Minnesota Twins

The 2014 Twins were pretty bad, finishing in last place in the Central and not even getting a glimpse of the future after disappointing injuries to their two top prospects, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. While I don’t expect the Twins to be in contention this year, Minnesota could be a dangerous team come 2016. The lineup is filled with potential. Buxton and Sano are still stuck in the minors for the time being, but Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia have shown promise in the outfield, and Brian Dozier is one of the better second basemen in the league. Torii Hunter is back in Minnesota, returning to the team with which he spent the first nine full years of his career. While Buxton may very well steal his job when he finally arrives in the Bigs, Hunter will provide valuable veteran leadership (and may serve to put more Minnesotan butts in the seats). The rotation had the highest ERA of any AL team last year, but the addition of Ervin Santana should make things a little better. Phil Hughes had a terrific 2014 season and was rewarded with a 3-year, $42 million extension. Hughes and Santana alone aren’t enough to fix Minnesota’s pitching problems, though, and the back end of the Twins’ rotation will probably struggle. The bullpen is decent, with All-Star Glen Perkins closing games, but it is not very deep. The Twins may yet decide to pursue free agent closer Rafael Soriano to shore up their staff.

Verdict

Best Case- Buxton and Sano come up and impress, Arcia and Hicks emerge as key long-term pieces, and the Twins enter 2016 as a playoff favorite.

Worst Case- Buxton and Sano are again bitten by the injury bug, the rotation is a mess, and the window for contention moves even farther away than it already is.

On the bright side for 2015, Joe Mauer’s hair is still presumably dandruff-free.

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