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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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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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Picking the 2014 ACC-Big Ten Challenge

The ACC-Big Ten Challenge started last night with a couple of less-than-marquee games: Nebraska knocked off Florida State and Rutgers took down Clemson. Tonight, the real fun starts. Here are my picks for the remaining games in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Miami will attempt to stop Rayvonte Rice, who is averaging 18 points per game and shooting 58% for Illinois.

Miami will attempt to stop Rayvonte Rice, who is averaging 18 points per game and shooting 58% for Illinois.

Tuesday Night Games: 

Indiana 75, Pitt 73: Indiana can’t stop anybody, but the Hoosiers have shot the ball at a 51% clip to jump out to a 5-1 start to the season. Pitt hasn’t been great this year but is coming off a strong win over K-State. This looks like a toss up on paper–I’ll take IU at home.

Minnesota 74, Wake Forest 63: It may take a little while for Danny Manning to turn around the Demon Deacon program. Minnesota should handle Wake in Winston-Salem.

Syracuse 58, Michigan 50: Michigan is playing great ball so far this year. Still, Boeheim has had Beilein’s number in recent years. I have to take the Orange, even on the road.

Miami 67, Illinois 64: This is going to be a fun one. Two really good, well coached teams battling it out in front of what should be an electric atmosphere in Coral Gables.

Purdue 75, NC State 74: NC State’s looked sneaky good so far, and the Wolfpack are a pretty complete team. But Purdue owns the ACC-Big Ten challenge and the Boilermakers are at home. I’ll take Purdue. Reluctantly.

Louisville 73, Ohio State 66: Another tremendous matchup. This is the first true test of the year for Ohio State. And hoo boy, it’s a test!

Wednesday Night Games:

Michigan State 79, Notre Dame 76: This is a tough road test for Sparty. Notre Dame’s got game–they’re shooting 58% through seven contests. Michigan State will need to control the glass to pull this one out.

Penn State 70, Virginia Tech 62: Virginia Tech’s better than they’ve been the past couple years. They’re still far from good.

North Carolina 89, Iowa 76: Plenty of offense here. Not as much defense. The Tar Heels should roll at the Dean Dome.

Tony Bennett's defensively stout Cavs will take on a hot Maryland team.

Tony Bennett’s defensively stout Cavs will take on a hot Maryland team.

Virginia 55, Maryland 48: This one will be more defense-oriented. UVA is coming off a 45-26 win, so there’s that. The Terps just busted into the top 25 and they should have the Xfinity Center rocking. I’ll take the Cavs; I hate picking against Tony Bennett.

Georgia Tech 65, Northwestern 57: Northwestern’s 5-1 but they’re still searching for offensive answers. Georgia Tech should have the chops to win this one on the road.

Duke 74, Wisconsin 68: Final Four preview? Could well be. Both teams are filthy. Wiscy’s got home court. Duke’s got Jahlil.

 

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2014-2015 College Basketball Preview

November 14th. That’s the date that is circled on the calendars of college basketball fans all around the country. 157 college basketball games will be played on November 14th to bring in the new college basketball year. Soon all the things that make college basketball the best sport in the world–the dunks, the pull up threes, the packed student sections, the fiery coaches, and Bill Raftery yelling incomprehensible nuggets (Dick Vitale too!)–will return. Get pumped.

To prepare for it all, I’ve thrown together College Sports Town’s second annual college hoops preview. Give it a skim, check out where I’ve got your favorite team ranked, and, as always, tell me where I’m right (and wrong) in the comments section. Enjoy!

1. Duke: Exit Jabari, Enter Jahlil 

Jahlil Okafor was named an AP preseason All-American.

Jahlil Okafor was named an AP preseason All-American.

Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor may not be as good as Jabari Parker, who played one year in Cameron Indoor before splitting for the NBA. Parker was a nearly unstoppable offensive force for Duke last year, scoring with ease from all over the court. But Okafor will still have a massive impact in his first–and likely only–year at Duke. The Blue Devils had a typically strong season last year, winning 26 games, but in the end they finished with more losses than they’ve had in a season since ‘07, none more disappointing than their defeat against Mercer in the first second round of the NCAA Tourney.

Duke was unusually small (for Duke) and struggled early defensively, giving up 94 points in a loss to Kansas in their second game of the season and 90 a couple weeks later to…Vermont. Coach K’s teams are rarely deficient on that side of the ball, and they did improve over the course of the winter, but the team’s inability to guard consistently reared its head more often than anybody in Durham would have liked. The Blue Devils allowed Mercer to shoot 55% in their Tournament loss.

The expectation is that Duke will get back to playing Duke-level D this year, and Okafor is a great place to start. The seven footer should be an anchor for a team that added another stud in point guard Tyus Jones, also a McDonald’s All-American.  The two diaper dandies will join a nucleus of vets that includes senior guard Quinn Cook and junior wing Rasheed Sulaimon, a tremendous scorer in his own right who should step into the spotlight after the departure of Parker. This Duke team looks bigger and better than the ’13 outfit. A fifth national title for Coach K could be in sight.

Predicted Win Range: 31-37

Rasheed Sulaimon and the Blue Devils have the goods to win it all.

Rasheed Sulaimon and the Blue Devils have the goods to win it all.

2. Arizona: Pac-12 could have a rough season. ‘Zona won’t, though

The Pac-12’s basketball product has gone somewhat stale in recent years and the conference could be headed for an awful winter. The good news is that Arizona is still in the league, and the Wildcats are looking like strong contenders to win it all in ’15. There are surely concerns about where the scoring will come from after the departure of Nick Johnson, but ‘Zona should find a way to score. Plus, there’s the fact that Arizona might be the best defensive team in the nation. Slasher Brandon Ashley will lead the charge at both ends, and the talent-rich Wildcats should win 30 games for the second straight year.

Predicted Win Range: 30-35

There's not much doubt that Sean Miller's Wildcats will be the class of Pac-12.

There’s not much doubt that Sean Miller’s Wildcats will be the class of Pac-12.

3. Kentucky: Wildcats will be big and physical

It took a while for Kentucky to coalesce last year, but when John Calipari’s talented and much-hyped squad figured it out, the results were impressive. UK rode some clutch shots, tough defensive stops, and a little bit of luck through the NCAA Tournament’s toughest region (they beat Wichita State, Louisville, and Michigan along the way). In the Final Four, they bested Wiscy 74-73 in a thriller. Then they lost to an unbelievable UConn team in the title game. And then, as usual, everybody headed to the draft. Except not…Julius Randle and James Young hit the draft, but the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein all elected to return. Then, Cal predictably brought in some outstanding freshmen, pulling in big name big guys Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. This all leaves ‘Tucky with a decent mix of diaper dandies and experience going into this season. That mix, in addition to bodacious talent, has plenty of folks calling for a Big Blue title.

Predicted Win Range: 26-35

The Harrison twins are back, baby.

Andrew and Aaron Harrison are back, baby.

4 . Wisconsin: Always-good Wiscy was great last year. They should be great again this winter

After more than a decade’s worth of NCAA Tourney visits and several deep runs, coach Bo Ryan finally took Wisconsin to the Final Four last year. The Badgers, who have historically won with smothering defense and smart, opportunistic offense under Ryan, opened things up offensively last year. This winter, the good times should keep on rollin’ in Madison. Star 7-footer Frank Kaminsky is back, gritty guard Traveon Jackson is too, and Bo Ryan has to be thinking about another Final four.

Predicted Win Range: 26-33

Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers are legit.

Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers are outstanding.

5. Villanova: Nas would be proud of ‘Nova, which should have their best team since ‘09

With just about everybody back from last year’s team, which went 29-5, there’s reason for the rest of the Big East to be afraid of Villanova. The Wildcats did lose James Bell, one of their leaders and a dude with in-the-gym range, to graduation. But their other four starters are back and all are good. Junior Ryan Arcidiacono will run the point for the Cats, and he’s the guy who can make all the shots. These Wildcats also have size; forwards JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu will anchor ‘Nova in the paint. Jay Wright’s Wildcat team is not loaded with future lottery picks, but its mix of experience and balance makes the Catholic school from outside of Philadelphia a strong title contender. Who knows, maybe they’ll even inspire another rap lyric.

Ryan Arcidiacono will have Villanova grooving past opponents all winter.

Ryan Arcidiacono will have Villanova grooving past opponents all winter.

Predicted Win Range: 29-33

6. Wichita State: I’m just sitting here resisting the urge to make another dumb Shocker pun

At least for the moment, it appears Wichita State is the nation’s top mid-major. The Shockers won 35 straight games last year before falling to Kentucky in the Round of 32 in March. This fall, the Shockers will be without the best player from that team–the uber talented Cleanthony Early–but a bunch of excellent players are returning to Wichita. Ron Baker’s back. Star point guard Fred VanVleet is too. And guard Tekele Cotton will continue to be a defensive force on the perimeter. Greg Marshall’s program is rolling. It should be another good winter for the Shockers.

Predicted Win Range: 30-36

Senior Tekele Cotton gettin' up.

Senior Tekele Cotton gettin’ up.

7. Virginia: This Tony Bennett team should have the body and soul to compete for an ACC ‘ship

Who doesn’t love a little Tony Bennett? I’m talking about the esteemed singer from Astoria, Queens, of course. As for the basketball coach, he’s pretty darn good too. After four years of steady improvement under Bennett, the Cavaliers broke through last year, winning 30 games and the ACC title. They bowed out (relatively early) in the Big Dance though–falling by two to Sparty in the Sweet 16–so this year could still be a step forward for UVA. The Cavs are a defense-first team, and they’ll be led on that end by guard Justin Anderson. Meanwhile, speedy slasher Malcolm Brogdon will lead what should be a strong Virgina offensive attack. Bennett’s got a good thing going in Charlottesville.

Predicted Win Range: 27-33

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erm…um…

8. Florida: Gator basketball brand has never been stronger

It’ll be a different look from Bill Donovan’s Gators this winter. They lost four of five starters in the offseason and will have to rekindle the same type of chemistry they had last winter, when they went 36-3 and 18-0 in SEC play. The good news is that Coach Donovan is a master of just that type of alchemy. What’s more, the Gators still have loads of talent, and the one starter who’s back (Michael Frazier II) is a baller. Florida has made it to at least the Elite Eight each of the last four years. No reason not to aim for five.

Predicted Win Range: 28-33

Billy Donovan's Gators are title contenders.

Billy Donovan’s Gators are title contenders.

9. Louisville: Cards enter the ACC ready to make a splash

When Louisville pounded eventual national champion UConn 81-48 on March 8th last winter, it looked like Louisville had a helluva great shot to repeat as national champs. But it didn’t come to fruition; the Cards lost a back and forth game to Kentucky in the Sweet 16. The Cardinals might have come up short, but they should be right in the thick of things again this March. The Cardinals lost Russ Smith to graduation in the spring, and Smith was the face of the program for the past couple years–a blazing comet at both ends of the court who personified coach Rick Pitino’s aggressive style. He’ll be sorely missed. Dynamite big Montrezl Harrell is back though, and Louisville has the size across their frontline to bully their new ACC brethren. Their backcourt won’t be too shabby either: Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear are both very capable dudes.

Predicted Win Range: 26-32

Montrezl Harrell and Louisville are ready to take the ACC by storm.

Montrezl Harrell and Louisville are ready to take the ACC by storm.

10. Kansas: Wiggins, Embiid–gone. That’s fine, Bill Self’s cupboard is far from bare

This Kansas team obviously won’t have the same type of topflight NBA talent that last year’s did. So be it, the 2008 Kansas team that won a national title didn’t have two top three NBA Draft picks either. This year, stalwarts Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis will be joined by another group of nasty freshmen. The results will be excellent, and Kansas fans will forget about Wiggins and Embiid in no time.

Predicted Win Range: 26-32

Time for Wayne Selden to breakout?

Time for Wayne Selden to breakout?

11. North Carolina: This will be the Marcus Paige show

Let’s be honest: the Tar Heels have underachieved the past couple years and the program is in a bit of a rut. Roy Williams has looked totally confounded by his teams at times. He’s been unable to turn talent-rich squads into legitimate title contenders and has fielded questions about his program’s academic integrity. Of course, this is still UNC, and the Heels have managed a more than respectable 49 wins the past two winters. This year, the hope in Chapel Hill is that they’ll really get their mojo back. UNC had very little success from 3 last year, but freshman Justin Jackson, a wiry and gifted wing, figures to help in that area. At the same time, Marcus Paige, a sensational junior point guard, should have a fabulous year. There are still question marks around the Dean Dome, but there’s also reason to think UNC is ready to return to the top 10.

Predicted Win Range: 26-30

Roy Williams' program enters the year with questions about academic fraud still lingering around the program.

Roy Williams’ program enters the year with questions about academic fraud still lingering around the program.

12. Gonzaga: Beat goes on for Gonzaga

The hot shooting Bulldogs sniped their way to 29 wins last year. They continue to dominate the underrated WCC, and will again be the class of the conference this year. Steady, sharp shooting point man Kevin Pangos will continue to lead the charge for the Zags with the super efficient Gary Bell Jr. serving as his sidekick in the backcourt. Gonzaga will have to deal with the loss of forward Sam Dower Jr., but talented transfer Kyle Wiltjer, last seen on that ill-fated 2012-13 Kentucky team, will fill ably in his place. Another transfer–guard Byron Wesley–was a star at USC and will be one in Spokane also. Should be another great year for the Zags.

Predicted Win Range: 27-32

Kevin Pangos leads a Gonzaga that scores prolifically.

Kevin Pangos leads a Gonzaga team that will score prolifically.

13. Syracuse: They probably won’t start the year 25-0, but the hope is that this year’s Orange squad will finish stronger

The expression “the names change, but the game remains the same,” fits Jim Boeheim’s program to a tee. Boeheim’s 2-3 defense is pure gold and Syracuse seems to get even better defensively each year. They lost a lot of good dudes to graduation and the NBA before last year, but ‘Cuse still had a fantastic season. The only thing: it ended on a real sour note: six losses in their final nine games. This year’s team won’t repeat that finish. The Orange are replacing big names like Tyler Ennis and CJ Fair this time around, but a tough squad remains. Trevor Cooney can shoot the air out of the ball, gritty forward Rakeem Christmas is back for another round (how has he not graduated yet!?!??!), and big things are expected of freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph. That 2-3 zone is back too.

Predicted Win Range: 25-30

Can this just be Syracuse's logo?

Syracuse=jim boeheim=2-3 zone. Or something.

14.  Texas: Arrival of Turner will bolster Longhorns 

There’s a great deal of excitement around the Texas basketball program at the moment. The Longhorns are returning a lot of guys from a squad that won 24 games last year and brought in arguably the best frosh in the nation, a wildly athletic seven footer named Myles Turner. He’ll join quality returnees like senior forward Jonathan Holmes and double double machine Cameron Ridley. Texas is experienced, deep, and talented. All good things. They’ll win plenty.

Predicted Win Range: 26-31

People are excited to see Myles Turner in a Longhorn uniform.

People are excited to see Myles Turner in a Longhorn uniform.

15. Ohio State: Thad Matta’s Buckeyes have won 25+ games each of the last five years

This Ohio State team isn’t all that experienced where it counts. The departures of stars LaQuinton Ross and Aaron Craft leave the Buckeyes with major holes. Losing Lenzell Smith Jr. to graduation doesn’t help things either. But expectations should still be extremely high in Columbus, where coach Thad Matta has brought in dynamite freshmen D’Angelo Russell. Russell is expected to be a star off the bat. Other new arrivals include forward Anthony Lee, a transfer from Temple, who will add some power to an OSU front court that was uncharacteristically ineffective last year. Ohio State will have a new look this winter, but we can trust Matta to make it all work. The Buckeyes boast a 77% winning percentage in ten years under Thad.

Predicted Win Range: 25-30

Thad Matta is only 47. Weird right?

Thad Matta is only 47. Weird, right?

16. San Diego State: Athletic Aztecs will be outstanding again

San Diego State coach Steve Fisher will turn 70 this March, right before the Sweet 16. I guess you could say, by measure of this ranking, that I think he’ll have a little extra to celebrate about when he turns 70. The Aztecs, who made it to the Sweet 16 last year (but no further), are coming off an incredibly impressive 31 win season. In repeating the effort, they will have to overcome the departure of leading scorer Xavier Thames, which is a bit of a concern for a squad that struggled to score with Thames. But the bread and butter of Fisher’s program is defense, and the Aztecs will undoubtedly be tremendous in that area. A breakout year from junior Winston Shepard, who was solid but inconsistent as a sophomore, could be key.

Predicted Win Range: 26-32

Winston Shepard might need to take a starring role for SDSU.

Winston Shepard might need to take a starring role for SDSU.

17. SMU: This year they’ll aim to leave no doubt on Selection Sunday

Last year when SMU was shockingly left off the NCAA Tournament bracket, I thought to myself ‘Larry Brown’s getting too old for this shit.’ Fortunately for Mustangs fans, the coach doesn’t feel the same way. The 74 year old basketball mastermind took a team that won just 13 games the year before he arrived (2012) to the cusp of the Tourney last March. And there’s really no question that the team deserved to get in; SMU was 23-9 and ranked 25th in the polls on Selection Sunday, having already logged wins over Memphis, Cincinnati, and the eventual champion Huskies (twice). Brown’s Mustangs should be even better this year, led by tiny (5-9) point guard Nic Moore and power forward Markus Kennedy. Justin Martin, a swingman who transferred from Xavier, should also be an impact player. SMU hasn’t gone dancing since ‘93. They’re a good bet to end the drought this year.

Predicted Win Range: 25-31

Nic Moore is a baller.

Nic Moore is a baller.

18. VCU: And they’ll have Havoc, Havoc, Havoc ’til someone takes their Shaka away 

Shaka Smart’s VCU program keeps rolling. The 37 year old coach’s team went 26-9 last year, although they failed to make any magic happen in March (losing off the bat to Stephen F. Austin). By recent VCU standards, it was a pretty quiet season, albeit one that included wins over Virginia and St. Louis. Smart seems to have his name thrown around every time a major program is hiring, but Smart has stuck around Richmond. This winter, his team will aim to make a little more March noise than they did in ’13-14. VCU brings back veteran leadership (Treveon Graham, Briante Weber) and is athletic across the board. The Rams will be the class of the oft-underrated A-10.

Predicted Win Range: 24-30

Shaka Smart and VCU keep on winning.

Shaka Smart and VCU keep on winning.

19. Michigan State: Sparty loses tons, but Izzo will figure it out

Michigan State lost loads of offensive talent this offseason (Garry Harris, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling–all gone). As such, coach Tim Izzo might lean on his defense more this winter than last. But there are still offensive weapons remaining, most notably forward Branden Dawson. The Spartans might start slow, but they should have things figured out by March. That’s the Izzo way, after all.

Predicted Win Range: 21-27

Branden Dawson's got ups!

Expect a big year from Branden Dawson.

20. Harvard: Harvard’s building toward a deep NCAA run

Harvard has won games in each of the last two NCAA Tournaments. In 2013, the Crimson raced by New Mexico in the Round of 64 before getting waxed by Arizona in the next round. Last March, the Crimson took down five seed Cincinnati–a good five seed at that–and looked like they might be headed to the Sweet 16 before mighty Michigan State went into high gear down the stretch of a thrilling game. The Crimson are building upward. Could this be the year they break into the Sweet 16? They certainly have elite athleticism across the board. But for Harvard to take the next step forward, they’ll need to find a jump shooting option to replace the excellent Laurent Rivard. Even with Rivard, Harvard struggled at times from the perimeter last year. The expectation in Cambridge is that Corbin Miller will fill the void, but improvement in the shooting of Wesley Saunders, already Harvard’s best two-way player, might put Harvard over the top.

Predicted Win Range: 25-31

Wesley Saunders will lead a talented Harvard team.

Wesley Saunders will lead a talented Harvard team.

21. Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg’s program is trending upwards

There were some rumors swirling around Fred Hoiberg drawing interest from the NBA this offseason, but the outstanding 41 year old coach is still in Ames. He’s got a pretty good team this year too; Georges Niang will lead a team that also features excellent players like Dustin Hogue and transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones. Plus they have a 7-foot-1 freshman named Georgios Tsalmpouris. Long legs. Long name.

Predicted Win Range: 20-26

Fred Hoiberg pointing at something.

Freddie’s a great coach.

22. Georgetown: Led by star Smith-Rivera, the Hoyas look to bounce back

As good as Georgetown has been under John Thompson III, they’ve not made it past the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament since 2007. Last year, they missed the Tournament altogether, as the losses of Otto Porter to the NBA Draft and Greg Whittington to injury proved costly. Expect it to be bounce back city in our nation’s capital this year. Junior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera will be the star of the show for the Hoyas–the Big East preseason POY is coming off a monster sophomore season and can score from all over. JT3’s team is big–with center Joshua Smith (who missed much of last year for academic reasons) leading the front court. The Hoyas also added a strong freshman class. The sun’s about to come up over the Georgetown’s gothic campus.

Predicted Win Range: 22-27

D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Georgetown should be in for a fun season.

D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Georgetown should be in for a fun season.

23. UConn: Boatright will keep things going right 

The Huskies are rebuilding in a sense after the title; Shabazz Napier is gone along with DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey. Nonetheless, UConn fans shouldn’t tear up yet. Freshmen Daniel Hamilton is expected to come in and make a big impact. More important than that, though, is the return of Ryan Boatright, one the nation’s best two-way guards. And, with Kevin Ollie still at the helm, UConn still should be a tight ship. Just don’t bank on them to repeat as national champs.

Predicted Win Range: 21-27

Ryan Boatright and the defending champs might take a step back, but don't expect it to be huge.

Boat ain’t wrong.

24. Michigan: Baby Wolverines will be a tough out in the Big Ten 

As good an X’s and O’s coach John Beilein is, the amount of talent that the coach has brought to Ann Arbor should not be understated. This winter, Michigan might experience some growing pains. The Wolverines are young across the board. Juniors Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht will fill key leadership roles. LeVert likely will be the squad’s best player. Meanwhile sophomore guard Zak Irvin may be poised for a breakout year. The play of the new class of freshmen will also be critical. If Beilein can get them to play together, Michigan still could be really good, really fast.

Predicted Win Range: 19-24

This is a sweet pic of Chris LeVert.

Chris LeVert will star for the Wolverines.

25. Providence: Big East title not a fluke

It might not seem a likely year to call for Providence to breakout. After all, the Friars lost star Bryce Cotton to graduation, and few players meant more to their team than the electrifying guard did to PC last year. Cotton played just about 40 minutes per game and scored 22 per night. And he’s not the only guy who the Friars will have to replace; stud forward Kadeem Batts graduated and wing Josh Fortune transferred. Providence wasn’t a deep team last year (they featured a six man rotation), so the losses are somewhat daunting. Even with all that in mind, there is plenty of reason to think the Friars are ready to breakout. To a large degree, they already have. PC is fresh off a 23 win season that culminated in a Big East Championship. But this year they should be even better. Under coach Ed Cooley, PC won 15 games in ’11-12, 19 in ’12-13, and of course 23 last winter. Cooley has enhanced the overall talent level in the program. This year, he’ll have to lean on a fantastic freshman class (7-2 center Paschal Chukwu, wing Jalen Lindsey, and forward Ben Bentil are all high profile guys) and senior forward LaDontae Henton (a do-it-all two-way demon who plays bigger than he is). Last year’s surprise run to the Big East title was only the beginning for Cooley at PC. This year, the Friars will build on it.

Predicted Win Range: 21-26

Cooley and the Gang took home some hardware in MSG last March.

Cooley & the Gang took home some hardware in MSG last March.

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2014 MLB Preview: AL Central

Hello, baseball fans, and welcome to the second divisional edition of College Sports Town’s 2014 MLB preview. Today, I’m going to take a look at the AL Central. This division is fairly top-heavy, but most of its teams are up-and-coming young squads with real potential. The difference is whether or not that potential will be realized this year. The Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox both have stores of promising young players to match with veteran stars, although the White Sox are closer to utilizing their prospects than the Twins. The Indians and Royals will continue to battle for position in the AL wild-card hunt this year, just as they did last season. And the Tigers will finally bring home a World Series title for the first time since 1984.

Divisional Breakdown

1. Detroit Tigers

2. Kansas City Royals

3. Cleveland Indians

4. Chicago White Sox

5. Minnesota Twins

Team Breakdown

1. Detroit Tigers

2013 was a great season for the Tigers. Max Scherzer brought home a Cy Young award, Miguel Cabrera won his second straight MVP (third in a row for a Tiger), and Detroit made it to the ALCS. This season will be better, however, because the Tigers will be able to finally claim the World Series title they have been in close pursuit of for the last three years. The lineup will look slightly different, but still will be among the best in baseball. Gone is the pudgy but powerful Prince Fielder, but into the lineup enters the still-potent Ian Kinsler. While the lineup protection Fielder afforded Miggy will be missed, Cabrera is moving back to a vacated first base, which should focus him more on the offensive side of the game (first base is both easier to play than third and Miggy’s natural position). Joining Cabrera and Kinsler are veterans like consistent outfielder Torii Hunter and the streaky Austin Jackson, as well as Nick Castellanos, a promising rookie third baseman. Sadly, Jose Iglesias will be out most of the year, so look for the Tigers to make a move for a shortstop soon. While there isn’t as much pop in the lineup as in years past, just having Miguel Cabrera at this point in his career pretty much guarantees you a top ten offense. Besides, the Tigers have one of the best rotations in baseball. Despite a confounding trade of the talented Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals, the Tigers have the reigning AL Cy Young winner in Scherzer, the 2011 AL Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander, and the reigning AL ERA champion Anibal Sanchez (seriously, Miami, quit trading with Detroit). Even though Verlander’s stats took a bit of a hit last year, he seemed to return to form in the postseason. This trio is arguably unparalleled in the MLB, and Rick Porcello isn’t bad, either. Last year the big question mark was the bullpen, but the Tigers are banking on the newly acquired Joe Nathan to close out games. I think that gamble will prove to be a good one.

Verdict

Best Case- Cabrera wins his third straight MVP, one of the members of the  the pitching trio wins the Cy Young, and the Tigers win the World Series.

Worst Case- Cabrera can’t play through injuries, Verlander continues to decline, Scherzer is dealt, and the Tigers barely manage a wild-card spot.

Verlander will soon have everything a guy could want: a ring, awards, and Kate Upton!

Verlander will soon have everything a guy could want: a ring, awards, and Kate Upton!

2. Kansas City Royals

The crushed dreams of Kansas City denizens are slowly being patched together. After a long period of losing, 2013 saw the Royals involved in a wild-card race. They missed out on a spot then, but 2014 will be the year the drought ends. Years of high draft picks paid off, both in terms of developed prospects and stars traded for with prospects. The Royals’ lineup is formidable. Norichika Aoki will be an improvement leading off, and Omar Infante has some pop and a fine glove. Adding those to a lineup which includes young gun Eric Hosmer, All-Stars Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez, and slugger Billy Butler should be a dangerous combination. They might not hit a lot of home runs, but they should be putting a good amount of runs on the board.Their rotation is headlined by James Shields, who is likely in his last year with the Royals. Following Shields, who finished 11th in the AL Cy Young voting in 2013, are the decent Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie, along with the underrated Bruce Chen. If the Royals can extend their youth movement into the pitching staff effectively with prospects Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy, it will improve their playoff prospects. In the bullpen, All-Star closer Greg Holland is among the best in the game, and, when healthy, Luke Hochevar is a nice set up man.

Verdict

Best case- Shields is a Cy Young candidate, Perez and Hosmer are All-Stars, and the Royals break their playoff drought with a wild-card berth.

Worst case- Hosmer and Mike Moustakas fail to develop further along with Ventura and Duffy, the Royals can’t break into the playoffs, and Shields departs soon after the season ends.

Unlike Lorde, being a Royal runs in Salvador Perez's blood.

Unlike Lorde, being a Royal runs in Salvador Perez’s blood.

3. Cleveland Indians

Following an off-season in which the Indians made a big splash by signing Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, and new manager Terry Francona, the Indians snagged a wild-card spot. Content with the composition of the squad, the Indians had a quiet off-season. This team might fall behind a bit due to its lack of moves in an extremely competitive AL wild-card race, but the Indians are still a dangerous ball club. The core of the lineup is made up of All-Star Jason Kipnis, the powerful Carlos Santana, and the solid Michael Brantley. The performances of Nick Swisher and Asdrubal Cabrera are more difficult to predict, due to the inconsistent natures of their 2013 seasons, but the Indians will prosper if the two produce. New outfielder David Murphy is fairly underrated and should be a nice addition to the lineup. The lineup is solid, but the rotation is where this team is really promising. If the young pitching staff can produce at the level they are expected, the Indians will make the playoffs for the second straight year. All-Star Justin Masterson is the ace, as well as the oldest of the bunch at 29. The most promising prospects are former Diamondback Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar, a 24 year old who throws absolute gas. Also promising are Carlos Carrasco, Zach McAllister, and Corey Kluber. The Indians only need a few of these guys to produce in order to have a good shot at the postseason. The bullpen is fairly uncertain as well, with John Axford taking over the closing job. Axford, polished sophomore Cody Allen, and Bryan Shaw will have to step up in the Indians’ revamped bullpen.

Overall, this team is difficult to forecast. They have many pieces in place; they just need a few lucky breaks for their gambles in the pitching staff to come through.

Verdict

Best Case- Salazar and Bauer are electrifying, Kipnis and Masterson are All-Stars, and the Indians snag a wild-card spot for the second consecutive year.

Worst case- The inexperienced rotation falters, Swisher and Cabrera derail the lineup, and the Indians lose their gambles and their chance at a postseason spot.

Kipnis hopes to be celebrating like this in 2014.

Kipnis hopes to be celebrating good times in 2014.

4. Chicago White Sox

The White Sox had a disappointing 2013, finishing last place in the AL Central under manager Robin Ventura. In response, they made a nice splash in the off-season. As a result, this White Sox squad should be improved, although not quite good enough to contend for a wild-card spot. The lineup could potentially be very effective. The young trio of Cuban Jose Abreu and former Diamondbacks Adam Eaton and Matt Davidson, as well as summer acquisition Avisail Garcia,  have the potential to be in the core of the White Sox lineup for the next decade, but likely won’t contribute too much this year. The ChiSox retained the terribly-disappointing Adam Dunn, as well as franchise icon Paul Konerko for another year, who will be joined in the infield by the unpredictable Alexei Ramirez and Gordon Beckham. If their play, along with outfielder Dayan Viciedo, returns to past levels, the White Sox will be much improved. The rotation is fairly top-heavy, but it is headlined by one of the most exciting young pitchers in the league: 24 year old Chris Sale. Already a two-time All-Star, Sale is followed in the rotation by the decent duo of Jose Quintana and John Danks, then Felipe Paulino, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2012, and Erik Johnson, who had a nice showing in September call-ups. The rotation will likely miss Hector Santiago, traded to Arizona in the deal for Eaton, as much as the bullpen will miss Addison Reed, also traded to Arizona for Davidson. The bullpen was completely revamped over the off-season, which probably a good thing considering the ChiSox were 23rd in bullpen ERA last year. Scott Downs, Roland Belisario, and Matt Lindstrom were all signed in the off-season, but it remains to be seen if Nate Jones can serve as an adequate closer. Overall, the White Sox are closer to contention, but their pitching staff outside of Sale needs improvement.

Verdict

Best Case- Sale wins the Cy Young, Jose Abreu hits 35+ HR, and the White Sox are in contention until after the All-Star break.

Worst Case- The rotation after Sale is worse than imagined, Abreu is a bust, and the White Sox crash and burn for the second straight year.

The White Sox hope that Jose Abreu lives up to his contract.

The White Sox hope that big acquistion Jose Abreu lives up to his contract.

5. Minnesota Twins

The Twins had a difficult 2013, but there is hope for the future. The Twins spent an unusually large amount in free agency to shore up their pitching staff, which was the second-worst team in the majors in team ERA last season. While the rotation should be improved, the lineup does not look too impressive. Outside of Joe Mauer (who has been converted to full-time first baseman) and Brian Dozier, the lineup is filled with replacement level players. This year’s lineup will likely be even worse than last year’s, despite the addition of C Kurt Suzuki, because of the midseason trade of former MVP Justin Morneau. Even more upsetting than the current state of the lineup is the stalling of the arrival of one of Minnesota’s saviors. The best slugger in the minors last season, Miguel Sano, was expected to be called up midseason, but Sano will miss the entire year with Tommy John surgery. Twins fans can hope one of the best prospects in all of baseball, Byron Buxton, will arrive in the upcoming season, but it seems unlikely that he’ll make the show this year. Hopefully for Minnesotans, the rotation will be better. Still, it is made up of cast-offs. Ricky Nolasco is likely the ace of the staff, which is already a risky proposition, and he is followed in the rotation by shaky starters Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, and Phil Hughes. For Minnesota to be any good this season, each one of these pitchers will have to have a career year, which seems unlikely. Outside of Mauer, the star of the team might be closer Glen Perkins, who saved 36 of the Twins’ 66 wins. Those two will probably be the only bright spots for the Twins this year, outside of the All-Star Game at Target Field, but don’t worry, Twins fans. 2015 will bring a healthy Sano and a more developed Buxton, and the prospect of facing those two will keep Chris Sale and Max Scherzer up at night.

Verdict

Best case- Mauer wins a batting title, Perkins saves 40 games, the patchwork rotation holds together, and the Twins contend until August.

Worst case- Mauer gets injured again, the rotation completely falters, and the Twins finish 2014 in the cellar of the Central.

This logo will serve as a sole light in the darkness that is the Twins' 2014 campaign.

This logo will serve as a sole light in the darkness that is the Twins’ 2014 campaign.

There you have it. The Tigers will win the AL Central once more on their way to a World Series championship, and the Royals will break their own postseason drought. Thanks for reading this edition of College Sports Town’s divisional preview. Next time, I’ll be forecasting the AL West. Will the Mariners’ wild off-season lead to a postseason appearance?Check back tomorrow to find out!

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2014 MLB Preview: Playoff Picture

Hello once again, baseball fans. It’s time for my predictions for which teams will make the playoffs, and which team will bring home the vaunted World Series title for 2014. As always, the season will take many twists and turns, but these are the teams I expect to see playing for the title in October.

Divisional and Wild Card Winners AL East- Boston Red Sox

AL Central- Detroit Tigers

AL West- Oakland Athletics

AL Wild Card #1- Tampa Bay Rays

AL Wild Card #2- Kansas City Royals

NL East- Atlanta Braves

NL Central- St. Louis Cardinals

NL West- Los Angeles Dodgers

NL Wild Card #1- Washington Nationals

NL Wild Card #2- Cincinnati Reds

Wild Card Matches

AL- Tampa Bay Rays defeat Kansas City Royals

NL- Washington Nationals defeat Cincinnati Reds

Divisional Round

AL- Detroit Tigers beat Tampa Bay Rays in 4 games, Boston Red Sox beat Oakland Athletics in 5 games

NL-  St. Louis Cardinals beat Washington Nationals in 4 games, Los Angeles Dodgers beat Atlanta Braves in 5 games League Championship Matchups

AL- Detroit Tigers beat Boston Red Sox in 6 games

NL- St. Louis Cardinals beat Los Angeles Dodgers in 5 games

World Series

Detroit Tigers beat St. Louis Cardinals in 7 games

tigers

Cabrera and Verlander will finally lead the Tigers to postseason success.

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