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2014 MLB Team Previews

The 2014 MLB season is almost here! Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman brings you an in depth look at each of the 30 teams, prospects and key questions as we head towards opening day.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

NHL Power Rankings - April 1

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NHL Power Rankings
April 1, 2014

For a second straight week the Boston Bruins, the hottest team in the NHL, holds down the top spot. The Bruns have won 15 of their last 16 and posted a 15-1-1 record in the month of March. Just incredible. The defending Eastern Conference Champs are firing on all cylinders and looks poised for another deep playoff run. At #2 this week are the St. Louis Blues. The Blues had won three straight this past week before a tough loss to the Dallas Stars. They still remain one of the top teams in the West and have been extremely dominant since the trade deadline. Jumping up 3 places to #3 this week are the LA Kings. Marian Gaborik looks like the player of old since joining the Kings. He has added another element to an offense that is finally starting to play to the level that the goaltending and defense where giving them all along. The San Jose Skarks drop a pair of spots this week to #2 after consecutive losses. Despite the losses, they remain within striking distance of first place Anaheim. Speaking of the Ducks, they hold pat at #5 this week. A pair of wins has them back on track. They control their own destiny in the Pacific.

Where does your team rank this week?

Rank
Last Week
1 Boston Bruins 1
2 St. Louis Blues 3
3 Los Angeles Kings 6
4 San Jose Sharks 2
5 Anaheim Ducks 5
6 Colorado Avalanche 7
7 Chicago Blackhawks 4
8 Montreal Canadiens 13
9 New York Rangers 11
10 Pittsburgh Penguins 9
11 Philadelphia Flyers 8
12 Tampa Bay Lightning 12
13 Minnesota Wild 10
14 Detroit Red Wings 14
15 Dallas Stars 18
16 Columbus Blue Jackets 16
17 Phoenix Coyotes 15
18 Washington Capitals 17
19 Vancouver Canucks 21
20 Ottawa Senators 26
21 Toronto Maple Leafs 19
22 New Jersey Devils 20
23 Nashville Predators 22
24 Calgary Flames 23
25 Winnipeg Jets 24
26 New York Islanders 27
27 Carolina Hurricanes 25
28 Florida Panthers 28
29 Edmonton Oilers 29
30 Buffalo Sabers 30

Monday, March 31, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Colorado Rockies

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Colorado Rockies
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview: 
The year before, the pitching collapsed and the formerly competitive Rockies unit looked like they might need a rebuild. In 2013 they still only win 74 games but things are more promising; they might have won 4-5 if not for month-long injuries to their trio of offensive stars: Michael Cuddyer, Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki. The pitching looks much less terrible, as Joulys Chacin and Jorge de la Rosa lead a rebound performance. Still, the team has plenty of holes.

Winter Grade: C+

Coming: Justin Morneau, Brett Anderson
Going: Dexter Fowler, Todd Helton (retired)
The Rockies make three major moves to shore up their roster for the 2014 season: one inspired trade, one lackluster one, and Justin Morneau. In the wake of Michael Cuddyer competing for a batting title, maybe they felt another ex-Twin could have an offensive renaissance in Colorado. It’s not a bad gamble; Justin Morneau was once an MVP and one of the best bats in the league, and even if multiple concussions and age have sapped his former power, he could still have nice rebound with the Rockies, and will definitely be an upgrade over the final season of Todd Helton’s career. Brett Anderson is a nice buy low candidate, although the player they swapped him for, Drew Pomeranz, also has potential. But the Rockies received nothing useful in return for Dexter Fowler, who has settled into a role as a decent on-base threat and solid defender, despite never stealing many bases or adding reliable power. He may not be much more than a fourth outfielder outside of Colorado, but all they got in return for him was a minor league outfielder (Brandon Barnes) and a pitcher with a 5.35 career ERA in 377 innings (Jordan Lyles). If either gets significant playing time for the Rockies, it will be a major surprise. Or a sign that the season has tanked.

Wild Card(s): 

Brett Anderson could be another Jorge de la Rosa for the Rockies, an oft injured left-hander who is nevertheless a premier arm when he pitches. Anderson was bad last year but he has a career 3.81 ERA and he’s only 26. If he can find his control again he can be a mid-rotation starter. And as mentioned above, Justin Morneau could find his rhythm again in Colorado. A reasonably optimistic scenario could see him batting .290 with 20-25 Home Runs, which would make him an above average starting first basemen, even with adjusting for Coors Field.

Key Contract Years: 

Jorge de la Rosa had a big year last year for Colorado (16 wins, 3.40 ERA), but it was just the second year of his ten-year career that he made 30 starts, and even in doing so he didn’t throw many innings (168). Still, succeeding in Coors Field is a mighty thing to have on your resume, and the veteran left-hander will have a decision to make at the end of the year, or if he becomes too pricey, Colorado may make that decision for him. Brett Anderson has a $12 million option that Colorado may pick up if de la Rosa leaves or Anderson pitches up to his 2010 standards (7-6, 2.80 ERA).

Rookies: 
Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler are two of the best pitching prospects in the minors, and considering how offensive levels have gone down in recent years, both may find instant success even in the tough environment of Coors Field. They are both mid-season call ups at best, as the Rockies rotation is full right now and neither have had much experience above A-ball. Chad Bettis will contribute immediately in the bullpen and showed flashes of success in a stint as a starter at the end of last year for the Rockies.

Key Questions: 
Can Tulowitzki and “Car Go” stay healthy? The Rockies can’t win without them.
Can de la Rosa and Joulys Chacin repeat their strong 2013 performances?
Can any pitcher succeed in Colorado without accruing health concerns or diminished velocity?
Does success in Coors Field require max effort? Rookie Jonathan Gray will put that to the test with his tremendous fastball command.
Can they get league average production from center field or second base?
What progress can the Rockies get from third baseman Nolan Arenado on offense and catcher Wilin Rosario on defense? As always, does this offensive unit have the ability to hit on the road?

Farm System Overview: GREEN (above average) 
Gray and Butler are studs, but another round of dynamic Rockies hitters may be on the horizon as well. Shortstop Rossell Herrera hit .343 with 16 HR last year in low-A ball, and outfielder David Dahl was turning heads this spring. A former first-round pick from 2012, Dahl could be a major power/speed threat down the line. There are enough arms in the upper levels to complement a future Rockies bullpen, and the presence of the top two pitching prospects makes up for their lack of future starters.

2014 Prognosis: Unlikely Contenders

There’s too many brittle players here to project more than a .500 finish, and this roster may be overly reliant on their best three or four guys. Second base and center field project to be major problem areas for this team. But if the Rockies find the right pitching mix and the ex-Twins look good, they can find some magic.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: San Diego Padres

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: San Diego Padres
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview:
A nearly identical year to the previous. Injuries in the rotation. Some rookie surprises in the field (Logan Forsythe in 2012, Jedd Gyorko in 2013) and also some complete meltdowns (Nick Hundley in 2012, Cameron Maybin in 2013). Above .500 in the second half of the year. Everth Cabrera only plays a half season; in 2012 it was an injury, in 2013 it was steroids. Perhaps this current version of the Padres is epitomized by Yonder Alonso, an unusual and intriguing talent who nevertheless amounts to a below-average bill of goods.

Winter Grade: B-
Coming: Josh Johnson, Seth Smith, Joaquin Benoit
Going: Luke Gregerson, Jason Marquis
Unfortunately, the most interesting addition to the roster, Johnson, will miss April with another injury. Before that, he looked like a great buy-low opportunity for the Padres; Petco Park has been a great place for pitchers to recover their former glory and rebound (see: Randy Wolf, Aaron Harang). He still could post a sub-3.00 ERA if/when he returns. Seth Smith was a questionable addition although the signing of Tigers’ setup man Benoit cancels out the loss of Gregerson. The Padres could have used another pitcher or two although they have quite a handful of potential fourth starters close to the majors; some of that depth was used to acquire a nice left-handed reliever, Alex Torres, from Tampa.

Wild Card(s):

On this team, it feels like EVERYONE is a wild card. There aren’t many reliable performers on this roster. Even their requisite ‘star’, Chase Headley, is coming off a year in which he hit .250 with 13 HR. If Carlos Quentin and Everth Cabrera match their 2013 performance over a full season they will turn some heads, perhaps. Ian Kennedy is a solid rebound candidate, and so is Josh Johnson post-April. Two players who may be overlooked at this point but have some star potential are catcher Yasmani Grandal and pitcher Tyson Ross. Grandal was suspended for 50 games at the start of last year and never got going. But in 2012, he hit .297 with 9 HR in 60 games, and his minor league track record suggests he could be one of the better offensive catchers in baseball. If you dare to dream, Grandal could still be a poor man’s Buster Posey, or a rich man’s Miguel Montero. Or he could just be himself. Meanwhile, Ross was dominant as a starter
last year, with a 3.06 ERA and 95 K in 16 starts, despite a 3-5 record, which is the lineup’s fault. Maybe he’s their best starter since Mat Latos? It wouldn’t be too much of a reach.

Key Contract Years: 
Chase Headley. The Padres are in a bind with him. Although his big 2012 was a career outlier and he’s unlikely to see that kind of power spike again, his change in performance makes him difficult to value. Most likely, he is more of the high OBP, average power player that he was last year and in the years prior, but then what is that worth? Headley has also done much better on the road in his career than at home; will a team like the Yankees overpay with the expectation that once freed from Petco Park he’ll be an MVP?

Rookies: Burch Smith has some big league experience, and Matt Wisler has better stuff and is not far behind. Neither has made the opening day rotation, but that could change quickly. Both have the potential to be no. 3 starters, with big fastballs and potentially solid secondary offerings.

Key Questions: 
Can Chase Headley be a star?
If not, what will the Padres do with him?
Are they going to attempt to re-sign him?
Should they trade him?
Is there anyone on this team worth signing long-term and identifying as a franchise cornerstone?
Who, other than Ian Kennedy, is capable of pitching over 150 innings for this team? (Don’t say Eric Stults, a lefty journeyman who probably got lucky last year)

Farm System Overview: YELLOW (average) 
There is good pitching depth but overall no stars in the Padres’ minor league system. The top prospect, catcher Austin Hedges, is a solid defensive catcher but his offensive skills are a work in progress, so he is reasonably far away right now even if he starts the year at AA. Some of their best pitching prospects keep getting hurt: Casey Kelly and Joe Weiland could be big leaguers, but they have to stay on the mound first. The Padres haven’t been bad enough to draft near enough to the top to get premium signees.

2014 Prognosis: Unlikely Contenders
There’s just not enough star power here. The rotation has depth but none of the younger arms have established themselves as capable full season arms, and the two veterans Kennedy and Stults are back-end innings eaters. The lineup will always suffer due to Petco Park and although GM Josh Byrnes has assembled a reasonably capable group of position players, their best power hitters (Carlos Quentin, Headley, Gyorko) will have to step up their game this year.

MLB 2014 Team Preview: San Francisco Giants

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: San Francisco Giants
By Wild on Sports Analyst Aaron Dorman

The World Series winners follow up their magic season with a belly flop. Most of their starters regress, Angel Pagan goes missing for most of the year, and nobody comes in to fill the hole left behind by Melky Cabrera, who hit .346 in 2012. It’s the pitching that does them in; the Giants finish 2013 12th in team ERA (4.00), which is 16 % below league average when you factor in the ballpark. That’s not a formula for success.

Winter Grade:
Coming: Tim Hudson, Mike Morse
Going: Barry Zito
Credit goes to GM Brian Sabean for not panicking even in light of such a disappointing season. The main culprits are identified and management responds accordingly. Barry Zito is now an ex-Giant and although he is re-signed, Ryan Vogelsong will now have to compete with some other candidates for the final starter spot. They still could use an extra outfielder; Mike Morse could be a power threat if healthy but he’s an odd fit for San Francisco’s large ballpark. Hunter Pence, however, has acquitted himself well, and he’s a solid if overpaid part of their future. Keeping Tim Lincecum and his upside also makes sense in light of the subsequent deals given out to inferior pitchers.

Wild Card(s): 
Brandon Belt fixed his swing after April and was a .326/.390/.525 hitter after the all-star break last year (221 AB). If he can keep that up, he will be one of the better first basemen in the league, as a batting champion threat with above average power. He’s 26 in late April, so he’s about to hit his peak years.
Also, Angel Pagan and Tim Hudson are coming back from injuries and both could be an unexpected surprise if they play up to their historic abilities, although Hudson is now 38 years old.

Key Contract Years:
Pablo Sandoval has had an up-and-down career, both in terms of health and performance. He’s always been a high contact hitter, but his power has oscillated and he’s hit between .268 and .330 in his full seasons. Never in great shape, Sandoval has maintained solid defensive ability throughout his career. He’s a somewhat difficult commodity to value and that makes him likely to hit free agency. But the Giants like to keep incumbent players who perform, so it’s possible they will overpay to keep him at the end of the year.

Rookies:
None of their best pitching prospects are ready. Heath Hembree is considered a ‘closer’ prospect, but that’s a bit of an oxymoron as the best relievers are often converted starters. Hembree throws hard but his secondary stuff is not great, and even in AAA he put up a pedestrian 4.07 ERA. Later on in the year lefties Edwin Escobar and Adalberto Mejia could debut in the rotation, and either could be at least a no. 3 starter based on strong results in the minor leagues.

Key Questions:
Is their rotation good again?
Was last year just a down year for Matt Cain?
Will Tim Lincecum ever be a top starter or is he a candidate to move to the bullpen at some point soon?
What do they have in Ryan Vogelsong, who for two seasons was a very good pitcher but looked like his ‘old’ self last year?
Do they have enough offense up the middle between Brandon Crawford and Marco Scutaro?

Farm System Overview: YELLOW (average) 

The Giants probably have more no. 3 starter candidates in the minor leagues than any other team, and that is probably a good thing. However, their minor league rosters are heavily imbalanced, with almost no positional player talent above rookie-ball. Outfielder Mac Williamson had a strong year in high-A San Jose but that’s a favorable hitting environment, and former top draft pick Joe Panik (shortstop) looked like a utility man last year. Their top prospect, Kyle Crick, could be a dominant starter, but he only made 14 starts last year and his control (career 5.5 BB/9) is well below average at this point. Sometimes those pitchers become stars anyway. Sometimes they have to move to the bullpen. And sometimes they completely collapse and never pitch in the majors.

2014 Prognosis: Likely Contenders 
The roster is not too different from the one that was a World Series champion two years ago, but times have changed. Was 2013 a down year for the rotation or was it really a sign of things to come? The Giants have a solid group of hitters but no depth and probably only one All-star in Buster Posey. So it’s up to the rotation to prove itself as a force again in the NL West. That said, it’s highly likely that Tim Hudson and whoever the fifth starter turns out to be are an improvement over Barry Zito and the 2013 version of Ryan Vogelsong, to the extent that even league average pitching in the 4 and 5 slot could make the Giants contenders. Add in a successful return for Angel Pagan and it’s more than possible that the Giants can at least grab one of the wild card spots.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: 
Arizona Diamondbacks
By Wild on Sports Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview
:
You win some, you lose some. But back-to-back .500 seasons can’t really be considered a triumph, especially in the wake of some controversial, head-scratching trades including the departure of Justin Upton. Fans were probably wondering where he was while Jason Kubel hit .220, and the ‘extra’ player in that trade, Chris Johnson, almost won a batting title for Atlanta (.321). Oops. Meanwhile, Miguel Montero loses his mojo, but Paul Goldschmidt becomes an MVP candidate.

Winter Grade:
Coming: Mark Trumbo, Bronson Arroyo, Addison Reed
Going: Tyler Skaggs, Adam Eaton, Heath Bell, Matt Davidson (minors)
Also, don’t forget Ian Kennedy is gone as well, having been traded for peanuts on the July 31 deadline. Overall, the stupid mistakes of 2013 are compounded this winter, eroding Arizona’s talent base and solidifying them as mediocre also-rans. For no good reason Adam Eaton is swapped out for Mark Trumbo, and former top prospect Tyler Skaggs is gone in the deal to boot. There are plenty of bad reasons for adding Trumbo’s one dimensional power, however. Trading away Upton and signing the disappointing Cody Ross left Arizona without a reliable right-handed power bat in the outfield. Now they have that, but it won’t amount to much if Trumbo can’t take a few pitches. Addison Reed is a generic reliever, and Matt Davidson is a non-generic third base prospect. But oh well, he’s blocked by Martin Prado, who has to play because right now he’s all they have to show for trading Upton. And why is Bronson Arroyo on this team? He proved he can pitch successfully in a bandbox, but 37-year-olds with no fastball don’t last long. After all these roster shenanigans, Arizona is left with just one blue-chip prospect, Archie Bradley, when a few years ago it looked like they would soon have the best collection of young starters in the league.

Wild Card(s): 
Miguel Montero should be a solid hitting catcher again, as there was no discernable reason for his 2013 collapse other than he started slow and couldn’t recover. Just two years ago he was an on-base machine with above-average power and defense; if that player comes back, maybe Arizona can make a push for the wild card.

On the mound, Brandon McCarthy has never made more than 25 starts, but his 4.53 ERA should go down this year as more of the ground balls he induced last year become outs instead of hits (he got unlucky in this regard last year). A sub-4.00 ERA is very possible. And after Pat Corbin’s season-ending surgery, very needed.

Key Contract 
Years: McCarthy maybe? In their defense, Arizona’s management has done a good job locking up nearly all their useful players, particular their better hitters (Goldschmidt, Aaron Hill, Montero).

Rookies: 
Chris Owings won the opening day shortstop job (over Didi Gregorius) and he looked good this spring, and last year hit well during his September big-league call up (.291 in 55 at-bats). However, his .330 batting average and 51 extra-base-hits last year in AAA Reno are not as impressive when you consider that they came with only 22 walks (for a .359 OBP) and in one of the best hitting environments in all of the minor leagues. Owings has mostly been too aggressive in his approach during his minor league career, and his only offensive strength at the moment that will translate to the majors is above average power. His .263/.291/.377 line in half a season with AA-Mobile two years ago offers a more realistic projection of what he might do this year. With above average defense, that’s not a terrible player. But he probably won’t be an all-star.

D-backs fans have more reason to get excited about righty Archie Bradley, the consensus top pitching prospect in baseball going into this year. He’s nearly ready for the majors after blowing hitters away in AA last year. Over all between there and high-A Visalia, Bradley went 14-5 with a 1.84 ERA and 162 K in 152 IP. He walks a lot of batters but his stuff is good enough that Bradley could iron out his command in the majors and still be a dominant starter. He might be their best pitcher by the end of 2014.

Key Questions: 
Speaking of which, when does Bradley get his big chance?
How does the rotation fill out in Pat Corbin’s absence?
Can Randall Delgado be a league-average starter?
What will Arizona do with Didi Gregorius, who is arguably too good to play in AAA or sit on the bench in the majors?
Can any of their incumbent starters improve to all-star level? Right now only Paul Goldschmidt looks like a projectable all-star.

Farm System Overview: YELLOW (average) 
Archie Bradley is the best pitching prospect in the game, but after him and Chris Owings the system is rail thin. There are a handful of interesting recent draft picks, mostly pitchers, but several of their more high-profile signings had terrible years in 2013. 2012 top pick Stryker Trahan was converted from catcher to outfielder this spring, which lowers his prospect status (and obscures his development time frame). Mostly the Diamondbacks system is bad due to hemorrhaging of prospects in their misguided trades. The one major positive note (aside from Bradley’s emergence) was the breakout of third basemen Brandon Drury, acquired from Atlanta in the Upton deal. Drury could be an offensive stud but he’s still very far away.

2014 Prognosis: Possible Contenders
The Diamondbacks have played this game before; over the past decade their rosters have been composed of players who are often solid regulars but rarely stars. That’s made for volatile shifts from one season to the next, oscillating between contention and disappointment. Kevin Towers’ reign as GM has seemingly determined to eliminate some of this unpredictability, swapping out mystery men like Upton and Ian Kennedy for more reliable regulars. That also explains why they’ve had little patience for high-upside, low-control prospects like Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer. But by raising the floor, Towers has also lowered Arizona’s ceiling. They are a strong bet to hover around .500, but it will take a fair bit of luck for them to move beyond that threshold.

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview: 
It started as an expensive disaster but after mid-season the Dodgers turned their season around in dramatic fashion, going 54-27 after July first and making a deep playoff run (they lost in game 6 of the NLCS to St. Louis). Hanley Ramirez looked like an MVP candidate in the second half and rookie Yasiel Puig emerged as one of the most exciting young players in the game. On the mound, Clayton Kershaw put together his second Cy Young season at age 25 with a miniscule 1.86 ERA and a not-so-miniscule contract extension that will make him the highest paid player in the game next year.

Winter Grade: B+
Coming: Dan Haren, Alex Guerrero (Cuba), Erisabel Arruebarrena (Cuba), Paul Maholm
Going: Ricky Nolasco
There wasn’t much to do after the Dodgers looked to have assembled the NL’s most talented roster; their fourth-best outfielder is all-star Andre Ethier. Although the Dodgers ended up upgrading their rotation with Haren and Maholm, they also have Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett due back at some point this year. With their infield in flux after this year (when Hanley Ramirez is set to be a free agent), the Dodgers signed two Cuban defectors, Guerrero and Arruebarrena. Although they have to be pleased with their successful scouting of Yasiel Puig, neither of this winter’s signings offer that same kind of offensive potential. Guerrero has already seemingly lost the second base job to incumbent Dee Gordon. Re-signing Juan Uribe to play third base was a boring but necessary move for the time being.

Wild Card(s): 
Dan Haren is once again a rebound candidate as his ERA has been much higher than his peripherals would indicate (BB/K rate, HR/IP), but could that be because his declining fastball is yielding more home runs and hard-hit gappers? If so, Dodger Stadium might still be able to mask that better and push him back towards a 3.75-4 ERA, making him a solid third or fourth starter if he’s durable.

Another pitcher to get excited about is Chad Billingsley, who looked very strong in 25 starts in 2012 before missing nearly all of last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Considering how common it is for pitchers to bounce back after the procedure, Billingsley could be a better-than-solid upgrade in the rotation when he returns in late May. The former all-star has had several seasons where he’s looked like no worse than a no. 2 starter.

Key Contract Years: 

Hanley Ramirez could be the most coveted free agent of the 2014-15 offseason if he even comes close to repeating last year’s insane production in half a season (.345/.402/.638 slash line). Haren and Maholm were both signed to one-year deals, so they will be free agents as well, perhaps joined by Josh Beckett if he’s healthy enough to pitch this year. Billingsley has a $14 million option for 2015 which will be picked up if he’s even league average post-surgery.

Rookies: 
Arruebarrena might play the whole season in the minors, but Guerrero is on the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster (he struck out in one at-bat during the two-game opening series in Australia this weekend). Above-average power is his best tool; some scouts think he will be an offense-first second basemen, and others think he will just be a utility-man/AAAA infielder. The most likely rookies to contribute are pitchers Chris Withrow and Jose Dominguez, relievers who already have shown success in brief major league samples. They both throw hard and good succeed in high-leverage situations in 2014. Starter Zach Lee may be ready for the majors later this year but he is likely buried behind the Dodgers starting pitching depth.

Key Questions: 
What is the health status of Matt Kemp?
When he plays, who sits between Ethier, Puig and Carl Crawford?
How will the second base situation shake out by season’s end; we know Dee Gordon can run and play defense but can he hit enough to play everyday (his track record says no)?
When do Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett come back?
What will the Dodgers do with their blocked prospects who are ready for the majors?
Could they upgrade at third base or catcher?
Is Hanley Ramirez back to being a superstar?

Farm System Overview: GREEN (above average) 
Boosted by the Cuban signings, the Dodgers have plenty of depth in case their more expensive veterans disappoint or get injured. Just 17, Julio Urias is set to be the youngest pitcher in high-A ball this year, and he could be the next young pitching phenom to debut for LA. He pitched under strict rules last year limiting his innings but still put up a 2.48 ERA and 11.1 K/9 strikeout rate in low-A. Further up, outfielder Joc Pederson and third baseman/shortstop Corey Seager will attempt to prove themselves big-league ready, and both are five-tool talents despite having no clear path to Los Angeles’ starting lineup. Beyond that, the Dodgers don’t boast much position player talent, but they have a nice collection of power arms.

2014 Prognosis: Strong Contenders
They’re already 2-0! On paper they look like a 95-100 win team, and they’ve shown they have the financial wherewithal to make changes midseason if necessary, either to replace injuries or to bring in another star-level player. More importantly, no other team in the NL West looks like a challenger for this roster, and full seasons from “Han-Ram” and Puig could mean that Kershaw can find some extra victories to match his league-leading ERA.

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Chicago Cubs

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Chicago Cubs
By Wild on Sports Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview:
Another last place finish, although at least this time they avoid losing 100 games. Since coming over from the Red Sox, GM Theo Epstein and his group have taken a very different approach to the Cubs; even in the large media market of Chicago, they have opted for a slow methodical rebuilding process. The result is a franchise with exceptional young talent in the minors but not much going on at the major league level, other than some roster turnover in July the past few years.

Winter Grade:
Coming: Jason Hammel
Going: Dioner Navarro
Perhaps gun shy about spending after signing the disappointing Edwin Jackson to a five-year-deal last winter, the Cubs don’t pursue anyone significant and instead continue their pattern of trying to find potential trade trips from the bottom of the free agent barrel. Over the past few years they’ve been able to resurrect the careers of Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman, among others; they will try to do the same with Jason Hammel and Pirates castoff James McDonald. Trade discussions for Jeff Samardzija haven’t really gained much traction at all, although he’s a likely candidate to be dealt this July. The Cubs aren’t expected to contend this year but it is still strange to see them not pursue any outfielders.

Wild Card(s): 
Simon Castro was the Cubs’ lone young star going into last year, but they tried to change his approach last year and the results were disastrous; Castro hit a weak .247 with only 9 SB and a .284 OBP, and he saw a major jump in strikeouts (129 in 666 AB). Before that, he was a dynamic contact hitter, who led the league in hits in 2011. Considering he is only 25, Castro is a good bet to return to his former level of near-stardom, and could even improve, adding a few more home runs or competing for a batting title. If his defense remains solid, he is still a player the Cubs can build around. Sometimes players have off years. Even Robinson Cano hit .270 once.

Key Contract Years:
Jason Hammel was signed to a one-year deal. Nate Schierholtz is a solid platoon player but he’ll have to show he can repeat 2013’s power surge (career-high 21 HR).

Rookies:
Very quickly, Chicago might have an infield logjam; the first chance at third base may go to older rookie Mike Olt, who was primed for a big 2013 with Texas but contracted vision problems and wound up scuffling all year in AAA, eventually getting traded as part of the Matt Garza deal. He could be a power-hitting third basemen, but his window of opportunity is very short. That is because much better prospects are waiting for their chance, headlined by Javier Baez, currently a shortstop (but blocked by Castro). Baez has some of the best power in the minors, blasting 37 HR last year and 20 SB to boot. He’s an incredibly aggressive hitter (167 strikeouts last year) so Chicago may want him to learn how to be more patient in AA or AAA to avoid having him become another Pedro Alvarez, but if Baez is hitting and the Cubs are bad he may force their hand. Another third basemen, Christian Villanueva, has a good glove and potential 15-20 HR power, and he will start the year in AAA.

The most likely hitter to debut for the Cubs is infielder Arismendy Alcantara, a 20/20 threat who could immediately supplant Darwin Barney at second base. He has a solid approach at the plate as well (62 walks and a .352 OBP last year in AA).

Key Questions:
Who gets promoted and when?
Where do all the pieces fit? The above-mentioned players may all be ready but it will be tricky to place them all and give them playing time in Chicago. And how dose Chicago determine where each newcomer is best positioned?
Who plays in the outfield?  Right now their depth chart is quite thin, with also-rans like Ryan Sweeney and Justin Ruggiano projected for increased playing time.
Is Junior Lake their best outfielder? That’s a scary thought.
Who gets traded this year?
Are there any pitchers Chicago can call up later this season?
Can Anthony Rizzo develop into a stronger offensive threat?

Farm System Overview: BLUE (elite) 
An army of infielders are waiting to make a difference in Chicago. But in addition to those mentioned above, there are also quite a few outfielders who project as potential all-stars making their way through the system right now, topped by back-to-back first round picks Al Almora and Khris Bryant. Finally, Chicago also has some pitching to match their incredible array of minor league power bats. CJ Edwards was acquired in the Matt Garza deal and had a 1.86 ERA in 116 IP last year. Several other pitchers acquired in trades—Arodys Vizcaino, Kyle Hendricks and Neil Ramirez—also look like potential starters down the road.

2014 Prognosis: Rebuilding 
Although their situation was never as dire, the Cubs have taken a similar approach to the Astros over the past few years, cycling through some veterans and flipping them for prospects, while spending money in the draft on early picks (the result of their prior losing seasons). Progress at the major league level has been slow, but things could change in a hurry. But not in time for them to be a playoff threat this season.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Milwaukee Brewers
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview:
Three years ago Milwaukee went all-in to acquire Zach Greinke and Shawn Marcum, and last year they find out how far you can fall when you run out of prospects and/or pitching. The Brewers go the whole year without a first basemen and the late signing of Kyle Lohse can’t mask a thin and uninspiring pitching corps. The Brewers thought they had something more, but almost all of their young back-end starter candidates hit the wall as AAAA batting practice fodder. Remember when Mike Fiers was a nice story?

Winter Grade: C 
Coming: Matt Garza, Mark Reynolds
Going: Norichika Aoki, Corey Hart
Milwaukee is sort of stuck in a holding pattern until they discover for good that this roster doesn’t have what it takes. Under those circumstances, signing Matt Garza was a pricey addition but all he cost was money, as under the new CBA rules no player traded midseason is subject to draft pick compensation. However, Milwaukee was better off trying to retain longtime Brewer Corey Hart; they spent the winter fruitlessly searching for a first basemen, from Ike Davis to James Loney. Their inability to find anything better than Mark Reynolds and (yuck!) Lyle Overbay is extremely uncreative but also speaks to their lack of prospect depth; Milwaukee could not afford to give up even a mid-range pitching prospect for any of the available hitters on the market (Ike Davis, Logan Morrison, et al). Trading Aoki for a relief pitcher (Will Smith) was also a head-scratcher; they will miss his presence atop the lineup.

Wild Card(s): 
A trio of hitters who made their debut in 2013—Khris Davis, Scooter Gennett and Caleb Gindl—could potentially serve full-time roles this year. Davis is the most likely to maintain some semblance of his 2013 production (.279/.353/.596 slash line in 56 games) based on his track record, but he’s also 26 and a poor defender. Gennett showed unexpected power last year (.479 slugging) but his minor league track record predicts more of a utility profile; ditto Gindl.

Pitcher Wily Peralta was a much better pitcher in the second half of last year, with a 3.99 ERA after the all-star break and a higher strikeout rate. He has a good fastball and some potential secondary pitches, so it would not be too unexpected for him to take another step forward in 2014.

Key Contract Years: 

Rickie Weeks and Yovani Gallardo both have options that are unlikely to be picked up. Aramis Ramirez, however, has an intriguing mutual option for $14 million, which is basically the equivalent of a qualifying offer. Considering his age and production last year, it’s about a 50/50 proposition that both sides agree to those terms.

Rookies: 
Nobody very interesting. Righty Jimmy Nelson had a so-so year in AAA last year, and made his debut last September. He struck out a bunch of guys (163 in 156 IP) but without better command, Nelson is more likely a no. 4 starter at best or a power arm out of the bullpen. First basemen Hunter Morris belted 24 Home Runs in AAA but hit just .247 without many walks, which is why someone like Mark Reynolds is the opening day starter in Milwaukee, not him. It’s possible Morris gets some playing time if/when things go back.

Key Questions:
What happens if the Brewers get off to a bad start?
How long does management wait?
Will the Brewers avoid being stuck in also-ran status the way the Astros were several years ago?
Who gets more playing time at second base, Scooter Gennett or Rickie Weeks?
Is Tyler Thornburg a starter or reliever?
What are the Brewers going to do with Ryan Braun?
If he hits again, will fans and management embrace him or will they use that to extract more in a trade and give him a ‘fresh start’ somewhere?

Farm System Overview: BLACK (one of the worst) 
The Brewers have traded away talent, drafted poorly, and given away picks by signing free agents. They also haven’t spent much on the international market. The result is a system with no depth and no impact prospects. Their best prospect is either a likely bullpen arm (Nelson) or 19-year-old outfielder Tyrone Taylor, who could be a league average player after hitting .274/.338/.400 in low-A ball last year. If the Brewers are lucky, there are a handful of role players in the system who can come up and have a career, like Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett did last year.

2014 Prognosis: Unlikely Contenders

The Brewers are not really a threat to make the playoffs; their roster as is cannot compete with the Cardinals or Reds and they don’t have any depth either. However, they can’t really be classified as ‘rebuilding’ with stars like Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez still on the roster. Ideally, management allows Doug Melvin to bite the bullet and restock the farm system a little by trading away some guys like Ramirez or pitcher Yovani Gallardo, but it will be a hard sell, especially if Milwaukee is hovering around .500 most of the year. That said, this is not really a young .500 team, and so every year they don’t recycle some younger talent they are going to slide further into irrelevance. This looks like a team staring down a precipice.

Friday, March 21, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Season Overview: 

Finally! Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke are gone but 22 years later the Pirates make it back into the playoffs. In matchups against division rivals, the Pirates beat out the Reds for the wild card berth but lose to the Cardinals in five games. Andrew McCutchen wins the MVP and Francisco Liriano has his umpteenth rebound season, winning 16 games in just 26 starts. Overall Pittsburgh fans have a lot to feel good about going forward.

Winter Grade C-
Coming: Edinson Volquez
Going: AJ Burnett, Garrett Jones, Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau
Losing Burnett is the only big hurt here; Jones’ one-dimensional power was diminishing and the other two guys were acquired in late August. A quiet winter in Pittsburgh serves as a reminder of the tight payroll constraints GM Neal Huntington is working under. The problem with losing Burnett is not just replacing his stellar pitching—the Pirates have plenty on hand, and should expect a full season out of former no. 1 pick Gerritt Cole—but rather the questionable decision not to offer him a qualifying offer (1 year, $14.1 million). The Pirates wrongly assumed he was picking between retirement or re-signing, and so perhaps didn’t put out the qualifying offer as a matter of good faith. But by the time Burnett decided to play in 2014, he ended up signing with the Phillies, and now Pittsburgh has no compensation for losing him. This is a missed opportunity for a team that will have to recoup draft picks from free agents who are too expensive to keep. Also, it would have made more sense for them to pursue a handful of more reliable players; there’s a solid chance Liriano and Starling Marte, among others, do not maintain their production. Instead, Pittsburgh goes with the iffy proposition that for the third year in a row they can turn a struggling power arm into something useful (Volquez).

Wild Card(s): 
Veteran Wandy Rodriguez is 35 and recovering from a forearm injury, but a mid-rotation lefty would definitely look good behind Gerritt Cole and Liriano next year; Rodriguez has a solid 3.66 ERA in 25 starts for the Pirates between 2012-2013. He’s quietly been one of the more reliable lefties in the league over the past seven years, posting ERAs between 3.02 and 3.76 over that time span.

Another overlooked arm Pittsburgh is hoping breaks out next year is Charlie Morton, who put up a stellar 3.26 ERA in 20 starts last year and was signed to a modest contract extension. He hasn’t been all that great overall (4.70 career ERA) and he’s already 30 but he showed real improvements last year, getting batters to strike out and hit weak ground balls more than at any point prior. Even if he pitches to just his “FIP” (fielding independent pitching, a measure of runs allowed based on walks, strikeouts and home runs) of 3.60, it would make Pittsburgh’s rotation very formidable.

Key Contract Years: 
Russell Martin provides solid defense and a little pop behind the plate; Pittsburgh got lucky that they signed him for just a team-friendly deal and they might have to use 2014 to groom Tony Sanchez to be his successor. Lefties Francisco Liriano and Wandy Rodriguez are also free agents after this year, the former too pricey, the latter too old, for Pittsburgh’s tastes. By then they might have enough homegrown pitching on hand that it won’t matter.

Rookies: 
Gregory Polanco is one of the best outfield prospects in the game, but he probably won’t be up until midseason at the earliest, having played only 68 games to date above A-ball and in need of honing his power stroke and batting eye. More likely to make an impact this year are pitchers Jameson Taillon, a former first-round pick who made major improvements striking out batters last year in AA, and Nick Kingham, who has weaker stuff but stronger numbers at the same level. Also, catcher Tony Sanchez hit an impressive .288/.368/.504 in AAA and he’ll turn 26 later this year so his future is now.

Key Questions: 
Who plays first base?
Is Gabby Sanchez and a left-handed platoon partner good enough to last the year?
Can Starling Marte remain a star-level offensive player despite an overly aggressive approach at the plate?
His 25/138 BB/K ratio is pretty ridiculous, but so is his athleticism. Did Pittsburgh ‘fix’ Liriano or was last year just the latest in an unpredictable, up-and-down career for the left-hander?
Who gets the bulk of the playing time at short, defense-only hacker Clint Barmes or surprise contributor Jordy Mercer?
And does that label stick this year?
Can Gerritt Cole step up and duplicate AJ Burnett’s performance from last year?

Farm System Overview: BLUE (elite)
Pittsburgh has drafted early and often, and drafted well. Both of their first round picks from 2013, OFer Austin Meadows and C Reese McGuire, had big debuts in short-season ball, and there’s lots of power arms from Latin America in the lower levels of the system. A bit closer to the majors, Gregory Polanco could be even better than Starling Marte, and Alan Hanson might give Pittsburgh a young shortstop who can get on base at a clip above .250. In fact, he might even be able to become a real asset. Expensive bonuses given out to draftees pre-2012 means that there’s also lots of star-level upside scattered among the levels. Look for a breakout year from outfielder Josh Bell, who Pittsburgh nabbed for $5 million in 2011, the most ever given to a player outside the first round (he’ll play for high-A Bradenton this year).

2014 Prognosis: Possible Contenders
It is highly unlikely that Pittsburgh collapses. However, other teams like the Nationals and Giants did more to improve themselves over the winter and there will be strong competition for both wild card spots. I like Cincinnati’s chances to repeat better, because Pittsburgh has a lot of moving parts; players who will probably regress, rookies whose production is an open question mark and players with health or performance issues that they are counting on a little too hard this year, like Volquez or first baseman Gabby Sanchez. Last year, Pittsburgh got a little lucky both with performances and even their record was about 5-6 wins above what was projected based on their runs scored/runs allowed. They might need to have a consolidation year this season, finding some more stars to complement Andrew McCutchen. Maybe that’s Gerritt Cole, maybe that’s Gregory Polanco. Who knows, maybe this year Pedro Alvarez finally becomes more than lumbering strikeout machine? They’ll compete, but right now they ‘feel’ like 85-win also rans in 2014.

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Cincinnati Reds

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Cincinnati Reds
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview: 
A quick playoff exit puts a damper on another strong year from Joey Votto and the Reds, their third 90+ win season in four. Votto drives in just 73 runs because he and newcomer Sin-Soo Choo are too busy drawing walks; the duo are one-two in the league in OBP, and Brandon Phillips is the happy beneficiary, driving in 103 despite 18 HR and a sub-.400 Slugging Percentage. It took a longtime, but Cincinnati has finally found a stable core of pitchers who thrive despite the home-run friendly nature of Great American Ballpark. It’s too bad that Dusty Baker and Bronson Arroyo won’t be around for more fun and games.

Winter Grade: B-
Coming: ????????????
Going: Sin-Soo Choo, Bronson Arroyo, Ryan Hanigan
In the wake of their loss to the Pirates, Reds management expressed extreme frustration, singling out Baker and Brandon Phillips as sub-par clubhouse influences. Although they lost Choo and weren’t able to deal Phillips, the secret was that Cincinnati’s roster was and still is well primed for at least several more years of success, and the worst thing they could have done is tamper with the formula. It might have been disappointing for Reds fans that Skip Schumaker and Manny Parra were the biggest names Cincinnati brought on board, but this was the best way for them to ensure success for the team, barring an unexpected opportunity. Cincinnati’s roster is in a unique place, as they are positioned to break in young stars next year—Billy Hamilton, Tony Cingrani—but didn’t really have the prospect depth to make a major splash. They were better off savingbullets for midseason reinforcements; left field and shortstop appear to be likely spots for a later upgrade. Choo will be replaced by Hamilton who is an instant threat to lead the league in stolen bases, and Bronson Arroyo’s departure allows Cingrani to move into the rotation full-time after a very solid debut in 2013.

Wild Card(s): 

Three years ago, Devin Mesoraco was a top catching prospect, but he has languished behind Ryan Hanigan, receiving fluctuating playing time and struggling to play up to his potential. The guy who hit .302 with 26 HR in 2010 (minors) is still only 26, but he hasn’t come close to being a productive hitter in the majors yet, batting just .225 with 16 HR and a tepid .359 Slugging Percentage over a full season’s worth of at-bats in his career. Trading Hanigan was a signal that Cincinnati is finally ready to completely commit to Mesoraco, and in a good hitter’s environment, something like .270 with 15-20 HR isn’t out of the question. He is more likely to breakout than fellow homegrown Reds Todd Frazier (3b) and Zach Cozart (ss).
Key Contract Years: Ryan Ludwick maybe? He was hurt almost all of last year but maybe the big righty has another 20+ HR season in him. Homer Bailey was almost a free agent…but Cincinnati locked him up on a rather optimistic 6-year deal. So he’ll be a Red for a long time.

Rookies: 
Billy Hamilton is ready to rock your world in center field. There are legitimate questions about his hitting ability, and if he can’t keep pitchers honest then he will have a hard time getting on base. But despite a disappointing year in AAA, Hamilton doesn’t just have game changing speed; he has the kind of speed that could cause a shift in baseball as a whole back towards triple-digit base stealers, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Rickey Henderson or Vince Coleman (Jose Reyes has the post-millennial single-season record with 78). Hamilton could hit .250 and still steal 80 bases; that’s what he did last year, and the year before he set the all-time minor league record with 155. There is a small chance Hamilton never hits enough to be more than a fourth-outfielder/pinch-runner, but for now the likely outcome is he becomes a star in the leadoff spot.

Key Questions:
Who gets on base after Votto now that Choo is gone?
Will Frazier, Cozart or Mesoraco post a .300+ OBP?
What is the status of Ryan Ludwick or Chris Heisey in left field?
Will Brandon Phillips’ standing with Cincinnati’s upper management be a distraction this year?
Who will close out games in Aroldis Chapman’s immediate absence (he is likely out until early June with a scary ball-to-the-head injury this week)?

Farm System Overview: RED (below average) 

No pun intended. Cincinnati’s system is thin behind Billy Hamilton and future ace Robert Stephenson. Last year’s top pick, outfielder Phillip Ervin, had a nice debut, but 2012 first-rounder Nick Travieso (rhp) was a disappointment. The Reds are very light on position player prospects, and their best pitchers in the upper minors look more like bullpen arms than future starters, unless former top prospect Dan Corcino bounces back. Some interesting names taken in the 2013 draft could make for midseason trade fodder if they transition well to full-season ball.

2014 Prognosis: Likely Contenders
There’s too much talent locked in here to dismiss them, even after a quiet winter. Joey Votto is still the best first basemen in the league and Cincinnati’s army of power arms in the rotation makes them contenders as long as nobody gets injured. But despite Dusty Baker’s reputation as an arm-shredder, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Mat Latos seem relatively durable (unfortunately the same cannot be said for Johnny Cueto). It’s a top heavy roster, but not an old one, and megadeals mean that Votto, Jay Bruce and Bailey are the core of the Reds for the better part of the next decade. That’s probably a good thing.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Breaking Down the Bracket

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Breaking Down the Bracket
By Wild on Sports Analyst Jason Gillson

It's here! March Madness is finally here! Tuesday night kicked off the 2014 NCAA Tournament with Albany and NC State winning play in games and the rights to get their socks knocked off by the big dogs in the opening round. With that in play lets take a look at each region and the favorites to cut down the nets in Texas.

South Region
Memphis, Tennessee
Favorite: Florida
Contenders: Kansas, Syracuse
Dark Horse: UCLA
Florida is the top team in the land going into the tournament and will open things up as the the odds on favorite and #1 seed in the South. Their first victim is likely to be last night's play in winner Albany. While they are unlikely to lose too much sweat in that one, there are a few teams that could give them a run for their money in the later rounds. Their chief competition will come from #2 Kansas - a projected #1 for much of the season but faded a bit down the stretch. Kansas will be without Joel Embiid for the first weekend. If they can survive that and get him back somewhat healthy, they have a chance. Also in the mix will be #3 Syracuse. Cuse was the #1 country in the land for a few weeks back in January but have run into some tough times over the last few weeks. Their sharp shooters that were leading the way have gone cold. If Tyler Ennis and company can get things going again they can be dangerous. One team to keep an eye on is #4 seed UCLA. The Bruins won the Pac-12 beating fellow tournament teams Oregon, Stanford and then #1 Arizona along the way. They have the momentum to catch some teams off guard.
Odds of Winning Title:
Florida 5:1
Kansas 10:1
Syracuse 18:1
UCLA 45:1

East Region
New York, NY
Favorites: Virginia, Michigan St.
Contender: Iowa St.
Dark Horse: North Carolina
Michigan St a #4 seed? Wow, tough break for top seed Virginia. Realistically, there are three teams in this Region that could  have a shot at the final four - #1 Virginia, #3 Iowa St and #4 Michigan St. Virgina comes in as ACC Champion, really surprising those who had them pegged for the middle of the pack in that conference pre-season. They have shown that they can tango with the big boys -- knocking off Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina and Pittsburgh twice. The name of the game is defense and in a division known for scoring they gave up a league low 55.3 points per game. If they can find ways to shut down more talented offensive teams, they have a good chance. Their primary competition will come from Michigan St. The Spartans were a pre-season #1 but were bitten pretty hard early on by the injury bug. They are finally healthy and a team many experts think will be playing in New York in a few Weeks. One of the most intriguing teams in this region in Iowa St. Iowa St is one of those teams that if you don't show up to play, they will just run you out of the gym. They are a high flying, dynamic team that knocked off the likes of Kansas, Kansas St. and Baylor to take home the Big-12 title. Don't sleep on #6 North Carolina. Roy Williams team has had its ups and downs this season but are very talented and have shown they can win big games (Duke, Louisville). They aren't the same team they were a few years ago, but hey, its UNC!
Odds of Winning Title:
Michigan St. 11:2
Virginia 18:1
Villanova 35:1
Iowa St. 40:1
North Carolina: 50:1

West Region
Anaheim, CA
Favorite: Arizona
Contender: Wisconsin
Dark Horses: Oklahoma St., Nebraska
Perhaps the weakest of the four regions this year, is led by season long front runner Arizona. The Wildcats rattled of 21 straight to start the season and held the #1 ranking in the land for a considerable time early on. A couple of bad losses knocked that from that perch but this is still a team that has as good a chance as any to be in New York for the final four. They are stingy on defense and have enough weapons offensively to spread opponents very thin. The region holds two teams that are completely dependent on their star player to get the job done to have a chance in Doug McDermott at Creighton and Marcus Smart at Oklahoma St. Both will be first round NBA picks and both can single-handedly change a game. Unfortunately, they don;t have the supporting cast needed against the big dogs. That said, in a region that really just has one elite team in Arizona, a lucky break here or two could produce the Cinderella story of this year's tournament. Keep an eye on #11 Nebraska. The Cornhuskers have knocked off both Michigan State and Wisconsin over the last month of the season.
Odds of Winning the Title:
Arizona 8:1
Wisconsin 20:1
Creighton 35:1
Oklahoma St 60:1

Mid-West Region
Indianapolis, IN
Favorite: None
Contenders: Duke, Michigan, Louisville
Dark Horses: Witicha St., Kentucky
Hard to call a #1 seed a dark horse, but in reality that is what they are. In all due respect to Wichita St, they are undefeated and all, but who have they beat? We will find out early if team is for real as a likely second round match-up with Kentucky looms. For the sake of NCAA Basketball and the small conferences, I hope they make a deep run. The reality is that I just don't see it. The depth of this region will make it fun. Any one of Duke, Michigan, Louisville or even Kentucky could come out of this bracket. Michigan is probably the most complete team, Duke has the best player in Jabari Parker and Louisville has the experience and the depth. Anyone have a four sided coin to flip?
Odds of Winning the Title:
Louisville 8:1
Wichita St 15:1
Duke: 18:1
Michigan 30:1
 


MLB 2014 Team Preview: St. Louis Cardinals

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: St. Louis Cardinals
By Wild on Sports Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview: 
The best team in the NL, and it wasn’t a surprise. The Cardinals lead the league in runs scored, and reliable veteran mainstays like Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Adam Wainwright headline the assault. But amazingly, the Cardinals win the pennant amidst a season that is in many ways a year about turnover to a new crop of talented redbirds. Rookies Shelby Miller, Matt Adams and Trevor Rosenthal make significant contributions, and Matt Carpenter transforms into a star at second base in his first year of everyday play. There is more to come from an organization that is a model for developing talent.

Winter Grade: B+
Coming: Jhonny Peralta, Peter Bourjos
Going: Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Edward Mujica, Jake Westbrook (retired)
The Cardinals address their biggest need by spending big on shortstop Peralta, despite his association with the Biogenesis scandal. Losing Carlos Beltran may hurt if outfielder Oscar Taveras is not ready to start the season, but it didn’t make sense for a team in the NL to sign Beltran to a three-year contract. Acquiring defense whiz Bourjos is a nice bit of fine-tuning for a team that, after Peralta, is really just tinkering at the margins and making sure nobody gets in the way of the next round of rookie sensations (Taveras, Kolton Wong, et al).

Wild Card(s): 
Bourjos had a big year in 2011, hitting .271 with gap power (11 triples!), 22 SB and strong defense, but since then had been buried on Los Angeles’ depth chart, ineffective and/or injured. With the Cardinals, he has a chance to re-establish himself as an everyday player and he’s still just 27 years old this year. Could better coaching turn Bourjos into a more potent stolen base threat? He has upside along the lines of an Angel Pagan-type performer.

Key Contract Years: Nobody

Rookies: 
Oscar Taveras may be a future batting champion and he is going to be a full-time outfielder in St. Louis by late May this year. He’ll hit for power too, but some patience may be required as he shakes off rust from last year, when he only played in 46 games for AAA-Memphis. Kolten Wong is set to provide solid but unspectacular production at second base, having hit .303/.369/.466 with 20 SB alongside Taveras at Memphis last year. On the pitching side, Carlos Martinez might beat out Joe Kelly for the final spot in rotation, and the flame-throwing righty put up an impressive 2.51 ERA in AAA last year. He has tremendous upside and could duplicate Shelby Miller’s stellar rookie campaign.

Key Questions: 
Can Jamie Garcia be effective despite admitting that he’s pitching through pain right now?
How does St. Louis juggle roles for Martinez, Joe Kelly and Garcia in the back of the rotation?
Is the bullpen too thin after letting John Axford and Ed Mujica leave as free agents?
Will there be full playing time for both Allen Craig and Matt Adams once Taveras comes up for good?
Does one of them become trade bait, and for what?

Farm System Overview: GREEN (above average) 
Most of the top-tier talent is about to reach the majors; Taveras, Wong and Martinez are St. Louis’ top prospects. Right now the system does not boast quite the depth it has in past years, much of which has to do with successful player promotions. However, there is depth in athletic outfielders (Steve Piscotty, James Ramsey) and last year St. Louis drafted two promising left-handers in the first round, Marco Gonzales and Rob Kaminsky.

2014 Prognosis: Strong Contenders
Don’t bet against the Cardinals after quiet winters in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Beltran may be gone but St. Louis may reach dynastic status with their ability to churn out multiple impact rookies year after year. Right now it doesn’t look like there are any holes in the lineup or rotation; elite production can be expected from Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Wainwright. This is another pennant-winning formula.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

NHL Power Rankings - March 18

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NHL Power Rankings
March 18, 2014

This is now our third NHL Power Rankings since the trade frenzy was kicked off a couple of weeks ago. It has been no coincidence that the most aggressive team at the deadline has reaped the rewards and thus found themselves on top of our rankings for a third straight week. The Blues are 6-0-1 since acquiring Ryan Miller and Steve Ott from Buffalo. The team is playing with supreme confidence which has translated to a nice climb in the conference standings. Checking in at #2 this week are the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks are coming off a nice little six game winning streak of their own and find themselves tied with the fading Anaheim Ducks (#4) for the top spot in the Pacific. Jumping up a couple of spots to #3 this week is the the hottest team in the NHL in the Boston Bruins. The Bruins have won nine straight and find themselves in a familiar position on top of the Eastern Conference. Despite being badly banged up on defense, they are getting some great help from young talent including rookie of the year candidate Torey Krug. If the youngsters can continue to hold strong, expect the Bruins to be playing in June yet again. Wrapping up our top five this week are the Colorado Avalanche. Patrick Roy's Aves refuse to go away in the West and are playing their way into the the mix for home ice going into the playoffs.

Where does your team rank this week?


Rank
Last Week
1 St. Louis Blues 1
2 San Jose Sharks 2
3 Boston Bruins 5
4 Anaheim Ducks 4
5 Colorado Avalanche 6
6 Chicago  Blackhawks 3
7 Los Angeles Kings 7
8 Pittsburgh Penguins 8
9 Columbus Blue Jackets 15
10 Philadelphia Flyers 11
11 Minnesota Wild 10
12 Toronto Maple Leafs 12
13 Montreal Canadiens 14
14 New York Rangers 9
15 Dallas Stars 13
16 Tampa Bay Lightning 18
17 Phoenix Coyotes 19
18 Washington Capitals 17
19 Detroit Red Wings 16
20 Vancouver  Canucks 22
21 New Jersey Devils 20
22 Nashville Predators 24
23 Winnipeg Jets 23
24 Ottawa Senators 21
25 Calgary Flames 27
26 Carolina Hurricanes 25
27 Edmonton Oilers 26
28 New York Islanders 30
29 Florida Panthers 28
30 Buffalo Sabers 29

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