• Five potential breakout players to watch in 2013

    With April rapidly approaching, America’s pastime is almost upon us. Unfortunately, this could be a rough year for Texas baseball. The Astros are on the verge of another 50-win season, as they are welcomed to the AL West and the Rangers will fight for one of the top two spots in the division with youthful Oakland, the up-and-coming Mariners and the lavish Angels.
    Though, this doesn’t mean we still can’t look forward to another memorable season. At the end of the season, it is always intriguing to take a look at the breakout seasons certain players had, especially when those player began the year as sleepesr or relatively unknowns.

    Here are five players I predict will have breakout seasons in 2013:

    Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs:
    Last year, Rizzo was called up to the majors after tearing it up in Triple-A, hitting 23 homeruns and batting .342. Then, in 87 games with the Cubs, he hit .285 with 15 home runs and 48 RBIs. Chicago padded its lineup a bit this offseason with the additions of Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston, and this should only improve Rizzo’s production by giving him more opportunities. Only 23, the first baseman has a great capacity for improvement. Don’t be surprised if Rizzo posts a .280, 30-plus home run and 100 RBI line this year for the Cubbies.

    Yoenis Cespedes, LF, Oakland Athletics
    The Oakland Athletics’ signing of Cespedes was a big headline during last year’s offseason, but when the leftfielder got off to a slow start in his first MLB season, us fickle sports fans almost seemed to forget about him. He finished last year batting .292, with 23 home runs, and 82 RBIs in 129 games. I fully expect Cespedes to start at least 140 games this year, and after making the adjustment to MLB pitching, I expect a 30-plus homerun season and a possible all-star selection. While I see his batting average dipping a bit, I also see a noticeable increase in power, giving Oakland a potent one-two punch with Josh Reddick.

    Matt Moore, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
    In his first full MLB season, Moore exceeded expectations. While finishing with a 11-11 record doesn’t seem that impressive, his 3.81 ERA and 175 strikeouts show that he has great stuff. He averaged close to nine K’s per nine innings and held opposing hitters to a .238 clip. He does need to improve his control some, as he finished 7th in the AL in walks, but he will need to be a central part of the Rays' season if they wish to make another postseason run. Don’t expect Clayton Kershaw-like numbers just yet, but he owns a devastating changeup and an overpowering fastball that can get up to 98 on the gun.

    David Freese, 3B, St. Louis Cardinals
    Baseball fans will not soon forget Freese’s 2011 World Series heroics, especially during the legendary game six. While Freese did get voted to his first All-Star game last year, I can’t help but see his numbers as underachieving for a player of his talent. My view of his production lies in his power numbers and run production. From what I saw in the 2011 postseason, Freese has the potential to be a 30-plus homerun third baseman. Unfortunately for Freese, a loaded Cardinal lineup takes some production away from him. I don’t see the Cardinals lineup producing the way it did last year, and should Craig, Beltran, Hollida, or Molina go down with an injury, expect Freese to be the guy to pick up the slack.

    Mike Minor, LHP, Atlanta Braves
    Last year, after the month of June, Minor held an ERA greater than 6.00. He was 3-6 and struggling to challenge hitters. But after an outing against the Yankees, in which he went 7 1/3 innings and only allowed one run, it was smooth sailing. Minor finished the season with an 11-10 record and a 4.12 ERA, including a 2.16 ERA after the All-Star break. If he can continue where he left off in 2012, Minor should be one of the centerpieces of the Braves' rotation for years to come. Perhaps Medlen-Minor will develop shades of Maddux-Glavine.

  • Pacific Division grades one-third of the way through the season

    Year in and year out, the Pacific Division is in the conversation as the NHL’s most competitive one. Nothing has changed this season. After the first third of the lockout-shortened season, here are the Pacific Division report cards.

    Anaheim Ducks (12-2-1)
    This is a legitimate four-line team that has gotten off to its best-ever start. Teemu Selanne looks like he’s having a 15-year flashback, the young stars (Perry, Palmieri, Ryan) continue to develop and it has all been backed by the elite tending of Swedish sensation Viktor Fasth. That’s a heck of a combination. Add in one of the best coaches in the business, Bruce Boudreau, at the helm of this thing and then we’re really talking. Not sure if they can keep this up all season in a grinder of a division, but so far they are definite contenders.
    Grade: A

    Dallas Stars (8-7-1)
    It’s been up and down so far. Great wins at Detroit and Vancouver make an 0-2-0 record against Calgary an absolute head-scratcher. They are living on the edge for sure: they have six one-goal wins, and also five one-goal losses. Once they get all of their top six forwards and star tender Kari Lehtonen healthy, they’ll make a big run towards the playoffs. The Stars possess the best minor league affiliate team, and have a bank full of talented prospects they can call upon. When at full-strength and playing well, they are a playoff-caliber team. Not quite Stanley Cup caliber yet.
    Grade: B

    Los Angeles Kings (6-6-2)
    The Stanley Cup hangover is slowly passing, but I’m convinced they won’t repeat. In the ultra-tough pacific division, they’ll be lucky to make the playoffs. They have depth and grit across the board, but their greatest asset is still goalie Jonathan Quick. He won the cup last year for the Kings almost by himself. Right now, though, he’s nowhere near that level, and neither is his team. They are the weak link of the pacific so far, but expect them to make a late-season run as usual. But this year it won’t quite be enough.
    Grade: C+ (on their way to a B- if they can stay hangover-free for the next few games)

    Phoenix Coyotes (8-6-2)
    If Mike Smith started out this season like he played in last year’s playoffs, Phoenix could be right up there with Anaheim. The offense is middle of the pack, but they have scoring depth after their top line (Hanzal, Vermette, Doan, Korpikoski). The defense has been respectable, ranking 13th in the league. But with this team it all comes down to Mike Smith’s play between the pipes. He was their unquestioned leader in last year’s postseason run. I see this team finishing ahead of LA, but in a fight with Dallas to be the division’s third playoff team.
    Grade: B (An eyelash better than Dallas right now, courtesy of the Stars’ no-shows against Calgary)

    San Jose Sharks (8-4-3)
    After a blazing 7-0-0 start, the Sharks have been the ultimate feast-or-famine team so far. Their offense took a nose dive to 22nd in the league – that’s ridiculous for a team with as much offensive talent as it has. Antti Niemi has been possibly the division’s best goaltender, which has kept them in second place for a couple of weeks in spite of their fall. But this team is a sleeping giant that is one or two quality wins away from regaining its form. They’ll be in the playoffs. The real question is when will they finally get over the hump?
    Grade: B (Slightly ahead of Phoenix and Dallas)

  • Northern Trust wrapped up in thrilling playoff fashion last week, Arizona snow stalls play this week

    The golfing world witnessed a repeat this past weekend at the Northern Trust Open.

    Unfortunately for Bill Haas, though, he wasn’t a repeat champion of tournament held at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Rather, for the second year in a row, the Northern Trust Open ended in a playoff. For having a different leader at the end of each round, it was suiting that there were multiple candidates vying for the top spot going into the final holes of the tournament. Heading into the final round the leader, the defending champion Haas, struggled as he limped to the finish line with a 2-over par score of 73. He ended the tournament tied for third with an overall 10-under par. It was Sweden’s Fredrik Jacobson playing in the final grouping with UCLA alumni John Merrick, who teed off from the 18th with the tournament on the line. Charlie Beljan, who made a clutch 17-foot birdie putt on the 18th to make it a three-way tie, looked on from the practice putting green. Both golfers needed to par for a chance to win in a playoff. Merrick did just that, getting it in in four strokes. Jacobson, however, missed a crucial five-foot par putt to bogey the hole and drop him to third place in the tourney.

    It was down to just Beljan and Merrick to see who would emerge victorious on a beautiful February Sunday afternoon. For the first playoff hole, the two replayed the 18th hole, with both golfers making par. That would then take the two to the par 4 10th hole for the second playoff hole. Both golfers again reached the green without incident. Merrick was able to two-putt for a par on the hole. This would put the spotlight on Beljan, who needed to sink a four-foot putt for par and to force a third playoff hole. Beljan’s putt would miss, just to the left of the cup, giving Merrick his first career PGA Tour victory.

    Rankings:

    This past weekend changed up the top of the rankings just a bit. Brandt Snedeker, who was sitting out the tournament due to a rib injury, remained at the top spot with 1,282 points. Phil Mickelson traded spots with Brian Gay, who was unable to even make the cut this past weekend. Mickelson sits at 2nd, 678 points behind Snedeker for a total of 604. Gay is at third with 582 points, 700 behind the leader. John Merrick discovered the value of winning, as his victory helped him jump 96 spots to 4th place, with 565 points. This moved Dustin Johnson, who also failed to make the cut, to 5th place with 516 points.

    Current: Accenture Match Play Championship

    The March Madness bracket-style tournament got under way Wednesday, with 21 of the 32 matches getting through at least one hole before unexpected snow graced the Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz. The snow forced play to be frozen or suspended. The furthest advanced matches had Sergio Garcia leading Thongchai Jaidee by two strokes after 15 holes, Matt Kuchar up three on Hiroyuki Fujita after 14 holes and Ian Poulter by three over Stephen Gallacher.