Monday, September 29, 2014

Week 4 Recap: Notre Dame 31, Syracuse 15

Notre Dame improved to 4-0 with a sloppy 31-15 win over Syracuse last Saturday night. The Fighting Irish overcame five turnovers and actually won pretty handily despite all of the miscues. The fact that Notre Dame was able to still win by 16 points after committing five turnovers speaks volumes for how much more talent the Irish were and how well they executed their offensive and defensive game plans. If the Irish didn’t turn the ball over multiple times, then this score would have been a much bigger margin of victory.

The obvious negative to the game offensively were the careless mistakes that resulted in the five turnovers. Everett Golson was responsible for four of those turnovers by throwing two interceptions and fumbling twice. Both interceptions were poor decisions and throws, while one fumble was due to carrying the ball too loosely and the other was a botched attempt at spiking the ball. I’ll give Golson a break on the fumble while attempting to spike the ball because it was a fluky play, but the other three turnovers need to be corrected before Stanford comes to South Bend this Saturday. Hopefully, Golson and the Irish got their turnovers out of the way and will be more careful going forward.

Other than the turnovers, the Irish moved the ball tremendously well against the Orange. Notre Dame racked up 523 yards of total offense, with 362 yards passing and 161 yards rushing. The Orange tried to blitz Golson all night, so Brian Kelly called numerous screens and short passes that led to Golson completing 25 consecutive passes at one point, and 32 of 39 passes overall. Golson connected on four touchdowns to Will Fuller (2), Corey Robinson, and Torii Hunter Jr. Both Fuller and Robinson had huge nights with 119 yards and 91 yards respectively, and it was nice to see Torii Hunter Jr. get involved in the offense after returning from an injury. The play of the game was probably a 72-yard touchdown strike from Golson to Fuller on a play action pass. Golson hit Fuller in-stride and gave the Irish a 14-0 lead. The long touchdown was the first play of the drive immediately following an 11-play, 95-yard touchdown drive earlier in the second quarter. After a sluggish start, the Irish would maintain at least a two-score lead throughout the rest of the night. While the passing game was clicking, the rushing attack was just okay. Notre Dame did manage to gain 161 yards on 41 carries, but there weren’t many big holes opened up to result in big gains. Greg Bryant lead the way with 55 yards, but the only rushing attempt to exceed 15 yards was a 22-yard scamper by Golson that resulted in a fumble. I give Brian Kelly credit for committing to the run and having a balanced attack (41 runs, 39 passes), but Notre Dame still needs to work on the running game if they want to win some bigger games later in the year. Overall, it was a good night for the Irish offensively, but there are certainly areas in which they can improve.

Considering that Syracuse had a plus-four turnover margin, it is pretty impressive that Notre Dame only gave up 15 points. Then when you take into account that six of those points came from a pick-six, the Irish defense only allowed nine points despite being put in some bad situations by the Notre Dame offense.  I thought Notre Dame did a great job slowing down Syracuse’s running game by holding the Orange to 135 yards on 30 carries. If you take out a 42 yard run by Riley Dixon, then the Orange only averaged 3.2 yards per carry. Notre Dame also did an outstanding job making sure that quarterback Terrel Hunt wouldn’t kill them with his legs. Hunt had just 26 yards on seven carries after coming off of a 156 yard performance the previous week. Notre Dame did allow Hunt to throw for 294 yards on 38 passing attempts, but most of that production was due in large part to Notre Dame having a big lead that forced Syracuse to throw more often than they would like. Once again, Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt led the defense with nine and seven tackles respectively. Sheldon Day also had a good night with two tackles for loss and five total tackles. Matthias Farley added five tackles and came away with the lone turnover for the Irish with an interception in the third quarter that would set up a touchdown drive to give the Irish a commanding 21-3 lead. Notre Dame’s defense played well for the fourth straight week and they have allowed just 11.5 points per game this season. That number is good for the fourth best scoring defense in the nation, which is impressive given how inexperienced the defense is as a whole. However, there is still room for improvement because Notre Dame hasn’t played a great offense yet, so we’ll see how they respond versus tougher opponents as the season progresses.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, September 26, 2014

Week 4 Preview: Notre Dame vs. Syracuse

Notre Dame (3-0, 8th ranked) will play their third primetime game of the season tomorrow night when the Fighting Irish travel to East Rutherford, New Jersey to take on the Syracuse Orange (2-1) at MetLife Stadium. Notre Dame is coming off their first bye week and should be much healthier than they were when they last left the field against Purdue on September 13th. On the other hand, Syracuse will be looking to have a bounce-back performance after a disappointing 34-20 loss to Maryland last Saturday.  How will the Irish fare in their first official ACC contest under the new agreement?

Notre Dame has had a good start to the season offensively, and they will look to continue that success tomorrow night. The Irish have averaged 36.3 points in their first three games, but they will get their best test in the early season against a Syracuse defense that has allowed just 21.0 points per game. Syracuse has thrived at stopping the run by allowing opponents to rush for only 104.3 yards per game, good for 26th best in the country. I know Notre Dame really wants to get their ground game going, but this might not be the best week for that to happen. I expect Brian Kelly to try to establish a running game early on to see if they have any advantages in the trenches. As a result of the early season struggles, Notre Dame has made four changes to the offensive line unit. Matt Hegarty will start at center while Connor Hanratty has been removed from the starting left guard spot. As a result, former center Nick Martin will shift to occupy the vacant position. Christian Lombard and Steve Elmer will swap positions with Lombard moving to right tackle and Elmer to right guard. In the end, the only player retaining the same position will be Ronnie Stanley at left tackle. Brian Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand believe this will help give the Irish a bigger push up front, especially by having arguably their two best linemen (Stanley and Martin) handling the left side of the line.

Despite the issues up front, Everett Golson has played at an elite level through the first three games. Golson has accounted for 11 touchdowns, but more importantly no turnovers. Golson should be able to throw against the Orange who rank 53rd in the country with 220.7 passing yards allowed per game, but he will be without Amir Carlisle. Carlisle sprained his MCL against Purdue, so C.J. Prosise and a now healthy Torii Hunter Jr. will be asked to fill in. Prosise has flashed some explosiveness in the past, most notably a 53-yard touchdown in the opener versus Rice, but Hunter has yet to see the field after battling injuries since arriving at Notre Dame. Brian Kelly says that Hunter looks great in practice, so I’m excited to see what the once high-profile recruit has to offer. I think Notre Dame has too many weapons in the passing game for Syracuse to handle, so look for Golson and company to excel once again.

I’d be lying if I said I knew a lot about Syracuse offensively, but I do know that Notre Dame will have their hands full with quarterback Terrel Hunt. The senior only has only completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 488 yards and one touchdown, but Hunt is most dangerous with his legs. Hunt has rushed for 273 yards and five touchdowns on 39 attempts, with 156 yards coming last week. Notre Dame will have to be disciplined enough on the edge to keep Hunt between the tackles to allow Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith to make the tackle. Notre Dame’s front four will need to get a big enough push to ensure that Schmidt and Smith remained unblocked as much as possible. If Hunt is able to get wide running lanes and break through the first level, then it could be a long day for the Irish defense. The good news is that Notre Dame’s defense has done a great job early on dealing with mobile quarterbacks and potent rushing attacks by allowing just 99 yards a game. That 19th ranked rush defense is due in large part to Notre Dame establishing some bigger leads causing teams to abandon the run, but there is no doubt that this Irish defense is one of the fastest and most athletic units they have had in a while. If Syracuse wants to win this game they will need to run the ball consistently all game long. Hunt is not a great passer and I expect defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to dial up plenty of blitzes and different coverage schemes to confuse Hunt all night long.

Notre Dame might start off rusty after the bye week, but I expect the Irish to win comfortably after they establish a lead and force Syracuse into throwing the ball more than they would like.

Prediction: Notre Dame 34, Syracuse 17

Twitter: @etichel07

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Week 3 Recap: Notre Dame 30, Purdue 14

The Shamrock Series didn’t go quite as planned last Saturday night, but Notre Dame pulled away with a “comfortable” 30-14 win over Purdue. The Boilermakers gave the Fighting Irish all they could handle for nearly three quarters, and actually held a 14-10 lead over Notre Dame with 3 minutes remaining in the first half. However, the Irish responded with an 8-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a 15-yard scramble for a touchdown by Everett Golson to give Notre Dame a 17-14 lead going into halftime. From that point on, Notre Dame would take control and add a touchdown and two field goals to put the Boilermakers away.

Notre Dame was good, but not great on offense which allowed Purdue to stay in the game longer than expected. The Irish moved the ball fairly well in the first half, but a missed field goal, a stalled drive that ended in a field goal, and a fumble in their own territory kept the score close. For the second week in a row, Notre Dame struggled to run the ball as well as they would like, forcing Everett Golson to carry the load offensively. Golson accounted for all three touchdowns (one rushing) and threw for 259 yards on the night. The Irish had 139 yards rushing on 38 attempts, but Golson was also their leading rusher with 56 yards. Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, and Greg Bryant combined for only 83 yards on 24 carries, good for just 3.46 yards per carry. I thought Notre Dame would be able to run the ball with relative ease against Purdue, so Saturday’s effort is a bit discouraging. Part of the struggles may have been due to 5th-year senior Christian Lombard missing the game due to injury, but hopefully the Irish will be able to work out their kinks with the offensive line during their bye week. Other than Golson’s performance, the most encouraging thing that came from the offense was the continued emergence of Will Fuller. Fuller led the Irish with six receptions for 51 yards and one touchdown. Fuller has been Golson’s favorite target through three games with 19 catches for225 yards and three scores. Somebody needed to step up with DaVaris Daniels suspended and T.J. Jones graduated, so it is nice to see Fuller break out in a big way.

The Irish played pretty well defensively, but they really turned it on in the second half. Purdue gained 290 yards on offense, but they were held scoreless in the second half due to two interceptions, three points, and a turnover on downs. Notre Dame’s success was due in large part to their suffocating run defense. Purdue was held to just 56 yards on 26 attempts, leaving quarterback Danny Etling vulnerable to sacks and turnovers due to pressure as the game progressed. In fact, the Notre Dame defense was so tough that the Boilermakers failed to reach the red zone in the second half. The defensive standouts of the game were Romeo Okwara, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, and Devin Butler. Okwara led the Irish with 11 tackles and made his presence felt by combining for a sack and forcing a fumble. Smith accounted for nine tackles, a sack, and another tackle for loss. Schmidt tallied 8 tackles on the evening and also put an exclamation point on the victory by intercepting a pass with 1:46 remaining in the game. Butler’s interception with 8:19 remaining all but sealed the game and the sophomore also chipped in with four solo tackles. Overall, it was another good performance by a young Irish defense that should only get better as the season continues.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, September 12, 2014

Week 3 Preview: Notre Dame vs. Purdue

The sixth annual installment of the Shamrock Series will get underway tomorrow night when the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (2-0, 11th ranked) take on the Purdue Boilermakers (1-1) from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. While this game is at a “neutral” field, this is technically a home game for the Irish and the crowd will heavily be in their favor. However, no matter where the game is being played, Notre Dame would be substantial favorites over a struggling Purdue program.

Offensively, Notre Dame should be able to continue the success that they have had during the first two games of the year. Purdue has allowed 72 combined points versus Western Michigan and Central Michigan, so it would be safe to assume that the Irish will score a lot as well. If Purdue has any chance of making this a close game, it will be because Notre Dame lets them hang around too long. To avoid that and any possible hangover after the Michigan win, I expect Brian Kelly to be very aggressive early on. I would like to see the Irish come out throwing the football early and often while taking shots deep down the field. Notre Dame has a plethora of wide receivers to choose from, and I’m sure that Kelly will try to involve as many as he can against a seemingly weaker opponent. Once the Irish build up a nice lead, then it will be time for the running attack to put the game away. It would not surprise me to see Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston, and Cam McDaniel all reaching double digits in carries as Notre Dame should have the game in hand early in the second half.

It is hard to imagine that Notre Dame can play any better defensively than they did last week, but Purdue’s offense is certainly not as explosive as Michigan’s. In fact, it is still unclear who will be under center for the Boilermakers. Sophomore’s Danny Etling and Austin Appleby will both likely see playing time tomorrow night, but Etling is expected to get the bulk of the snaps. Etling has completed just 51.4 percent of his passes for 307 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions after two weeks, but he did rush for 53 yards on ten carries last week. Despite who is at quarterback, the Irish defense should be just fine if they play like they have the first two weeks. With several freshmen seeing more action last week, this defense should only get better as the season progress. This week will be a perfect opportunity for the younger players to gain more playing time and valuable experience before the Irish start to play better opponents.

This one might be close for a quarter at most, but the Irish should roll easily.

Prediction: Notre Dame 45, Purdue 13

Twitter: @etichel07

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Week 2 Recap: Notre Dame 31, Michigan 0

The final scheduled installment of the Notre Dame versus Michigan rivalry left Irish fans happy as their team defeated the Wolverines 31-0 last Saturday night. The game was close early on, but the Irish pulled away in the second quarter, and dominated the rest of the game. It was the first time in the storied series that Notre Dame shutout Michigan, and it was the first time that the Wolverines were blanked by any opponent in 30 years. As much as I have enjoyed the many nail-bitters between these two programs throughout the years, Saturday night felt incredible after last year’s outcome. It saddens me that this rivalry will be on hiatus, but I’m glad it ended the way that it did.

Notre Dame didn’t quite have the night I expected offensively, but they certainly were productive and efficient enough for a victory. The Irish gained 280 yards of total offense, with 226 coming through the air. As you can tell, Notre Dame couldn’t get anything going in the running game with just 54 yards on 31 attempts, but the commitment to the running game helped open up the passing game. Everett Golson looked sharp once again by completing 23 of his 34 passing attempts and three touchdowns. Seven different Irish players had a reception, with Will Fuller (9) and Amir Carlisle (7) leading the way. Fuller led the Irish with 89 yards on the night, highlighted by a 24-yard touchdown before halftime, while Carlisle accounted for two touchdowns and 61 yards. Overall, it was a nice performance for the offense that benefitted from great field position all night long.

As good as the offense was, Notre Dame’s defense was the story on Saturday night. I already mentioned the significance of the shutout, but how they did it was even more inspiring. The Irish defense forced four turnovers and never allowed the Michigan offense to reach the red zone, not even once! Notre Dame was able to slow down the Michigan’s rushing attack by holding the Wolverine’s to 100 yards on 35 carries. An average of 2.9 yards per carry forced the Wolverine’s into 2nd long and 3rd and long situations where Devin Gardner struggled. Because of that, Notre Dame was able to get pressure on Gardner and force him to make some costly errors. Gardner was responsible for all four turnovers and was sacked three times on the evening. Leading the charge defensively, were Jaylon Smith (10 tackles), Elijah Shumate (10 tackles), and Joe Schmidt (7 tackles). Smith was all over the place and continues to impress with his speed and athleticism, Schmidt forced a fumble with a big hit on Gardner, and Shumate had the interception as time expired to cap off the victory. Cody Riggs and Max Redfield also picked off Gardner in the second half, to add to an impressive night by the secondary. Freshman linebacker Kolin Hill had a breakout performance with 1.5 sacks and demonstrated an ability to rush the passer from the edge, something that the Irish are missing with Prince Shembo now gone. Overall, it was a surprising and remarkable performance by a young and inexperienced Notre Dame defense. This game should do wonders for their confidence going forward, and I’m excited to watch them develop throughout the season. If Saturday night is any indication of how good they can be, then the 2014 season looks very promising!

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Week 2: Notre Dame vs. Michigan

Tonight is a big one! Later this evening, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame will host the Michigan Wolverines for the final scheduled meeting. While I do believe this historic series will resume in the future, bragging rights are on the line for now. Both teams are coming off of lopsided wins against inferior opponents, so tonight’s tilt will be a challenge for both programs.

For Notre Dame to win, they’ll have to score early and often. Everett Golson looked spectacular in his return versus Rice, but now he’ll have to prove it against better competition. In 2012, Golson was yanked in the first half after a poor performance versus the Wolverines, but he matured later in that season and now looks like a different player. I expect Golson to play extremely well with all the talent around him. Notre Dame’s depth at receiver is probably the best it has been under Brian Kelly, and it showed last week. Golson has plenty of speedy, lengthy, and physical options to throw to, so it is just question of which one will make plays this week. Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant, and Cam McDaniel all have different running styles, so it will be hard for Michigan to stop all three of them. We’re still waiting for Greg Bryant to have a breakout game, and tonight it might be the night. I like how he is fearless with the ball in his hands and I really feel he is going to be playmaker this season. Overall, Notre Dame should have no problem offensively.

While Notre Dame will likely find the end zone several times, Michigan should have success offensively as well. Last year, Devin Gardner lit up an experienced Irish defense, and he should have no problem doing the same this season against an inexperienced secondary. Gardner’s biggest weapon will be Devin Funchess. Funchess is coming off of a three touchdown performance last week, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds the end zone three more times tonight. The Irish don’t have anyone in the defensive backfield that can matchup with Funchess and his 6’5, 230 pound body. If Notre Dame has any hopes of slowing down Funchess, then safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate must play much better than they did last weekend. They seemed confused on some of their coverage schemes throughout the afternoon. If that happens again, it will be a long night for the Irish.  One advantage that Notre Dame might have on defense is their defensive line versus Michigan’s young offensive line. Sheldon Day and Andrew Trumbetti looked good last week, so hopefully they can get a pass rush on Gardner and force some bad throws. If Gardner tries to run, linebacker Jaylon Smith should be able to stop him in his tracks with his elite speed and athleticism.

This rivalry has provided many exciting games, and I expect the same thing tonight. It will be a shootout, but I think Everett Golson is ready to for this game and the Irish will pull it out at home.

Prediction: Notre Dame 45, Michigan 38

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Week 1 Recap: Notre Dame 48, Rice 17

The season opener for Notre Dame could not have gone any better when the Fighting Irish defeated the Rice Owls 48-17 yesterday afternoon. The biggest story entering this contest was the return of Everett Golson, and the redshirt junior delivered in a big way. Golson and the Irish started off a bit slow, but the offense was clicking on cylinders after they settled in. Golson accounted for five total touchdowns on the afternoon by throwing for two scores and adding three more on the ground. Golson was able avoid a few sacks and extended several plays with his legs that resulted in either touchdowns or big gains. Golson’s mobility was most noticeable in the red zone where he was able to run the ball in the end zone when a couple of plays broke down. Golson’s presence will likely do wonders to improve Notre Dame’s red efficiency this season. In all, Golson completed 14 of his 22 passes for 295 yards and added another 41 yards on the ground. I think it is safe to say that any doubts about Golson’s ability to lead this offense are no longer an issue.

While Golson was the star of the game, he was also aided by his supporting cast. Yesterday was a prime example of just how deep the Irish are at their offensive skill positions. Greg Bryant (71 yards), Tarean Folston (71 yards), and Cam McDaniel (40 yards) split the ball carrying duties quite well by combining for 182 yards on 28 carries. At 6.5 yards per carry, the Notre Dame offense was able to do whatever they wanted against the Owls defense. The most encouraging sign of Golson big day through the air was how he was able to spread the ball around to several receivers. Seven Irish players caught a pass on Saturday, with five players hauling in a reception of 25 yards or more. Those type of big plays have been missing for the Irish in recent years, so hopefully that will continue and happen consistently throughout the year. Obviously, the Irish will face tougher defenses later this season, but this offense should be able to move the ball and put up some points against just about every team in the country. For the first team since Brian Kelly has arrived, he finally has the quarterback situation and an abundance of skill players to run his offense effectively. If Saturday is any indication of what the rest of the season will look like, then 2014 season will be very exciting to watch offensively.

Although the offense had a field day, the defense showed some weaknesses against the Owls offense. Prior to game, the Irish got some bad news with starting safety Austin Collinsworth who injured his MCL on Thursday. Collinsworth was unable to play Saturday and he is expected to miss two to four more weeks. Hopefully, his absence will be shorter than four weeks because the Irish secondary could use him. Rice was able to connect on two long touchdown passes, with Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield looking lost on the first score when Zach Wright ran directly through the middle of the Irish secondary. If Notre Dame wants to beat Michigan next week, the secondary will have to communicate better and sure up those mistakes. Outside of that, the Irish defense played fairly well. They were able to create two turnovers and they didn’t allow too much success on the ground. The most surprising aspect of the defense was Joe Schmidt’s performance. The senior linebacker made eight tackles on the day, and showed a lot of skill for a former walk-on. I was not expecting Schmidt to be a huge contributor this season, so hopefully there will be more games like yesterday.

Last, but certainly not least, it appears that the Irish might finally have a punt return game! Florida transfer Cody Riggs had two returns of 24 and 25 yards, while Greg Bryant added 31 yards on his three returns. Those 80 yards helped give the offense excellent field position and provided a spark in an area that has lacked excitement for several season now. Let’s see if that type of production is sustainable throughout the season.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

White Sox Waiver Deals

With the waiver trade deadline approaching tonight, the Chicago White Sox have already made three waiver deals to date.  Second baseman Gordon Beckham was moved to the Los Angeles Angels ten days ago for a player to be named later. Yesterday, outfielder Alejandro De Aza was dealt to the Baltimore Orioles for minor league pitchers Miguel Chalas and Mark Blackmar. And today, designated hitter Adam Dunn was shipped to the Oakland Athletics for pitching prospect Nolan Sanburn. Since all three players were struggling offensively this season and none were in the long-term plan for general manager Rick Hahn, all three trades made sense for the future of the club.

In return, the White Sox will receive four low-end prospects, with Sanburn being probably the most intriguing player. Sanburn is a right-handed relief pitcher and was ranked as the 12th best prospect in the Oakland organization by Sanburn has fanned 73 batters in 71.1 innings while owning a 3.28 ERA in High-A ball. While it is always nice to stock-pile pitching prospects for a team that desperately needs bullpen help in the future, these deals were more about clearing roster space and saving a little money.

These three moves have already allowed for infielder Carlos Sanchez and first baseman Andy Wilkins to be called up, and several more additions will likely follow in September. Along with Sanchez and Wilkins, look for players like Marcus Semien and Jarrod Mitchell to see increased playing time at second base and left field respectively. During the final four weeks, it will be interesting to see if any of the young players step up and excel with their opportunities. The White Sox sure would prefer to fill those three positions from within the organization going forward, but they will also have some money to spend in the offseason if needed with plenty of salaries coming off the books in 2015.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, August 29, 2014

Week 1: Notre Dame vs. Rice

The 2014 regular season gets underway tomorrow afternoon for Notre Dame as the Fighting Irish welcome the Rice Owls to South Bend, Indiana. Despite a rather low-profile opponent, this home opener carries several storylines.

This will be the first game played on the new FieldTurf surface that was installed during the season at Notre Dame Stadium. I realize that some fans are upset with the change, but it needed to be made. The playing surface had become an absolute joke, and there was no reason to continue to play in those conditions. The new turf will allow for better footing, sharper cuts, less falling, and lessen the chance of knee injuries.

Everett Golson returns as quarterback and will be making his first start since the BCS Championship game on January 7th, 2013. Golson beat out Malik Zaire to earn his starting spot back this offseason, and he should give the offense a much needed boost with his ability to expand plays with his legs and make throws from outside the pocket.

Of course, the biggest news is the current investigation regarding the possible academic fraud of several key players. Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, defensive back KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams, linebacker Kendall Moore, and defensive back Eilar Hardy are all suspended indefinitely. With all five players out for at least this Saturday, younger players will have to step up and play a lot earlier than expected.

With that being said, the 2014 season figures to be another exciting year of football for the Irish. I expect the offense to be one of the more explosive attacks in the nation, while the defense will likely face some major growing pains. The Irish lack depth with their front-seven on defense, and will have to improve quickly and avoid injuries if they want to be a successful unit. With a brutal schedule looming that feature games against Florida State, USC, Stanford, Michigan, Arizona State, and North Carolina among others, the Irish will have a difficult time reaching double digits in wins. I think nine wins is definitely doable, and it would be a very successful season. If the defense matures quicker than expected, than Notre Dame could reach or even surpass ten wins.

But first, what will happen on Saturday?

Much of the focus tomorrow afternoon will be on Everett Golson. It will be interesting to see how he plays, and I would expect to see some rust early on. With Brian Kelly now calling plays again, I would imagine that Kelly wants to get Golson involved early and often. I expect to see Golson involved with the running game early on and moved outside the pocket to alleviate any nerves or pressure that he may have Saturday. Also, don’t be surprised if Kelly dials up a few deep balls early to Chris Brown or Corey Robinson try to make a quick strike. However, once the game settles into the second quarter, the Irish rushing attack should see a lot of work. Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant, and Cam McDaniel should give the Irish one of the more potent running games in the country. With a big offensive line creating holes for them, the Rice defense will likely have a tough time slowing down the trio of talented rushers. As long as Notre Dame avoids turning the ball over, the Irish should put up a ton of points against a weaker defense.

While the offense seems to be the strong point for the Irish, the defense is big question mark. With many veterans no longer with the program and two key starters suspended, the Irish are very inexperienced defensively. Obviously, the talent is there, but it remains to be seen how they will play as a unit. Linebacker Jaylon Smith has moved from the outside to the inside this season and will be the leader of the defense. Defensive coordinator Brain Van Gorder has stated that he will be moving Smith all over the field to utilize his speed and skills in different situations. I’m excited to see what Smith can do this season, and he has the potential to be one of the best defensive players in the nation despite only being a sophomore. Smith and the rest of the Irish defense will be tested by the Owls’ quarterback Driphus Jackson. Jackson has only seen limited action in his first two seasons, but he has the ability give defenses trouble with his legs. Notre Dame’s young defense will have to show discipline and contain Jackson to avoid any big plays. If Notre Dame can keep Jackson in the pocket, then the defense should be able to keep the Owls in-check. I don’t think the Rice will be able to line up and run right at the Irish, so it will take extended plays and creativity for the Owls to score enough points.

This one might be close early on, but the Irish should win comfortably.

Prediction: Notre Dame 41, Rice 17

Twitter: @etichel07

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What the Academic Fraud Scandal Means for Notre Dame

With the regular season just two weeks away, Notre Dame’s football team suffered a huge blow when it was announced last Friday that four players were suspended indefinitely while being investigated for academic fraud. After a few days have gone by and the rumors have died down, it is time to assess what this means for Notre Dame going forward on and off the field.

Early reports stated that wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams, and linebacker Kendall Moore were all dismissed from the team for the entire 2014 season due to academic fraud. While it is very likely that all four players will be suspended for the entire 2014 season or even expelled from the university, it can’t be made official until the investigation has been completed. For now, Notre Dame must move on without four key contributors for the foreseeable future.

DaVaris Daniels might be the biggest name on this list, and he was also already suspended for the spring and summer due to academic probation. Daniels is Notre Dame’s best and most experienced receiver, and he and quarterback Everett Golson seemed to build some chemistry in the final games of the 2012 season. Now with Daniels gone, Chris Brown is the only receiver on the roster that has caught a pass from Golson in a regular season game. Despite the lack of experience, the Irish receiving corps seems loaded with young talent.  Last season, we caught a glimpse of what Corey Robinson, Chris Brown, Will Fuller, C.J. Prosise, and Amir Carlisle can do on the field. In addition, top recruits Justin Brent and Corey Holmes have elite talent and may be asked to contribute a lot sooner with Daniels no longer in play. There’s no doubt the loss of Daniels is big, but it appears that Notre Dame has the depth to still make plays through the air.

KeiVarae Russell is probably the biggest loss of the four players. Russell has started at corner for two seasons and has made great strides since first taking the field as a true freshman in 2012. Russell was expected to be Notre Dame’s lockdown corner and looked poised for a breakout year. In the offseason, Notre Dame added a big piece to their secondary when fifth-year senior Cody Riggs transferred from the University of Florida. Riggs was expected to be more of a nickel and dime defensive back, playing both corner and safety, but now he will take Russell’s spot. Riggs is talented enough to start at corner, but now he must master the responsibilities of his position in a short time. With Riggs moving to starting corner, sophomore Devin Butler and freshman Nick Watkins figure to see more playing time in nickel and dime sets. While both players are talented, they lack experience and will be tested against some of Notre Dame’s tougher opponents.

Ishaq Williams was once a five-star recruit, but he has yet to live up to the hype. After being blocked behind players like Darius Flemming and Prince Shembo, Williams hasn’t had a shot at a starting position. This season, Williams was expected to start a defensive end and add experience to a young unit. Even with Williams starting, the defensive end positions were a big question mark for the Irish. The middle seems stout with Sheldon Day moving to the inside along with Jarron Jones, but the Irish could struggle on the outside. True freshman Andrew Trumbetti was slated to start opposite of Williams, and now sophomore Isaac Rochell will start in-place of Williams. With two freshmen Grant Blankenship and Jay Hayes behind Rochell on the depth chart, Notre Dame is an injury away from being in serious trouble in terms of depth.

Kendall Moore is the least significant name of the group, but his loss will be felt the most in the special teams department. In addition, Moore is a fifth-year senior and is considered one of the leaders in the locker room. Notre Dame will likely be able to fill the gap with Moore on the field, but it remains to be seen how much he will be missed off the field.

Once the investigation plays out, there will likely be off the field consequences for the Irish. If proven that any of these players would have been deemed academically ineligible during anytime they played regular season games, wins might be vacated from previous seasons. Considering that all four of these players were on the team in 2012 and that there might also be past players involved, it is possible that the entire magical 2012 regular season will be wiped out of the record books. While that would be disappointing, hopefully that is where the punishment would end. It is important to note that the University of Notre Dame is conducting their own investigation and the NCAA is not involved. At this point, there is no reason to think that Notre Dame officials, coaches, or personnel were involved in the scandal and have done nothing to try to cover up the situation. Given that, there shouldn’t be any reason to reduce future scholarships or put the football program on postseason probation. Obviously, there is always a chance that could happen, but hopefully the players and coaches won’t have to suffer in the future for what some players did in the past.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Sunday, August 17, 2014

White Sox: Five Things to Watch in Final Whites

With the Chicago White Sox nearly ten games out of first place in the American League Central Division and only six weeks left in the regular season, there is not a lot to be excited about as a White Sox fan. However, there are several things to watch for as the 2014 season winds down.

Waiver Trades

Although the White Sox failed to make any moves prior to the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, players can still be dealt through waivers for two more weeks. While it seems unlikely that any big deal would be consummated, there is a possibility that general manager Rick Hahn could deal a player or two to a contending team hoping to make a push towards the playoffs.

Avisail Garcia’s Return

To the surprise of many, right fielder Avisail Garcia returned to the lineup Saturday night. Garcia suffered torn labrum in his left shoulder diving for a ball on April 9th. After undergoing surgery, it was assumed that Garcia would miss the remainder of the season, and be ready to go in the spring of 2015. Now after missing the last four months, Garcia will have six weeks to face major league pitching and continue his developmental process. The fact that Garcia was immediately inserted into the cleanup spot speaks volumes of how much potential the 23-year-old possesses.

Paul Konerko’s Final Games

Paul Konerko’s outstanding career is coming to an end, and I’m looking forward to seeing him play as much as possible during the final six weeks. Hopefully, Konerko will play a little bit more often during home games to give fans a chance to give him a proper farewell. Knowing that the next time Konerko hits a home run could be his last one is a bittersweet thought. For 16 years Konerko has been the face of the White Sox and will forever be remembered for his dramatic grand-slam in Game Two of the 2005 World Series. I think I can speak for all White Sox fans that Paulie will be dearly missed.

Potential September Call-ups

As always, MLB rosters will be expanded in September allowing for minor league players to continue playing after their season’s are finished. It’ll be interesting to see who gets called up in September, but the most intriguing names are Carlos Rodon, Micah Johnson, and Andy Wilkins.

Rodon was drafted to slide into the number two spot in the future starting rotation behind Chris Sale, and he may get that chance as early as 2015. Rodon could be promoted in September, but I think he’d probably pitch on the bullpen if that happened. There’s no need to rush Rodon into being a starter this season, and obviously there would be less innings added onto his arm if he pitched out of the bullpen.

Micah Johnson is considered to be the second baseman of the future and will likely take over for Gordon Beckham sooner rather than later. The White Sox should try to move Beckham for whatever they can in the next two weeks or during the offseason to open up a starting spot for Johnson in 2015.

Andy Wilkins is an interesting case because he wasn’t considered a top prospect prior to the season. At 25 years old, the first baseman is not necessarily young in prospect terms, and I doubt he needs more development. At this point, Wilkins has likely maxed out his potential and it is time to find out if he can hit major league pitching. In 115 games this year at Triple-A Charlotte, Wilkins has hit .297 with 28 home runs and 77 RBI. With Jose Abreu firmly entrenched as the team’s first baseman, Wilkins may have to settle on being a designated hitter. Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko will be gone in 2015, so there is an opportunity for playing time. Considering that Wilkins is a left-handed bat, he has a great chance at getting a shot due to the lack of left-handed power in the White Sox projected roster for 2015.

Jose Abreu’s Historic Season

Jose Abreu is having a historic first season in the major leagues and will undoubtedly win the American League Rookie of the Year award. Whether or not Abreu should be considered a rookie is something that is debatable, but his season is historic either way. While Abreu played professional baseball in Cuba, the caliber of talent isn’t the same, and Abreu had to make a ton of adjustments throughout his first season in the majors. Abreu has exceeded everyone’s expectations by hitting .305 with 31 home runs and 89 RBI. Despite missing two weeks due to injury earlier this season, Abreu still has a chance at 40 homers and 120 RBI. It should be fun to see if he can reach those marks in the final 38 games.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Monday, July 21, 2014

White Sox Trade Candidates

The Chicago White Sox are currently nine games back of the division leading Detroit Tigers, and 5.5 games back of the second wild card spot. Given where they are positioned and how the current roster is structured, the White Sox should be looking to sell some assets in the next ten days prior to the trade deadline. With that being said, it is time to look at a few trade candidates.

Alexei Ramirez

Ramirez is having one of the best years of his steady career and could be a nice addition for a contender. He is also potentially under contractual control through the 2016 season with a $10 million salary in 2015 and a $10 million team option in 2016. Ramirez’s skill set and affordable price for the next two seasons makes him a very attractive trade chip. The question is whether or not the White Sox will be willing to part ways with their all-star shortstop? With several middle infielders starting to mature in the minor leagues, it would make sense to see what type of package Ramirez could bring back. I would imagine the White Sox are looking for right handed pitching, outfielders, and a catcher. If the White Sox could get two above average prospects from those positions, I’d be in favor of moving Ramirez this season. If not, there is nothing wrong with keeping him and seeing if a deal could get done in the offseason or during next season. The White Sox figure to be in a better position to contend in 2015, and having Ramirez as your everyday shortstop wouldn’t be a bad thing. Having said that, I think the White Sox will find a contender that really wants Ramirez, and general manager Rick Hahn will pull the trigger.

Gordon Beckham

Just like most White Sox fans, I was a huge believer in Gordon Beckham upon his arrival in 2009. I thought that he was going to be a perennial all-star and a fixture in the White Sox lineup for 10-plus years. Unfortunately, Beckham has never been able to produce consistent offensive numbers which has hampered his value. Still, Beckham remains one of the best defensive players at any position, and he offers value to contending teams. The question is how much would a contender be willing to give up for Beckham? Considering that Beckham could become a free agent after the 2015 season if a contract extension isn’t worked out significantly hurts his value. Unless a team wanted to work out an extension for Beckham, I doubt any club would offer the White Sox much in return for his services. Like the Ramirez situation, the White Sox have several options waiting in the minors to replace Beckham making him expendable. The White Sox might not get much in return for Beckham, but I would trade him for whatever you can get just to clear up a roster spot. However, my feeling is that the organization still believes in Beckham and he won’t be traded in the next ten days.

John Danks

For the most part, John Danks has had a successful 2014 season. Like Sunday afternoon, Danks has run into trouble, but he’s really only had four bad starts that have skewered his season numbers. Usually, a left-handed starting pitcher that can provide consistent innings is a hot commodity at the trade deadline. Unfortunately, Danks has two things working against him. Even though Danks appears fully recovered from his shoulder surgery in August 2012, teams will still be leery of offering up anything substantial. If a team can get over the shoulder concerns, teams definitely won’t love Danks’ contract. Danks is under control through 2016, but it will cost teams a combined $28.5 million for the next two seasons. Given those two issues, I don’t think the White Sox will find a club willing to offer up enough to acquire Danks. The White Sox would probably have to eat a ton of money to get a decent prospect, and I don’t think they’ll do that. If you have been watching this season, you’ve noticed the White Sox have serious starting rotation issues after Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and John Danks, so holding onto Danks isn’t a bad thing. Of course, the salary is less than ideal for what probably is a fourth starter, but the White Sox can afford the salary hit with Sale and Quintana locked up with club-friendly contracts.

Dayan Viciedo

Dayan Viciedo has flashed tremendous potential during his time with the White Sox, but many trade rumors have surfaced this season. The earliest Viciedo can become a free agent is after the 2017 season, so having three more years of control certainly increases his trade value. I might be biased since I’ve always like Viciedo’s potential, but I’m still leaning towards holding onto him. Unless a team blows Rick Hahn away with an offer, Viciedo should stay put. The White Sox don’t have a ton of depth in the outfield, and they will have a glaring hole at designated hitter next season. With Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko gone, I’d prefer to see Viciedo shift over to DH since his defense is a liability, but having the option to play him occasionally in the outfield is a plus. Either way, the White Sox will need to replace Dunn’s power, and trading Viciedo creates another hole on the roster. With three more seasons of affordable control, I’d like to see the White Sox hold onto Viciedo a little bit longer.

I did not include Adam Dunn or Alejandro De Aza in this piece because I think it is obvious that the White Sox should deal both players for literally anything they could get in return.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, July 11, 2014

White Sox Sign Rodon; Sale Wins Final Vote

As the all-star break approaches next week, the Chicago White Sox find themselves 9.5 games back of the division leading Detroit Tigers. I know some fans might believe that the White Sox can still make a run at a wild card spot, but I don’t see it. This team lacks two starting pitchers, a catcher, an outfielder, and multiple bullpen arms. As it stands now, I’d be content with a record near .500 or close to my 78-win projection before the season. Having said that, nothing has happened to change my mind that this organization is positioning itself to compete for an extended period of time.

White Sox Sign Rodon

The White Sox and third overall selection Carlos Rodon agreed on a minor league contract this afternoon. The deal was highlighted with a $6.582 million signing bonus for the left-handed starter out of North Carolina State University. Obviously that is a lot of guaranteed money to an unproven commodity, but the key here is that Rodon can now start his path to the major leagues. If he lives up to his potential, the hefty signing bonus will be long forgotten. Rodon is expected to join Class A Winston-Salem shortly, and general manager Rick Hahn wouldn’t rule out the possibility of him reaching the majors in a bullpen role this season. If the White Sox were in contention, I’d be all for that idea, but I think it would be wise to have him stay in the minors as a starter given the club’s current scenario. Assuming Rodon can put together some quality innings this season, I see no reason why he can’t be a major contributor at the big league level next season. If everything goes well, expect to see Rodon in the rotation next June.

All-Star Representatives

White Sox ace Chris Sale won the American League final vote to join teammates Jose Abreu and Alexei Ramirez as this year’s representatives for the mid-summer classic. All three players are deserving of the honor, and I’m glad to see them recognized for different reasons.

Jose Abreu was an obvious choice after an incredible start to his major league career. Despite missing two weeks on the disabled list, Abreu is tied for the league lead with 28 home runs, 71 RBI, and an improving .287 batting average coming into tonight’s game. It is remarkable what he has been able to do coming over from Cuba, but I selfishly wish he would participate in the Home Run Derby.

Alexei Ramirez gets his first all-star nod in his seventh season, so it is nice to see him get recognized for being a solid player for so long. Ramirez’s selection was based mostly on his fast start to the season where he was hitting well-over .300 for the first two months of the season.

Chris Sale should have been on the initial roster when it was announced on Sunday night, but I had complete confidence that he would end up on the team by winning the final vote. Even though Sale missed nearly five weeks worth of starts, the lefty has been dominant when healthy. Sale is leading the league in ERA (2.08) and WHIP (0.842), and he would be right at the top in strikeouts if he had more starts under his belt.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Saturday, June 28, 2014

White Sox to Use Closer-by-Committee

Despite winning the last two games versus the Toronto Blue Jays, the current 11-game road trip for the Chicago White Sox has been one to forget. Most notably, the White Sox have found ways to blow late leads that has resulted in a change at the back of the bullpen. Ronald Belisario’s near blown save on Friday night finally forced manager Robin Ventura to make a change. I know many fans, myself included, have been clamoring for this to happen for a while, but unfortunately there are not many options to choose from on the current roster. As a result, Ventura has stated that the club will be using a closer-by-committee approach for the time being.

Since there are no obvious candidates to fill the role permanently, this decision makes the most sense. Jake Petricka bailed out Belisario on Friday night and Zach Putnam got the first crack this afternoon, but I imagine others will get a shot as well depending on matchups. Ideally, you would hope that someone emerges and takes over as the primary closer within a few weeks. If that does not happen, then the committee will be in place until Nate Jones returns from the disabled list. Currently, there is no timetable for Jones’ return, but he is reportedly progressing well from back surgery. If I had to guess, I would say that he should be back shortly after the All-star break. Since Jones was the most likely candidate to take over as closer following the departure of Addison Reed, it would be nice to have him healthy for the final two months to prove whether or not he has what it takes to pitch in the ninth inning.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Danks Tries to Avoid Sweep

The Chicago White Sox have lost the first three games of a four game set with the Minnesota Twins, and have now dropped 10 of their last 14 contests overall. The White Sox’ recent struggles are a humble reminder that they are not ready to win right now. Despite having some success and showing vast improvements from last year, this year’s team still has too many holes and has been too inconsistent to be considered serious contenders.

Danks Continues to Shine

The White Sox will send John Danks to the mound this afternoon while hoping to avoid a sweep. The left-hander has been outstanding recently after overcoming a dreadful outing in Houston on May 18th where he allowed seven earned runs on ten hits in 4.2 innings pitched. Since then, Danks has been on quite a roll with five straight quality starts and three straight victories. During that stretch, Danks has hurled 35.2 innings while surrendering just six earned runs on 24 hits, 9 walks, and 21 strikeouts. The current hot streak has lowered Danks’ ERA from 5.64 to 3.97, and it appears that he is finally back to being the pitcher that he was from 2008 to 2011 before his shoulder problems.

Flowers in a Funk

Tyler Flowers’ hot start seems like a distant memory now that the catcher has reverted back to his 2013 form. Flowers’ batting average was at .312 on May 25th, but as I noted previously, his success was due in large part to an unsustainable BABIP. Since then, Flowers has collected just four hits in 62 at-bats with a whopping 30 strikeouts and only five walks. Just as Flowers’ torrid start wasn’t going to last very long, neither will this horrific slump. However, I think it is safe to say that Flowers will never be the hitter the White Sox hoped he would become after posting a .275 average across six seasons in the minors.

Davidson Still Struggling

When the White Sox acquired Matt Davidson during the offseason, I firmly believed that he would be the starting third baseman by this point in the season.  However, after a horrible first half of the season at Triple-A Charlotte, Davidson is nowhere near ready to supplant Conor Gillaspie as the team’s starting third baseman. Davidson is hitting a mere .191, with 11 home runs and 24 RBI and the lack of contact (87 Ks in 241 Abs) is very worrisome. I still think it is far too early to label Davidson as a bust because he could turn things around in the second half of the season, but it does not look too good right now.

Rodon Remains Unsigned

Top-pick Carlos Rodon has yet to sign with the White Sox, but that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise considering that he is a Scott Boras client. The White Sox have stressed that it would be beneficial to Rodon’s career to sign sooner rather than later, but Boras and Rodon are trying to get as much guaranteed money as possible. When Rodon was drafted, there was talk about him possibly being on a ‘Chris Sale’ type path to the majors and pitching out of the bullpen this season, but I don’t think that is reasonable at this point. Unless the White Sox get on a serious roll, they won’t be contenders in September and there would be no reason to rush Rodon to the majors. More realistically, it would be nice to see Rodon sign quickly so that he can start his career in the minors and position himself to make his debut as a starting pitcher with the White Sox at some point in 2015. With rotation issues after Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and John Danks, White Sox fans can’t wait for that day to happen.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Monday, June 9, 2014

No Issues with Sale's Usage

After winning two out of three games versus the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Chicago White Sox were swept away by the Los Angeles Angels to conclude the California road trip. The White Sox now sit 4.5 games back of division leading Detroit as the Tigers come to U.S. Cellular Field tonight to begin a big four-game set.

No Issues with Sale’s Usage

Probably the biggest story to come out of Anaheim this weekend was whether or not Chris Sale should have came out to pitch the eighth inning with a 5-0 lead Saturday night. Manger Robin Ventura decided to let Sale start the eighth inning after breezing through the first seven innings while throwing just 90 pitches. As a result, Sale ended up loading the bases and giving up a game-tying grand slam to Mike Trout on a 3-2 changeup. Sale then departed the game after throwing 115 pitches, leading to many fans angrily questioning the usage of Chris Sale. Despite losing the lead, I have no issues with how Sale was used. Chris Sale is the ace of this pitching staff and arguably one of the top five starting pitchers in baseball, and I see no reason why he should have been pulled after seven innings. I understand that the White Sox had a five run lead, but keeping Sale on the mound gave the White Sox the best chance at holding onto the lead. The Angels have a potent lineup, and we have all seen the White Sox’ bullpen blow substantial leads this season. If Ventura had opted to go to the bullpen and they blow Sale’s lead, the same fans would have been clamoring to leave Sale in the game. You can’t have it both ways.

The other reason many fans were upset with sending Sale out for the eighth inning is his health. This was Sale’s fourth start since returning from the disabled list and some feel he shouldn’t be overused. I completely agree, but sending your ace out for another inning after only throwing 90 pitches is harmless. The White Sox would not have activated Sale from the disabled list three weeks ago if he was not fully healthy. Given that, there should be no restraints once his pitched count is built back up. Considering it was Sale’s fourth start, I have no problem with having him pitch 110-120 pitches every fifth day. Maybe I’m old school, but I think every starting pitcher should and could pitch 110-120 pitches every fifth day if their arm and body is conditioned to do so. If not, then they should not be in the major leagues, and they are definitely not an “ace”. I applaud Chris Sale and the White Sox for not surrendering to the fallacy of pitch counts and babying pitchers.

Semien Playing Some Outfield

Infielder Marcus Semien has started to see some time in the outfield at Triple-A Charlotte over the last few days. The White Sox would like Semien to learn left and center field to increase his versatility to the organization. This seems like a great idea to find ways to get Semien on the field whenever he makes his return to the White Sox.

Flowers and Viciedo Regress

About a month ago I examined the hot starts of Tyler Flowers, Dayan Viciedo, and Alexei Ramirez and determined that all three players would likely regress due to inflated BABIPs. Since then, Flowers has seen his average fall from .354 to .267, while Viciedo’s has dropped from .337 to .260. Alexei Ramirez is still producing at a very high level, but even his average has dipped 40 points from .356 to .316. Even though Flowers and Viciedo have come back to earth, they are both still having quality seasons. On the other hand, Ramirez looks like he is on his way to having a career year and he will likely be rewarded with a trip to the All-Star game this summer.

White Sox Draft Carlos Rodon

With the third overall selection in last Thursday’s MLB Draft, the White Sox selected starting pitcher Carlos Rodon. The left-hander is a junior at North Carolina State, and he was widely considered the best college pitching prospect in the draft. With high school standouts Brady Aiken and Tyler Kolek going first and second respectively, the White Sox had a pretty easy choice with Rodon. Rodon figures to move quickly through the White Sox farm system, and he could be in the rotation as soon as mid-2015. In addition, it would not surprise me if Rodon reaches the majors this year and pitches out of the bullpen much like how Chris Sale made his debut the year he was drafted. Obviously, draft picks are never guaranteed to pan out, but the White Sox have to be happy with the possibility of having Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Carlos Rodon as the anchors to their pitching staff for the future.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sale Dominates; Abreu Set to Return

Chris Sale was dominant once again during yesterday’s series finale victory over the San Diego Padres. Sale surrendered just one earned run and struck out nine batters during his complete game gem. The victory brought the White Sox back to .500 at 29-29, just 4.5 games behind the division leading Detroit Tigers. While it is still very early to be scoreboard watching, it is refreshing to see that the White Sox appear ready to remain competitive throughout the summer. It’ll be interesting to see where the White Sox stand in late-July as the trade deadline approaches, but I hope management does not decide to trade away the few good prospects that they have in the farm system. Even though this year’s team is vastly improved over last year’s, they still need several pieces to be legitimate contenders and I don’t think they can fill all those holes through mid-season trades. Hopefully, general manager Rick Hahn and company will stay true to the plan of reshaping this team for long-term success.

Abreu Set to Return

The White Sox hit the road tonight for six games against the two Los Angeles baseball teams. Jose Quintana gets the ball tonight versus Clayton Kershaw and Dodgers in what figures to be an entertaining pitcher’s duel. Although the mound matchup is worth watching, the real story is the return of slugger Jose Abreu. The first baseman has been activated from the disabled list prior to tonight’s game, and will reclaim his spot in the heart of the batting order. I’m excited to see the big man back on the field, and I will surely have my eyes glued to the TV set every time he steps into the box.  I would love nothing more than the see Abreu sit on Kershaw’s fastball and send the first one he sees into the seats.  Starting with tonight, Abreu’s return to the lineup could allow this offense to really take off now that the Opening Day lineup (other than Avisail Garcia) is finally healthy at the same time.

Semien Sent Down

Jose Abreu’s activation meant that somebody had to be sent down, and that person was Marcus Semien. Semien did a tremendous job filling in for Gordon Beckham and Conor Gillaspie for their respective stints on the disabled list, but unfortunately there isn’t a spot in the lineup for him. At this time, it is best for both Semien and the White Sox that he receives everyday at-bats to continue developing as a player. I am certain that this will not be the last we see of Semien, and he could regain a starting role if there is an injury or trade later this summer. Semien proved what he is capable of during the first six weeks of the season, so I’m confident he will be in the White Sox long term plans.

Danks Stays Sharp

For the better part of the season, I have been critical of John Danks’ increased walk rate and poor strikeout-to-walk ratio.  However, the lefty has turned the corner in those two departments since his start on May 7th versus the Chicago Cubs. Since then, Danks owns a 4:1 K/BB ratio with 28 strikeouts and just seven walks in his last 31.2 innings pitched. The improved ratio has resulted in quality starts in four of his last five outings. This is exactly what I wanted to see from Danks going forward and hopefully it will continue for the rest of the season. Last year Danks only walked 27 batters in 138.1 innings pitched, so there is no reason to believe that it shouldn’t continue from here on out.

MLB Draft

In case you weren’t aware, the MLB First-Year Player Draft will begin on June 5th and the White Sox have the third overall selection. I have heard several analysts state that the White Sox might be in the best position in this draft given their needs and spot in the draft order. The White Sox are expected to draft a pitcher at No. 3 overall, and many scouts believe they will take the best pitcher that is left between Carlos Rodon (LHP/NC State), Brady Aiken (LHP/HS), and Tyler Kolek (RHP/HS). All three prospects have been labeled as being the potential top pick in the draft at one point or another, so it does indeed look like the White Sox are in great shape. General manager Rick Hahn has publicly stated that he will not draft based on need, but that the top five players on his draft board are pitchers. Personally, I’d be shocked if the White Sox don’t take one from that trio of pitchers.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, May 23, 2014

Sale Returns; Lindstrom Out

Chris Sale returned to the mound last night in dominating fashion. The left-hander allowed just one runner to reach base on a single, and struck out 10 batters in his six innings of work. Sale was on a pitch count after having thrown 68 pitches in his rehab start last week, so he only threw 86 pitches while cruising through six frames. Sale looked like he was in midseason form after being out for five weeks, but the White Sox still have to be cautious. The biggest thing is to make sure Sale can stay on the mound for the rest of the season and beyond, so the White Sox will monitor how his arm and body responds after last night’s outing. As long as everything checks out fine, Sale will be toeing the rubber in five days where he will likely be limited to around 100 pitches.

State of the Rotation

Chris Sale’s return obviously helps out a beleaguered rotation that has struggled to find consistency. With Sale and Jose Quintana the White Sox have two front-end of the rotation guys, but that’s where the rest of the rotation gets troublesome. John Danks had a nice start to the season, but he was allowing too many base runners and getting out of a lot of jams to keep his ERA down. However, over the last few starts Danks has been unable to pitch over the walks, and he has been hit hard when failing behind in the count. We’ll see if Danks can correct the wildness because it is surprising considering that his walk rate is the worst of his career at 4.44 walks per nine innings. Danks’ career rate is 2.91 BB/9 and he was superb last season with a 1.76 BB/9 mark after having not pitched for a year following shoulder surgery. In my opinion, Danks is the key to this rotation. If he can be consistently above-average and solidify the third spot on the staff, then the remaining two starters will have a lot less pressure on them to succeed. With Sale’s return, Scott Carroll was sent to the bullpen, leaving Hector Noesi and Andre Rienzo as the team’s fourth and fifth starters. Ultimately, both starters are pitching for one spot because Erik Johnson will likely rejoin the rotation at some point this season. As it stands now, I’d lean slightly in favor of Rienzo as I feel he has been more consistent and he has looked better recently with an increased use of his tight slider/cutter.

Closing Situation

Closer Matt Lindstrom left Monday night’s game after coming off the mound awkwardly and injuring his left ankle.  An MRI revealed a tear in the sheath of his left ankle, and Lindstrom is scheduled to have surgery today to repair the injury. Lindstrom is expected to be out for at least three months, and his loss leaves the White Sox’ closing situation uncertain moving forward. Ronald Belisario received the first shot at closer simply because he has been the most effective reliever of late, but he has allowed five base runners and two runs while recording his first two saves. As good as Belisario has been, he is merely a short-term solution for the White Sox. With Lindstrom essentially out for the season, the White should and likely will look to find a long-term answer at closer. Daniel Webb has the arm and demeanor to close, but he has walked too many guys to be anointed closer right now. If Webb can string together some clean appearances, then he could ascend to the closer’s role in the coming weeks.  Other candidates would be Nate Jones (when he is healthy), Jake Petricka, and possibly Zach Putnam. We’ll see how this all shakes out, but expect the White Sox to eventually settle on a younger option.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Monday, May 19, 2014

Abreu DL'd, Eaton Activated, Sale Close to Return

Prior to dropping the rubber match to the lowly Houston  Astros, the Chicago White Sox announced a pair of roster moves yesterday. Leadoff man Adam Eaton was reinstated from the 15-day disabled list after recovering from a hamstring issue, while slugger Jose Abreu was shelved due to posterior tibial tendinitis in his left ankle.

Adam Eaton went 1-for-4 in his return to the lineup, and he should provide the spark that has been noticeably missing since his has been out. Unfortunately, the White Sox offense will be hampered for at least the next two weeks while Abreu tries to heal his nagging left ankle.  Like the injuries to Eaton and Chris Sale, the White Sox are taking the right approach in being cautious with their future core. Abreu clearly has been bothered by this ankle problem for the past 10 days, so it’s wise to force him to sit and get healthy.

Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko will split first base and designated hitter duties while Abreu is out. The loss of the American League leader in home runs and runs batted in is never a good thing, but at least the White Sox have Konerko to fill in for a few weeks. Abreu is scheduled to undergo an MRI on his left ankle this afternoon to make sure that the injury isn’t more severe than the initial diagnosis showed.

With Abreu being placed on the disabled list, Marcus Semien and Leury Garcia once again dodged a demotion to the minors for another two weeks. Semien has seen his at-bats significantly diminish with the returns of Gordon Beckham and Conor Gillaspie, and I am starting to think that sending him down to get regular playing time is the best option when Abreu comes back.

Sale Close to Return

Chris Sale made a rehab start on Friday for Triple-A Charlotte and the results were encouraging. Sale breezed through his four innings of work, striking out 11 hitters on 68 pitches. Sale will rejoin the White Sox in Kansas City to meet with the coaching staff and team doctors to decide on the next step. The White Sox have three options with Sale. One, Sale could make one more rehab start on Wednesday to build up his pitch count and return early next week. Two, Sale could start Wednesday in Kansas City with a pitch count limit of roughly 90 pitches. Three, Sale could throw a side session in Kansas City tomorrow or Wednesday, and then come off the disabled list this weekend against the New York Yankees. Regardless of what option the White Sox choose, Sale should be making a start in a White Sox uniform within the next week.  Sale’s return to the rotation will do the White Sox pitching staff wonders as they have struggled to find consistent starting pitching during Sale’s absence.  

Farm Report

While sifting through some of the stats for the White Sox affiliates, a few players that are critical to organization moving forward stood out the most.

Matt Davidson, Third Base, 23 years old

Of course, Matt Davidson was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Addison Reed this winter. Davidson has been labeled as the third baseman of the future, but failed to crack the Opening Day roster with Conor Gillaspie ahead of him on the depth chart. Davidson was sent to Triple-A Charlotte and has really struggled so far this season with a .198 average, four home runs, and 13 RBI. However, Davidson has shown some life during the past ten days while hitting .294 with a homer and five RBI in 34 at-bats. The problem is that Davidson continues to strikeout at an alarming rate with fourteen strikeouts in the past ten days, and a whooping 57 whiffs in 131 at-bats. Although Davidson is starting to string together some hits, he’ll have to cut down his K-rate if he is ever going to have success at the major league level. While Davidson has certainly struggled, it is not time to panic, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was starting to worry a little bit.

Micah Johnson, Second Base, 23 years old

Micah Johnson made some noise this March after a great spring training where he hit .360 with three stolen bases, but he was ultimately sent to Double-A Birmingham to develop his skills. Johnson responded by hitting .329 in 146 at-bats with three homers and 16 RBI. Johnson’s hot start earned him a promotion to Triple-A Charlotte last week and he has batted .296 during his first six games. Johnson could very well be the White Sox second baseman of the future, but he might have a hard time cracking the major league level this season before the rosters expand on September 1st. Either way, we will likely see Johnson at some point this season, and he could be in line to compete for a starting spot next spring.

Erik Johnson, Starting Pitcher, 24 years old

Erik Johnson earned a spot in the starting rotation after showing some promise during five starts last season and a solid spring training this year. Unfortunately, Johnson had a rough April and was ultimately sent down after struggling to find the strike zone. That lack of command (18:15 K:BB ratio) resulted in five inconsistent starts and a 6.46 ERA in 23.2 innings pitched.  Since being demoted, Johnson has made four starts and has shown some progress with a 3.38 ERA and a 19:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 24 innings pitched. Johnson will have to string together some more solid starts to show that he can be consistent with his delivery, but he should be back with the White Sox this summer.

Courtney Hawkins, Outfielder, 20 years old

Courtney Hawkins immediately became one of the White Sox top prospects after being drafted with the 12th overall pick in the 2012 Draft. Hawkins signed quickly and had a promising start to his professional career in 2012 with a .284 average, eight home runs, and 33 RBI in 59 games between two minor league levels. But, in 2013, Hawkins took a huge step back by hitting just .178 with 19 homers and 62 RBI in 383 at-bats. Hawkins also struck out 160 times and walked just 29 times, leading some people to no longer consider him a top-prospect. However, to the surprise of many, Hawkins has rebounded to have a solid first six weeks to the season with a .272 average, nine homers, and 34 RBI. Hawkins still has 41 strikeouts in 38 games, but that is a much better rate than 160 strikeouts in 103 games. Hawkins still has a long way to go, but at least he has put himself back into the discussion of being part of the White Sox future.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Monday, May 12, 2014

White Sox Have Decisions to Make as they Hover Around .500

The Chicago White Sox travel to Oakland to face the Athletics after winning four out of seven games this past week. At 19-20, the White Sox keep hovering right around .500 and figure to remain there for the foreseeable future. Injuries have played a big factor in limiting the success of this team, but the White Sox are hoping to get two key players back shortly.

Leadoff man and center fielder Adam Eaton is set to begin a rehab stint at Triple-A Charlotte on Wednesday. If everything goes well, Eaton is scheduled to rejoin the White Sox this Sunday versus the Houston Astros. Eaton’s injury has hampered the White Sox roster over the past ten days while only having three outfielders. When Eaton returns, the White Sox have some decisions to make with regards to their roster.

The first decision is who gets sent down when Eaton comes back? Marcus Semien and Leury Garcia avoided demotion when Conor Gillaspie returned from the disabled list last week, but I’m not sure how much longer the White Sox can operate with only three outfielders. So, one of the two infielders will likely have to go. Semien is the better player, but Garcia’s versatility might be more valuable at this time. Semien needs to get at-bats, and I don’t know if starting only against left-handed starters will be enough action to warrant him staying in the big leagues.

If the White Sox still elect to only go with three outfielders, then either Moises Sierra or even Alejandro De Aza will be designated for assignment. Some White Sox fans might be surprised if De Aza was DFA’d, but the reality is that he is a terrible outfielder, an even worse base runner, and his .194 batting average shouldn’t be enough to save his job. In addition, manager Robin Ventura hinted that changes might be in store after yesterday’s lackluster performance, and De Aza is the only starting player I could think of being in jeopardy of losing his job. On the other hand, the White Sox just acquired Moises Sierra and they reportedly see a lot of potential in him. Sierra has eight hits in his first twenty-two at-bats, including a home run yesterday, so his early production could be enough to help him stick with the White Sox when Eaton comes back on Sunday.

Sale Coming Back?

For the first time since starting pitcher Chris Sale went on the disabled list, the White Sox have disclosed a detailed plan for the lefty’s return. Sale threw a simulated game on Saturday and will now make two rehab starts before hopefully returning at the end of the month against the New York Yankees. Since Sale has already been out longer than originally expected, it makes me wonder if the injury is more serious than reported. While that is certainly a possibility, I think the White Sox are just being cautious with their “Ace”. As much as the White Sox want Sale on the mound this season, they realize that it is more important to have Sale healthy and on the mound in 2015 and beyond. Given the state of the current starting rotation, I think I can speak for all White Sox fans that we are eagerly awaiting the return of one of the best pitchers in baseball. Hopefully, he’ll remain on the mound for the final four months of the season and provide the stability that is desperately needed to the pitching staff as a whole.

Cooling off?

Last week, I examined the hot starts of Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo, and Tyler Flowers and determined that all three players would start to regress in the coming weeks. One week later and all three players have seen their batting averages drop by at least .20 points. Ramirez saw his average fall from .356 to .333, Viciedo’s average dropped from .337 to .297, and Flowers’ average dipped from .354 to .324. I’ll be interested to see where all three of these players’ averages sit at the end of May, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they are all hitting under .300 by June.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Can Ramirez, Viciedo, and Flowers Keep it Up?

Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo, and Tyler Flowers all have been fantastic through the first 30 games of the season, but can they keep it up? I seriously doubt that any of them will be batting around .350 much longer, but any .300 averages from that group would have been a reach before the season started.

Alexei Ramirez leads the American League with a .356 average and has four homers, 19 RBI, four steals, and 18 runs scored. If you do the math, that means Ramirez would be on-pace for a 20/20 season with about 100 runs and 100 RBI. Can he reach those numbers? Let’s start with the batting average. Ramirez is a career .280 hitter and will have a hard time keeping his average over .300 as the season progresses. Ramirez’s high average is due in large part to an inflated .365 batting average with balls in play (BABIP). With a career .297 BABIP, I would expect Ramirez’s average to decrease as his BABIP decreases during the season. Expect Ramirez’s average to be between .280 and .300 at the end of the year. While I don’t think the average is sustainable, I certainly believe that Ramirez can reach 20 home runs and 20 steals. Ramirez stole 30 bases last year and he shows no signs of slowing down. After only hitting a combined 15 home runs the last two seasons, 20 homers is definitely a stretch, but he’s done it before. Ramirez hit 21 homers in 2008 and 69 over his first four seasons, so I think it is doable. If not, he should finish the year with at least 15 home runs. Finally, both the RBI and runs scored totals likely won’t be approaching 100 at year’s end. With Ramirez’s batting average severely inflated, his RBI and runs scored pace will likely fall off when his average does as well. So, Alexei Ramirez won’t finish the season with a .356/100/20/100/20 stat line, but a .290/80/15/80/25 stat line is probably more realistic.

Dayan Viciedo has had a unique start to the season because White Sox fans have always seen Viciedo as a hitter with a mediocre average and good power. So far this season, Viciedo has been the complete opposite with just one home run, a .337 average, and a surprising .404 OBP. The low home run total is fluky to me, so it should rise with more at-bats and as the weather heats up. But, what about the batting average and on-base percentage? Viciedo owns a career batting average of .269 and a .314 on-base percentage. Like Ramirez, Viciedo’s high average is a result of an inflated BABIP of .390, and his average will fall once that BABIP normalizes to his career .312 clip. However, the biggest difference in Viciedo’s game is his improved patience at the dish. Viciedo has got on base via the walk eleven times and has only struck out fifteen times in 104 plate appearances. Those numbers equate to a 10.6% walk rate and a 14.4% strikeout rate, with both numbers being huge improvements over his career marks of 5.5% and 21.0% respectively. Since Viciedo has nearly doubled his walk rate and cut down on his strikeout rate by nearly one-third, that suggests he could be in store for a career year in batting average and on-base percentage. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Viciedo hit near .300 with a OBP around .340 if he can continue to walk more and cut down on his strikeouts. If he does that, the homers should also skyrocket to his 20-plus potential throughout the next five months.

Tyler Flowers’ hot start is the least likely one to continue out of the trio. Flower’s is hitting .354 and his BABIP is .560. Simply put, both of those numbers will start to plummet very soon. Flowers’ walk rate of 6.8% and strikeout rate of 35.2% are right in-line with his career percentages of 7.8% and 34.1% respectively. In other words, Flowers’ hot start is really fluky and is very unsustainable. While I don’t expect Flowers to hit .195 like he did last year, expecting anything over .250 is unrealistic. The one thing that Flowers does have going for him is that he has yet to hit for power and extra base hits by netting singles on 26 out of 29 hits. If he starts to drive the ball in the gaps and over the fence, then that should help neutralize his regression a little bit. Based on that, I think a .230 to .250 average with 15-plus home runs is a more reasonable expectation.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter @etichel07

White Sox Drop Third Straight; Eaton to DL

Following last night’s 12-5 defeat against the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago White Sox have now lost their last three games to fall to a 14-16 record. The White Sox are currently in third place in the American League Central Division, four games behind the Detroit Tigers. For a team that was supposed to be in a rebuilding year, the White Sox have been competitive, but they are still far from being a playoff team. There are plenty of issues with this team (mainly pitching), so expecting them to more than a .500 team is unrealistic at this point. The good news is that newcomers like Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton have shown what they care capable of and youngsters like Marcus Semien and Daniel Webb have flashed their potential.

Injury Report

Adam Eaton strained his right hamstring while trying to beat out double play ball and left the game after the inning. With Eaton’s left knee also still slightly bothering him, the White Sox placed him on the 15-day disabled list this afternoon. Even if Eaton is ready to go in 4 or 5 days, it is wise to force him to sit for a couple weeks to prevent a more serious injury from occurring. As good as Eaton can be, the one knock on him is his health. Eaton has had trouble staying on the field during his brief career, and his hard-nosed playing style doesn’t help matters. But, you would hate to see a player like Eaton “tone-down” his approach to the game because that’s part of what makes him an effective player. Unfortunately, this is something you just have to deal with and hope that it doesn’t occur too often.

Chris Sale won’t come off the disabled list this weekend, but he will throw a bullpen session on Monday. If everything goes well, Sale should either go on a rehab assignment later next week or be activated for a start next weekend. Obviously, the White Sox are desperately awaiting his return.

Jeff Keppinger (Double-A) and Felipe Paulino (Triple-A) are both set to being rehab assignments. As for Keppinger, I’m not really sure where he would fit on the roster, but I don’t think the White Sox will have to make a decision any time soon. Keppinger is probably going to need a few weeks worth or at-bats before he is ready to be activated. Felipe Paulino will start tonight in Charlotte, and will likely need several starts to not only show that he is healthy, but that he can be effective as well.

Nate Jones was transferred to the 60-day disabled list this afternoon. He last pitched on April 4th, so he likely will not be back until mid-June at the earliest. This is another unfortunately blow to Jones and the White Sox who expected the righty to close games this season. There is still a chance for that to happen in the second half of the year, but he’ll have a lot of work to do whenever he is fully healthy.

Bullpen Improves

Prior to last night’s contest, the White Sox bullpen has pitched quite well during the past two weeks.

After they posted a 6.12 ERA in their first 18 games, White Sox relievers have a 1.79 mark over the past 11 contests. The 1.79 ERA over that span is the lowest in the American League and helped to drop the team’s season mark to 4.83.” (courtesy of Comcast SportsNet’s Dan Hayes). 

Of course, the bullpen starts to settle down now that the starting rotation is a major issue, but it is encouraging. Once the White Sox get Chris Sale back pitching every five days, the pitching staff should at least be closer to being league average.

Danks Gets Roughed Up Again

John Danks had a rough outing last night, highlighted by a 5-run first inning. The lefty finished the night with 5 innings pitched, 10 hits, 8 runs, 3 walks, and 3 strikeouts. As I stated last week, the final two numbers of Danks’ stat line are the most troubling. Danks has now walked 20 batters while recording just 21 strikeouts in 36 innings pitched. Pitchers are simply not going to be successful when they are walking guys at a high rate and not missing bats. Danks needs to correct this issue soon, and he will have a chance to do that during his next start when he faces a Chicago Cubs team that struggles to score runs.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter @etichel07