Friday, April 18, 2014

Bullpen Struggles Continues to Haunt White Sox

The Chicago White Sox dropped the final two games of a three-game series with the Boston Red Sox to lower their record to 8-8 after 16 games. Over the past two days, White Sox fans have witnessed arguably the most boring and most exciting games of the season. Wednesday night’s 5-hour, 14 inning marathon was brutally painful to watch as the White Sox issued 15 walks on the night. Last night’s game featured one of the best pitching duels of the young season with Chris Sale and Jon Lester both carrying no hitters into the sixth inning.

What else has happened in the past week?

The most talked about issue with this team continues to be the problems in the bullpen. As mentioned, Wednesday’s performance was one to forget, but unfortunately it hasn’t been the only one. After 16 games, the White Sox bullpen owns a staggering 6.48 ERA and alarming 1.82 WHIP in 50 innings pitched. Relievers Scott Downs (10.80 ERA), Ronald Belisario (12.91 ERA), and Donnie Veal (7.50 ERA) have been the main culprits of the disastrous start. Veal has been since sent down and Zach Putnam has been recalled from the minors, so hopefully he can add something to the group. But, in order for this bullpen to be effective, Downs, Belisario, and even Matt Lindstrom need to perform better to provide veteran stability. The good news is that youngsters Daniel Webb, Jake Petricka, and Maikel Cleto have been reliable for the most part. In addition to that, Webb has emerged as the most effective option in the bullpen, and I believe it is just a matter of time before he ascends into the closer’s role. Lastly, the absence of Nate Jones has had a tremendous negative effect to the bullpen. Whether Jones is pitching in the 7th, 8th, or 9th inning, the White Sox expected him to be one of their best relievers. Robin Ventura said today that Jones’ back injury might now be worse than what they had originally thought and offered no timetable for his return. Hopefully, Jones will be back in a few weeks and he can help everyone settle into their roles. If not, this is going to continue to be a problem all year long.

After all that negative talk, it is time for some encouraging news and that comes from the performance that starting pitcher Erik Johnson delivered on Tuesday versus the Boston Red Sox. The young right-hander was brilliant during his 6.2 innings of work by allowing just one run and striking out nine batters. After two dismal efforts to start the season, Johnson’s outing was a pleasant surprise. With Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and John Danks all pitching well, the White Sox would have a formidable starting rotation if Johnson can improve on each start.

With one half of the pair of struggling hurlers finding his rhythm, the pressure is now on Felipe Paulino to follow suit. Paulino will take the mound tonight versus the Texas Rangers in Arlington, and he will have to be at the top of his game to hold a potent Rangers’ lineup intact. I have my doubts that he will be able to do so this evening, but I am not ready to write him off just yet. I would imagine the White Sox will give Paulino every chance there is to get going, and I wouldn’t expect a move to replace him for at least another month.

As good as Jose Abreu was to start the season, the first baseman is really struggling over his last several games. The Cuban slugger is in the midst of 1-for-21 slump and has seen his average fall to .213.  Even with the red-hot start, we all knew that Abreu would face some hard times as soon as pitchers figured out a weakness to his approach. Opposing pitchers have had their way with Abreu by getting him to swing and miss at low off-speed stuff. As a result, his strikeout totals have increased and obviously his production has suffered. Having said that, I fully expect Abreu to make the proper adjustments in the coming days and end this slump. In my opinion, Abreu is taking too many fastballs early in the count and falling behind, allowing pitchers to throw him junk. Since the beginning of spring training, Abreu has made a conscientious effort to work counts and see as many pitches as possible in order to learn the style of pitching in the major leagues. While that is a great approach to start with, I think Abreu needs to start being more aggressive early in the counts and drive the ball into the gaps. Let’s see if he can get back on track in the hitters’ friendly ballpark this weekend.

With Abreu facing some struggles, the White Sox offense has slowed down a bit, but the hot starts by Alexei Ramirez and Tyler Flowers have continued to this point. Ramirez is batting .381 with four home runs and 14 RBI, while Flowers is hitting at a .395 clip with a homer and six runs batted in. Having these two players at the bottom of the order has really helped the lineup turnover, and it has allowed leadoff man Adam Eaton to rack up 10 RBI in 16 games. While I don’t expect either player to continue their torrid pace, it is worth noting that Tyler Flowers really looks like a different hitter this season. Flowers talked about how he tweaked his batting stance late last year and he said he has never felt more comfortable at the dish. I’m curious to see if this is really the case, because it will be a huge for the future of this club if Flowers is an option at catcher going forward.

Lastly, Gordon Beckman appears ready to return to the club sometime next week. I’d imagine that Beckham will be reinserted as the starting second baseman, but it will be interesting to see how his return impacts the roster. Leury Garcia will likely be the odd-man out and get sent back to Triple-A Charlotte, and Marcus Semien will take over as the utility infielder. Even though Beckham will have his job back, he won’t have much room for error with Semien breathing down his neck.

-Eric Tichelbaut


Twitter: @etichel07

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Notre Dame Spring Game Recap

Notre Dame held their annual Blue-Gold spring scrimmage game yesterday afternoon which provided a glimpse of what the Fighting Irish will look like next fall. While there is plenty to talk about with what occurred on the field, the biggest news of the day was delivered by Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick when he announced that FieldTurf will be installed prior to the 2014 regular season. Swarbrick said that the process will begin after graduation in mid-May and is scheduled to be completed by August 15th. I know that there will be some Notre Dame fans that are upset over the decision based on “tradition”, but I couldn’t be any happier with the switch. For the past several years, the playing surface at Notre Dame Stadium has been an embarrassment. I had grown tired of watching players routinely slip when trying to make a cut or plant their feet. It would be one thing if Notre Dame didn’t play in a cold weather city, but since they do, having FieldTurf is a must. Honestly, there is no excuse for any major college program or professional team residing in a cold whether city to not have FieldTurf installed. They owe it to their players and fans to have the best playing surface possible. But, enough of that…now let’s focus on what happened on the field.

Obviously, the biggest point of interest yesterday was the quarterback play of both Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. Because of Golson’s suspension in 2013, Brian Kelly has stated that he would have to earn his starting job back. At the time, I thought that was just “coach-speak” and Golson was all but guaranteed to be the starter for the season opener versus Rice. Having said that, the quarterback competition might be a little closer than originally thought. While I still expect Everett Golson to ultimately be under-center this season, Malik Zaire is certainly in the discussion. As a matter of fact, Zaire actually out-performed Golson yesterday, but both quarterbacks played well.

I thought that Golson was a little bit hesitant and rusty to start the game, but he made some really nice throws on the run, as well as in the pocket. In particular, Golson’s throw on a deep route to Corey Robinson was perfectly placed. Golson threw the ball high enough and with enough arch that Robinson was the only one that had a play on the ball. That catch was one of several that Robinson made on the afternoon, and he looks like he’ll be huge mismatch for teams with his size and strength. On the other hand, Golson also had some poor throws. Most notably, Golson severely overthrew Amir Carlisle on a skinny post that would have been an easy touchdown. Carlisle had his man beat and there was no safety help in the middle of the field. Since that play came during Golson’s first drive, I think nerves and rust had a big impact on the errant throw. The biggest negative out of Golson’s performance was that he was looking to run way too soon on many occasions. Even though the defense was vanilla and didn’t blitz, Golson faced a lot of pressure and took off running whenever he was pressured. We all know that Golson can run, so it would have been nice to see him try to keep his eyes downfield and find an open receiver without the fear of getting hit. All things considered, it was a pretty impressive day for Golson. He showed his tremendous arm strength and athleticism throughout the day, and he definitely looks more mature physically and mentally.

As mentioned above, if the quarterback competition was based solely on the performance yesterday, then Malik Zaire would be the starter. Zaire started off on fire by hitting C.J. Prosise while rolling out to open the game. Later that drive, Zaire also hit Will Fuller on a deep ball, but the play could have resulted in a touchdown if it wasn’t slightly underthrown. But, the good news is that he gave Fuller a chance to make a play. I’d much rather have a quarterback underthrow a receiver as opposed to overthrowing him. The most exciting play of the game might have occurred during Zaire’s second drive when he threw a strike to Prosise on a curl route, who then proceeded to make a few nice moves and sprint to the end zone. Prosise looks like a nice fit in the slot this season, and should be able to make a lot of plays in space with DaVaris Daniels and Corey Robinson on the outside. Zaire’s second touchdown pass of the day came on a short quick slant to Amir Carlisle. Carlisle had just enough separation from the defender and Zaire threw a bullet for the score. That play was just one of several throws where Zaire showed off his strong arm. Zaire later hit Durham Smythe while rolling to his left by zipping the ball right past the defender’s arm. While watching the play develop, I thought the pass was going to either get knocked down or intercepted (by the way, Smythe looks like he’ll be the next solid option at tight end for Notre Dame). Like Golson, Zaire performed very well and has made this a legitimate competition. We’ll see what happens this summer, but it looks as though the Irish will be in good shape regardless of who is the starting quarterback.

Outside of the quarterback play, I was also interested to watch the running back situation. The Irish will primarily use a trio of backs this season with Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, and Greg Bryant all figuring to see plenty of action. The three backs all have different running styles, so the offense will be able to be diverse with their running attack. Brian Kelly has also stated that he expects the running backs to be more involved in the passing game this season, and that was evident with McDaniel and Folston each making some nice catches out of the backfield. Bryant stole the show late in the game when he broke off a 51-yard run, showcasing some great moves and lateral quickness. Bryant only had three carries last season and missed most of the year with a knee injury, but it appears he will have a much larger role this season. I’m excited to see what these three can do with the ball in their hands. With having Golson or Zaire to go along with the running backs, Notre Dame should be one of the better rushing teams in the country this season.

While it is hard to evaluate the defense in a game where they don’t blitz or hit the quarterback, there were some nice plays made. Despite not being able to blitz, I was really surprised by how much pressure the defensive line was able to get on the quarterbacks. Since they couldn’t hit the quarterback it is hard to tell how many sacks they would have had, but I counted at least three instances where the whistle should have been blown to signal a sack. Add those to the number of “sacks” they did have, and the total would have been over double digits. I’m really excited to see what the defense will look like this season. Brian Kelly has stated that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will be more aggressive with his play calling than Bob Diaco. As much as a respect the job Diaco did, the “bend but don’t break defense” was frustrating to watch at times. Of course, the defense excelled at tightening up near the red zone to limit the amount of touchdowns scored, but the defense was on the field a lot with extended drives. VanGorder’s style of play might result in the defense giving up some quicker scores due to the blitz being beat, but I expect plenty of more sacks and turnovers with the aggressive style. One thing that I do like is that VanGorder has said that Jaylon Smith will be used in various roles. Smith is without doubt the best defender the Irish have, and it makes a ton of sense to have him playing all over the place. This will allow Smith to make more impact plays by utilizing his speed and athleticism in certain situations. The last thing I would like to mention is that I was impressed with some plays in the secondary. Cole Luke, Elijah Shumate, and Max Redfield all made their presence felt by each having a spectacular pass breakup. The secondary should be vastly improved over recent years, and thus will allow the Irish to be more aggressive with their pass rushing schemes.

-Eric Tichelbaut


Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, April 11, 2014

White Sox Lose Garcia for the Season

After taking the opening contest of a four-game set with Cleveland Indians, the Chicago White Sox now sit at 5-5; tied with the Indians for second place in the division. The up-and-down season continues tonight as the White Sox look to win consecutive games for the first time since winning the first two games of the season.

It has been a week since my last update and a lot has happened on and off the field since then.

Let’s start with the bad…

The White Sox and outfielder Avisail Garcia got terrible news yesterday when a MRI revealed a torn labrum in Garcia’s left shoulder. Due to the extent of the injury that involves part of the labrum being torn off the bone, surgery is required to repair it fully. Garcia will likely undergo surgery early next week and will be out for the remainder of the season. General manager Rick Hahn indicated that the White Sox expect Garcia to be ready to go for spring training in 2015. This news is very disheartening for all parties involved, but it is not the end of the world. Garcia will be just 24 years old next season and is still a huge part of the future with the White Sox having control of him for five seasons. Assuming Garcia fully recovers from the injury, the worst part of this situation is him missing a full season of at-bats in the major leagues. The 2014 season was supposed to be big developmental year for many White Sox players and Garcia was no exception. Now because of the season-ending injury, Garcia won’t be able to progress with the rest of the building blocks this summer, and he will be season behind his projected development.

Despite the devastating news, the White Sox must move on this season. Although the Garcia injury is a major blow to his development, it should not affect the White Sox too much in 2014 in terms of wins and losses. With or without Garcia, I don’t view the White Sox as a playoff team, much less even a .500 team. To replace Garcia, the White Sox called up Jordan Danks and he figures to see some more playing time along with Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo. Between the three outfielders, I expect the White Sox offense to withstand the loss of Avisail Garcia in 2014.

Besides the injury, the White Sox have experienced some problems within their pitching staff. After two turns through the starting rotation, the left-handers have looked good, but the righties have struggled to get going. Rookie Erik Johnson and veteran Felipe Paulino have combined to allow 18 earned runs in 20 innings (It is worth noting that two of those starts came at Coors Field). I wouldn’t worry about either Johnson or Paulino just yet, but both pitchers need to start performing better. Outside of the struggles in the rotation, the bullpen has had a tough time as well. Youngsters Daniel Webb, Maikel Cleto, and Donnie Veal have pitched well, but veterans Ronald Belisario, Scott Downs, and Matt Lindstrom haven’t been impressive. Lindstrom did enjoy a nice 1-2-3 inning last night, so hopefully that is a sign of things to come. If Lindstrom doesn’t get his act together quickly, then Webb, Cleto, or Nate Jones (when healthy) will take over his duties as closer. The other two, Belisario and Downs, have been brutal (10 earned runs in 5.2 innings), but their track record suggests that they should at least be major-league average pitchers moving forward.

Now the good…

As bad as the White Sox pitching has been at times this season, the offense is on quite a roll. After ten games, the White Sox lead the American League in batting average, home runs, runs scored, on-base percentage, and on-base plus slugging percentage. I’m doubtful that the White Sox will lead all those categories even a month from now, but it is certainly a vastly improved offense over last season. Leading the offensive surge have been Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, Alexei Ramirez, and Tyler Flowers. Abreu’s start to the season couldn’t be going any better as the slugger is hitting .310 with 4 home runs and 14 RBI. This pace certainly won’t last and Abreu will likely face some slumps as pitchers begin to adjust to his swing. The key to Abreu’s success will be how quickly he is able to make his own adjustments at the plate. Eaton continues to be the igniter at the top of the order, and surprisingly has seven RBI to go along with his terrific on-base skills. Ramirez is off to the hottest start of his career with two home runs and nine RBI to go along with a .421 average, and he could be in for a career-year. If that still proves to be the case in July, then the White Sox will have an extremely valuable trade chip in Ramirez. Just as we were all ready to dismiss Tyler Flowers as an option at catcher going forward, he starts the season on an absolute tear with a .444 average, one homer, and five RBI. Despite the hot start, Flowers will have to continue to show that he has changed his approach and show some sustained success.

Injury News

Gordon Beckham had a slight setback in his rehab assignment and has been shut-down until he no longer feels pain in his oblique. The timetable is unclear at the moment, but I wouldn’t expect Beckham to be back with the White Sox until the end of the month at the earliest.

Nate Jones’ injury status has changed slightly as doctors determined that his injury is actually related to his lower back and not his hip or glute. Jones received an epidural the other day, and the White Sox are now hoping to have him back a little sooner than originally thought.

-Eric Tichelbaut


Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, April 4, 2014

Roller-coaster Start for White Sox

The Chicago White Sox dropped the opening game of a three-game series with the Kansas City Royals by a score of 7-5, falling to 2-2 on the young season. Although it has only been four games, the White Sox have been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride to start the season.

Given that, there is plenty to talk about as the first week of action comes to a close.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jose Abreu will be worth every penny of his 6-year $68 million contract. All of the reports from spring training indicated that the free agent first baseman had tremendous work ethic and displayed professionalism with his approach to the game. Not only that, but the guy can flat out hit! Abreu went 0-for-4 this afternoon, but he did pick up his 6th RBI of the season and is still hitting .313 with two doubles and a triple. Probably the most impressive aspect of Abreu’s hot start has been the power that he has shown to both right and center field. The ball seems to jump off Abreu’s bat, so if he continues to drive the ball to all fields, he will put up some serious numbers when the weather warms up.

Alejandro De Aza is doing everything he can to prove that he deserves everyday at-bats in left field by hitting three home runs versus the Minnesota Twins. I have been pretty adamant about my preference of Dayan Viciedo for the long-term, but I have to give credit when it is due. Despite the hot start, De Aza will have to prove that he can play better defensively and improve on his base running skills before I start to campaign for him. Last season, I saw way too many instances where either he wasn’t paying attention or lacked the fundamentals necessary to be an everyday player. Regardless of what happens, De Aza will find his way into the lineup or another team’s lineup via trade if he continues to hit.

Don’t look now, but Tyler Flowers has seven hits in his last eight at-bats to give him a .571 average. Obviously, this won’t last, but it is nice to see some production offensively from the catching position. I doubt that Flowers has “figured it out” and will be a .280 hitter, but the lineup will be a lot stronger if he can hit just .230-.240 with 15-plus home runs. We’ll see what happens as the season progress, but for now just enjoy it.

Chris Sale’s Opening Day victory was one of the best performances I have ever seen from him. The final line may not look as glamorous as his other stellar outings (7.1 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 8 K), but the way he pitched impressed me the most. Early on in the game, it was apparent that Sale did not have his best stuff (particularly his devastating slider), but he battled through it. After giving up two runs on two hits and a walk in the third inning, Sale settled down and relied primarily on his fastball and changeup to get through the Twins’ lineup. Sale retired 11 of the last 12 batters he faced, fanning four of the last five before departing with one out in the eighth inning.

Newly acquired Adam Eaton is also off to a fast start in a White Sox uniform. The leadoff man has done a great job getting on-base (.421 OBP) with five hits, two walks, and an HBP during his first 19 plate appearances. Eaton has definitely been the sparkplug that he was labeled as, and it is refreshing to see after watching an offense that looked dead for the better part of 2013. Not only has he done well at the plate, Eaton also made a fine running catch before slamming into the wall to rob Oswaldo Arcia of a game tying extra-base hit during yesterday’s contest.

While there have been plenty of bright spots, there have been some troubling issues as well.

Most notably, the bullpen has been brutal to start the season. Before the opener on Monday, manager Robin Ventura named Matt Lindstrom as the team’s closer going forward. I was really surprise by the move at the time, but it sort of makes sense now. Nate Jones was the favorite to land the closing gig in spring training, but he missed some time due to a strained glute. It appears that the injury is still an issue as Jones was placed on the 15-day disabled list this morning. It is possible that Ventura was still worried about Jones’ health heading into the season, and thus went with Lindstrom instead. Lindstrom figures to serve as team’s closer for now, but I have almost no confidence in his ability to hold the job for the entire season. While Lindstrom is a quality reliever, he doesn’t possess the career strikeout rate (7.2 K/9), walk rate (3.3 BB/9), or WHIP (1.42) that would project long-term sustainability in the role. It will be interesting to see who emerges from the pack, but I’m starting to like my Daniel Webb dark-horse call a little bit more each day.

Other than the on-field play, there are two things that Robin Ventura has done that I have to question.

First, I am not a fan of Conor Gillaspie hitting third. Nothing against Conor, but he is not a three-hole hitter. I understand that he had a great spring and Ventura might be playing the hot hand, but I hope this doesn’t continue. I am a big believer in having your best hitter hit third, and the best hitter on this team is Jose Abreu.

I can’t believe I’m about to say this but, why did Ventura have Paul Konerko hit for Tyler Flowers with the game on the line on Thursday? Yes, Konerko is the better hitter, but Flowers was for 4-for-4 and Konerko had been sitting on the bench for three hours. Thankfully it doesn’t seem as though that move fazed Flowers since he had a three-hit game today, but I wouldn’t be too happy about being pulled after getting four hits in a game. Having said that, it is important to point out that Ventura pushed all the right buttons during Wednesday’s comeback win by having Paul Konerko pinch-hit for Alejandro De Aza and then Dayan Viciedo for Tyler Flowers. Both of those moves were instrumental to the outcome of the game.

After four games I feel pretty much the same as I did before the season started. This White Sox team will be vastly improved over last year’s team. With a little luck, this team should be right around .500 at the end of the year.

-Eric Tichelbaut


Twitter: @etichel07

Monday, March 31, 2014

MLB Season Predictions

AL East

Tampa Bay Rays
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Baltimore Orioles
Toronto Blue Jays

AL Central

Detroit Tigers
Kansas City Royals
Cleveland Indians
Chicago White Sox
Minnesota Twins

AL West

Los Angeles Angels
Texas Rangers
Oakland Athletics
Seattle Mariners
Houston Astros

NL East

Washington Nationals
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
New York Mets
Miami Marlins

NL Central

St. Louis Cardinals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
Chicago Cubs

NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies

2014 Playoffs

AL Wildcard: Boston Red Sox over New York Yankees
NL Wildcard: San Francisco Giants over Cincinnati Reds
ALDS: Detroit Tigers over Boston Red Sox
ALDS: Tampa Bay Rays over Los Angeles Angels
NLDS: Los Angeles Dodgers over San Francisco Giants
NLDS: Washington Nationals over St. Louis Cardinals
ALCS: Detroit Tigers over Tampa Bay Rays
NLCS: Los Angeles Dodgers over Washington Nationals
World Series: Los Angeles Dodgers over Detroit Tigers

2014 Awards and League Leaders

AL MVP: Mike Trout
NL MVP: Paul Goldschmidt
AL CY Young: Justin Verlander
NL CY Young: Clayton Kershaw
AL ROY: Jose Abreu
NL ROY: Oscar Taveras
AL MOY: Brad Ausmus
NL MOY: Matt Williams
AL Comeback: Grady Sizemore
NL Comeback: Matt Kemp
AL HR King: Chris Davis
NL HR King: Giancarlo Stanton
AL Batting Champ: Miguel Cabrera
NL Batting Champ: Paul Goldschmidt
AL K’s Leader: Yu Darvish
NL K’s Leader: Stephen Strasburg

-Eric Tichelbaut


Follow me on Twitter @etichel07

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Chicago White Sox Season Preview

Spring training has ended and Opening Day is tomorrow afternoon! While I do not expect the Chicago White Sox to compete for a playoff spot, I do believe this team will take a big step forward in 2014. In 2013, the White Sox finished 63-99, but one could argue they played even worse than their record would indicate. Basic fundamentals like base running and routine fielding were as bad as I can remember, so improving on those areas alone should make for a better record. Also, with the new additions to the lineup, I expect the offense to be a lot better and the team should finish in the middle of the American League in runs scored. The starting rotation has some question marks behind Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, but the White Sox have usually been able to produce a competent pitching staff behind pitching coach Don Cooper’s guidance. Lastly, the closing situation has yet to be determined, but the bullpen is looking surprisingly better than I anticipated a few months ago with a good mix of veterans and young power arms.
With that being said, it is time to look at the Chicago White Sox roster and how the team will perform this season. I have included bold predictions for some of the players. Again, these are bold predictions and are meant to be fun.

Projected Opening Day Lineup

1. Adam Eaton, CF: Eaton finishes the season with an OBP over .400, 30 SBs, and 100 runs scored. Because of his style of play, Eaton becomes a fan favorite and secures the leadoff spot for years to come.

2. Marcus Semien, 2B: Semien is starting in-place of the injured Gordon Beckham, but he should get at-bats all year with his versatility to play all over the infield. Whether by trade or injuries, Semien reaches 400 at-bats and has double digits in homers and steals.

3. Jose Abreu, 1B: All reports indicate that Abreu will prove to be a good signing for the White Sox, and I think he has a big year. Abreu ends the year with 30-plus home runs and wins Rookie of the Year.

4. Adam Dunn, DH: Thankfully, Dunn is entering the final year of his contract and hopefully he plays well enough early to entice a team to trade for his services. However, if Dunn gets off to a terrible start, it will be another long year for him and he’ll likely lose at-bats to Paul Konerko. Either way, I don’t see Dunn reaching 400 at-bats in a White Sox uniform.

5. Avisail Garcia, RF: The potential for a 20/20 season is there, but I don’t think he quite gets there this season (15/15 is more likely). However, Garcia will lock up right field for the future with a nice season offensively and defensively.

6. Alejandro De Aza, LF: De Aza will likely get the call with a righty on the mound, but he is in a platoon with Dayan Viciedo. I expect either De Aza or Viciedo to be traded at some point this season, and I’d personally rather trade De Aza. Although De Aza offers some nice speed and left-handed pop, his defense and base running was atrocious last season. I don’t see him as a fit going forward.

7. Alexei Ramirez, SS: Ramirez is signed through 2015 with a team option in 2016, but the White Sox will likely try to move him at some point. The White Sox have depth at the middle infield positions in the organization, so trading Ramirez makes sense. Alexei had a down year defensively and in the power department, but I expect some improvement in both areas making him an interesting trade chip. My gut feeling says Alexei is gone before the trade deadline.

8. Conor Gillaspie, 3B: Gillaspie had a good year in 2013 and impressed this spring to win the third baseman job for the time being. With Matt Davidson pegged as the future third baseman, Gillaspie is just keeping the spot warm. Davidson will likely be up by July, but Gillaspie will be a valuable player this season with his versatility and left-handed bat.

9. Tyler Flowers, C: Flowers had a miserable season in 2013, but he wasn’t healthy either. Flowers claims that he is at full strength and won the catching job due to his defense and game-calling ability, but there wasn’t a lot of competition. Flowers should hit 15-plus homers, but his average will likely hover around .200.

Starting Rotation

1. Chris Sale, LHP: The White Sox ace will lead the team in every major pitching category, giving him another All-star selection. With a little luck, Sale could win the Cy Young Award if he gets enough wins.

2. Felipe Paulino, RHP: Paulino is slotted between Sale and Quintana because the White Sox are unsure about how many innings he can handle while attempting to pitch his first full season after Tommy John surgery. Provided he stays healthy, Paulino will finish with the second most strikeouts on the staff behind Sale.

3. Jose Quintana, LHP: Quintana had a tremendous season in 2013, and he was probably the White Sox most consistent starter last year. Due to a lack of run support, Quintana only won nine games last season, but he probably deserved about 15 wins. As long as Quintana performs like he did last season, he’ll reach that win total this year.

4. Erik Johnson, RHP: The White Sox best pitching prospect will get a chance to show what he has for a full season. There will be some ups and downs for Johnson in 2014 so his ERA will likely be around 4.50, but I say he makes 30-plus starts and secures a rotation spot going forward.

5. John Danks, LHP: Danks has had a long road to recovery since undergoing shoulder surgery in August of 2012, but he says he is fully healthy. Experts say that it usually takes 18 months to fully recover from the procedure, so Danks should be ready to go in 2014. If that is true, Danks will eclipse 180 innings pitched and finish with an ERA around 4.00.

Bullpen

Nate Jones, RHP: We don’t know who the closer is yet, but Jones is the most likely choice. As I have mentioned, Jones has the stuff to handle the role, but I’m concerned about his control at times. While I’m not 100% convinced Jones is the answer going forward, I do think he will lead the team in saves in 2014.

Daniel Webb, RHP: The White Sox are high on Daniel Webb’s future, and I’m right with them. After struggling as a starter in the minors, the White Sox converted Webb to a reliever and he took off in 2013. In 2013, Webb had a 1.87 ERA while striking out 78 batters in 62.2 innings at two minor league levels. I can’t see the White Sox going with Webb as the closer out of the gate, but he is certainly in the discussion. Given that, he could be the closer by the end of the year.

Matt Lindstrom, RHP: Lindstrom is the veteran option to close and he does have some closing experience (45 career saves), but I’d be surprised if he started the year as closer. If he does, either Jones or Webb would eventually take over during the year.

Ronald Belisario, RHP

Maikel Cleto, RHP

Scott Downs, LHP

Donnie Veal, LHP

Bench

Paul Konerko, 1B/DH: This will be Konerko’s final season and he is expected to play a part-time role. However, I think Paulie will see more at-bats than anticipated. Given that I don’t think Dunn will reach 400 at-bats in a White Sox uniform, Konerko will get at least 300 at-bats and crank out 15-plus homers during his farewell tour.

Dayan Viciedo, OF: As mentioned above, Viciedo is on the other side of the platoon with De Aza. I think Viciedo has more potential than De Aza, so I’d like to see him get a chance to play every day. The power is there, and the White Sox will have an opening at DH next season to get his glove off the field.

Adrian Nieto, C: Nieto was a Rule 5 draft pick from the Washington Nationals and will be the back-up catcher. Nieto hasn’t played above high-A ball as of yet, so I don’t know what to expect from him this season. I don’t believe Nieto will get enough at-bats this season to determine if he is a long-term answer, but he is a player worth considering moving forward.

Leury Garcia, INF

DL Players

Gordon Beckham, 2B: This is a big year for Beckham, but unfortunately it will begin with him on the disabled list with an oblique strain. He should be back by mid-April, but Beckham will have to perform offensively if he wants to be the second baseman moving forward. I’d love to see Beckham turn it around, but even if he does, he will probably get dealt by the trade deadline.

Jeff Keppinger, INF

After all of that, I firmly believe the White Sox are on the right track heading into the future. They should be drastically better in 2014 than they were in 2013, but it won’t be nearly enough to make a playoff push. I have the White Sox going 78-84 this season, which would be a 15-win improvement. If that happens, then the White Sox should be in a position to contend for a division title starting in 2015.

-Eric Tichelbaut


Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, March 14, 2014

Spring Training Update: 3/14

Following today’s 2-2 tie with the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago White Sox are now 5-7 with three ties after 15 spring training games. With Opening Day just over two weeks away, here’s what has caught my attention so far this spring.

Left field Platoon: For now, Dayan Viciedo and Alejandro De Aza are expected to share duties in left field. Apparently the competition is working thus far as both hitters are excelling this spring with batting averages well over .300. When the White Sox acquired Adam Eaton, I expected them to trade either Viciedo or De Aza and it appears that may still happen. The Seattle Mariners reportedly have inquired about Viciedo, whereas the Minnesota Twins have been linked to having interest in De Aza. I would be a little surprised if the Sox traded De Aza to the Twins, but I still expect a trade in the coming months.

Starting Rotation: The five-man rotation is just about set in stone, and the most impressive hurlers have been John Danks and Erik Johnson. Danks has yet to allow a run in eight innings of work, while Johnson owns a 2.57 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and seven strikeouts in seven innings. Jose Quintana left his second start after getting hit by a line drive in the shin, but he made his next start after suffering only a bruise. Quintana hasn’t been sharp this spring (16.50 ERA), but I wouldn’t worry about him right now. Opening Day starter Chris Sale bounced back after a rough second start with a solid outing on Monday where the lefty pitched 4.1 innings of scoreless ball. Leading 5th starter candidate Felipe Paulino hasn’t had good results this spring (9.72 ERA and 17 hits allowed in 8.1 innings), but he has flashed potential with 11 strikeouts to only two walks. Paulino, who underwent Tommy John in 2012, says that he feels great and it appears that the righty is getting more comfortable on the mound with every start. After surrendering four earned runs in his first start, Paulino has lowered that total by a run in two consecutive starts.

Position Battles: The two biggest position battles seem to be getting closer to being settled as Opening Day approaches. Word is that third baseman Conor Gillaspie (.269 avg, 2 HRs, 4 RBI) and catcher Tyler Flowers (.273 avg, 1 HR, 3 RBI) are leading their respective battles. Gillaspie’s experience, improved defense, and left-handed bat have given him the edge over Jeff Keppinger and Matt Davidson. Davidson will likely begin the season in Triple-A to get settled into the organization after joining the club via the Addison Reed trade. As long as Davidson stays healthy, I’d expect him to be starting at the hot corner before July. Due to his defense and game-calling skills, Tyler Flowers currently has a slight edge over Josh Phegley as the primary catcher, but both players will likely get equal time behind the dish.

Newcomers: Leadoff man Adam Eaton and first baseman Jose Abreu have been the most impressive of the offseason additions. Eaton continues to swing a hot bat with a .391 average and two stolen bases, while Abreu is hitting .286 with one home run and a team-leading six RBI. Both players look to be determined to prove their doubters wrong.

New Closer: Reliever Nate Jones is off to a great start with five strikeouts and one walk in four scoreless innings. Jones is the leading candidate to open the season as the closer, and he certainly has the stuff to get the job done. Jones increased his strikeout rate from 8.2 K/9 in 2012 to 10.3 K/9 in 2013 and lowered his walk rate from 4.0 BB/9 to 3.0 BB /9. If Jones can improve upon those numbers again in 2014, then he should hold the job. At this point, I am a little more optimistic in Jones as the closer than I was to start the spring, but I’m still not sure that his career 1.30 WHIP is “closer” material.

Top Prospects: Second baseman prospects Micah Johnson and Carlos Sanchez have both enjoyed outstanding springs, combining for 14 hits and 4 stolen bases in 27 at-bats. Neither player will break camp with the team (Sanchez was optioned to Triple-A today), but both are in the long-term plans for the organization. In other words, Gordon Beckham better have a career-year if he wants to remain on this team going forward.

-Eric Tichelbaut


Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, March 7, 2014

White Sox: Spring Training Gets Underway

The Chicago White Sox began spring training action last Saturday with a 5-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they are now 3-4 with one tie after 8 games. During spring training, I always like to look at how young players, newcomers, and players returning from injuries are performing. For instance, I am not particularly concerned how players like Alexei Ramirez and Chris Sale are doing. With veterans like that, it is pretty apparent as to what type of production to expect from them going forward. With that being said, here is a look at some of the notable performers during the first week of games.

Standout Performances

Adam Eaton – The White Sox new leadoff hitter is off to a hot start batting .600 (6-10) with two stolen bases. Eaton has also drawn a pair of walks to raise his on-base percentage to .714 in five games. It is severely early, but I have a feeling Eaton will solidify the leadoff spot for years to come.

Jose Abreu – The former Cuban superstar cranked out his first home run in American professional baseball on Thursday, but only has one other hit in his first 10 at-bats. Despite the two hits, Abreu has driven in four runs to date. Abreu will likely need time to adjust to facing new pitchers, but the power is real.

Micah Johnson and Carlos Sanchez – The second baseman prospects have nearly identical stats through their first five games. Both players have four hits in eight at-bats and have combined for three stolen bases and four runs scored. Another year of solid seasons in the minors from Johnson and Sanchez will give the White Sox something to think about regarding Gordon Beckham’s future.

John Danks – The left-hander’s first start of the spring was very encouraging as he pitched three innings while giving up just one hit, two walks, and striking out two batters. Danks reportedly topped out at 91 mph and had great command of his cutter. Now 18 months removed from shoulder surgery, the old Johnny Danks could be in for a bounce-back year.

Erik Johnson – The first spring outing for the White Sox best pitching prospect was a successful one as the righty hurled three innings of one-run ball. Johnson surrender three hits and one walk, while fanning two batters. Johnson will likely have his ups and downs as any rookie starting pitcher would, but I am really interested to watch him pitch this season. From what I have seen, I think he will develop into a legit number three starter.

Felipe Paulino – Paulino bounced-back from a rough first start by pitching better this afternoon. The right-hander, who is still working his way back to the majors from Tommy John surgery, struck out five batters in three innings against the Cincinnati Reds. Paulino’s big mistake was a two-run homer to Jay Bruce, but the key for him is staying healthy and building up his arm strength. The White Sox are in a low-risk/high-reward situation with Paulino’s contract, so anything that he can do to help well be a positive.

-Eric Tichelbaut


Follow me on Twitter @etichel07

Friday, February 21, 2014

Five Players that Need to Perform

Other than staff-ace Chris Sale, just about every member of the Chicago White Sox organization can improve on what they did last season. Following a 99-loss season, the front office has added several new additions to help rebuild the roster into a perennial contender. For that to work, there are certain players that need to perform up to their capabilities in order to make the White Sox a successful franchise in 2014 and beyond.

Jose Abreu

The White Sox signed Cuban defector Jose Abreu to a six-year; $68 million deal in the offseason to be the anchor of their rebuilding process. The first baseman is projected to hit in the middle of the order, and should provide the White Sox with some much needed power. During his last few seasons in Cuba, Abreu put up huge numbers, but it remains to be seen how the slugger will perform at the major league level. Most scouts believe that Abreu has the ability to hit 30-plus home runs, but some scouts do not think that he will hit for a high enough average to be an all-star caliber player. At just over $11 million a season, the White Sox certainly hope that Abreu will prove his doubters wrong. As you will see, Abreu is the only new addition that I have on my list and that is for one reason, money. If the Abreu signing turns out to be a flop, the $68 million that he is owed could cripple the organization for the remainder of his contract.

John Danks

Following the 2011 season, the White Sox signed John Danks to a five-year, $65 million extension. With the new deal, the left-hander was expected to be the team’s number two or three starter through the 2016 season. Unfortunately, the deal has been a severe disappointment to date. After struggling mightily in 2012, Danks underwent shoulder surgery in August and missed the remainder of the season. After rehabbing all offseason, Danks was unable to return until late-May. When he did return, Danks was not his old self while posting a 4.75 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 138.1 innings. Although the numbers look underwhelming, Danks was mildly impressive upon his immediate return. In ten starts prior to the all-star break, Danks owned a 4.31 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 62.2 innings. Probably the most encouraging sign was that Danks only walked eight batters during that span, good for a 5.63 strikeout-to-ratio (more than doubling his career average of 2.38 SO/BB). Obviously, Danks fluttered down the stretch, but hopefully that was due in large part to his shoulder not be strong enough to handle the increased workload. Coming into camp this season, Danks has stated that his shoulder feels as healthy as it ever has and he is expecting to return to his 2008-2011 form. With three years and about $43 million remaining on his deal, the White Sox need Danks to stay on the mound and reach his potential. If that happens, then the White Sox will either have an above-average starter for the next three years, or they might be able to trade Danks for a group of prospects and save some of the money owed.

Gordon Beckham

After bursting onto the scene as a rookie in 2009, second baseman Gordon Beckham has failed to live up to the hype since then. From 2010 to 2013, Beckham has topped out as a .267 hitter with 16 home runs, hardly the numbers one would expect from the 8th overall selection in the 2008 MLB draft. Prior to last season, I thought Beckham was on the verge of a breakthrough season, but that ended when he suffered a fractured hamate bone in his right hand. As a result, Beckham only played in 101 games and failed to get into a rhythm offensively. Now that he should be fully recovered from the injury, 2014 is a huge season for Beckham who is entering the final arbitration stages of his contract. The White Sox currently have Beckham under their control through the 2015 season, so the clock is ticking for him to prove that he can be the second baseman for years to come. If Beckham can reach his potential this season, the White Sox will have a tough decision to make on whether or not to sign the former first-round pick to an extension before he hits free agency.

Catcher Position

This is a cop-out, but it is impossible to pinpoint one catcher on this roster that needs to reach expectations this season. As spring training begins, Tyler Flowers, Josh Phegley, and Adrian Nieto will compete for the two backstop spots on the roster. Flowers was expected to be a serviceable option when the White Sox elected to let A.J. Pierzynski leave via free agency, but 2013 showed that was a huge mistake. Flowers endured a brutal 2013 campaign by hitting .195 with 10 home runs and just 24 RBIs. As a result, Josh Phegley was recalled from Triple-A, but failed to provide any increase in production. Phegley batted just .206 with 4 home runs and 22 RBIs in 204 at-bats. If you can do the math, the catching position in 2013 was a complete disaster. With no apparent in-house candidate, the White Sox were expected to acquire a catcher during the offseason via free agency or trade, but that did not happen. Instead, the White Sox used their third overall selection of the Rule 5 player draft on Adrian Nieto. Nieto was a former fifth-round pick in the 2008 draft, and enjoyed his best season in 2013 with a .285 average, 11 home runs and 53 RBIs. Despite only be 23 years old, the problem is that Nieto has not played above high-A ball. Since Nieto was a Rule 5 pick, the White Sox must retain him on their 25-man roster when camp breaks, or they lose him. Although Nieto may have talent, it will be tough for him to earn a starting spot in2014, let alone a roster spot.

Adam Dunn

Adam Dunn is the final player on my list, yet he is the only one that has no direct impact on the future. After three miserable seasons, Dunn is entering the final year of a horrendous four-year, $56 million contract. The sole reason that Dunn needs to perform well is so he can be traded prior to the July 31st MLB trade deadline. The White Sox know that this deal was a bust, and they will be looking to trade Dunn if the opportunity presents itself. In a perfect world, Dunn will get hot enough to entice a few teams to acquire his services. At this point, the White Sox should be looking to get whatever they can for the “Big Donkey”. With any luck, Dunn’s numbers during the first three months of the season will force a team to either give up a decent prospect, and/or take on the rest of his contract. As long as Adam Dunn is not in a White Sox uniform by August 1st, I will consider his season a success.

-Eric Tichelbaut


Follow me on Twitter @etichel07

Friday, February 14, 2014

White Sox: 3 Things to Watch this Spring

With pitchers and catchers set to report to White Sox camp tomorrow, it is time to look at some of the storylines heading into the 2014 Spring Training.

1) How will the new position players perform?

If you include the Avisail Garcia acquisition last July, the White Sox have added four young position players to their roster. In addition to Garcia, Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, and Matt Davidson are expected to be key contributors for many seasons to come. With all four players having little to no major league experience heading into Spring Training, it will be interesting to see how each player performs. Garcia and Eaton having limited major league experience, but I’m excited to see how they will react to having starting positions locked up heading into a season. Hopefully, both players will show up to camp confident and play with something to prove after both were traded from their parent organizations as top prospects. With Abreu and Davidson, I want to see how they will adjust to their new surroundings and situations. This will be Abreu’s first major league baseball experience, and it should give us a sense of how he can handle major league pitching on an everyday basis. The biggest question with Abreu is whether or not his bat speed is quick enough to handle major league fastballs, particularly on the inner-half of the plate? If Abreu appears to have trouble hitting those pitches consistently, then it could be problem for the young slugger as he enters his first season. For Davidson, this will be his first appearance in a big-league camp with a chance to make the Opening Day roster. With only a Conor Gillaspie and Jeff Keppinger platoon blocking his way, it will be intriguing to see if Davidson can force the White Sox’ hand with an impressive spring.

2) What will the back-end of the starting rotation look like?

After Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, the White Sox starting rotation is full of question marks. If healthy, John Danks is guaranteed a rotation spot, but how effective will he be in 2014? Danks will now be roughly 18 months removed from the shoulder surgery that he had in August of 2012, and he should be fully recovered. After missing all of April and most of May last season, Danks returned to the mound to make 22 starts in 2013. Unfortunately, the results weren’t ideal as Danks finished with a 4.75 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 138.1 innings. After a rocky last few years, it remains to be seen if Danks can return to his old self. The last two slots will likely be filled by Erik Johnson and Felipe Paulino. Of the pair, Johnson appears to have the most stability as manager Robin Ventura and pitching coach Don Cooper have stated the young righty is a clear favorite to land a spot in the rotation. Johnson is the White Sox best pitching prospect and impressed in five starts last season with a 3.25 ERA. Johnson has the stuff to be an above-average middle-of-the-rotation arm, so 2014 will be a big year for him to prove he belongs in the big leagues. That leaves one final spot. The White Sox signed Felipe Paulino to a one-year, $1.75 million deal as the veteran right-hander attempts to make a comeback after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012. Prior to the injury, Paulino was off to a great start in 2012 with a 1.67 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in seven starts, and he also struck out 39 batters in 37.2 innings. Obviously, I don’t expect Paulino to be that type of pitcher in 2014, but the potential is there for him to be a quality fourth or fifth starter. If either Johnson or Paulino can’t earn a spot in the rotation, look for Andre Rienzo to get an extended look as well. Despite the question marks surrounding the back-end, I believe this can be an above-average rotation in the American League.

3) Who will emerge as closer?

The White Sox appeared to have their long-term answer at closer with Addison Reed, but he was shipped to Arizona for Matt Davidson. Now, who will emerge as the closer in 2014? The early favorite appears to be Nate Jones. Jones has electric stuff with his fastball reaching the mid-to-high 90s, and he has shown an ability to overpower hitters by having 154 strikeouts in 149.2 career innings. The question is whether or not he has the control and command to succeed in the ninth inning? Jones has allowed more base runners (career 1.30 WHIP) than you would typically want a closer surrender, especially when trying to hold a one run lead. I believe Jones as a quality reliever, but I’m skeptical of his chances of locking down the closer spot. If Jones can’t get the job done, the White Sox may turn to either Matt Lindstrom (45 career saves) or Scott Downs (26 career saves). Neither pitcher is the answer for the future, but both veterans have experience in the ninth inning. The dark horse for the job in 2014 and beyond is Daniel Webb. Webb saw brief action last season with nine relief appearances. The 24-year-old righty flashed his potential by racking up 10 strikeouts to go along with a 3.18 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 11.1 innings. Webb was able to crack the majors last season after starting the year in Single-A and working his way up through both Double-A and Triple-A. During his ascent through the White Sox system, Webb pitched 62.2 innings in just 42 appearances and the results were promising. Webb struck out 78 batters and owned a 1.87 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP. The White Sox wouldn’t have traded Addison Reed unless they felt they have a suitable replacement in their system. If Nate Jones can’t grab a hold of the job as the season wears on, don’t be surprised if Daniel Webb is closing out games in the second half of the season.

-Eric Tichelbaut


Follow me on Twitter @etichel07

Saturday, February 8, 2014

2014 Notre Dame Recruiting Class

Earlier this week, twenty-three recruits faxed in their Letter of Intents to become members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football program next fall. Two of the new members have already joined the team by enrolling early for the 2014 spring semester at Notre Dame, but the rest will join the Irish for summer practices. Amongst the 23 recruits, there was one five-star player, 10 four-star players, and 12 three-star players. While this class might not be considered elite, it does check-in as a very respectable 11th best class according to rivals.com.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the recruits by position.
Quarterback

Four-star dual-threat quarterback DeShone Kizer will join the Irish this summer and has a ton of upside. The 6-foot-4, 205 pound QB will likely be slotted third on the depth chart behind Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, meaning a redshirt season is all but a guarantee. Kizer was the ninth-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the nation, continuing the recruiting trend by Brian Kelly. With Golson, Zaire, and Kizer all being dual-threat quarterbacks, it is apparent that Brian Kelly is trying to solidify that position with the type of skills desired to run his offense. Despite Kizer’s potential, don’t expect him to compete for playing time until 2016 at the earliest.
Wide Receiver

The Irish added a pair of four-star receivers in Corey Holmes and Justin Brent, improving the depth they already have at the position. Brent, who is an early-enrollee, is a 6-foot-1, 196 pound receiver that runs a 4.5 40-yard dash. Brian Kelly has already stated that Brent is one of the most physically developed players he has ever recruited. Considering his early-enrollee status, Brent could have a chance to make a major impact next season. Holmes is another big receiver at 6-foot-2 and also runs a 4.5 40-yard dash, but his slight frame (174 pounds) makes me think a redshirt season is a distinct possibility. Either way, Brent and Holmes give the Irish a pair of playmakers for the future.
Tight End

Notre Dame has adopted the moniker of “Tight End U” over the past decade, and two newcomers will be looking to join the list of successful players at the position. Four-star Nic Weishar and three-star Tyler Luatua give the Irish two tight ends in the top 12 of this year’s class. Both players have good height with Weishar listed at 6-foot-5 and Luatua at 6-foot-4, but both check-in at an under-sized weight of 230 pounds. Obviously both players will have a chance to put on the weight during the summer, but they both have some work to do in order to play immediately. Although Troy Niklas is gone, Ben Koyack, Durham Smythe, and Mike Heuerman will all be ahead of them on the depth chart. Given that, it wouldn’t surprise me to see both Weishar and Luatua redshirted.

Offensive Line
Addressing offensive line depth has been a calling card for Brian Kelly the past few seasons, and this year’s class in no different. Notre Dame added four top-30 linemen to join their already stacked depth chart. Five-star beast Quenton Nelson and four-star recruits Sam Mustipher, Jimmy Byrne, and Alex Bars will join the Irish this summer. Out of the group, Nelson probably has the best chance of seeing the field next season. He has been described as a lineman that carries a “mean-streak” and is considered a “nasty” player. Probably the most impressive stat amongst this group is their size. As seniors in high school, this group averages a height of 6-foot-5 and nearly 300 pounds. With the talent that is already on the roster, most of these guys will redshirt which gives the Irish a bright future up front.

Defensive Line
In addition to offensive line, Brian Kelly has also focused heavily on adding depth to his defensive front-seven over the past few years. This class was a perfect example, as the Irish added seven players to their depth chart. Defensive tackles Jay Hayes, Pete Mokwuah and Daniel Cage will join defensive ends Jhonathon Williams, Andrew Trumbetti, Jonthan Bonner and Grant Blankenship in what Notre Dame believes is a talent bunch. However, Hayes is the only four-star player, with the other six being three-star recruits. Obviously star rankings don’t determine the success of a player, but it does mean that they will have to be developed into better players. Since Brian Kelly arrived at South Bend, he has preached player development, so this group will be a good bar to judge Notre Dame’s player development program in the next two or three years. Outside of Hayes and Trumbetti who enrolled-early, the other linemen will likely be redshirted.

Linebackers
The Irish lost three starters at linebacker, so adding depth at the position was a major goal of the recruiting class. Four linebackers will be new members of the Fighting Irish this summer, with four-star stud Nyles Morgan leading the pack. Morgan is listed as an inside linebacker and will likely compete for a starting spot. The other three recruits are all three-star players, and will have to impress to see the field this season. Despite needing three new starters next fall, Niles Sykes, Greer Martini, and Kolin Hill will be hard pressed to see the field early in the season.

Defensive Backs
The defensive backfield has been an area of concern for the Irish the past few seasons, but the future looks bright after a solid recruiting class last season. To add to that talent, Brian Kelly picked up two additions in four-star cornerback Nick Watkins and three-star safety Drue Tranquill. Watkins will have a chance to crack the corner rotation with a unique combination of size and speed. Watkins is listed a 6-foot-1, 189 pounds and was clocked at a 4.5 40-yard dash. Unlike Watkins, Tranquill might be more of a project. The 6-foot-2, 205 pound safety has decent size, but he has a slew of talent safeties ahead of him on the depth chart. I would be shocked to see him on the field this season.

Special Teams
The 2014 class ends with the addition of three-star kicker Tyler Newsome. Newsome is rated as the 6th best kicker in the country, and his three-star ranking speaks volumes to his leg as most kickers are two-star recruits. With Kyle Brindza securely entrenched as kicker and punter, Newsome will have to greatly impress the coaching staff to bump Brindza from one of his jobs.

-Eric Tichelbaut
Follow me on Twitter @etichel07

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Super Bowl XLVIII Preview

Super Bowl XLVIII kicks off tomorrow night when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks will meet at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The game features the NFL’s best offense (Denver) versus the best defense (Seattle) in what figures to be an exciting matchup. Who will ultimately prevail?

Seattle’s offense has struggled of late, but obviously they have done just enough to win in their playoff games. Unfortunately, I don’t think Seattle can rely on their defense to hold the Broncos under 17 points like they did against the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers. How will Seattle score enough points to win?
Russell Wilson has been solid all year and seems to make enough plays when he has to as he did in the NFC Championship. However, if he has to throw the ball more than 30 times on Sunday, then Seattle might be in trouble. As always, the Seahawks’ offensive game plan will be centered around running back Marshawn Lynch. Lynch is a workhorse and proved that by rushing for 249 yards and 3 touchdowns on 50 carries in Seattle’s two playoff games. Lynch will likely be asked to carry the ball at least 25 times, and will have to eclipse 100 yards again for Seattle to win. If Lynch can move the ball consistently and pile up first downs, then Seattle will be able to keep Manning and the Broncos off the field. Not only will a solid running game keep Manning off the field, it will also set up play-action opportunities for Russell Wilson. When that occurs, Wilson will have to convert on those opportunities.

One key aspects of the game could prove to be the effectiveness of Percy Harvin. Harvin had been out for most of the regular season after recovering from offseason hip surgery, playing in only one regular season game. Harvin did return for the Divisional Round versus New Orleans, but he was knocked out of the game after suffering a concussion. When healthy, Harvin is explosive and is one of the best offensive weapons in the NFL. It will be interesting to see how active Harvin is and if he can stay in the game.
The most exciting part of the game will be whenever the Broncos offense is on the field. I am really excited to see what Peyton Manning can do against this Seattle defense. Everyone likes to poke fun at “Omaha” and Manning’s pre-snap calls, but watching the chess match between Manning and the Seattle defense prior to the snap will be one of the most intriguing aspects of the game.

When the ball is snapped, Manning will have plenty of weapons to try and attack this Seattle defense. With Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside, and Julius Thomas and Wes Welker in the inside, Seattle will have their hands full trying to stop Manning. Fortunately for Seattle, the Seahawks’ defense has the perfect combination of skill and scheme to keep Manning in-check. Seattle’s cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell are two of the best cover corners in the league and should be able to give Demaryius Thomas and Decker fits on the outside. Honestly, I don’t expect either receiver to have a major impact in the game.
With the outside passing game being limited, Manning will have to lean heavily on Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, and his running backs against Seattle’s zone coverage in the middle. Seattle has a great pair of safeties in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, so I don’t see Julius Thomas making plays deep down the middle of the field. Therefore, look for Manning to attack Seattle’s linebackers with short passes to Welker, Julius Thomas, and his running backs. Manning is great at taking what a defense gives him, and I think he will have to move the ball methodically with short passes in order to score points. The short passing game will also keep Seattle’s outstanding defensive line from getting pressure on Manning.

It won’t be easy for Peyton Manning and the Broncos to score points against the Seahawks’ defense, but they will score enough to win. I picked the Broncos to beat the Seahawks back in August, and I can’t go against my pick with this game being a virtual coin-flip in my opinion.
Prediction: Denver Broncos 20, Seattle Seahawks 17

-Eric Tichelbaut
Follow me on Twitter @etichel07

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Irish Have Plenty of Holes to Fill

Following an underwhelming 9-4 season, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame have not had the most encouraging offseason to date. The Irish have lost a lot of contributing parts on and off the field. Here’s a look at what has happened over the last two months.

Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco have left the program to become head coaches at Miami (OH) and Connecticut respectively. The graduating class includes key players such as Tommy Rees, T.J. Jones, Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo, Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, and Bennett Jackson. All nine of these players were starters for several seasons and will be tough to replace next season. In addition to the senior class, juniors Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas, and George Atkinson III have decided to enter the NFL Draft. All three played a major role the last two seasons and will also be missed. And to top it off, DaVaris Daniels has been suspended from the university for the spring semester for poor grades. Daniels is expected to rejoin the Irish in the summer, but that is far from a guarantee.

Like any program, the Irish have to move forward. To replace Martin and Diaco, Notre Dame has promoted wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock to offensive coordinator and former New York Jets linebackers coach Brain VanGorder as defensive coordinator. Now that we know who the new hires are, I don’t expect much change in philosophy on either side of the ball. Obviously, the offense is still Brian Kelly’s baby, so don’t expect any changes with Denbrock coaching Kelly’s offensive style. In fact, Kelly will resume play-calling next season after relinquishing those duties to Chuck Martin in 2012 and 2013. With VanGorder replacing Diaco there will likely be some tweaks to the defensive scheme, but Kelly and VanGorder are familiar with what each other wants to do defensively since the two worked together at Grand Valley State from 1989 to 1991.

On the field, Notre Dame will have to lean on some younger players to step up and fill the voids left by the veteran players. Obviously, the return of quarterback Everett Golson should be a huge lift offensively. Assuming Golson earns back his starting role, he should open things up offensively with his athleticism. During his fall suspension, Golson worked with renowned private quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr. to improve his mechanics. Golson has reportedly gained nearly 20 pounds of muscle and now throws the football the conventional way by griping the laces. With the change, Golson has stated that his throws are more consistent, accurate, and have more velocity.

Who will he throw the ball to with Jones, Niklas, and maybe Daniels not on the roster? Look for some younger guys to step up. We saw glimpses of what guys like Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Chris Brown, C.J. Prosise, and James Onwualu can do this season, so there is plenty of depth on the roster. In addition, expect contributions from redshirt freshman Torii Hunter Jr. and incoming freshman Justin Brent who has enrolled early this spring. The tight end depth chart lacks experience outside of Ben Koyack who emerged last season, but redshirt freshmen Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman will be eager to make impact as well.

The offensive line will lose at least two starters, but Brian Kelly has recruited the position heavily the last two seasons so I don’t expect this to be an issue. Also, guys like Steve Elmer and Mark Harrell earned valuable playing time due to some injuries.

Defensively, the Irish will have six or seven starters to replace depending on whether or not Austin Collinsworth returns for a fifth year. With Nix and Tuitt gone on the defensive line, look for Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones, and Isaac Rochell to receive the bulk of the playing time up front. All three received significant playing time last season, so they should be prepared to take on an increased role.

The linebacker unit is losing three starters in Shembo, Fox, and Calabrese, and there isn’t a whole lot of experience behind them on the depth chart. Out of all the positions, I’m concerned about this group the most. Ishaq Williams will replace Shembo and has the some experience, but I don’t think he has the athleticism and explosiveness to have the same type of impact Shembo made. In the middle, Fox and Calabrese weren’t great, but they were reliable. Kendall Moore will likely return for a fifth year and take one of the spots, but the other spot is anyone’s guess. Jarrett Grace is suppose to return after breaking his fibula in 2013, and will be the starter if he is healthy. Beyond that, the Irish lack depth. Redshirt freshman Michael Deeb, Joe Schmidt, and incoming freshman Nyles Morgan will all likely see significant playing time as well. This should be an interesting situation to follow in the spring and summer.

The defensive backfield finally appears to be looking better as the Irish have plenty of guys to lean on. The unit has not been particularly great during the past two seasons, but plenty of guys have received valuable playing time while the coaching staff tried to find the right groupings. KeiVarae Russell will man one of the corner spots, with youngsters Devin Butler and Cole Luke likely sharing time at the other spot. The safety positions have plenty of options with or without Austin Collinsworth’s return with Matthias Farley, Eilar Hardy, Max Redfield, and Elijah Shumate all figuring to be on the field a lot this season. I expect this unit to be vastly improved next season, and it might be the most athletic and talent bunch the Irish have had in quite some time.

For the second consecutive year, Notre Dame has endured a rough offseason, but it looks as though they will be better prepared to handle it in 2014. Brian Kelly has recruited very well the past two seasons, and will likely add another top 10-15 class this season. That type of recruiting provides depth to deal with adverse situations, but it remains to be seen how well it will translate on the field. With a daunting schedule that features games with Florida State, USC, Stanford, Arizona State, and Michigan, the Irish will need that young talent to develop quickly and perform at a high level if they are going to compete for a playoff spot in 2014.

-Eric Tichelbaut


Follow me on Twitter @etichel07

White Sox, Ventura Agree to Extension

On Friday, the Chicago White Sox and manager Robin Ventura agreed to a multi-year contract extension. The details have yet to be announced as general manager Rick Hahn stated that the particulars of the deal would be kept private. In any event, the extension ensures that Ventura will be managing the White Sox beyond the 2014 season.

The announcement may have come as a surprise to some for three reasons. First, prior to the 2013 campaign, Ventura turned down a contract extension because he did not feel it was necessary with two years remaining on his current deal. Next, following a 99-loss season in 2013 many fans began to question if Ventura was the right man for the job going forward. Lastly, those two prior reasons combined left some fans wondering if Ventura even wanted to manage a rebuilding ballclub.

At the very least, the last question was answered with a resounding yes when Ventura signed off on the contract extension yesterday. Whether or not the fans think that Ventura deserved an extension is irrelevant. What matters is that Jerry Reinsdorf, Kenny Williams, and Rick Hahn still believe that Ventura is the right man to manage this team through a rebuilding process.

Honestly, the contract extension does not come as a surprise to me. When the White Sox hired Ventura to be their manager prior to the 2012 season, they believed he would develop into a great manager once he gained experience. Obviously, the first two years have not been ideal, but I can guarantee Robin learned a lot from the ups and downs his teams have experienced. In 2012, the White Sox led the American League Central Division for the majority of the season before surrendering their lead to the Detroit Tigers with three weeks left in the season. Based on how close the White Sox felt they were to winning the division in 2012, the front office did not believe that the roster needed to change much in the offseason. That would prove to be incorrect as the White Sox lost 99 games last season convincing the organization that it was time to start over. Since last July, the White Sox have added plenty of young talent and appear to be on the right track to compete in 2015 and beyond. Now that a plan is in place to rebuild the roster, it makes sense to lock up the manager that the organization feels very comfortable with and very confident in his leadership abilities.

-Eric Tichelbaut


Follow me on Twitter @etichel07