Column: Why Earnhardt Jr.’s Retirement Isn’t Surprising

Many in the racing world were stunned on Tuesday morning when Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement at the end of the 2017 season.

But while NASCAR’s biggest star walking away is certainly a big story for the sport, his retirement is not exactly a huge surprise, at least to me, considering the circumstances.

The 42-year old Earnhardt is in a contract year, coming off a 2016 season in which he missed 18 races with a concussion, the fourth concussion he had suffered in a racing accident.

As Earnhardt came back from his injury, he opted to wait to sign a contract extension, and see how he felt about racing and his future after his return to the track.  Now, eight races into the 2017 season, Earnhardt has decided this will be his final season.

The decision was actually made by Earnhardt in March, saying at Tuesday’s press conference he met with car owner Rick Hendrick on March 29 to inform Hendrick of his decision.

Given all he faced in 2016 and his desire to stay healthy, particularly after his recent marriage to wife Amy, Earnhardt’s decision to step away is understandable, and relatively unsurprising.

Earnhardt didn’t go into great detail about his decision on Tuesday, but said he wants to make his own decision to retire instead of potentially being told by doctors he couldn’t race again in the event of an additional concussion or other injuries.

“You’re wondering why I reached this decision–it’s really simple. I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms,” Earnhardt said.  “I’m at peace with the decision.  I’m very comfortable with it.”

Earnhardt, the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. and 14-time defending winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award, has faced more pressure in his career than any other driver in NASCAR–and arguably as much as any athlete–as he tried to live up to the Earnhardt name and give his colossal fanbase something to cheer about.

While Earnhardt has won 26 races over his career and finished as high as third in points, that pressure has continued through many ups and downs throughout his career, from winning two Daytona 500s to losing his father at Daytona to winning the first race at Daytona after his father’s death to leaving family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. and struggling in his early years at Hendrick Motorsports.

As for what’s next for Earnhardt, the immediate focus is his final season, which is not off to a good start.  Earnhardt has just one top 10 through eight races and sits 24th in the current standings, 50 points outside a playoff spot.

After this season, Earnhardt will remain active in the sport, continuing to work as an XFinity Series team owner with JR Motorsports, a Hendrick Motorsports satellite team which has helped Hendrick with driver development in recent years.  Earnhardt will also honor his prior commitment to run two XFinity Series races with JR Motorsports in 2018.

As for Hendrick Motorsports, the #88 seat will become vacant for the first time in 10 years, and the Hall of Fame owner has a variety of options to fill the vacancy.

Alex Bowman, who filled in for Earnhardt in 2016 with some moderate success, should be one of the frontrunners.  JR Motorsports has some strong young talent, particularly including William Byron, although a couple more seasons in the XFinity Series are probably the more likely option for him.

Outside the Hendrick organization, impending free agents at season’s end include Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and others.  Hendrick could also get an XFinity Series or Truck Series driver from another organization, something they’ve done in the past to sign both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Looking at the big picture, NASCAR also has to figure out what’s next as it loses its most popular driver.  The sport will have lost Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retirement in the span of three seasons, a void that would be difficult for any sport to fill.  It will be up to the sport’s young talent, including Kyle Larson, the current points leader, and Chase Elliott, who like Earnhardt is the son of a legend, to become the next generation of superstars in NASCAR, although being as genuine and classy as Earnhardt won’t be easy.

There are 28 races left in the career of NASCAR’s biggest star.  As the sun sets on Earnhardt’s career, and for all intents and purposes the era of Earnhardt family relevance in NASCAR dating back to the 1960s, the plot continues to thicken in an already intriguing NASCAR season.

 

 

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Career Statistics (Cup Series unless otherwise noted):
603 starts
26 wins
149 top fives
253 top 10’s
13 poles
1998 & 1999 XFinity Series champion
24 XFinity Series wins

Column: Sergio’s Major is Worth the Wait

After a long road from prodigy at age 19 to veteran at age 37, Sergio Garcia is finally a major champion.

The “best player to never win a major” burden has been lifted.  An 18-year pursuit has, at last, reached its end.

The memory of the 2007 Open Championship lip-out at Carnoustie, a water ball while leading at the 2008 PGA, and multiple run-ins with Tiger Woods has been erased by an epic victory Sunday at the 81st Masters, beating Justin Rose in a playoff.

Garcia, who won his first major in his 74th attempt, entered Sunday with the third most major championship starts without a win, behind only Jay Haas (87 starts) and Lee Westwood (76 starts), but became the third Spaniard to win the green jacket, joining Jose Maria Olazabal (1994, 1999) and Seve Ballesteros (1980, 1983), who would have turned 60 on Sunday.

At one point on Sunday, Sergio’s breakthough looked like it would have to wait another major.  After Garcia led by three on the front nine, Rose caught him with consecutive birdies on six, seven and eight, before Garcia bogeyed the 10th and 11th to fall two behind, then hit his drive on the 13th left into the pine straw across Rae’s Creek.

From there, however, Garcia turned the tide.  After a penalty stroke for an unplayable lie, Garcia punched out to 90 yards short of the green on the par-5, calmly hit his approach to seven feet, then made the putt for par.  Rose, simultaneously, missed a birdie putt to go up three.

After a birdie at 14, Garcia then hit one of the great clutch shots on the 15th hole–which is saying something considering that hole’s history in the previous 80 Masters–when his second shot to the par-5 hit the pin and settled 14 feet from the hole.  Garcia led briefly when he made the putt, although Rose birdied to tie at 9-under.

Rose birdied the 16th, where Garcia missed a short birdie putt, but Rose bogeyed the 17th to fall back to a tie, marking the first time since 1998 both members of the final pairing were tied for the lead on the 18th tee on Sunday.  That 1998 Masters was also the last time a player won his first major at age 37 or older, when Mark O’Meara won at 41.

Garcia hit two clutch approach shots into the 18th green–one in regulation and one in the playoff–setting up excellent birdie opportunities; after missing his five-footer to win in regulation, Garcia made his 12-footer in the playoff to win, and physically released the emotion of 73 previous frustrations in majors and 19 in the Masters, the most attempts ever before winning for the first time.

In winning the 81st Masters, and a record $1.98 million purse, Garcia has become the fifth player to win the Masters after previously winning low amateur in the event, joining Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ben Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus.  Garcia won low-amateur in 1999, the last Masters before Sunday won by a Spaniard (Olazabal).

That 1999 Masters was just the beginning for Garcia, who turned pro at 19 later that year and finished second to Woods at the PGA Championship at Medinah.

What followed is a career filled with triumph in “normal events” on the PGA and European tours, perennial participation in–and impact in the outcome of–the Ryder Cup, but consistent near-misses in major championships.

Garcia finished in the top 10 in all four majors in 2002, finished as high as fourth at Augusta (2004), finished third at the 2005 U.S. Open and 2006 PGA Championship, the latter also coming during a Woods win at Medinah.

In the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, Garcia led wire-to-wire until the final hole, when he lipped out an eight-foot put for par to win the title, then lost a four-hole playoff by one to Padraig Harrington.

A year later in the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, Garcia held the lead for most of the back nine on Sunday, only to hit a ball in the water at the 16th and bogey two of the last three holes, losing again to Harrington.

A fourth runner-up finish in a major came at the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, when a final round 66 wasn’t enough to catch a historic performance by Rory McIlroy.

Garcia did win the 2008 Players Championship, the biggest tournament that isn’t a major, with a clutch shot to within five feet on the famous island green at the 17th at TPC Sawgrass.

But the questions still remained about whether Garcia could ever win a major, including from Sergio himself, and the noise has gotten louder as time has gone on.

But this week, Garcia seemed to have a clearer mind, which appeared to help him recover from the bogeys at the 10th and 11th to make a charge down the stretch.

“Because of where my head was at, sometimes, I did think, ‘Am I ever going to win one?’,” Garcia said Sunday after winning.  “I’ve had so many good chances, and I’ve either lost them, or somebody did something to beat me. So, it did cross my mind, but lately I’ve been getting some good help. I’ve been thinking a little differently, more positively, and I’ve been more accepting, that if for whatever reason it didn’t happen, my life is still going to go on. It’s not going to be a disaster.”

Sunday’s runner-up, Justin Rose, finished second at Augusta for the second time; the Englishman might have two green jackets if not for Jordan Spieth’s record-tying 18-under performance in 2015 and Garcia’s back-nine charge on Sunday.

But Rose, a good friend with Garcia, was beyond classy in defeat.  During the round, the pair acknowledged each other’s impressive shots with thumbs ups and low-key high fives.  Once Garcia won, Rose hugged him and congratulated him.

Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champion and 2016 Olympic gold medalist posted his 5th Masters top 10 finish, the most by Rose in any major.  Rose has never missed the cut at the Masters, and his finishes have gradually trended upward over his career, including the two seconds in the last three years, with a tie for 10th last year.

Rose should win the Masters at some point in the next few years, but Sunday was Sergio’s day, a fact that Rose even acknowledged by tweeting his congratulations to Garcia on Sunday night:

Rose was far from the only member of the pro golf community who extended congratulations to Garcia on the long-awaited major title:

While the golf community is collectively happy for Garcia, whose win is among the most popular in recent memory, Garcia himself had been possibly the happiest he has been during his career when he came to Augusta.  His change in perspective about major championships not defining him helped him play looser, and he is entering a life-changing period off the course, as he is engaged to be married this summer.

And now, after taking the pressure off himself to perform on golf’s biggest stage, he has finally been able to do something that was waited on for so long many had given up on his chances to do so.

Sergio Garcia is finally a major champion.  After an epic performance and a thrilling victory, the green jacket was worth the wait.

 

 

The 81st Masters Tournament

Leaders:
1. Sergio Garcia, Spain, -9 (71-69-70-69–279), won on first playoff hole
2. Justin Rose, England, -9 (71-72-67-69–279)
3. Charl Schwartzel, South Africa, -6 (74-72-68-68–282)
T4. Matt Kuchar, U.S., -5 (72-73-71-67–283)
T4. Thomas Pieters, Belgium, -5 (72-68-75-68–283)
6. Paul Casey, England, -4 (72-75-69-68–284)
T7. Kevin Chappell, U.S., -3 (71-76-70-68–285)
T7. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland, -3 (72-73-71-69–285)
T9. Ryan Moore, U.S., -2 (74-69-69-74–286)
T9. Adam Scott, Australia, -2 (75-69-69-73–286)

Notables:
T11. Rickie Fowler, U.S., -1 (73-67-71-76–287)
T11. Jordan Spieth, U.S.,  -1 (75-69-68-75–287)
T18. Fred Couples, U.S., +1 (73-70-74-72–289)
T22. Jason Day, Australia, +2 (74-76-69-71–290)
T22. Phil Mickelson, U.S., +2 (71-73-74-72–290)
T27. Jon Rahm, Spain, +3 (73-70-73-75–291)
T36. Stewart Hagestad, U.S., +6 (74-73-74-73–294), low amateur
Defending champion Danny Willett (+7), Henrik Stenson (+8) and Bubba Watson (+8) missed the cut.
Dustin Johnson withdrew; Tiger Woods did not play.

Fast Five: Storylines Entering The Masters

The Masters gets underway tomorrow at Augusta National, and as always there are a plethora of storylines.

While Tiger Woods is absent, continuing to nurse a bad back, 93 of the world’s best players make up the most exclusive field in golf for the 81st time.

Over the years the fields at Augusta have gotten deeper, and this year is no exception, with dozens of players who have a legitimate chance to wear the green jacket on Sunday night.

As tournament play begins on Thursday morning, here are the biggest storylines:

The Weather

After Wednesday’s Par 3 contest was rained out for the first time ever, the course should play soft.  However, it won’t play easy, as winds of over 20 miles per hour are forecast for the Augusta area on Thursday and Friday.

Augusta National is never easy, but should play even more difficult than usual if this forecast is correct.  A score of even-par could easily be in contention entering the weekend.

Saturday and Sunday, the weather will be better.  Calm winds and warmer temperatures will allow for better scoring conditions, meaning that the even-par score that should be a contender on Friday evening will have to move a few under-par to don the green jacket on Sunday evening.

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson

This will be the first major Dustin Johnson has played as the top-ranked golfer in the world, and the first Masters since his victory in last year’s U.S. Open, a win that got the proverbial monkey off his back in major championships.

Few players have entered a Masters as hot as Johnson enters this year’s edition.  Johnson has won three straight starts on the PGA Tour, and has finished in the top six in six of his last seven starts.

Johnson was the clear favorite early Wednesday, but now his status for the tournament may be in jeopardy after accidentally falling down the stairs in his Augusta rental home and injuring his lower back.  Fortunately, Johnson has the very last tee time (2:03 pm ET), so he has the longest possible amount of time to treat his injury and decide if he can play.

Johnson’s manager says he hopes to play, but the uncertainty about whether Johnson can play and how well he can play with the injury has made Johnson an even bigger story entering the first round.

Jordan Speith vs. the 12th Hole

Last year, Jordan Spieth led The Masters by five shots entering the back nine on Sunday, but a quadruple-bogey seven on the par-3 12th hole cost him his second straight green jacket.

Now, as the 23-year old seeks his third major championship, Spieth will have face redemption at the difficult Amen Corner hole after hitting two balls in the water the last time he played it in competition.

Spieth hit his tee shot to about one foot at the 12th in Tuesday’s practice round, perhaps exorcising some of the demons from a year ago.

Even with last year’s collapse, Spieth’s record at Augusta is the best ever by a player in his first three starts:  a win and two runner-up finishes.  With that experience, it would be shocking if Speith is not in the mix late Sunday.

The Young Guns

Spieth is not the only young star capable of winning the green jacket on Sunday.

20 years after a 21-year old Tiger Woods changed the game of golf forever with his 12-shot Masters win, the young stars who grew up watching Woods are primed for Masters success.

Rory McIlroy (age 27) is seeking to win the final leg of the career grand slam, and would become the second youngest to do so (Woods was 24).  McIlroy, who is ranked second in the world, led through nine holes of the final round in 2011 before a back nine 43 in his best chance to win to date.  McIlroy has finished in the top 7 in both of his starts after missing time with a rib injury.

Jason Day (29) is ranked third in the world.  His form hasn’t been as strong as some of the others on this list, although his mother’s cancer battle may explain that.  Now, after her cancer surgery was successful and she will not require chemotherapy, Day has a clear mind to go chase the green jacket.  Day tied for second in the 2011 Masters and finished third in 2013, and has the game to threaten in any major championship; he won the 2015 PGA Championship.

Justin Thomas (23) is ranked seventh in the world after starting the 2016-17 PGA Tour season with three wins.  Thomas, who grew up competing against Jordan Spieth in junior events, tied for 39th in his only Masters appearance last year, and his best major finish is a tie for 18th, although he has made the cut in five of his six starts.

Hideki Matsuyama (25), ranked fourth in the world, also has two wins and two seconds this season, plus an unofficial one against a strong field at the Hero World Challenge.  The Japanese star made the cut at Augusta twice as an amateur, and has finished in the top seven the last two years, along with a tie for fourth at last year’s PGA Championship.

Rickie Fowler (28), ranked eighth in the world, has a win at The Honda Classic and six top-six finishes this season.  While he didn’t win last week in Houston, some suggested his result of third is even better than winning (only two players the last 60 years have won The Masters after winning the week before, a spell that now falls to Shell Houston Open winner Russell Henley).  Fowler tied for 5th in the 2014 Masters as part of a season when he finished in the top five of all four majors.

Jon Rahm (22), ranked 12th, is the least established star on this list, but is still coming into Augusta on a hot streak after winning the Farmers Insurance Open and finishing in the top 10 in his last four starts (including two WGC events).  However, this is Rahm’s first Masters–the only Masters rookie since 1935 to win was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.  Rahm’s idol is fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, whose 60th birthday would have been this Sunday.

Danny Willett (29), ranked 17th, is the defending Masters champion, although he has not won an event since donning the green jacket last April.  Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02) are the only players to win back-to-back Masters.

Other young guns with a legitimate chance include Emiliano Grillo (24), Brooks Koepka (26), Daniel Berger (23) and Tyrrell Hatton (25).

Youth vs. Experience

But while the young stars have the talent to win The Masters, experience is always a factor at Augusta.

Masters champions receive a lifetime exemption into the event, with most playing the event into their late 50s or early 60s.  Often, one of these legends will randomly pop up on the leaderboard and contend on the weekend.

Jack Nicklaus, who stopped playing the Masters after 2005 but will be one of the honorary starters on Thursday morning, won his sixth Masters at age 46 in 1986 to become the oldest Masters winner, then tied for sixth at age 58 in 1998.

Phil Mickelson (46) is trying to tie Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods for the second most Masters titles, as a win would be his fourth.  Mickelson, while still in his prime, is a few months older than Nicklaus was in 1986, and has finished in the top seven in two of his last three starts.

Bernhard Langer (59), the 1985 and 1993 champion, tied for eighth in 2014 and was tied for third, two shots back through three rounds last year, before fading with a final round 79.  Langer comes in in good form with a win and two thirds this season in the PGA Tour Champions, where he leads the Charles Schwab Cup standings.

Fred Couples (57), marking the 25th anniversary of his 1992 Masters triumph, can threaten if his bad back cooperates.  Couples finished in the top 20 in every Masters from 2010-14, including a sixth in 2010, and has finished in the top six in all four PGA Tour Champions starts this year, with one win, and is second in Charles Schwab Cup points.

Other past Masters champions in the field include Charl Schwartzel (32), Adam Scott (36), Trevor Immelman (37), two-time champion Bubba Watson (38), Zach Johnson (41), Mike Weir (46), Angel Cabrera (47), two-time winner Jose Maria Olazabal (51), Vijay Singh (54), Augusta native Larry Mize (58), Sandy Lyle (59), Ian Woosnam (59), and Mark O’Meara (60).

There are also players who have not won The Masters, but still have plenty of experience on Augusta’s hallowed ground.

Ernie Els (47), a four-time major champion, may be playing his final Masters, as his exemption from winning the 2012 Open Championship expires after this year.  From 2000-2004, Els finished in the top six every year, including two runner-up finishes.  Last year, he six-putted the first hole, eliminating a realistic chance to win just 15 minutes after his tournament started.

Jimmy Walker (38) and Henrik Stenson (turned 41 on Wednesday) are the winners of the last two major championships of 2016.  Walker, who won the PGA Championship, tied for 8th in the 2014 Masters, while Stenson, the Open Champion, has never finished better than 14th at Augusta, although he has 11 combined top 10s in the other three majors and was the 2016 Olympic silver medalist.

Matt Kuchar (38) and Brandt Snedeker (36) are both seeking their first major, and have both said how emotional a win at Augusta would be.  Kuchar finished in the top 10 each year from 2012-14, including a tie for third in 2012, and won bronze at the 2016 Olympics.  Snedeker has three top 10s including a tie for third in 2008.

Steve Stricker (50) has scaled back on playing regular tour events, focusing on the majors as he still seeks his first.  He has two top 10s in The Masters and none since 2009, but has not missed a Masters cut since 2008.

Lee Westwood (43), Paul Casey (39) and Sergio Garcia (37) are each European stars who have had successful careers but never won a major championship, while Justin Rose (36) has one major, the 2013 U.S. Open, and won the Olympic gold medal in 2016.  Westwood has only finished outside the top 11 once in the last seven Masters, with two runner-up finishes; Casey has four top tens, including ties for sixth and fourth the last two years; Garcia has three top eight finishes including a tie for fourth in 2004 and has four second-place finished in majors; Rose has four top 10s including a tie for second in 2015.

 

 

2017 Masters
Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.
Notable First Round Tee Times (ET)
7:40 a.m.:  Honorary Starters (Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player)

9:06 a.m.:  Zach Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Hadwin
9:28 a.m.:  Adam Scott, Kevin Kisner, Andy Sullivan
10:01 a.m.:  Fred Couples, Paul Casey, Kevin Na
10:12 a.m.:  Russell Knox, Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama
10:34 a.m.:  Jordan Spieth, Martin Kaymer, Matthew Fitzpatrick
10:45 a.m.:  Phil Mickelson, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Si Woo Kim
10:56 a.m.:  Brandt Snedeker, Justin Rose, Jason Day
12:24 p.m.:  Danny Willett, Matt Kuchar, Curtis Luck (a)
12:46 p.m.:  Angel Cabrera, Henrik Stenson, Tyrrell Hatton
1:19 p.m.:  Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Shane Lowry
1:41 p.m.:  Rory McIlroy, Hideto Tanihara, Jon Rahm
1:52 p.m.:  Marc Leishman, Bill Haas, Justin Thomas
2:03 p.m.:  Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker

Masters Champions
(Year, Winner, Nationality, Score)
1934 Horton Smith, U.S., 284

1935 Gene Sarazen, U.S., 282
1936 Horton Smith, U.S., 285
1937 Byron Nelson, U.S., 283
1938 Henry Picard, U.S., 285
1939 Ralph Guldahl, U.S., 279
1940 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 280
1941 Craig Wood, U.S., 280
1942 Byron Nelson, U.S., 280
1943-45 No tournament due to World War II
1946 Herman Keiser, U.S., 282
1947 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 281
1948 Claude Harmon, U.S., 279
1949 Sam Snead, U.S., 282
1950 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 283
1951 Ben Hogan, U.S., 280
1952 Sam Snead, U.S., 286
1953 Ben Hogan, U.S., 274
1954 Sam Snead, U.S., 289
1955 Cary Middlecoff, U.S., 279
1956 Jack Burke Jr., U.S., 289
1957 Doug Ford, U.S., 283
1958 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 284
1959 Art Wall Jr., U.S., 284
1960 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 282
1961 Gary Player, South Africa, 280
1962 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 280
1963 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 286
1964 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 276
1965 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 271
1966 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 288
1967 Gay Brewer, U.S., 280
1968 Bob Goalby, U.S., 277
1969 George Archer, U.S., 281
1970 Billy Casper, U.S., 279
1971 Charles Coody, U.S., 279
1972 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 286
1973 Tommy Aaron, U.S., 283
1974 Gary Player, South Africa, 278
1975 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 276
1976 Raymond Floyd, U.S., 271
1977 Tom Watson, U.S., 276
1978 Gary Player, South Africa, 277
1979 Fuzzy Zoeller, U.S., 280
1980 Seve Ballesteros, Spain, 275
1981 Tom Watson, U.S., 280
1982 Craig Stadler, U.S., 284
1983 Seve Ballesteros, Spain, 280
1984 Ben Crenshaw, U.S., 277
1985 Bernhard Langer, West Germany, 282
1986 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 279
1987 Larry Mize, U.S., 285
1988 Sandy Lyle, Scotland, 281
1989 Nick Faldo, England, 283
1990 Nick Faldo, England, 278
1991 Ian Woosnam, Wales, 277
1992 Fred Couples, U.S., 275
1993 Bernhard Langer, Germany, 277
1994 Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain, 279
1995 Ben Crenshaw, U.S., 274
1996 Nick Faldo, England, 276 
1997 Tiger Woods, U.S., 270
1998 Mark O’Meara, U.S., 279
1999 Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain, 280
2000 Vijay Singh, Fiji, 278
2001 Tiger Woods, U.S., 272
2002 Tiger Woods, U.S., 276
2003 Mike Weir, Canada, 281
2004 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 279
2005 Tiger Woods, U.S., 276
2006 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 281
2007 Zach Johnson, U.S., 289
2008 Trevor Immelman, South Africa, 280
2009 Angel Cabrera, Argentina, 276
2010 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 272
2011 Charl Schwartzel, South Africa, 274
2012 Bubba Watson, U.S., 278
2013 Adam Scott, Australia, 279
2014 Bubba Watson, U.S., 280
2015 Jordan Spieth, U.S., 270
2016 Danny Willett, England, 283

ACC Postseason Power Rankings: North Carolina Wins League’s 14th National Title

After the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the ACC had only one of its nine tournament teams still alive, and some questioned the league’s strength.

Two weeks later, the ACC can boast a national champion for the 14th time (the league will claim 18, but Louisville and Syracuse combined for four before they were in the ACC).

North Carolina has won nearly half of the ACC’s titles, winning their sixth this year, after they were the best and most consistent team throughout the entire season.

Behind the obvious number one choice of the Tar Heels, here is how the rest of the ACC stacks up as the season comes to a close:

1. North Carolina (33-7, 14-4 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Semifinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  National Champions (6-0)
Season High in SOS Rankings: 1, Season Low: 3
The Tar Heels won the regular season title in the nation’s best conference, foreshadowing what they would accomplish in the NCAA Tournament by winning the national title over Gonzaga on Monday.  With his third title (2005, ’09, ’17), Roy Williams passes his mentor, the legendary Dean Smith (national champion in 1982, ’93), and joins Mike Krzyzewski as one of two active coaches with three or more championships.

2. Duke (28-9, 11-7 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Champions (4-0)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 1, Season Low: 7
At the ACC Tournament, Duke became the first team in tournament history to win four games in four days, beating Notre Dame for the title after previously beating Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina.  In the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils were stunned in the second round by South Carolina, although they weren’t the only team the Gamecocks upset on their way to the Final Four.

3. Louisville (25-9, 12-6 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (0-1)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 1, Season Low: 6
After losing their ACC Tournament opener to Duke, the Cardinals lost a back-and-forth second round battle in the NCAA Tournament to Michigan, who was one of the hottest teams in the NCAA field until their eventual loss to Oregon.  The postseason performances of the Cardinals did not match the strength of their season overall, although postseason results are often how a season is measured.

4. Florida State (26-9, 12-6 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Semifinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 3, Season Low: 5
The Seminoles were a great team, but had some inconsistency, which bit them in a blowout loss to Xavier in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.  Despite being arguably Leonard Hamilton’s best team in Tallahassee, the ‘Noles missed an opportunity to have Hamilton’s best March result.

5. Notre Dame (26-10, 12-6 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Runners-up (2-1)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 2, Season Low: 9
The Irish reached the finals of the ACC Tournament for the second time in the last three years, falling to Duke, before surviving a NCAA first round scare against Princeton then losing to West Virginia.  Mike Brey has a knack for overachieving teams, and this year was no different–I picked them ninth in the league in November.

6. Virginia (23-11, 11-7 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 2, Season Low: 6
After a quarterfinal loss to Notre Dame in Brooklyn, the Cavaliers reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but scored just 39 points in a 26-point loss to Florida.  Virginia’s success under Tony Bennett has come by winning low-scoring defensive struggles, but scoring just 39 in an NCAA Tournament will never get a team where they want to go.

7. Virginia Tech (22-11, 10-8 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
Season High: 6, Season Low: 8
This season has to be considered a success for Buzz Williams’ Hokies, who reached their first NCAA Tournament since 2007 and second since 1996.  They weren’t the only team knocked out by Wisconsin, as the Badgers also beat top overall seed Villanova in the next round.

8. Wake Forest (19-14, 9-9 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  First Four (0-1)
Season High: 8, Season Low: 13
Danny Manning’s rebuild in Winston-Salem reached the NCAA Tournament a year quicker than many expected.  Down the stretch of the season, and in both postseason tournaments, the Deacon defense was an issue; that, along with whether or not First Team All-ACC forward John Collins returns, are the biggest questions heading into next year, as the Deacs should continue improving.

9. Miami (21-12, 10-8 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Quarterfinals (1-1)
NCAA Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
Season High: 9, Season Low: 12
The Hurricanes reached the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five years, marking only the second such stretch in school history.  Jim Larranaga had tough coaching matchups in the postseason:  after beating Jim Boeheim in Brooklyn, the Hurricanes lost to Roy Williams in Brooklyn and Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament.

10. Georgia Tech (21-16, 8-10 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
NIT:  Runners-up (4-1)
Season High: 9, Season Low: 15
An ACC Tournament loss to Pittsburgh nailed the Yellow Jackets’ NCAA coffin shut, but the Yellow Jackets took advantage of their NIT opportunity by reaching the final, where they lost to TCU.  This season still has to be considered a success for Josh Pashner in his first season in Atlanta–the team was picked last in the ACC by many, including me.

11. Clemson (17-16, 6-12 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
NIT:  First Round (0-1)
Season High: 7, Season Low: 12
Clemson hung around the NCAA bubble deep into the season despite a mediocre record because of a very difficult schedule.  But in the end, the Tigers just didn’t win enough to make The Dance.  After losing to eventual ACC champ Duke in Brooklyn, the Tigers were upset by Oakland in their NIT opener, ending their season.

12. Syracuse (19-15, 10-8 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (0-1)
NIT:  Second Round (1-1)
Season High: 8, Season Low: 13
The Orange didn’t have a good postseason, losing to Miami in the ACC Tournament, scantly missing the NCAA Tournament, then losing to Ole Miss in the second round of the NIT.  And yet, their postseason won’t even be most remembered for those results, but instead for the war of words between Jim Boeheim and the city of Greensboro.  C’mon, Jim.

13. Pittsburgh (16-17, 4-14 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  Second Round (1-1)
Postseason:  none
Season High: 4, Season Low: 14
After some guy named Chris Stiles picked this veteran team to finish fourth in the ACC, the Panthers were the biggest underachiever in the country this season, winning just four ACC games.  But hey, with their first round win over Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament, they ensured the Yellow Jackets wouldn’t go to the NCAA Tournament either.

14.  NC State (15-17, 4-14 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
Postseason:  none
Season High: 7, Season Low: 15
The Wolfpack also underachieved, with a roster including future NBA lottery pick Dennis Smith.  They did something they hadn’t done since 1995, beating Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but after Mark Gottfried was fired Feb. 13, the Wolfpack uneventfully played out the string.  Kevin Keatts, coming off back-to-back NCAA bids at UNC Wilmington, will take over in Raliegh.

15. Boston College (9-23, 2-16 ACC)
ACC Tournament:  First Round (0-1)
Postseason:  none
Season High: 14, Season Low: 15
The last several years have been a struggle for the Eagles, so much so that their 2-16 conference record is actually an improvement.  However, ending the season on a 15-game losing streak still leaves a bitter taste in their mouths entering the offseason.

The Masters Stands Tall

Sports are made by championship events.  The Super Bowl.  The World Series.  March Madness.

Golf, however, is unique, with four major championships on its calendar.  Each is unique with its own character and ritual.  A win in any makes its victor a champion for life.

But among this quartet of triumph, it is The Masters that stands taller than the Georgia pines, and beams brighter than the Augusta azaleas.

Here at Augusta National, everything is pure.  The morning dew on the perfectly groomed fairways.  The roll of the smooth yet lightning-quick greens.  The soft ripples in Rae’s Creek.  The trees on Magnolia Lane blowing gently in the southern breeze.

Here, everything is rooted in tradition.  The champions of yesteryear are treated like royalty, and are members of the most exclusive assemblage in golf.

Two of these legends will start the tournament off in a special way on the first tee Thursday morning, although another, The King, is notably absent.

Here, everything is electrifying.  The best golfers in the world battle on the sport’s most famous course for its most coveted prize.

Throngs of patrons follow, piercing the Augusta serenity with the loudest roars in golf.  For birdies, these roars echo through the pines around this hallowed property.  For eagles, the roars seem to echo around the world.

By Sunday, those birdies and eagles will determine a champion.  The fabled green jacket awaits the player who can stand taller than the rest, and win this pure and electrifying tradition unlike any other that stands tallest in the world of golf.

 

 

2017 Masters
Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.
Notable First Round Tee Times (ET)
7:40 a.m.:  Honorary Starters (Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player)

9:06 a.m.:  Zach Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Hadwin
9:28 a.m.:  Adam Scott, Kevin Kisner, Andy Sullivan
10:01 a.m.:  Fred Couples, Paul Casey, Kevin Na
10:12 a.m.:  Russell Knox, Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama
10:34 a.m.:  Jordan Spieth, Martin Kaymer, Matthew Fitzpatrick
10:45 a.m.:  Phil Mickelson, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Si Woo Kim
10:56 a.m.:  Brandt Snedeker, Justin Rose, Jason Day
12:24 p.m.:  Danny Willett, Matt Kuchar, Curtis Luck (a)
12:46 p.m.:  Angel Cabrera, Henrik Stenson, Tyrrell Hatton
1:19 p.m.:  Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Shane Lowry
1:41 p.m.:  Rory McIlroy, Hideto Tanihara, Jon Rahm
1:52 p.m.:  Marc Leishman, Bill Haas, Justin Thomas
2:03 p.m.:  Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker

Masters Champions
(Year, Winner, Nationality, Score)
1934 Horton Smith, U.S., 284

1935 Gene Sarazen, U.S., 282
1936 Horton Smith, U.S., 285
1937 Byron Nelson, U.S., 283
1938 Henry Picard, U.S., 285
1939 Ralph Guldahl, U.S., 279
1940 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 280
1941 Craig Wood, U.S., 280
1942 Byron Nelson, U.S., 280
1943-45 No tournament due to World War II
1946 Herman Keiser, U.S., 282
1947 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 281
1948 Claude Harmon, U.S., 279
1949 Sam Snead, U.S., 282
1950 Jimmy Demaret, U.S., 283
1951 Ben Hogan, U.S., 280
1952 Sam Snead, U.S., 286
1953 Ben Hogan, U.S., 274
1954 Sam Snead, U.S., 289
1955 Cary Middlecoff, U.S., 279
1956 Jack Burke Jr., U.S., 289
1957 Doug Ford, U.S., 283
1958 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 284
1959 Art Wall Jr., U.S., 284
1960 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 282
1961 Gary Player, South Africa, 280
1962 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 280
1963 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 286
1964 Arnold Palmer, U.S., 276
1965 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 271
1966 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 288
1967 Gay Brewer, U.S., 280
1968 Bob Goalby, U.S., 277
1969 George Archer, U.S., 281
1970 Billy Casper, U.S., 279
1971 Charles Coody, U.S., 279
1972 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 286
1973 Tommy Aaron, U.S., 283
1974 Gary Player, South Africa, 278
1975 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 276
1976 Raymond Floyd, U.S., 271
1977 Tom Watson, U.S., 276
1978 Gary Player, South Africa, 277
1979 Fuzzy Zoeller, U.S., 280
1980 Seve Ballesteros, Spain, 275
1981 Tom Watson, U.S., 280
1982 Craig Stadler, U.S., 284
1983 Seve Ballesteros, Spain, 280
1984 Ben Crenshaw, U.S., 277
1985 Bernhard Langer, West Germany, 282
1986 Jack Nicklaus, U.S., 279
1987 Larry Mize, U.S., 285
1988 Sandy Lyle, Scotland, 281
1989 Nick Faldo, England, 283
1990 Nick Faldo, England, 278
1991 Ian Woosnam, Wales, 277
1992 Fred Couples, U.S., 275
1993 Bernhard Langer, Germany, 277
1994 Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain, 279
1995 Ben Crenshaw, U.S., 274
1996 Nick Faldo, England, 276 
1997 Tiger Woods, U.S., 270
1998 Mark O’Meara, U.S., 279
1999 Jose Maria Olazabal, Spain, 280
2000 Vijay Singh, Fiji, 278
2001 Tiger Woods, U.S., 272
2002 Tiger Woods, U.S., 276
2003 Mike Weir, Canada, 281
2004 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 279
2005 Tiger Woods, U.S., 276
2006 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 281
2007 Zach Johnson, U.S., 289
2008 Trevor Immelman, South Africa, 280
2009 Angel Cabrera, Argentina, 276
2010 Phil Mickelson, U.S., 272
2011 Charl Schwartzel, South Africa, 274
2012 Bubba Watson, U.S., 278
2013 Adam Scott, Australia, 279
2014 Bubba Watson, U.S., 280
2015 Jordan Spieth, U.S., 270
2016 Danny Willett, England, 283

Column: Rules Unfairly Rob Thompson of LPGA Major Title

When So Yeon Ryu, the winner of the LPGA Tour’s first major championship of 2017, says she doesn’t feel right about how she won, you know there’s a problem.

In Sunday’s final round of the ANA Inspiration, Lexi Thompson left the 12th green with a three-shot lead, strongly positioned for her second title in the event.

Then, the LPGA dropped a bombshell.

Rules official Sue Witters informed Thompson that she was being assessed a four-shot penalty after the LPGA had deemed that Thompson misplaced her ball when marking it on the 17th green in Saturday’s third round.

The violation had been discovered only after a television viewer, presumably watching Saturday’s round a day later on DVR, emailed the tour about the potential violation, after which officials reviewed video and penalized Thompson.

After the penalty, Thompson fought through tears to play the final six holes in 2-under, making three birdies including one on the final hole to reach a playoff.  She lost the sudden-death playoff to Ryu, who won her second major.

The violation itself is a two-stroke penalty, but given the circumstances two additional strokes were added for Thompson signing an incorrect scorecard in Saturday’s round.

Thompson, who fell from three ahead to one behind the lead, was understandably shaken by the sudden turn of events.

“Is this a joke?” Thompson asked, and after Witters confirmed she was serious, Thompson replied, “This is ridiculous.”

The golf community responded similarly to Thompson, with many, including the sport’s biggest name, showing their displeasure with the ruling on Twitter:

Based on the rules as written by the USGA, the ruling was correct.

“I can’t go to bed tonight knowing I let a rule slide,” Witters said. “It’s a hard thing to do, and it made me sick, to be honest with you.”

But the way it played out was certainly unfair, and begs the question whether some changes may be necessary.

Tiger Woods and the other professionals above have a point:  no other sport’s fans have the ability to call in (or, in this case, email in) potential violations they have seen from home on the event’s television broadcast.

This has an easy solution:  the PGA and LPGA Tours and other sanctioning bodies whose events are televised should place a rules official in the television truck, where they can watch the broadcast for potential violations and request replays or additional camera angles if necessary.

The potential for a fan at home to influence the officiating of an event, especially 24 hours later, is simply nonsensical.

The rule on signing an incorrect scorecard should also change in cases where the player has no intent of improving their score.  Penalizing Thompson, or any other player, two shots for not writing down a penalty that wouldn’t be discovered for another 24 hours is totally unfair to the competitor.

The original rule for signing an incorrect card was if the incorrect score was better than the player’s actual score, the player was disqualified.  Fortunately for Thompson, instead of being disqualified as she would have been with the original rule, a 2016 rule change made it a two-stroke penalty.

But that’s still unfair.  Thompson had no intent in signing an incorrect card, because she had no idea a penalty in her round was even possible.  Penalizing her for a review initiated by the LPGA upon a fan’s suggestion is completely unfair.

Enforcing such a penalty after 12 holes of the final round have been played is even more ridiculous.

Thompson entered the final round at 13-under par, leading Suzann Pettersen by two shots, and played from ahead through the first 12 holes.  Had she started the final round at 9-under, chasing the lead instead of protecting it, she would have played more aggressively to try to catch (and pass) the leader.  Instead, her strategy was different for two-thirds of her round because she had no clue she was about to be penalized.

There is no way this can be considered fair.  Knowing the “time and score” is immensely important for participants in any sport.  Reviewing a play in a “stick and ball” sport later in the game is unreasonable, which is why reviews in such sports can’t happen after the next play has begun.

In golf, it is legal for tournament officials to enforce a penalty from Saturday during Sunday’s round, but once the final player to finish the final round signs their scorecard, the tournament is considered over, so a penalty in Sunday’s round cannot be added on Monday.

For the fairness of all participants (the other players have a right to know where their opponents stand), it should be written into the USGA rules that a penalty cannot be added once the player has started their following round.

My proposal of a rules official in the television truck and no ruling suggestions from fans would help here too, because potential violations would come up immediately instead of hours later or the next day.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time in recent memory penalty strokes have come into play late in a major championship.  In the final round of last year’s U.S. Open at Oakmont, Dustin Johnson was notified on the 12th hole that he may or may not be penalized a stroke for his ball moving on the fifth green–the decision could only be made once officials and Johnson sat down with video evidence after the round–and had to finish the round not knowing if he was, for instance, leading by one stroke or tied.

In Johnson’s case, the penalty ended up not mattering, as he finished at 5-under, four shots ahead of the nearest challengers at 1-under, and won by three after the penalty dropped him to 4-under.

Thompson wasn’t as fortunate.  As a result, the 2016 U.S. Olympian still had a chance to win, which she narrowly missed, but was robbed of her fairest chance to win one of the biggest events in women’s golf.

Now, as the sport of golf enters its biggest event this week at The Masters, a black cloud hangs over the sport, with a real question of how fairly its rules may play out in the event of similar circumstances on its biggest stage at Augusta.

2017 MLB Preview

After a thrilling 2016 season that concluded with the Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series since 1908 (and being named Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year), it’s time for the 2017 season to commence.

The season begins today with a trio of games on the ESPN family of networks (N.Y. Yankees at Tampa Bay, San Francisco at Arizona, Chi. Cubs at St. Louis), before Opening Day around the country tomorrow.

As usual, there are many storylines entering the season.  With the Cubs no longer having a century-long curse without a title, the longest drought now belongs to the Cleveland Indians, but they have positioned themselves well to potentially end their own dry spell this year.

Meanwhile, the Cubs remain strong and have a legitimate chance to repeat, while every other team that made the playoffs in 2016 has very good shot to return, with nearly all favored or co-favored in their respective divisions.

That’s not to say there can’t be risers from 2016’s non-playoff teams.  That group includes the Cardinals, Royals, Pirates, Tigers and Astros, all of whom have had recent success, as well as teams on the rise like the Braves, Rockies, Yankees and Mariners.

So without further adieu, here are my predictions for each division race in the 2017 season.

P.S.:  don’t take these to the bank–last year’s picks missed all over the map, with some picks missing badly.

 

Editor’s note:  instead of boring you with a detailed description of the depth of each roster, I’ve only included a few key points.  Links to each team’s MLB.com depth chart are included if you would like to see how each individual position stacks up.

 

NL East 

1. Washington Nationals
2016: 95-67, lost to Dodgers in NLCS
The Nationals have a rotation–Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez at the top and the underrated pair of Tanner Roark and Joe Ross at the bottom–to match that of the division-rival Mets.  Scherzer is the defending NL Cy Young winner, but it was Roark who had the staff’s best ERA last year (2.83).  The bullpen, however, will be a question mark.

With the additions of OF Adam Eaton and C Matt Wieters, which helped offset a few bench departures, their lineup is better than New York, and should give them the slight edge in a tight division race.  It’s hard to believe, but the Nationals have still never won a playoff series in franchise history, including last year’s 5-game NLDS loss to the Dodgers; that fact could change in 2017.

2. New York Mets
2016: 87-75, lost to Giants in NL Wild Card Game
After a Wild Card Game loss to the Giants, if the Mets stay fully healthy, they could very easily top the Nationals.  But over the last couple of years, injuries have ravaged this team on both sides of the ball.  Their rotation, when healthy, may be the best in baseball, but all five of their young arms have an injury concern, and oft-injured 3B David Wright is out for now with a shoulder injury.  That said, Robert Gsellman, who may not have even made the roster if not for Steven Matz’s elbow inflammation, is a sleeper candidate for NL Rookie of the Year.

Offensively, the Mets return last year’s lineup, which was at times too reliant on the home run–no regular starter hit higher than .282 (Neil Walker); for their best shot at the Nationals, more consistency in the offense and their health will be important.

3. Atlanta Braves
2016: 68-93; last postseason appearance: 2013
The Braves were a different team last year after the trade-deadline acquisition of Matt Kemp (37-68 before, 31-25 after), which gave Freddie Freeman some “protection” in the lineup.  2017 Rookie of the Year favorite Dansby Swanson was also effective in a short late-season stint, and the bullpen got better as the year progressed.

Now, with no significant roster losses and the interim tag removed from manager Brian Snitker, the Braves pitching staff has added Jaime Garcia and former Cy Young winners Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey to the rotation short-term to bridge the gap to 2018 and beyond, when the strong pitching in baseball’s top farm system will continue reaching the majors.  In the meantime, this team should be more competitive than the last two years, and if it all comes together could be a sleeper in the East.

4. Miami Marlins
2016: 79-82; last postseason appearance: 2003
The September death of pitcher Jose Fernandez was tragic, as a shining young star in the game was lost much too soon.  But beyond just the emotional loss for the Marlins, they now have a hole to fill in the rotation.  The team tried in free agency, but the aging Edinson Volquez is unlikely to match Fernandez’s effectiveness or spirit.

This team will hit, especially if Giancarlo Stanton stays healthy (he hasn’t for a full season since 2014), and has added veterans Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa for depth in an already strong bullpen.  This team is not terrible, and should hover at or just below the .500 mark again, but there is no reason to believe this is the year they make the leap to contenders.

5. Philadelphia Phillies
2016: 71-91; last postseason appearance: 2011
The Phillies added some experience to their young roster this offseason, adding P Joaquin Benoit in free agency and trading for P Clay Buchholz, P Pat Neshek and OF Howie Kendrick.  However, these moves essentially just offset the players lose in free agency, leaving the Phillies with a similar roster composition to their team from last year.

This organization is moving in the right direction, although they are doing it slowly.  There is talent on the major league roster, and those players will get better with more experience, while more young talent comes through a strong farm system.

 

NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs
2016: 103-58, defeated Indians to win World Series
A year after breaking the most famous drought in professional sports, the Cubs are fully capable of winning the World Series again in 2017.  The core of the 2016 champs is intact, with the exception of free agent departure Dexter Fowler, whose place in center field will be taken by a Jon Jay/Albert Almora platoon.  Kyle Schwarber will also be with the team a full season after missing the entire regular season then becoming a World Series hero.

The Cubs rotation, with the 2015 Cy Young Winner (Jake Arrieta) and two of the top three in last year’s Cy Young voting (Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks) held a remarkable 2.96 ERA.  The bullpen lost free agent closer Aroldis Chapman, but after signing Wade Davis and Koji Uehara have three of the last four pitchers to record the final out of the World Series (along with returning Cub Mike Montgomery).

2. St. Louis Cardinals
Projected Wild Card #1
2016: 86-76; last postseason appearance: 2015
The Cardinals missed the playoffs by one game last season, snapping a five-year postseason streak, and they’ll be motivated after their rivals from Chicago won it all.  Free agent OF Dexter Fowler left the Cubs to come to St. Louis, giving the Cardinals the true leadoff hitter they’ve lacked the last couple of years.

The pitching staff doesn’t have the depth they’ve had in previous years, especially in the bullpen, but should still be strong; Carlos Martinez has emerged as the staff ace, and free agent signee Brett Cecil will help in the ‘pen.

This is still the typical Cardinals roster full of players they have drafted and developed (with a few exceptions), and while they don’t quite match up with the Cubs, they are still capable of a successful season and a wild card berth.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates
2016: 78-83; last postseason appearance: 2015
The Bucs took a big step back last year, winning 20 games less than in 2015, and this year they continue to look fairly mediocre.  The pitching staff features young talent, including Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, who may experience some growing pains.

Offensively, while no position stands out as a glaring weakness, there aren’t many strengths either.  How Andrew McCutchen plays after the Pirates tried to trade him in the offseason could be a big key to whether or not the Pirates have any shot at contending, although being in the same division with the Cubs, said contention would more likely be for a wild card spot.

4. Milwaukee Brewers
2016: 73-89; last postseason appearance: 2011
The Brewers understand their situation as a rebuilding team, and instead of punishing manager Craig Counsell for losing seasons his first two years, extended him through 2020.  A pitching staff full of young players and reclamation projects is potentially no better than last year, especially after losing free agent reliver Tyler Thornburg.

Offensively, the team does have a couple of things going for them, even after the loss of free agent slugger Chris Carter.  Ryan Braun continues his very solid career, and Jonathan Villar has established himself at the top of the order.  An intriguing player is Eric Thames, who hasn’t played in MLB since 2012 but signed as a free agent after a successful stint playing in Korea.  But even if it all clicks offensively, it’s unlikely to be enough to contend.

5. Cincinnati Reds
2016: 68-94; last postseason appearance: 2013
The Reds are also in a rebuild, and I wrote about their indifferent long-term outlook when they traded Brandon Phillips in February.  After going a combined 132-192 in the last two seasons, they return virtually the same roster (with the exception of losing Phillips).

Offensively, a lineup including 1B Joey Votto and young slugger Adam Duvall was mid-pack in the National League, and should continue to be.  However, the pitching staff had a team ERA of 4.91 a year ago, including 5.09 in relief, and is no better this year.  Some of that is due to playing in a small ballpark, but the struggles of this pitching staff still can’t be ignored entering 2017.

 

NL West 

1. San Francisco Giants
2016: 87-75, lost to Cubs in NLDS
After having the best record in MLB at the All-Star break last season, the Giants ended up as a Wild Card team; the main reason was a horrendous bullpen.  That unit improved with one offseason move–the signing of closer Mark Melancon.  Now, when the solid Madison Bumgarner-Johnny Cueto-Matt Moore trio in the rotation gives the Giants a lead, there’s a better chance the team will keep it.

Last year’s Giants offense, led by C Buster Posey and OF Hunter Pence, was above average in batting average and below average in home runs.  That combination had that offense, which is essentially unchanged, ranking ninth in the NL in runs.  With a strong rotation and improved bullpen, that could be enough to win the West.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected Wild Card #2
2016: 91-71, lost to Cubs in NLCS
The Dodgers have won four straight NL West titles, and have the longest active postseason streak in baseball.  Last year, they did it offensively with young players, like Joc Pedersen, Andrew Toles and NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager.  They’re all back, with another year’s experience under their belt, although they lose OFs Josh Reddick and Howie Kendrick.

The pitching staff couldn’t stay healthy last year, and still had a 3.70 team ERA.  The best pitcher in the game resides at Dodger Stadium in Clayton Kershaw, but he also has a very deep unit behind him (so much so, Alex Wood is starting the season in the bullpen).  The bullpen lost some of its depth in free agency and is the team’s biggest question mark–even with the re-signing of closer Kenley Jansen, the unit’s instability moves the team just behind the Giants in the West.

3. Colorado Rockies
2016: 75-87; last postseason appearance: 2009
The Rockies have improved their win total the last two years, and have one of the best offenses in the game–their offensive stats, including a .275 average, are spectacular, even for a team that plays half its games at altitude–led by MVP candidate Nolan Arenado.  That offense now adds veteran Ian Desmond, a player who is used to being on successful teams, although he’ll start the season on the DL.

Pitching at Coors Field is tough, and while this team (or any Rockies team, for that matter) is highly unlikely to lead the league in ERA, their young rotation has a shot to be really good, while a bullpen that had a 5.13 ERA in 2016 has bolstered itself by adding Greg Holland, Jake McGee and Mike Dunn.  The Rockies are probably still a year away, but some teams have gotten “ahead of schedule” in recent years, so Colorado could be a sleeper team out west.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks
2016: 69-93; last postseason appearance: 2011
After looking like a potential contender last year, the Diamondbacks’ season was about as horrendous as their uniforms.  Former Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo comes in as manager, and faces a tough task in the desert.  The offense was not the problem in 2016–led by 1B Paul Goldschmidt, the D-Backs were above average in batting average, OPS, homers and steals–and should still be good, even without NL hits leader 2B Jean Segura.

A 5.09 staff ERA was main cause of last year’s struggles, including a 5.19 rotation ERA.  This year’s staff may be moderately better with the additions of Taijuan Walker in the rotation and Fernando Rodney in the bullpen, but mostly consists of the same cast of characters and lack of depth that plagued them last year.  Those struggles are likely to continue, keeping them from contention once again this year.

5. San Diego Padres
2016: 68-94; last postseason appearance: 2006
The Padres have lost at least 85 games every year since 2010, and after a rough 2016 campaign have lost OF Jon Jay, C Derek Norris, P Edwin Jackson, P Brandon Morrow and P Tyson Ross (who was injured in 2016 but was a key piece previously).

Jhoulys Chacin, who was the #4 starter to start the season last year for an Atlanta team that lost 93 games, is now the Opening Day starter for the Padres, and former catcher Christian Bethancourt has made the roster as a reliever, both of which tells you all you need to know about their lack of pitching depth.  The offense, which was well below average last year, has solid young players like OFs Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot, in addition to established 1B Wil Myers, but this team looks worse than last year’s 94-loss team, and is miles away from contention.  Three Rule 5 Draft players made the roster; the last such team was the 2003 Tigers (43-119).

 

National League Playoffs Prediction

NL Wild Card Game:  Cardinals def. Dodgers

NLDS:  Cubs def. Cardinals, Nationals def. Giants

NLCS:  Cubs def. Nationals

 

AL East

1. Boston Red Sox
2016: 93-69, lost to Indians in ALDS
After winning the AL East last year, the Red Sox got even better in the offseason.  While they lost David Ortiz to retirement, 1B/DH Mitch Moreland is a worthy addition to mostly fill that void, and the young outfield of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi will be a year older and more experienced after each were solid in 2016 (Benintendi is still considered a rookie, and is AL Rookie of the Year favorite).

The pitching staff boasts 2016 AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, but he is not even the best pitcher on the staff after the acquisition of Chris Sale; a top three featuring those two and David Price, also a former Cy Young winner, is as good as any.  In the bullpen, trading for Tyler Thornburg (although he’ll start on the DL) offsets some losses in free agency.  The Red Sox are favored to repeat as AL East champs, although it will, as always, be a very tough division to win.

2. Toronto Blue Jays
Projected Wild Card #1
2016: 89-73, lost to Indians in ALCS
The Blue Jays return mostly the same roster that has gone to the ALCS the last two years, with one glaring exception.  DH Edwin Encarnacion became an Indian in free agency, and the aging Kendrys Morales, who signed with Toronto, won’t replace all of Encarnacion’s production.  Otherwise, the team’s offense remains intact.

While the Blue Jays are known for the high-flying offense of the last two years, their pitching staff is quietly one of the best in baseball.  Their 3.78 ERA last year was the best in the AL, with a strong five-deep rotation (Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano) and a bullpen anchored closer Roberto Osuna and former closer Jason Grilli.  Beating Boston won’t be easy, but it’s doable if everything comes together.

3. New York Yankees
2016: 84-78; last playoff appearance: 2015
The Yankees are transitioning into a team with a young core capable of a sustained run, a solid development for a team whose main criticism the last couple of years was its increasing age.  Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira retired and Brian McCann was traded, clearing the way for young guns such as C Gary Sanchez, 1B Greg Bird and RF Aaron Judge.  This trio will make the Yankees formidable in the years to come.

The Yankee rotation is still old, led by Masahiro Tanaka and C.C. Sabathia.  The bullpen is bolstered by Aroldis Chapman, who was dealt to the Cubs in July for prospects and returned to New York on a lucrative five-year free agent deal.  The ‘pen, which also features Dellin Betances (who would close almost anywhere else) and Tyler Clippard, pitched to a 3.67 ERA last year.  The Yankees are probably a year away from threatening a deep playoff run, but if the young players adapt quickly and the veterans stay healthy they could pose a threat to Boston and Toronto now.

4. Baltimore Orioles
2016: 89-73, lost to Blue Jays in AL Wild Card Game
The Orioles under Buck Showalter have made the playoffs every other year; if the trend continues, they’re due to miss the postseason this year, and after a quiet offseason that is realistic.  Offensively, C Wellington Castillo replacing the departed Matt Wieters is the only major change to an offense right at the league average in batting average and on-base percentage, although they only stole 19 bases all season.

Rotation depth was questionable last year, with a 4.72 unit ERA, and is worse this year after Yovanni Gallardo was traded and Tommy Hunter became a free agent.  Making matters worse, two of their five projected starters are on the DL to start the season.  The bullpen is good (3.40 ERA in 2016), and closer Zach Britton is great (), but how many leads will they get?  Sure, this is somewhat the same team that won 89 games last year, but after their stagnant offseason they’ve lost ground in the AL East.

5. Tampa Bay Rays
2016: 68-94; last playoff appearance: 2013
After losing 94 games in 2016, the Rays also had a tellingly uneventful offseason.  An offense that hit a league-worst .243 last year is no better, and while the team did make one signing to try to improve themselves, it was C Wilson Ramos, who is out until at least the All-Star break with a knee injury from last year.

The Rays have a solid top three in the rotation, with Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Cobb, although below that it is less stable, and a bullpen that pitched to a 4.09 ERA last season lost Kevin Jepsen.  In the AL East, facing the four teams above them 19 times each, it is going to be a long year for the Rays.

 

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians
2016: 94-67, lost to Cubs in World Series
The 2016 Indians lost Game 7 of the World Series in extra innings, becoming the first team to do so since the 1997 Indians.  Good news for Cleveland is all three previous teams to lose Game 7 in extra innings won at least 89 games and made at least the LCS the following year.  Even better news is that this year’s edition should be even better than the 2016 team.

The core of last year’s squad is intact, while free agent DH Edwin Encarnacion adds some power to the lineup.  The 2016 playoff run was without OF Michael Brantley and pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar; all three of those key pieces are now healthy. Imagine last year’s playoff run with even more pitching depth, or another clutch hitter.  It’s scary, and the rest of the league should be scared of what this team is capable of in 2017, as they try to win their first World Series in 69 years.

2. Detroit Tigers
2016: 86-75; last postseason appearance: 2014
Last year, the Tigers were still alive to make the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.  This year, with mostly the same roster, Brad Ausmus’s team is looking to take the next step.  The offense was the strength of last year’s team, led by a perennial MVP candidate in 1B Miguel Cabrera, veteran DH Victor Martinez and slugging LF Justin Upton.

The pitching staff’s 4.24 ERA last year was 11th in the AL, despite the resurgence of ace Justin Verlander and the Rookie of the Year season of Michael Fulmer.  The bullpen has been a problem here for years, although it is improving, led by closer Francisco Rodriguez and up-and-coming set-up man Bruce Rondon.  The Indians will be tough to catch, but a Wild Card berth is very realistic for the Tigers.

3. Kansas City Royals
2016: 81-81; last postseason appearance: 2015
After ending a 29-year playoff drought in 2014 by reaching the World Series, then winning it all in 2015, the Royals led the division after a 30-22 start, a 20-33 record in June/July doomed them to a distant third-place finish and a .500 record.  Offensively, the team offset the loss of Kendrys Morales by signing Brandon Moss, traded for OF Jorge Soler, and retain most of the core from the championship team.

The biggest loss of the offseason came with the death of ace Yordano Ventura in a car accident.  Overcoming that loss emotionally won’t be easy, and replacing him on the field won’t be either, especially since the team lacks the depth provided previously by departed players Edinson Volquez, Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis.  The addition of Travis Wood will help, and Mike Minor, who has moved to the bullpen, could as well if he stays healthy, but it’s hard to see any better of a record than last year.

4. Minnesota Twins
2016: 59-103; last postseason appearance: 2010
2016 was not a good year for the Twins, who had a league-worst 5.08 ERA, a league-worst .979 fielding percentage, and a fifth-worst .251 batting average.  On one hand, the outlook isn’t good for 2017 either, as C Jason Castro is the team’s only addition, although he essentially just replaces free agent Kurt Suzuki.

On the other hand, this is a rebuilding team, and the young core of the future is intact for another season.  Sure, it can’t get much worse than a 103-loss season, but players like Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Byron Buxton who are the all-stars of the future should be better with more experience.  This team won’t win the Central, but still has some big issues in the pitching staff, but should be moderately better and could pass the White Sox.

5. Chicago White Sox
2016: 78-84; last postseason appearance: 2008
The White Sox started 2016 at 23-10 and looked like a potential contender, but as the season crumbled away the team decided it was time to rebuild.  Chris Sale and Adam Eaton were traded, and Justin Morneau and Austin Jackson are among the free agent departures.  Those trades netted the Sox two of baseball’s best prospects in P Lucas Giolito and IF Yoan Moncada, but they aren’t quite MLB-ready to start the season.

Besides Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier in the middle of the order, the lineup is full of young players and reclamation projects.  The rotation is led by legitimate ace Carlos Quintana, but it’s no secret the White Sox are trying to trade him for a haul of prospects, so it’s unknown if he’ll be in Chicago all season, and beneath him the pitching staff has many more questions than answers.  It’s going to be a long year (or few years) in the South Side as the White Sox rebuild.

 

AL West

1. Houston Astros
2016: 84-78; last postseason appearance: 2015
Last year, coming off their “ahead of schedule” postseason berth in 2015, the Astros underachieved and missed the playoffs.  As a result, they were aggressive in free agency to try to add to their talented core of young stars including Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and George Springer, and added DH Carlos Beltran, C Brian McCann (via trade) and OFs Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick.  This lineup is stacked, which is refreshing after they struggled to score at times last year.

The bullpen (3.56 ERA in 2016) remains a force from top to bottom.  The biggest question is the rotation, which added Charlie Morton to offse tthe loss of Doug Fister.  If Dallas Keuchel can return to his 2015 Cy Young form, there’s no reason the Astros can’t win the West and be a threat to go deep in October.

 

2. Seattle Mariners
Projected Wild Card #2
2016: 86-76; last postseason appearance: 2001
The Mariners fell just short in 2016, and still seek their first playoff appearance since 2001.  Some wonder if their window is closing, as stars Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz aren’t getting any younger.  In an effort to win now, the Mariners made a plethora of trades this offseason, but none were bigger than a deal to get SS Jean Segura, who led the NL in hits last year with Arizona.  The Mariners stole just 56 bases last year, while Segura himself stole 33.

The back end of a good rotation was helped with the acquisition of Yovanni Gallardo, while Edwin Diaz emerged as the closer last year in a strong bullpen (3.55 ERA) that could be even better.  This team has the talent to win the division, although they’ll need a solid season to beat Houston.

3. Texas Rangers
2016: 95-67, lost to Blue Jays in ALDS
The Rangers were a statistcal anomaly in 2016, at 26 games over .500 despite a run differential of just +8.  Now, while the core of the defending West champs remains, some of the supporting cast is absent.  DH Carlos Beltran, OF Ian Desmond, 1B/DH Mitch Moreland and P Colby Lewis are among the departures.  The team did add 1B Mike Napoli and P Andrew Cashner, who will start the season on the DL.

The lineup was above average in every major category last year, but that may change without Beltran, Desmond and Moreland.  A good rotation led by Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish will give way to a bullpen that struggled last year to a 4.40 ERA and is virtually unchanged.  This is still a good team, but the Astros and Mariners have passed them this offseason.

 

4. Los Angeles Angels
2016: 74-88; last postseason appearance: 2014
Depth is a key issue for the Angels.  Offensively, behind Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, there’s not much there, although they have one of the game’s best defenders in SS Andrelton Simmons.  There also aren’t reinforcements coming:  the Angels farm system is consistently rated one of the game’s worst.

Starting pitching depth and health was an issue in 2016, and loses depth in departed veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.  The bullpen isn’t bad (3.77 ERA in 2016), that won’t be enough to cure this team’s problems.  The Angels are in transition; they aren’t in a all-in rebuild, but they also aren’t going to be contenders.

5. Oakland Athletics
2016: 69-93; last postseason appearance: 2014
The A’s have lost 93-plus games the last two years, and last year were well below average on both sides of the ball.  The lineup adds Matt Joyce, Rajai Davis and Trevor Plouffe, and while no large holes jump off the depth chart their lineup is full of guys who would be hitting in the bottom half of the order most other places.

On the mound, ace Sonny Gray will start the season on the DL, and beneath him the A’s have no rotation depth.  The bullpen isn’t much better, with journeyman Ryan Madson set to serve as closer.  The “Moneyball” concept has worked at times in Oakland; this is not one of those times, as the refusal to spend much to make this team better is going to cost them for another year.

 

American League Playoffs Prediction

AL Wild Card Game: Blue Jays def. Mariners

ALDS: Indians def. Blue Jays, Red Sox def. Astros

ALCS: Indians def. Astros

 

World Series Prediction

113th World Series:  Indians def. Cubs