Monday, July 29, 2013

My 2014 Super Bowl Prediction

My 2014 Super Bowl Prediction
By Jordan Wagner

Yes, it is still July, but baseball highlights just don’t grip me the same way as an imagined Super Bowl matchup. I’ve wanted to get around to writing this article ever since March, and now I’m happy to announce my 2014 Super Bowl prediction:

 Denver Broncos vs. Seattle Seahawks.

Let’s start with Denver. After their first season with Peyton Manning, I think it’s safe to say now that Denver is the strongest title contender in the AFC. This past year, he threw 400 completions for 4,659 yards, his second highest accumulation of yards during a regular season ever (1). With 37 TD passes this past season, he finished in third place overall, just behind Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers (2). Needless to say, Manning didn’t look old or rusty during his first season with Denver. His receivers, namely Demaryius Thomas and Erick Decker, had a solid year as well. Thomas finished off with 1,434 receiving yards, putting him at 4th place overall, and Decker wasn’t too far behind with 1,064 yards. Denver’s passing attack was outstanding; ranks their offense at number 2 overall coming into the 2013 season, just behind New England, which I find interesting considering Hernandez will no longer be playing and the effects of Gronkowski’s injury remain to be seen (3).

 What’s going to be the X factor with the Denver offense this year? Wes Welker, of course. Everyone is anxiously waiting to see how he contributes to the Broncos’ offense, and I am anticipating he will be deadly on third down plays as a slot receiver. Defenses already have enough trouble guarding Thomas and Decker, so with the speedy Welker slicing across the middle of the field, it’s going to be mayhem for anyone facing Peyton and company.

But hey, don’t count out that Denver defense! ranks them at number four overall coming into the 2013 season (3). In terms of yards allowed per game, the Broncos only allowed an average of 290.8, putting them at number 2 overall in that category just behind the Steelers (2). With 18.5 sacks last season, rising star Von Miller took 3rd place overall for the year (and while he faces possible suspension charges, it would be for just four games, so I don't think that's long enough to seriously impact the Broncos overall). Even Champ Bailey, the aging corner, has stayed consistent over the past few years, averaging 2 interceptions a season and still providing a strong leadership presence, though obviously Miller shares part of that now as well. Point being, even compared to the Denver offense, the Denver defense is a considerable force in the NFL.

Last year’s playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens was certainly not an indicator of Denver’s true potential. If it were not for Manning throwing an uncharacteristic interception from running outside the pocket and throwing across his body, we very well might have seen this Broncos team in the Super Bowl already.

Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos

The Seattle Seahawks are quite a force to be reckoned with these days. They have a multitude of weapons, but none so great as their defense. ranks Seattle’s Defense at number one overall going into the 2013-2014 season (4). Cornerback Richard Sherman, after having only played one year in the NFL, caught 8 interceptions this past season, putting him at number three on the list of players with the most interceptions last year (2). The Seattle defense finished first in total points allowed (1). But these statistics don’t even do the Seahawks justice. There’s a reason they call their backfield the Legion of Boom. There’s a reason opponents fear the 12th man. Just look at what the Seahawks did to the San Francisco 49ers last season at home. Seahawks up 14-0, 49ers about to kick a field goal, and it gets blocked by Red Bryant and returned for a touchdown by Richard Sherman. That’s just an example of how explosive, threatening and athletic the Seattle Defense is. There are countless others from the season, including big hits, interceptions and forced fumbles, but I want to highlight more of Seattle than just its astounding defense.

Russell Wilson. Boy, talk about a good start to your NFL career. The same could be said about RGIII and Andrew Luck, but I’d place my money that this now sophomore QB will see a Super Bowl appearance before the other two. Going back to that home game against San Francisco last season, Wilson had 4 touchdowns and was 15/21 throwing. Pretty impressive he was facing a 49ers defense that was still considered by some to be the best in the NFL. We all know he’s a running QB, and that adds a lot of dynamic to the Seahawks offense, but I say don’t discount this kid from the pocket. notes his QB rating at 100, and I think we will see a lot from him in the upcoming season.

As talented as Wilson may be, though, you don’t talk about a Seattle offense without Marshawn Lynch. Beast Mode activated. 315 carries this past season, the most of his career. 1,590 yards, the most of his career. 11 touchdowns, second most of his career. And the stat that you can’t see in the numbers: he runs over the defense. Anyone that has watched Lynch play knows that just because a defender gets to him doesn’t mean he’s going down. If you look at the last three games of the regular season last year, he never dipped below triple digits for rushing yards. That’s scary consistent in my book. So what will be the X factors this year? A sophomore QB that has proven himself, the addition of Percy Harvin and the belief that San Francisco isn’t making back-to-back Super Bowl trips. Marshawn Lynch has proven that he has the talent and drive to be a top tier running back in the NFL, and with nothing but confidence lying ahead of him, I think we’ll be looking at another career year for the stellar RB out of California.

Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks

Who will win the Super Bowl in 2014? The matchup will be amazing. Peyton Manning, the veteran, vs. Russell Wilson, the young gun. Marshawn Lynch, “beast mode”, vs. Von Miller and company. The Legion of Boom vs. Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker. This should be one for the ages. In the end, though, I think Seattle’s defense will be the edge needed to take down the Broncos.

Final Score: Seahawks, 28, Broncos 24.



                      Think I'm spot on? Disagree entirely? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, August 10, 2012

My Olympic Experience

By Jordan Wagner

     This summer, I had the privilege of being able to study abroad in London with Florida State University and go to one Olympic event, the USA men’s basketball game versus France. What a summer it was. The atmosphere even before the opening ceremonies was ecstatic, electric and hectic. Waves and waves of visitors from all over the world flooded areas such as the London Eye and Piccadilly Circus. I was able to meet people from France, Austria, Brazil, Australia, and Scotland, among other countries. The country may have been British, but the city was certainly international. When Italy beat Germany in the Euro Cup match, you would’ve thought you were in Venice with all the Italian flags being waved in the streets. But the city was alive with Olympic fever. Banners, flags, and even newly constructed mini statues of the London 2012 mascots (these little guys that kind of look like the minions from Despicable Me) were sprinkled all over town, setting the mood for what was sure to be a fantastic few weeks. 
A view from the London Eye
     However, nothing could match the atmosphere of when the jets flew across the sky and over Olympic Stadium, spreading red, white and blue in a spectacular fashion. I watched the opening ceremonies at a crowded pub right outside Olympic Park; my friends and I watched the jets on TV, then turned around to look outside and saw them fly right over our heads. The prestige and utter brilliance of the summer Olympics is something that cannot be matched, and while I may value events like the Super Bowl more, there is no denying the power that the Olympics have in the sports world.

In front of Olympic Stadium

     On Sunday, July 29th, my friend Julien and I donned our USA outfits (complete with flags worn as capes and matching USA shoes) and proceeded to Olympic Park, where we attended the USA men’s basketball game versus France. While the Olympics might be international, the basketball arena seemed to be as American as a tailgate before a college football game. United States’ flags waved from every section of the arena. My row in particular consisted of three older women on my left, each holding up a letter to spell U.S.A. On the right of my friend, more American supporters, dressed in patriotic T-shirts and headwear. The NBA is watched around the world, and boy does the world love our NBA players. Heck, it was the game versus Tunisia where one of the opposing players asked Kobe Bryant to sign one of his shoes.
Team USA before the tipoff against France 

     This is a great thing. Our players inspire the rest of the world to get better at basketball. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not saying other players and countries haven’t shown up this year. Tony Parker has played very well for France, and that team is certainly no pushover. Look at Spain, with both of the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka. Even non-NBA players such as the seven-footer Salah Mejri of Tunisia, who leads the Olympics in blocked shots, are showing they have what it takes to go head to head with our best players. Let’s not forget Lithuania actually was beating the U.S at one point late in the game when they met a few days back. Of course, the mighty USA is still the favorite to win the gold and hasn’t lost yet. It does go to show, though, that as the world becomes more globalized and connected, basketball greatness will not be limited to our great country.
     I could not have asked for a more exciting opportunity this summer. The atmosphere was surreal, made up of people from all over the world in a city so unlike anything you would find in my home state of Florida. Bravo and cheers to London, you’ve made what I’ve seen of the 2012 Olympics so far absolutely phenomenal. 


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The State of the NFL: Bounties and Beyond

Will Fairbanks

Within the last couple of months, we've seen four players, three coaches, and a general manager get suspended due to a "pay for pain" plot that has captured the sports world by storm.  Current and former members of the New Orleans Saints have been investigated and were found to have violated the NFL's pay for perfomance rule.  As a result, Gregg Williams, current Rams defensive coordinator, has been suspended indefinitely.  Sean Payton, current Saints head coach, has been suspended for the season.  Four former and current Saints players have suspensions ranging from three games to the entire 2012 season.  In a time where player safety has taken the front seat in the NFL, the recent bounty scandal provides perfect examples of what Roger Goodell is trying to correct.  The scandal has shown us nothing more than what the NFL has become: a money hungry, take the spotlight, physical, dangerous sport (as much as players may deny this).

One may come into the scandal and say that these players know what they are getting themselves into by signing a contract and joining a professional football team.  First off, yes, players do know what they are getting themselves into, but not one of these players sign contracts that say, "I give permission for other players to intentionally injure me." To put it in perspective, take the sport of boxing for example.  Boxers know what the sport entails.  The objective in boxing is to either win by going ten rounds and landing the highest number of punches and big hits or by completely knocking the opponent unconscious with a blow to the head.  Boxers know this before they step into the ring.  Do you hear of boxers filing lawsuits against their employers citing brain damage?  Another example is hockey.  Within hockey, there are rules that outline fighting within the game.  There are penalties in place for fighting, and within the context of the game, punching and taking an opponent to the ground is acceptable.  The difference lies with intent.

In fact, if you want to go deeper, the bounty scandal can be viewed as conspiracy and players involved can be subject to civil lawsuits.  These acts can be viewed as intentional torts, which in other terms is an intent to injure another party, whether its financially, physically, or emotionally.  There was a situation in the NHL back in 2004, where Todd Bertuzzi, who at the time played for the Vancouver Canucks, attacked Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche as retaliation for a hit that Moore laid earlier in the game.  Bertuzzi approached Moore from behind, landed a huge punch to the head, and slammed him to the ice.  Every part of the act indicated that there was an intent to injure.  Bertuzzi faced one of the longest suspensions in the history of the NHL and was sued in both Colorado and Canada.  Moore was forced to retire from the injuries sustained during the attack.  It may not have violated any pay for performance rules, but there were on-ice violations and the intent to injure which violates the most basic of human rights.  

The NFL's bounty scandal highlights the state of the league.  As Goodell tries to clean up the league, player safety has taken its fair share of criticism.  However, Goodell is trying to get football back to its fundamentals.  Professional football has grown to become a bunch of athletes looking to make a quick buck by providing highlight-reel, explosive hits trying to make a name for themselves.  James Harrison  quickly became one of the NFL's most targeted players when it comes to repeatedly breaking NFL policies regarding head to head hits on opposing players and was quoted saying he wasn't trying to injure anybody, but wanted to hurt them.

In a sense, Goodell has authentic, traditional, blue-collar football in mind when implementing the new policies regarding the types of hits that are now considered illegal.  His mission in player safety does have an underlying concern for a loss of revenue to lawsuits and such, but step aside from that notion for a second.  We have gotten to the point where players launch themselves headfirst into other players and call it a "tackle."  For years, as fans, we have considered this one of the most exciting aspects of football, but is it worth it for all these players to sacrifice skill for one or two big hits a game, and half a dozen missed opportunities?  These hits, by the way, are leading cause for brain damage, not for the player on the receiving end, but the giving end, and players wonder why they feel the aftermath later in life.

What happened to wrapping up the guy with the ball?  In the last few years, the number of missed tackles has increased a substantial amount and this is highlighted here.  Offensive numbers have increased as a result.  Many games have lost their dramatics due to the fact that offenses can drive down the field at will and score at ease.  There is, not excitement, suspense in the games controlled by defenses.  The strategy of the game is highlighted more when the defense can control the game because the offense has to do everything in its power to overcome those obstacles, rather than hope for the last possession just to go up 49-48 by the end of regulation.  Teams that know how to tackle have consistently ranked in the top 10 in total defense over the last few seasons and it should be no surprise this trend will continue with Goodell as commissioner.

There have been many topics in range with this post, but the hope is that it can help to portray the light at the end of the tunnel for the NFL.  The recent bounty scandal only shows the last bit of corruption, the last obstacle to the policies that the NFL is trying to enforce.  The scandal is not based on the hits that the players land on the opposition, but rather the intent behind the hits.  There is an intent to lay a big hit, injure another player, gain notoriety and fame, and increase fortunes for it.  This is what the league has become and this is what the league is trying to stop.  The league once provided a place for defensive guys to play with reckless abandon but is now trying to do everything to stop this.  They are trying to protect players, but in doing so, they are actually bringing strategy back into the game, something that has been missing for quite some time.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Why A Boston/Miami Series Will Be Fun To Watch

By Jordan Wagner

Yes, Boston and Miami are two of the big dogs in the East, so any matchup between them is bound to be exciting. However, this year’s playoff potential between the Celtics and Heat might be the best we’ve seen yet for a couple of reasons.

The first being that this could be the last chance for the Boston Celtics to make a title run with the Big 3 (or, as some say, Big 4 with Rondo.) There’s already been talk about trading any of the aging stars this season, and while the Big 3 are together for now, the future is uncertain. Especially considering, even if a trade didn’t happen, that Paul Peirce had been contemplating retirement earlier in the season. Just how much of a factor will a last ditch effort with the familiar players be should Boston and Miami meet?

Then look at the Heat. After closing out the series with New York, 4-1, they have momentum going forward. Of course, they had that same momentum last year as well, which resulted in a loss in the finals to Dallas. What makes this year different? For one thing, humility. After losing to the Mavericks last year, the Heat revised their “not one…not two…not three…” championship plan to “let’s at least get one, first.” And the pressure is on. LeBron James is surely one of, if not the, best player in the NBA right now. He’s 27 years old and in his prime. But what happens if he doesn’t win it this year? He’s played 8 full seasons in the NBA and has yet to make that ring appear on his finger. If his 9th comes and goes without a championship victory, will he start to panic? What more can he do if a team with Wade and Bosh can’t win him the final prize? We can’t know yet, but one thing is clear: LeBron doesn’t even want it to get to that point.

So you have two teams that have more pressure on them than anyone else in the East (Chicago’s not going to win it without Rose, period.) It will be exciting to watch them go at it. LeBron James vs. Paul Pierce. Dwayne Wade vs. Ray Allen. Chris Bosh vs. Kevin Garnett. One has time working against them. The other, the media. Who really wants it more? It will be a tough fight down to the wire, but my ultimate guess is the Heat. The Celtics would have to travel to Miami first and be able to squeeze at least one win out there to compete in the series. Easier said than done against a Heat team that has scored in triple digits every time they’ve been home in this playoff series so far.

They both need to get pass this next round, though. Neither the Pacers nor the Sixers are talked about as potential threats in the East, but sports are sports and should anything happen to Miami or Boston before the Eastern Finals, the other team will surely be celebrating. (Or can you imagine them both being knocked out? Wow, what a weird year for the NBA that would be.) However, taking the more likely path, an eventual Heat/Celtics matchup this year is sure to be one for the ages. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Who Can Beat the Heat?

By Jordan Wagner

Ladies and Gentlemen: it’s round two for the Miami Heat to start that “Not one…not two…not three…” championship run. Before they can win the championship, they have to win the East. I cannot think of an easier scenario than this year for the Heat to lock up a trip to the ship.

Let’s start with the Knicks. Miami whopmed on New York 100 to 67 the first game of the series. Now that the Heat have the 2-0 lead, I’m not thinking a comeback is likely for a Knicks team that allowed a 32-4 run against them over the second and third quarter in game one. Let’s just call the Knicks a science experiment gone wrong and focus on the next round.

Should Miami move on, they will either play the Orlando Magic or Indiana Pacers. Therefore, they will either play a Dwight Howard-less Orlando team, or the Pacers, who lost to the depleted Orlando team the first game of the series. Don’t get me wrong, folks. I am a Magic fan through and through and want nothing less than for my team to win the NBA championship this year. However, we all must live on earth, and it doesn’t look like we would have a chance of beating the Heat this year (even the fact that we got a game on Indiana was utterly surprising to me.) What about the Pacers beating the Heat? Answer that question with the following headline: "Indiana upsets Miami to move on to the Eastern Conference Finals!" Yeah, it’s just not believable.

The real battle would have ensued in the Eastern Conference Finals had Chicago been able to keep Derrick Rose healthy. With him out of the picture, it’s going to be a struggle for the Bulls to even get past the winner of the Boston/Atlanta series. Now granted, Chicago has one of the top defenses in the NBA, so a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals is not out of reach. If one looks at the regular season, he would see that Chicago beat Miami twice without Derrick Rose. So why would it be the case that the Bulls won’t be able to handle the Heat again this year?

Simple: the playoffs are when it matters the most.

The Bulls do not have their MVP, who can create his own shots when the game is on the line. They have managed well up to this point with solid defense, good coaching and key efforts by players like Deng, Boozer and even Watson. But playing a Miami team that is only one series away from a berth to the championship will be more than difficult without the All-Star point guard. No, Ladies and Gentlemen, if I were a betting man my money, much to my dismay as a Magic and Bulls fan, would be on Miami to win the East.

Who they would play in the championship is certainly a different story. The obvious Thunder/Heat matchup would excite a lot of fans, pitting arguably the two best players in the league right now up against each other. Of course, there is always that pesky Lakers team that could slip their way into the Finals again. And who knows, maybe this will be an upset year and the Clippers will climb to the top. The West has yet to be won, but one thing is looking certain: if the Heat want a chance to try their luck again at a title and to begin that “not one…not two…not three…” run, this is the year to strike. The East is weak.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Stanley Cup Bound: Sidney Crosby, Difference Maker

by Will Fairbanks

The Pittsburgh Penguins have won 13 of their last 14 games and are in a position to make a huge Stanley Cup push.  The return of Sidney Crosby couldn't come at a better time as they look to make that final run.  In the 5 games since his return, Crosby has posted 9 points.  The Penguins started their run long before Crosby was set to return, but the addition of Crosby has added an entirely new dimension to the Pens game plan.

For those who don't know, Crosby has been out for majority of the season after suffering a season ending concussion during the 2010-2011 season.  Crosby missed 41 of the teams remaining games since he experienced concussion-like symptoms after two hits in January of 2011.  It also happened that Evgeni Malkin also went down with injuries the same season, leaving the Pens without their two leading scorers.  The Penguins ended up getting ousted by the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2011 playoffs in 7 games, thus ending their season.  This is true testament to how well the team is built when the two leading scorers go down and they still hold their own against a team who ended up going to the Eastern Conference Finals.  Solid defensive play and superb goaltending can go a long way in hockey and definitely adds to the mantra that defense can win championships.

Crosby tried to return back in December, registering 12 points in 8 games, before experiencing the same issues that originally sidelined him.  It was believed to be a concussion but new reports came out specifying a soft-tissue complication in his neck.  Crosby missed more time and delayed his return until about a week ago.   On March 5, Sid the Kid was cleared for contact and has never looked back.  March 15 marked Crosby's return to game , on a night where he registered 2 assists and went +3 against the New York Rangers.

However, the Penguins need Malkin and Crosby to be effective in order to win in the playoffs.  It seems that the Pens have gotten it together this year without Crosby, although lately his presence has been truly welcomed.  Pittsburgh has put together a total team effort this year on the offensive end while providing the same consistent approach on the blue line.  The Pens have seen several players reach career highs in scoring including the likes of Chris Kunitz, James Neal, and Jordan Staal.  Evgeni Malkin is having an MVP season, scoring 95 points, tops in the NHL.  He is currently second in goals scored with 45, second only to Steven Stamkos with 50.  Malkin could easily catch Stamkos in the goal chase, now that Crosby has returned.  Malkin can play less of a distributor and more of a scorer as Crosby looks to set up more than shoot.

As Pittsburgh continues their red-hot play, it is important to notice some correlation between Crosby's play and their success. Granted, there is a limited sample size, but there is a relationship there.  Pittsburgh has been playing team hockey over the course of the season without him, but now that he's back, they will look to generate offense through him.  In the last 4 wins, Crosby's plus/minus numbers were more on the positive side and were higher than in the game Pittsburgh lost with him.  For instance, in wins against the Rangers, Devils, Jets, and Predators, Crosby's plus/minus numbers were +3, +2, +4, and +1 respectively.  In a loss to the Senators, Crosby's plus/minus stood at -1.  Even going back to November and December of 2011, Crosby's plus/minus numbers reflect the impact that he or his line has on the Penguins' success.

Sidney Crosby needs to continue his hot play in order for Pittsburgh to continue their run into the playoffs.  The more he looks to set his teammates up, the more likely they continue to win.  The Penguins' offense is playing at its fullest potential right now with Malkin leading in points, Neal having two back to back 4 point games,  and Crosby scoring 9 points in 5 games.  Couple this with an experienced blue line and a proven goaltender in Marc Andre' Fleury and you have a Stanley Cup favorite.  As of right now, the Pens are one point away from catching up with New York for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.  With Crosby and the rest of the Penguins playing at their highest level going into the final games of the season, the Penguins are definitely my pick for the Cup.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

An Early Look at Major League Baseball: The AL Central

Continuing with the early analysis on Major League Baseball's 2012 season, we take a look at the AL Central. There has been a lot of movement during the offseason in free agency, but it seems that one team has risen above the rest in this division.  Another team is building through youth and is looking to become relevant, not only in the division, but in the rest of the league as well.  The team in the Windy City has lost a lot over the span of the offseason, but will look to rebound with a new approach.  The Central division will be powerful in a couple years, but until then, one team is running the show.

1. Detroit Tigers -

The Tigers made quite a splash this offseason landing possibly the second most coveted free agent on the market.  Prince Fielder came with a hefty tag, a 9 year deal worth $214 million.  The Tigers felt that this move was necessary due the loss of Victor Martinez, their prized catcher/designated hitter.  The Tigers signed Fielder with hopes that he would play first and Miguel Cabrera would transition to play third.  Questions linger as to whether or not Cabrera can make this move, but he has already played this position before.  He primarily played third base when he was called up with the Marlins in 2003, so Detroit should not worry too much.  The more relevant question with the acquisition of Fielder will be whether or not his power is affected by the move to Detroit.  His power was aided by the hitter-friendly confines of Miller Park in Milwaulkee.  Many say that he will be a glorified ground-ball hitter, but others suggest that he shouldn't have an issue with Comerica Park.

This team is World Series capable even while losing Martinez.  The Tigers can get to the postseason on their pitching alone.  Justin Verlander started 34 games winning 24 of them, an astounding feat by any means.  He posted a 2.40 ERA with 250 strikeouts.  Needless to say, he ended up dominating the Cy Young race.  He should be able to replicate those numbers this season, and possibly win even more games with the offense that is behind him.  Max Scherzer had a career high in wins going 15-9, but won primarily because of run support.  Brad Penny and Rick Porcello more than held their own in the rotation combining for 25 wins.  Doug Fister came via trade from the Mariners and provided excellent pitching going 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA.
The bullpen will be looking for another excellent year led by electric closer Jose Valverde.  Valverde converted 49 saves out of 49 opportunities with a 2.24 ERA, a highly dominant mark.  Setting him up was Joaquin Benoit who pitched in 66 games posting a 2.95 ERA.  This duo looks really, really good.  The rest of the bullpen should be able to hold their own, especially with the rotation handing them easier games.

Keys to Success - Look for Prince Fielder to get his power going.  If he can't get it over the wall, the Tigers will have to alter their approach at the plate.  He was catered to in Milwaukee given Miller Park, so it will be interesting to see how he responds at Comerica.  With the loss of Martinez, Detroit will be much more reliant on Fielder and Miguel Cabrera.

Reason to Panic - The main reason to panic would be if Verlander or Cabrera go down with injury.  Without these two key guys, the Tigers could struggle as they rely heavily on these guys.  The Tigers have already lost Victor Martinez for the season; another injury could be devastating.

All-Stars - Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Valverde

2. Minnesota Twins -

Out of any team in the division, the Twins have the most question marks.  They have plenty of people on their roster that would indicate that they can compete however many of them have not lived up to expectations or have been out with injury.  Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau have been absent for majority of the last two years and have not been able to give Minnesota the offense it so desperately needed.  The addition of Josh Willingham should more than satisfy the void left by Micheal Cuddyer leaving for Colorado, having posted 26 HR's with 98 RBI's with Oakland last season.  The addition of Ryan Doumit provides depth at the catcher and designated hitter positions.

One can go far as saying that the Twins rotation is the best aspect of the team.  Led by Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker, the rotation can hold its own.  However, the rotation has not reached its full potential.  Baker was highly touted as one of Minnesota's best prospects but has yet to put it all together.  Adding Jason Marquis provides a consistent, veteran arm.  Joel Zumaya was added during the offseason but recently went down with another arm injury, adding to his already present arm troubles.  With the departure of Joe Nathan from the closer position, look for Matt Capps to lead the way.  A stud closer previously with Pittsburgh has now settled in with Minnesota.  With a few runs behind them, this staff has the potential to win games, something that has been missing with Mauer and Morneau out.

The Twins are poised for a playoff run this year but the question marks could come back to haunt them.  Minnesota was picked to finish second for this reason.  The second Wild Card is going to come out of the West, forcing Minnesota to miss the playoffs.  Minnesota can be a contender in the years to come as long as the young players come to life and provide what they have been missing the last few years.

Keys to Success - The offense will be there with Mauer, Morneau, and Willingham leading the way, but it will be up to the pitching staff to keep other offenses at bay.  It is still a young staff but they came highly regarded.  They need to come together soon before Minnesota decides to dump them for other pitchers.  The time is running out for this staff, forcing the issue this year or next.

Reason to Panic - The same pitching staff will be the reason to panic.  As stated before, the runs will be there (pending injury), but it will be up to the pitching staff to get them to the promised land.  Scott Baker will be looked at most to lead the way as he comes in as the number 1 starter.  Look for the Twins to do remarkably well this year considering the departures of a few key players, including Joe Nathan.

All-Stars - Joe Mauer, Francisco Liriano

3. Cleveland Indians -

The Indians are a budding young team that was almost able to put it together last year, but started falling off towards the end of the season.  The Indians have since acquired Ubaldo Jimenez who has stated that he is looking to return to "ace" status.  Jimenez coupled with the rest of Cleveland's young rotation should be able to blossom this year and begin to take shape as one of the best staffs in baseball.  Josh Tomlin and Justin Masterson have been stellar in their role with the rotation and are looking to do the same this season.  The Indians have added the veteran leadership of Derek Lowe to the staff, one that has been missing since Cliff Lee left.

The Cleveland lineup is the most intriguing aspect of the squad.  They have the ability to be a dangerous team.  If Grady Sizemore can stay healthy, Indians become a top 10 offensive team in the AL.  Shin Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Carlos Santana are all coming into their own and look to carry this budding young team into the postseason.  Travis Hafner is looking to return to his 40+ home run swing but injuries have hampered the guy since then.  If then Indians do not find power in their lineup, it will be hard to challenge anyone in any division.  They have added a few pieces here and there including Casey Kotchman, who brings a magnificent glove and a recently above average bat.  Felix Pie, from Baltimore, and Aaron Cunningham, from San Diego, both could be instrumental for depth on the bench.

The Indians are close; REAL close.  However, Cleveland does not have all the pieces together to make a run in the Central.  They won't finish last, but they will surely not finish first for a while, unless disaster strikes Detroit.  Cleveland has their young guys stepping up and and could be poised at a playoff run, however, they lack key pieces in their lineup.

Keys to Success - Cleveland's power numbers need to increase in order to complement the rotation with run support.  Singles hitters can only get a team so far.  Carlos Santana and Travis Hafner need to lead the way in this department or Cleveland will find itself at the bottom of the barrel again.

Reason to Panic - The bullpen looks a little shaky on paper.  A few additions were made to help strengthen the unit, but it could still lead to Cleveland's demise.  Look for the Indians to be a little rocky in the beginning of the season, but come together late for a push towards the playoffs.

All-Stars - Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera

4. Kansas City Royals -

The Royals have some of the leagues most highly touted prospects who are looking to make the Opening Day roster.  Eric Hosmer was considered by some to be the best first-base prospect with any team and was actually rumored to be in trade talks with several teams over the winter months.  Hosmer brings in a high average, run producing bat and a consistent glove at first.  He will surely look to make an impact for the Royals.  Mike Moustakas comes in as another valued prospect at third base.  He played 89 games last year and definitely had some ups and downs.  He posted a .263 average with subpar power and only 30 RBI's.  He is surely better than those numbers suggest.  With Jeff Francouer and Billy Butler leading the way, the Royals can be one of the surprise teams to come out of the American League.

The rotation could use some work.  Picking up Jonathan Sanchez will surely help but the rest of the crew is too inconsistent to get anywhere.  There are no guarantees with this rotation when the best guy coming into this year is Bruce Chen.  He had a career year last year going 12-8 with a 3.77 ERA.  Decent but not spectacular numbers by any means.  The Royals can use some help here, but you never know, they could also surprise people.  The bullpen is a bright spot for Kansas City.  Adding Jonathan Broxton, the Dodgers' previous closer, will give Joakim Soria protection going into the 9th as Broxton will serve as his setup man.  Broxton can be lights out and coupled with Soria, the Royals have quite a combination to close out games.  In the case that either goes down with injury, as they both have done before, both are capable of closing duties.  Look for this bullpen to make a splash this season. UPDATE: Joakim Soria is exploring the possibilities of Tommy John surgery and if procedure is done, Soria could miss much of the 2012 season.

The future is bright for the Royals, who seem to be building their team in similar fashion to the 2007-2008 Tampa Bay Rays.  Adding key veterans, loading up in the draft and plugging in superb prospects along the way.  Kansas City fans will have a lot to root for, however, the present still appears to have a bleak outlook.

Keys to Success - The offense will be able to put up runs and the bullpen will be able to close out games. This we know.  However, if either of these two dimensions falter, the club will struggle.  It is up to the youthful core of the Royals to put runs on the board.

Reason to Panic - The pitching rotation does not have a solid number 1 starter.  The closest they get is Bruce Chen who is not a desirable Opening Day starter by any means.  Some of these young guys could surprise this year now that they could have some run support, but the Royals will rely heavily on this rotation to hand leads to the bullpen.

All-Stars - Joakim Soria, Billy Butler

5. Chicago White Sox -

Chicago has lost two key pieces to their team over the winter months, none more important than skipper Ozzie Guillen (Miami Marlins).  The second key piece actually followed Ozzie to the Marlins.  Mark Buehrle was consistent but posted marginal numbers during his stay in Chicago.  He never really had a consistent offense backing him up and is not a power, strikeout pitcher.  He was never able to dominate batters the way "aces" should.  Chicago really isn't losing much by him leaving.  They worked hard to retain Jon Danks and he should be Chicago's Opening Day starter.  Following him is Gavin Floyd, who is set to breakout, and Jake Peavy, who is looking for his first full season in a number of years.  Philip Humber came on strong last year and is looking to replicate that season.  The rotation, if healthy, could actually surprise and become one of the league's best.  A lot is dependent on Jake Peavy and whether he can return to 2007 form.

The lineup lacks consistency and could spell trouble.  Based on the numbers Adam Dunn posted last year, Chicago fans really don't know what to expect out of Dunn.  While never really hitting for average, Dunn posts higher power and strikeout numbers.  He was in a funk that he was never really able to get out of, and ultimately led to one of the ultimate busts in MLB free agency history.  Paul Konerko was resigned and he has been nothing but consistent and is the polar opposite of Dunn.  Fans know exactly what to expect out of Konerko:  an above .270 average, roughly 25 homers, and around 90-100 RBI's every season.  He had one of his better seasons last year.  With another season like this, Konerko can lead the offense into the playoffs with some support from role players Gordon Beckham, AJ Pierzynski, and Alexei Ramirez.

The White Sox are probably the most difficult team to figure out in the division.  They've lost their emotional leader in Guillen, their most consistent starter in Buehrle, and have issues with the offense going into the season.  The bullpen could also spell trouble for the Sox as none of these pitchers have really shown their worth, with the exception of Matt Thornton.  The White Sox could be in a mess of trouble this season if the offense can't get it going to match what the rotation is capable of doing.

Keys to Success - The rotation is probably going to be holding this team above water this season.  Led by Danks and possibly the resurrection of Peavy, the rotation could be tough to handle.  This group, in its fullest potential, could all win over 10 games.  It is possible for the White Sox to make a play at the division, but could easily crumble to fall into last place.

Reason to Panic - As just mentioned, a collapse is highly likely given a new manager, inconsistent offense and an unproven bullpen.  The team is relatively young outside of Konerko and Dunn, and this could ultimately lead to the White Sox having their worst year in ages.  A team that won a Series in 2005 could likely find itself at the bottom of the barrel for years to come.

All-Stars - Paul Konerko, Alexei Ramirez