Houston Astros' Late-Season Performance Could Be a Sign of Things to Come

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

There’s rebuilding projects, and then there’s the Houston Astros. Ever since the team went to the World Series in 2005, the entire organization has been in shambles. Sure, they won 86 games in 2008, but that is their only time in the past eight years to win more than 80 games. They are currently on their seventh different manager in those eight years, and their attendance has plummeted to one of the lowest in the league.

Even worse, the Astros continued to refuse to secede into full-blown rebuilding mode. General Managers Tim Purpura and Ed Wade repeatedly made questionable decisions in trades, in the draft, and in offseason free agency.

Despite maintaining a higher payroll than they should have, the Astros still could not find any success. Finally, Drayton McLane mercifully sold the team to Jim Crane, giving the franchise the opportunity for a fresh start.

Crane hired Jeff Luhnow to be his G.M. Luhnow, a Penn-educated engineer, drastically cut the Astros’ payroll and started over. He got rid of all the team’s established players, fielding a roster of mostly minor league caliber players. It was an admirable undertaking, but one that was slated to get worse before it got better.

After nearly three full seasons utilizing Luhnow’s new ideals in the front office, it has definitely not been easy. The Astros blew past the 100-loss plateau in both 2012 and 2013, and they are once again one of the worst teams in the league this year. However, there is obvious improvement regarding the on-field talent, especially recently.

In their last series, the Astros beat the A’s twice in a best-of-three series. This comes after they took three-of-four games from the Rangers and also swept the Angels in a brief two-game series.

In the past, Houston wouldn’t have even been able to compete with legitimate playoff contenders like the Athletics and Angels, much less win. Even with the recent turmoil in the front office, Luhnow was reportedly not seeing eye-to-eye with manager Bo Porter before Porter’s firing, the Astros are still winning.

Unfortunately, winning the rest of the way will not be overly beneficial to the Astros. They are nearly mathematically eliminated from the postseason at this point, currently trailing the Mariners by 15.5 games for the second Wild Card spot, so winning will only earn them a lower draft pick in next year’s draft.

However, with Luhnow’s past success in the MLB Draft, it won’t much matter what spot they get. The Astros are already slated for the second overall selection in the 2015 draft due to their inability to sign this year’s first overall pick Brady Aiken.

The Astros might be undermanned at the big league level, but there is plenty of talent working its way up the minor league ladder. Carlos Correa headlines the plethora of highly-touted prospects in the Houston farm system, but Mark Appel, Domingo Santana, and Colin Moran are also projected to be solid major leaguers. Widely thought of as one of the top three farm systems, the Astros’ future is only a few years away from reaching the big leagues. Recent draft picks Lance McCullers Jr., Rio Ruiz, A.J. Reed, Tony Kemp, and Derek Fisher are already making a name for themselves in the lower levels of the minor leagues. Expect them to move up the ladder at an expedited rate.

Not to mention the high-upside youngsters who are already at the big league level. Jon Singleton, the team’s former top prospect, is working out the kinks in the Show after his June call up. Mike Foltynewicz has been a nice weapon out of the bullpen, as his 100 MPH fastball suits him as a reliever more than a starter.

Dallas Keuchel is a homegrown pitcher, and his breakout season has him looking like a solid future starter. The starting rotation is filled with other young arms, and they will only get better with time. Also, they recently announced that they will be implementing a six-man rotation for the foreseeable future. They recalled Nick Tropeano, the Astros’ number-thirteen prospect according to MLB.com, to fill that sixth slot.

They have been relatively quiet this season on the trade and free agent market, but they did make one move at the July 31st trade deadline. They shipped Jarred Cosart and others to the Marlins for outfielder Jake Marisnick and Colin Moran. Moran, the sixth pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, was expected to be the centerpiece of that trade, but Marisnick has been better than expected.

Always known for his outstanding defensive attributes, Marisnick has contributed with the bat so far in Houston. He sports a .250 average during his time in Houston after hanging around the Mendoza Line in his past MLB experiences. He has also chipped in with several timely hits for the Astros, and that kind of clutch hitting is a luxury going forward.

The organization also has a few cornerstone players who the Astros can build around if they choose. Jose Altuve has blossomed into one of the most productive second baseman in the entire MLB. He has always been a solid infielder, but 2014 has been the ultimate breakout season.

Always known as a free-swinging singles hitter, Altuve has set career highs this year in hits, doubles, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and Wins Above Replacement (WAR). There are still 20 games left to play, plenty of time for the Venezuelan second baseman to also surpass his previous career highs in both home runs and RBIs. Most impressive, however, has been his aggressiveness on the basepaths. He has stolen 51 bases this year while only being caught seven times. His 5.2 WAR ranks eighth in the American League, meaning he is one of the most valuable players in the Junior Circuit. To put his number into context, Mike Trout’s WAR is 6.6 and Jose Bautista’s in 4.2.

The Astros might have also uncovered a gem in Chris Carter. The powerful right-handed hitter has shown his massive power on occasion in the past, but he finally put it all together this year. His average still sits at a paltry .235, but he is finally tapping into his prolific home run potential. He is currently second in the American League with 36 home runs, and has driven in 85 runners, many of them coming late in close games. I’m not sure if he is in the Astros’ long-term plans because of his age and propensity to strike out, but he is an excellent placeholder even if the Astros have another first baseman/designated hitter in mind. Carter doesn’t bring much to the table regarding defense or baserunning, but if you’re only going to possess one of the five tools that scouts talk about, power is the one to have.

While the two aforementioned players are very good, there is one player in the organization who is in a league of his own. Unlike Carter, outfielder George Springer is a legitimate five-tool player. He can hit tape measure home runs and is also very fast, giving him the unique blend of power and speed that is matched by very few.

Springer was called up in April, and after adjusting to major league pitching, he started to rake. He launched ten homers in May and then six in June. The former first-round pick struck out at an alarming rate, but he has been working on that and should be able to hit for a higher average in the future.

So with the Astros string of moderate success, it seems they are barely even scratching the surface of their overall potential. With all the losing, the Astros have stockpiled plenty of jewels in the draft. It has been a drastic uphill climb, but they finally have a loaded farm system that is poised for possible greatness.

It will be interesting going forward to see what the Astros do next. Once the first crop of prospects is in the major leagues, Luhnow will have to decide when it is the right time to become buyers instead of sellers. When it is indeed time, the Astros will not hesitate to pull off a blockbuster trade or sign a marquee free agent.

“If we do our jobs and get some breaks going our way and the fans start coming back,” Luhnow said in an early 2012 interview. “We’re going to be able to push the payroll to a point where we can compete year in and year out.”

However, Luhnow knows that there must be a steady nucleus of homegrown players to make free agents work.

“You can’t win with just free agents. Everybody knows that. Even the Yankees know that,” Luhnow said in that same interview.

There are still plenty of questions regarding the club’s future, including the fact that most of the prospects are largely unproven. However, considering Luhnow’s phenomenal success rate from his time in the St. Louis Cardinals scouting department, the Astros are in pretty good shape.

But Lunhow’s arrogant nature has to be concerning as well. He all but ran Bo Porter out of town because they did not see eye-to-eye on all issues. If for some reason his plan doesn’t begin to show some dividends in the near future, his seat will consistently get hotter and hotter.

The bullpen has been a massive question mark for the Astros this year as well. Veteran closer Chad Qualls has repeatedly blown huge leads, and the rest of the relieving core has been below average at best. Tony Sipp is a decent left-handed specialist, but after that it gets shaky. Foltynewicz will eventually be a valuable weapon out of the ‘pen, but in the interim, the Astros are going to lose a lot of leads late in the games unless they specifically address that area.

All in all, the Astros have arguably the most long-term potential of any organization in the league. Still, their future success is solely dependent on how fast the prospects progress. Once they start producing at the major league level, the front office can explore other avenues to solidify the roster. 2015 is not going to be the year where they are legitimate contenders, but I think by 2016 or 2017 they will be one of the premier teams in the American League. Prospects are incredibly tough to gauge, but the Astros have stored up enough of them that at least a few of them will become stars.

If that happens, all of the losing will be worth it. Hopefully a few winning seasons will bring more spectators to Minute Maid Park, and they can build a loyal fanbase that will support them in the coming years.

The American League West has developed into one of the toughest divisions in all of baseball, but if the Astros’ prized prospects become as good as most scouts think they can, Houston’s ceiling is nearly unlimited.

They are a team of the future, and if Sports Illustrated’s recent proclamation that the Astros will win the 2017 World Series is any indication, that future is very, very bright.

Cardinals Sweep Pirates, Take Control of NL Central

Wainwright is a key cog in one of the best pitching staffs in the MLB

As August has turned into September and October gets closer, Major League Baseball is filled with tight playoff race.  Oakland and Los Angeles are locked in a tight battle out west, as are the Tigers and Royals in the AL Central.  However, the most exciting race in the National League, in my opinion, is the NL Central.

The Cardinals came into the season as the favorite, as their deep starting rotation and terrific bullpen was supposed to take them straight to the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, their offense has been so bad that the pitching hasn't mattered.

The St. Louis offense has struggled mightily all season.  They currently rank 26th out of the 30 MLB teams in runs scored, which is one of the main reasons why they have trailed the Brewers for most of the season.

They trailed the Brewers by two games on the July 31st Trade Deadline, and general manager John Mozeliak targeted pitching help.  He went against popular opinion then, trading for John Lackey and Justin Masterson when every sign pointed to him acquiring hitters.

He sent one of his best hitters, outfielder Allen Craig, as well as talented young pitcher Joe Kelly, to the Red Sox for Lackey.  Also, they got Masterson from the Indians in exchange for minor league outfielder James Ramsey, the team's first-round selection in the 2012 draft and one of their most promising prospects.

The trade didn't pay dividends right away, they went 5-6 in their first eleven games after the trade, but they have started to play better baseball of late.  Just recently, they swept one of their other NL Central rivals.  The Cards beat the Pirates in three straight close games, at the same time seizing control of the division.

It was a very tight series, every game was decided by two runs or fewer, but the Cards came out on top.  They got a solid start from Lance Lynne in the first game, an uncharacteristically outing from Adam Wainwright where he gave up four runs, and then a sterling performance by Shelby Miller in Game 3 in which the Cardinals won the game 1-0 thanks to Peter Bourjous' walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the ninth.

Manager Mike Matheny leaned heavily on the bullpen over the course of the series, and they were up to the challenge.  St. Louis relievers allowed only one run over 14 innings of work, bringing back memories of their tremendous effort that took the Cards all the way to the World Series in 2013.

The hitting is coming along too.  Matt Holiday's recent surge has boosted the lineup, as has Yadier Molina's return from the disabled list.  The emergence of Matt Adams as a legitimate power threat has been invaluable, but the other players in the lineup need to step up as well.  Matt Carpenter is not hitting as well as he did last year, but he is an ultra-consistent leadoff hitter.  He a very patient hitter and possesses one of the best batting eyes in the league.  

Rookie Oscar Taveras is one of the elite prospects in all of baseball, but he has not yet lived up to his massive potential.  He has hit a little better now that he is the primary right fielder after Craig was dealt, but he needs to continue to improve for the Cardinals to make another run deep into the playoffs.

The pitching, on the other hand, is loaded.  Wainwright is one of the best starters in the league, Lackey is having a fine season, Lynn eats up innings and always finds a way to win, and Shelby Miller is a talented but inconsistent youngster.  Masterson is having a down season, but the Cardinals are hoping that he can turn it around after it was just recently announced that he will move to the bullpen for the foreseeable future.

The bullpen, once again, is one of the team's main strenghts.  Trevor Rosenthal has struggled at times in his inagural season as the closer, but overall, he has been effective and his 41 saves are tied for the league lead.

Pat Neshek has been one of the best relievers in the league.  He is 7-1 and sports a magnificent 1.37 ERA.  Seth Maness has been a very reliable, logging seventy innings out of the 'pen, and they have a host of other young, live arms who have the ability to get outs in the late innings.  

Such a deep relieving core is a terrific luxury for a manager to have.  Also, the Cardinal roster has great depth off the bench.  Speedy outfielders Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos give Matheny the option of opting for a double switch late in games to maximize the offensive output.

I expect the Cardinals to hold off the Brewers for the division championship, and also make a run similar to last season.  However, any run to the World Series is going to have to go through the Dodgers.  That is a tall order for any team to accomplish, but a deep pitching staff and an opportunistic lineup gives the Cardinals a fighting chance.

Is Alabama Losing Its Edge?

Nick Sabans defense has not been as good recently, mostly due to the rise of the no-huddle offense

Ever since arriving at Alabama in 2007, Nick Saban has molded the Crimson Tide into a factory of success.  Starting his eighth season at the helm of one of college football's most storied programs, Saban has an incredible 75-15 record.

In Saban's first year in Tuscaloosa, the Tide were still recovering from some sanctions regarding academic infractions.  Alabama went 7-6 on the field, but then the NCAA mandated that they vacate 21 wins going back to the Mike Shula regime.

Despite taking over a program nearly in shambles, Saban awoke a sleeping giant.  The Crimson Tide have won at least 10 games since that inauspicious first year, including 4-2 in bowl games.  He has led the Tide three national championship wins as well as two Sugar Bowl berths. 

Coming into every season, Alabama is at the top of the polls.  Even in years like this one, when the Tide are without an experienced quarterback, it is still ultra-safe to pencil them in for at least ten wins and a serious contender for the SEC title.

But then the up-tempo offenses came along.  The past few years the high-octane spread offenses have been developing, but they seem to have culminated.  Offenses are spreading the field with track stars, chucking the pigskin around the yard, and hustling to the line after every play.  The new strategy has forced defenses to substitute more, meaning their best players aren't on the field as much.  It also forces defenses to throw out most of their complex schemes because getting lined up correctly is hard enough.

In other words, defenses are having to square off against the best offenses in the country without their best on the field.  Defensive coordinators don't have enough time to think clearly about what defense gives them the best chance to stop the offense, and it is for this reason that offensive numbers have skyrocketed.  Offenses are running more plays, gaining more yards, and scoring more points than they did even a few years ago.

The times have changed, but Saban has refused to change to this point.  It belies common sense to refuse to adapt to other strategies that have proven to be more efficient, but it is also not correct to second guess a guy with the track record that Saban has.  

Saban has always been outspoken about up-tempo offenses, even laughably so.  He has suggested various idiotic rule-changes to slow down the game, but thankfully he has been rebuffed.  I think that the reason he is so animated about this topic is that he does not want to stray away from his ideals, but that is beside the point.

While more and more teams are shucking the running game and going to the air, Saban has stubbornly stuck with his preferred pro-style offense.  He even brought in Lane Kiffin to be his new offensive coordinator after Doug Nussmeier opted to take his services to Michigan.  That move took some guts considering Kiffin's recent futility, and the offense looked promising in the opening game against West Virginia.

However, the real question coming from the Crimson Tide is their defense.  Even though Saban is regarded as a strong defensive-minded coach, his units have started to struggle recently against high-powered offenses.  

While most teams in the SEC have stuck to their downhill running attacks, teams like Auburn and Texas A&M have given 'Bama fits.  Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel torched the Crimson Tide defense in consecutive years, and even though Alabama came back to beat the Aggies last year, Manziel's 464 passing yards in that game are the most ever against a Nick Saban-coached defense.

In last year's Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, Alabama single-handedly fueled the emergence of Trevor Knight.  Largely unproven before the bowl game, Knight schooled the Tide through the air, amassing 348 passing yards and four touchdowns.  

In the 2014 opener, even after months of preparation to stop Dana Holgerson's Air Raid attack, West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett threw for 365 yards, which marks the third-most passing yards allowed by the Tide under Saban, according to ESPN Stats & Info.  

Alabama's less-than-stellar performance against the Mountaineers also made it the first time since 2007 that the Tide defense has allowed at least 17 points in three straight games.  Also, the 10 points that West Virginia scored in the first half on Saturday matched the combined number of points Alabama allowed in last year's four regular season non-conference games.

Alabama will still find a way to win most of the games it plays because Saban is arguably the best recruiter to ever pace the sidelines, but the recent success of opposing offenses shows the country that Nick Saban is indeed human.

He is not perfect, and if he continues to refuse change, he is going to continue to be dominated by up-tempo offenses.

Navy Football: A Sisyphean Climb to Relevance

Last season, Navy football had a tremendous season.  They finished the year with a 9-4 record and a victory over Middle Tennessee in the Armed Forces Bowl.  Even though the Midshipmen are an Independent team and not affiliated with a conference, they still managed to play three teams from Big 5 conferences as well as Notre Dame.  They went 2-2 in those games, nearly beating Notre Dame in a 38-34 thriller.

Ohio State was Navy's opponent in the 2014 opening, and even though they looked a bit less menacing on the schedule after Braxton Miller went down with injury, they are still one of the best programs in the country.  Their current roster is loaded with elite talent and NFL prospects.

Despite being heavily overmatched physically, Navy still gave the Buckeyes more than they wanted. They led most of the game, but in the end couldn't keep the Buckeyes from staying undefeated in the regular season under Urban Meyer.  Nonetheless, Navy's triple-option attack battered the Ohio State defense for 370 yards on the ground.

The way this game unfolded seems to be a recurring theme for the Midshipmen.  At the beginning of the game, Navy played the favorite very tight.  They ran the ball effectively and played strong defense. But after halftime and as the game went on, the tide started to slowly but surely go the way of the Buckeyes.  

Once again, the underlying factor is that Navy does not recruit well enough to be able to match their top-tier opponents man for man.  Ken Niumatalolo has done a phenomenal job of keeping the Midshipmen competitive, but he doesn't have quite the necessary resources to keep up with the elite programs.

Niumatalolo has formed a very good roster, one that fits precisely with the team's wishbone offensive attack.  The offense is led by quarterback Keenan Reynolds, and he is flanked by a slew of small, quick running backs that work well in Navy's scheme.

Even though Navy came out on the short end of the scoreboard, they still put on a solid showing and should win most of their remaining games.  Notre Dame is the only team left on the schedule that is even close to as talented as Ohio State, and there is no reason Navy cannot match and even exceed last year's nine victories.

Keenan Reynolds was one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the country in 2013, reaching the 1,000 yard plateau both through the air and on the ground.  He also led the nation with 31 rushing touchdowns, and repeatedly took the team on his back in several high-scoring affairs. 

In last year's opening game, Reynolds rushed for three touchdowns in a 41-35 win over Indiana.  A few weeks later, Reynolds scored three more touchdowns in a 45-44 loss to Toledo in overtime. Reynolds' career year culminated in the eleventh game of the season against San Jose State.  In that contest, Reynolds rushed for 240 yards and SEVEN touchdowns in a 58-52 triple-overtime victory.  

He has big-time running ability, and I expect him to have another monster year in 2014.  But as far as competing with big-time schools, Navy might never be able to reach that level of success.  Still, the Midshipmen have found a way to stay competitive when the other service academies have not.  

That has to be worth something.  They have played Ohio State too close for the Buckeyes' comfort twice in the past five years, as well as premier programs Notre Dame on multiple occasions and South Carolina in 2011.  It's Navy's style of play that makes the Power 5 conference teams sweat because those schools rarely see that kind of offense, but the better team can usually wear Navy down later in the game.

I still admire Navy for their accomplishments and ability to repeatedly challenge more talented teams, and I think they are poised for a terrific 2014 season. 

They may never get over the hump, but they will stay germane in the college football world as long as they run the wishbone offense in a way that would make Darrell Royal proud while pulling occasional upsets along the way.

HC3's Week 1 College Football Challenge

For the past few years, I have participated in ESPN's College Football Challenge.  In this fantasy game, one fills out a roster each week of college football players.  The user can select a specific conference to choose players from, but I prefer to pick my roster from all of college football.

I have played for the past three years, but I haven't really been all in.  This year, I am going to think deeply each week and make picks that will maximize my chance to get as high on the leaderboard as possible.

Each roster is comprised of two quarterbacks, two running backs, two wide receivers, a team defense/special teams, and then a team kicker.

All the stats of each player are translated into ESPN Fantasy Football's points system, and the user's success is matched up against other rosters around the country on the Leaderboard.

Here is my roster selections and analysis for week 1:

QB: Marcus Mariota, Oregon

It was tough to make the QB selections this early in the season because most of the elite quarterbacks are playing against cupcake opponents.  Mariota will very likely not play the entire game against South Dakota, but he has too much athleticism and potential to pass up.  His ability to score touchdowns on the ground make him a ultra-valuable fantasy option.

QB: Taylor Heinecke, Old Dominion

You may not have heard of this guy, but he has put up some of the best dual-threat stats in all of college football the past two years.  I think Heinecke will be even better this year, and I think he will be able to rack up yards and touchdowns against a weak Hampton opponent.

RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia

The Bulldogs face off against Clemson this week in a much anticipated game, and Gurley is going to get plenty of touches.  Sure, Clemson's defense is expected to be stout, but I think Gurley is the best running back in the country, and I could not pass up on his terrific talent.

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska

Abdullah had a monster season in 2013, when he was the second-ranked fantasy running back.  I expect him to see even more action this year, especially against a mediocre Florida Atlantic defense.  

WR: Jamison Crowder, Duke

Crowder was the best pass catcher for a Duke team that re-emerged as a contender.  He was the fourth-best fantasy receiver last year, and I expect him to get even more targets this year.  He has the most receiving yards in the country among returning players, and he should be able to burn a less-than-stellar Elon team.

WR: Justin Hardy, East Carolina

East Carolina is known for their aggressive Air Raid offense, spreading the field with receivers and chucking the pigskin around the yard.  I think that plays into the hands of Justin Hardy, who is their best receiver.  The senior wideout should have a big day against North Carolina Central, hopefully catching a few touchdowns.

TD: Michigan State D/ST

The Spartans continually have one of the best defenses, and I like their chances of forcing some turnovers against Jacksonville State.

TK: Oregon Kickers

Oregon will score a ton of touchdowns, so I am going with the safe pick of banking on their multitude of extra points.  The Ducks will probably not end the week with the most points among kickers, but they will put up approximately ten points, which you can't complain with.

What Was Josh Shaw Thinking?

When USC cornerback and team captain Josh Shaw showed up at practice on Monday, he was nursing an injured ankle.  He attributed it to jumping from the second floor of an apartment complex to save his young nephew, who was ostensibly drowning due to his lack of ability to swim.

According to Shaw's story, he jumped in and saved his nephew, and in the process he hurt his ankle.

That story was all fine and good until reporters started to dig deeper into the story. Looking for more details into the case, someone asked the police department for a quote or for their interpretation of what exacly happened.  Not surprisingly, there was no police report filed.  

As it turns out, there was no police report filed because the events Shaw brought forward never happened.  

He admitted on Wednesday afternoon that he did indeed fabricate the entire story. USC said in a statement that Shaw admitted that he was lying about how he injured his ankle.

Now, USC coach Steve Sarkisian has indefinitely suspended Shaw from any team activities.  It may come as a surprise considering that Shaw didn't break the law or hit a female, which is the way most athletes are getting suspended these days. But Sarkisian has been trying to inculcate a sense of discipline into the team ever since he set foot on USC's campus, so I can imagine that Sarkisian does not want that kind of drama festering in his program.

Why would Shaw do what he did?

The only thing that I can think is that he was doing something he wasn't supposed to be doing when he suffered the ankle injury.  

"On Saturday, I injured myself in a fall," Shaw told CBSSport's Bruce Feldman.  "I made up a story about this fall that was untrue."

He did not clarify what that "fall" entailed, but one can assume that it wasn't good. Either way, why would he make up a story like this just to cover himself.  If he really wanted to lie about it, it seems like he could have said something a little more reasonable.

For example, if he had said that he injured it playing pickup basketball with some family or friends, it wouldn't have come back to bite him like this did.  Did he really think that he would be able to get away with this?

In this age, where there are reporters and journalists all over the country snooping around places they shouldn't be just to hit a big story, he should have known that he would eventually be exposed.

He did, and now he is in a world of trouble.  He has hired a defense attorney, who claims that Shaw did not do anything legally wrong.  He might not have, but his name is now tarnished nonetheless.  

His future in football is now undecided, as is the Trojans' secondary for 2014. Shaw was slated to be a major contributor, and his abscence leaves the coaching staff scrambling for a replacement.

Only two players were made available to speak to the media, and they both said they have no idea what actually happened.  Also, they both said that they have not gone out of their way to find out for themselves.  

One of Shaw's former teammates went to Twitter to express his obfuscation.  "Completely out of character for J Shaw," former USC running back Silas Redd tweeted.  "Man never would've thought."

Shaw has always been regarded as a stand-up guy, so these antics are a surprise to everyone who has been around him.

Sarkisian has told his players to not worry about this for their opening game on Saturday against Fresno State.  But how can the team completely disregard this occurence when they are without one of their team captains?

I don't expect this to drastically affect the Trojans in Sarkisian's USC debut, but it won't help. 

I'm still a bit flummoxed why Shaw did what he did, but what matters is that he did it, and now he is paying the consequences for his lack of honesty.

Jeremy Johnson to Start at QB for Auburn

Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn released the team's official depth chart for its season opener against Arkansas.  Nick Marshall was not listed as the starter because of of his suspension following a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge, so sophomore Jeremy Johnson will get the start at QB.

Malzahn remained mum on the extent of Marshall's suspension, but hinted that it is less than a full game, meaning Marshall will take some snaps against Arkansas.

"Jeremy Johnson will start and then Nick Marshall will play," Malzahn said about the quarterback situation.  "I'm not ready to say exactly when and where and all that, but he definitely will play."

Malzahn was not willing to give up any of his gameplan, keeping most of it a secret in his weekly game plan on Tuesday.  Either way, both QBs will play, and I'm guessing Marshall's workload will depend on the game.

If Arkansas gets out to an early lead, Marshall will probably get the call as soon as possible to try to lead a comeback.  However, if Auburn controls the Razorbacks from the get-go, Johnson should get plenty of playing time.

Marshall had a breakout year in his first year as the Tigers quarterback.  A former Georgia defensive back, Marshall was one of the most effective running quarterbacks in the country in 2013, racking up 1,068 yards on the ground and 26 total touchdowns.

He enters this year as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, but will miss some of the first game due to his poor decisions off the field.

Malzahn has said repeatedly that the coaching staff has total confidence that Johnson can run the offense at a high level.  He logged significant playing time in two games last year, and totaled 422 passing yards in all in mainly mop-up duty.

This is a big game for Johnson because it is his chance to show the country what he can do.  Marshall will graduate after this year, and Johnson, a former ESPN300 recruit, will be handed the reins.

He is a solid dual-threat quarterback and should fit right in to Malzhan's hurry-up spread option attack.  

It is a shame that Marshall cannot keep his off-the-field actions in check, but at least it gives Johnson a prime opportunity.  

Johnson is getting throw into the fire with a rival SEC opponent, but he should do fine.  Auburn has plenty of returning talent from last year's SEC championship squad.  And even though they lost stud running back Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will fill in admirably.  

Auburn should win handily, and if they do, Johnson should get plenty of playing time.  But even if they are stuck in a close game, they can always bring in Marshall for relief.

Soler Latest Cub To Be Recalled

2014 has definitely not been kind to the Chicago Cubs.  They have not tried to hide the fact that they are in rebuilding mode and building for the future.  They have a slew of highly-touted prospects, and Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, and Matt Szczur are already playing in the big leagues.

Outfielder Jorge Soler is the latest Chicago prospect to get called up to the big league club, as CSNChicago.com's David Kaplan first reported.

The announcement came after he homered off of Mariners' top prospect Tiajuan Walker.  After the three-run shot in the third inning, Soler was removed from the game.  He will meet up with the Cubs and is expected to play on Wednesday.

He has quickly moved up the minor league ladder.  He started the season at Rookie League, moved up to Double-A in June, and after tearing it up there, got the call to Iowa in late July.  Despite being one of the youngest players in all of Triple-A, he still displayed his five tools on a nightly basis.

Between all three classifications, he hit .340 with 15 homers, 57 RBIs, and a stellar 1.132 OPS.  This success is even more impressive considering that he missed most of last season with a fractured tibia.  

He didn't miss a beat, though, and it will be interesting to see how he performs in his first taste of The Show.  The Cubs signed Soler, after he defected from Cuba, to a nine-year, $30 million in 2012, and Theo Epstein and the Chicago front office hopes they got a bargain.

Even though Soler has graduated to the MLB, the Cubs still have a loaded heavy-hitting farm system. Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Albert Almora are the most promising, and they project to be stars in the near future.

Once all these young mashers are playing in Wrigley, they are going to be very fun to watch.  They might trade a few of them in exchange for some pitching help, but Theo Epstein built a dynasty in Boston, and I think he is en route to doing the same on the North Side.

Looking Into The Re-emergence of Trevor Bauer

Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

The first time I saw Trevor Bauer was in Omaha, Nebraska at the College World Series.  At the time, Bauer was a member of the UCLA Bruins and was the best pitcher in college baseball.  He had a huge repertoire of pitches and a windup eerily similar to Tim Lincecum.  

That year, 2010, when the Bruins were the CWS runner-up, Bauer had one of the best statistical seasons in all of college baseball.  He went 12-3 and struck out 165 batters in 131 innings.  He also allowed only 121 hits on the year.  Generally, a pitcher is officially dominant when he either has more strikeouts than innings pitched or when he allows fewer hits than innings pitched.

Bauer accomplished both of these, making him absolutely dominant.  He had better stats than his UCLA teammate Gerrit Cole, who went first-overall in the same draft to the Pirates, but there were always doubts about Bauer's mental capacity.

The dubiousness was evident in part because of Bauer's weird mechanics but also because of his unorthodox warmup routine.  Hours before every start, he would get to the field and partake in crazy workouts to get his throwing arm loose.  He would also throw a ton pregame, too much according to scouts.  

Back to Omaha, when I saw firsthand what kind of arm strength Bauer possessed. Instead of going through the motions like most pitchers do, Bauer unleashed his cannon of an arm by launching high-arching throws from one foul pole to the other.  It was those types of exercises that had teams wondering if his arm would be able to stay healthy down the road.

He stated repeatedly that he hated using pitch counts, and in an age where arms are more vulnerable than ever to injuries, he fell to the Diamondbacks with the third pick.  

He entered Arizona with a chip on his shoulder, trying to expunge anyand he made his major league debut in 2012.  Despite all of his talent and potential, he could not put it together at the big league level.  He pitched to a 6.06 ERA in his first four pro starts, and that was all the D-Backs needed to see.

They traded Bauer to the Indians in the Shin-Soo Choo three-team trade.

He pitched mostly in the minors last year, but pitched 17 innings over four starts in the majors, recording a 5.29 ERA.

Control was the biggest thing keeping Bauer from succeeding.  He walked 16 batters in those 17 innings in 2013, driving his WHIP to an incredibly high 1.82.  He was allowing too many guys on base, and he was paying for it.

Amazingly, he has enjoyed a tranformation in 2014.  He has lowered his walk rate and is striking batters out again.  He has maintained a career-best 4.18 ERA and 1.39 WHIP.  He has registered 114 batters in 118 innings, almost reaching that "dominance" plateau.

I really like how he pitches.  He unleashes his full repertoire early in the game and holds nothing back. Some pitchers prefer to go through the lineup the first time around only using one or two pitches, but Bauer never relies too heavily on his fastball.

He throws his fastball with plenty of velocity, averaging about 94 MPH in 2014, but he throws it only about 51% of the time, according to Fangraphs.  He also incorporates a cutter, splitter, changeup, curveball, and slider to disrupt the hitters' timing and keep them off balance.

He is still only 23 years old and isn't even close to as good as he is going to get.  He still has room to grow as a pitcher, especially in the control department.  When you throw as few fastballs as Bauer does, more walks can be expected.  But if Bauer can continue to lower his walk rate and be more consistent, he is going to be a terrific pitcher.

Who knows, maybe even as good as when he was overpowering Pac-12 hitters as a collegiate pitcher at UCLA.