Forecasted 15: Who to watch in 2011
The 2010 sports year featured some epic individual and team breakouts.
Rookie catcher Buster Posey arrived midway through the San Francisco Giants' season and sparked the team’s run to its first world championship since 1954. Sam Bradford went to the St. Louis Rams as the first overall draft pick and earned Troy Aikman comparisons. Mid-major Butler shocked the college basketball world by nearly winning a national title. The Chicago Blackhawks ended their decades-long Stanley Cup drought.
Who will break out in 2011? Here are 15 individuals and teams destined to do bigger things in the year ahead:
The former University of Texas QB worked his way up from the No. 3 role and showed vast promise as an NFL starter, posting an 85.3 passer rating during his first five games for the Cleveland Browns. McCoy used his feet to escape trouble and his poise to make plays on the move.
He was the NFL’s best rookie quarterback not named Bradford this season, and he became a rallying point for long-suffering Cleveland fans.
“The main thing is just his ability to do more,” Browns coach Eric Mangini told reporters. “I think that he did the things that we asked him to do the first week well and then the second week well, but it was more than the first week. He had a good feel for how we were going to attack teams, and that got better each game...
“His huddle presence and his ability to operate the offense was good the first game, and that’s always going to improve with experience and time. I didn’t really feel like in the opening games he did one thing poorly.”
Despite suffering through Tiger Woods' worst year as a pro, golf is blessed with an army of budding stars.
“I’ve never in my tenure seen so much buzz and interest about rookies and young players creating exciting performances,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem told reporters earlier this month. “Actually, it has led us to conclude that we really need to focus on that dynamic as we go into 2011.”
(That certainly beats dwelling on Woods and his off-course hijinks.)
Ishikawa, 19, offers the most intrigue. He earned just $149,180 on the PGA Tour last season and missed four cuts. But he enjoyed great success back home: Ishikawi fired a final-round 58 to win The Crowns and bank his seventh Japan Tour title.
“I always dreamed of getting a score like this, but didn't think I would do it so fast," Ishikawa said.
Coming up in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, Desmond Jennings modeled himself after speedy Rays outfielder Carl Crawford, and their time together during spring training proved invaluable.
“He was like the first one to the field,” Jennings told The New York Times. “I would try to beat him there, and I would pull up, and his car would always be there. He works hard, works out every day, hits in the cage, gets his work in. It’s more so the things he does than what he says.”
Now Crawford is gone, off to Boston to play for the Red Sox with a big free-agent deal. Jennings inherits his leadoff spot after getting a taste of big-league pitching late last season. He also hit .299 with a .384 on-base percentage in 1,581 minor league at-bats, with 29 home runs, 92 doubles and 171 stolen bases.
The Rays keep churning out great prospects. Jennings, a 10th-round pick in 2006, also is an excellent defender who should patrol center field for years to come.
Hitting wasn't an issue last season; the powerful Brewers scored the fourth-most runs in the National League. Pitching was the problem, and they fixed it during the offseason.
Blockbuster trades for Zack Greinke (Royals) and Shaun Marcum (Blue Jays) bolstered the starting rotation. They join staff ace Yovani Gallardo and veteran Randy Wolf in a top four that can compete with the Reds and Cardinals in the NL Central.
And they did all this without dealing slugger Prince Fielder, the subject of much trade speculation. After going 77-85 last season, Milwaukee is a threat to win 90 games in 2011.
"We were looking to get better this offseason, and I don't think we could have possibly accomplished more than we did," outfielder Ryan Braun told MLB.com. "I don't think anyone thought this was possible without trading somebody like Prince."
RICKY STENHOUSE JR.
He sank to 25th in the NASCAR Nationwide Series standings last season. He crashed out of five of his first dozen races and failed to qualify for the 13th race. His young career was trending down.
“Definitely, at the beginning of the season, I was worried,” Stenhouse told reporters. “We needed a little better luck; I needed to do some things better. We were in the wrong places at the wrong times in a lot of the crashes. But on the other hand, I was the one that put us in those situations sometimes, too.”
But Stenhouse, 23, reversed his fortunes. He earned six top-10 finishes in the second half and won top rookie honors for the Nationwide circuit. He appears poised for bigger things in 2011.
“The race team stuck together, the sponsors stuck with us and (team owner) Jack Roush stood behind me,” Stenhouse said. “He sat me down a few times, but it was all good. We really learned from it. … Jack has his way of doing things, and he’s been successful, so you can’t question it too much.”
SAN DIEGO STATE FOOTBALL
The Aztecs earned their first bowl berth since 1998, finishing 8-4 to advance to the hometown Poinsettia Bowl against Navy. It wasn’t just their first bowl season in 12 years — it was their first winning season.
“It's great for the program,” junior linebacker Miles Burris told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “But we want to win Mountain West Conference championships. If we do that, the bowl games will take care of themselves. We want to get to a point where going to a bowl game is standard; it happens every year and isn't just a one-year thing.”
The program is headed in that direction under Brady Hoke, the conference’s Coach of the Year. The four San Diego State losses came by a total of just 15 points, to Missouri, BYU, Utah and TCU.
Running back Ronnie Hillman topped 1,300 yards as freshman and quarterback Ryan Lindley will return for his senior season. The bowl practices give the Aztecs a head start on 2011, when they will bid for the conference title and a bigger postseason stage.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
Last season the Kings climbed to sixth in the Western Conference, earning their first playoff berth since 2002. They fell to the Vancouver Canucks in six games but raised their expectations.
“Last year was a real good step,” Coach Terry Murray told The Los Angeles Times. “We hope a great deal was learned in those games; we came away understanding how hard it is. Every detail, every shift is important. We hope the young players learned that. And the opportunity was there to win the series, but in the playoffs, Vancouver's best player found a way to get it done.”
The nucleus is taking shape with center Anze Kopitar, defensemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, and goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier. After failing to land free-agent winger Ilya Kovalchuk, the Kings still have the salary cap flexibility needed to make a big move.
“I'm excited because we're set for a long run here. This is not a one-year aberration. We did not rent players to get to this level,” team governor Tim Leiweke told The Times. “This is not a (goal) keeper getting completely crazed and carrying us on his back. This is the real deal, and I believe it's going to get better.”
This bruising postman was a man among kids playing high school ball in Columbus, and not much changed when he moved up to the collegiate level to play for hometown Ohio State. In four of his first seven games for the Buckeyes, the 6-foot-9, 280-pounder posted double figures in points and rebounds.
He blew up IUPUI with a 40-point, 13-rebound performance. How do you stop this guy?
“Get him in the draft early,” IUPUI coach Ron Hunter told reporters after that game.
In the meantime Sullinger figures to terrorize the Big Ten and lead the Buckeyes on a deep run into the NCAA Tournament.
“He's a special kid,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “The best part about him is he's a great teammate. He just wants to win.”
ST. LOUIS RAMS
The “Greatest Show of Turf” got old. Poor coaching and terrible personnel decisions drove the former Super Bowl champions to the NFL cellar.
But this team, led by No. 1 draft pick Sam Bradford, is on the way back. The QB's dazzling rookie season was a precursor of big things to come.
"They've got the next Peyton Manning," gushed former Rams coach Dick Vermeil, one of the "Greatest Show" architects. None of the other NFC West teams can say that, so the Rams are positioned to take a big step.
Bradford is aiming high: "If you go into a season thinking, 'OK, we won one game last year, and if we win three this year it will be a success,' you're totally wrong," he said recently. "You have to go into every season thinking that you want to win the Super Bowl. If you don't, then what are you playing for?"
After drafting the 6-foot-10, 246-pound forward third in 2010, the New Jersey Nets hoped to move the former Georgia Tech star into the starting lineup by the halfway point of the season. But his strong early season play forced New Jersey to change the timeline.
“My goal was to start him at the 41st game,” Coach Avery Johnson said. “It's going to come a whole lot sooner than 41.”
How promising is Favors? He draws comparisons to Kevin Garnett. He was a key piece in New Jersey’s trade offer to Denver for Carmelo Anthony. And if the Nets rebuild around him, they might be contenders again sooner than expected.
He produced just one assist in his first seven NHL games, generating speculation that the Edmonton Oilers could send the 18-year-old phenom to the minors. But then Hall, the first overall pick in 2010 draft, began his ascent toward stardom and the youthful Oilers took flight after a rocky start that included two six-game losing streaks.
“There hasn’t been a moment in the NHL when I was like, I just don’t belong. I can’t do this,” Hall said. “Certainly, there have been some tough times, like the losing streak, but I do feel I belong and I do feel I can play here.”
Columbus assistant coach Bob Boughner knows Hall well from his junior hockey days.
“I don’t think it’s anything different than Steve Stamkos or Joe Thornton in their rookie years,” Boughner told The Edmonton Sun. “It takes a month or two to get your feet wet in this league, but once he does he’ll be a scary player. He’s going to be a franchise player, one of the greats.”
He appears to be a once-in-a-lifetime prospect. He left high school two years early to play junior-college baseball. At 17, he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Washington Nationals. As an 18-year-old, he hammered the ball against older pitchers in the Arizona Fall League.
“There was so much anticipation last year. So much 'Do this, do that.' It was insane, because you want to be that first pick,” Harper told The Washington Post. “You want to do all those things that you've been wanting to do your whole life. I had to go out there in junior college and I had to perform every single day. I've still got to perform out here. But it was a lot more tough out there.
"That was probably the hardest year of my life. This is baseball. This is fun. This is just a blast.”
The Nationals will start him at Class-A Hagerstown. Given his explosive development, he will be one of baseball’s most-discussed players in 2011 whether he reaches the majors or not.
As USC football regroups, five-star recruits like this speedy 6-foot-2, 210-pound receiver will be critical to the rebuilding process. The son of former Los Angeles Rams receiver George Farmer Sr. starred in track (running the 100 meters in 10.4 seconds) and football at Junipero Serra High in Gardena, Calif.
“He looks like a college football player right now, without a doubt,” Serra coach Scott Altenberg told The Associated Press.
Farmer decided to sign with the Trojans and reunite with high school teammate Robert Woods, also a receiver, with whom he won a state title.
“It's big, what we did here at Serra,” Farmer said, “but it's going to be even bigger when we do it in college.”
Cincinnati Reds fans got a little taste of what this Cuban import could become last season. Chapman hit 105 mph on the radar gun, struck out 19 in 13.1 innings and posted a 2.03 ERA in 15 regular-season relief appearances.
Still polishing his form, the 6-foot-4 left-hander will join the starting rotation during spring training, and as the 22-year-old matures physically and adapts to life in America, there is no telling how overpowering he can become.
“You get him ready to start, then see how things go in spring training,” Reds general manager Walt Jocketty told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “If we feel good about the rotation, we can always put him in the bullpen.”
NEW YORK KNICKS
This storied franchise produced the NBA’s most underachieving team during the past decade. The Knicks haven’t posted a winning record since 2001, despite spending staggering amounts on “talent.” Isiah Thomas’ reign of error was legendary — and hapless Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan still misses the guy.
The team finished 29-53 last season under Coach Mike D’Antoni, who struggled to implement his up-tempo scheme. But this season the Knicks are enjoying their best start since the mid-'90s. With big-money addition Amar’e Stoudemire playing like an MVP, they look like a serious playoff threat.
Their progress was underscored during a narrow loss to the Celtics. Stoudemire hit a 3-pointer that would have won the game, but it came a split-second too late.
“We definitely earned our respect,” Stoudemire said. “I guarantee you right now Boston respects us. We’re no slouch. We’re ready to play every night. Boston knows it.”