Monday, January 21, 2008

Five to Watch in 2008

I love a good sports list and I know you do too. That's why here at "Quick Hits" I've decided to give you one of my own, the 2008 "Five to Watch" list.

This list includes guys you've heard of and guys perhaps you haven't, but what they all have in common is that they should impact the sporting world in 2008 and if they happen to play for your team you might want to take notice.

So without further ado...

Francisco Liriano - SP - Minnesota Twins

In case you forgot the lefty on the Twins staff with the nastiest stuff is not named Johan Santana, and with Santana most likely on his way out no player means quite as much to the success or failure of the Twins in 2008 than Liriano.

Liriano, you'll remember, burst onto the scene and into the national baseball consciousness in 2006 when he fanned 144 batters in 121 innings while posting a 2.16 ERA and earned a trip to the All-Star Game.

Just to point out how dominant Liriano was in 2006, if you added up his hits allowed, earned runs allowed and walks you'd get 150. Just six more than his strikeout total on the year.

The fact that he only became a starter in mid-May that year and only made one start in August and September respectively due to injury speaks to just how untouchable he was.

Liriano won 12 of his 16 starts and never gave up more than four earned runs in any start and struck out 10+ in a quarter of them. Combined with Santana the Twins boasted arguably the best one-two punch in baseball and the team's longest losing streak (5 games) came from May 14-18; Liriano made his first start on May 19th.

It's become clear that the Twins are going to move Santana at some point and after trading away Matt Garza they absolutely must have Liriano back at full strength if they hope to compete with guys like Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker filling out the rotation.

All signs point to Liriano being fully recovered from Tommy John surgery come the start of spring training and that's great news for Twins fans who last year suffered through the team's first losing season since 2000.

Terrelle Pryor - QB - Jeannette, PA (College Undecided)

If you aren't glued to like I am then you may not have heard of college football's next big thing, QB Terrelle Pryor of Jeannette, PA., who happens to be the #1 high school football recruit in all the land.

When new Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez decided to leave West Virginia for Ann Arbor the first person he called was Pryor.

Reports are Pryor has had to get a second cell phone to avoid the non-stop, day and night bombardment of calls and text messages from fans, coaches and media who all want to know what school will be the happy recipient of his signature on the dotted line of a scholarship.

Pryor says he'll decide on national signing day which is just over two weeks away, but signs point to one of two places, Ohio State and Michigan.

Wherever the 6'6" 235-pound Pryor decides to go he'll bring with him considerable dual-threat skills that helped him rack up 4,250 yards rushing and 4,249 yards passing over his high school career.

In addition to being ranked as the nation's top football recruit, Pryor is also ranked third in the country among small forwards in basketball. So it should come as no surprise that the schools on his short list include the aforementioned Buckeyes and the defending national champion Florida Gators who just happened to play one another in last year's national title game.

My guess is that Rodriguez and the Wolverines will ultimately win the battle over Pryor who could easily step in and be starting quarterback from day one in Rodriguez's read-option offense.

Anthony Kim - PGA Tour Professional - Age: 22

Lets face it, no one is going to overtake Tiger Woods in the world of professional golf any time soon. And as Tiger's closest pursuers like Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Ernie Els get older and seem resigned to this fact it's all that much more refreshing when a young, American golfer steps up to take on the world's best.

No, Anthony Kim isn't going to reach #1 in the very near future, but don't tell him that. Last year the then 21-year-old Kim racked up four top-10 finishes after earning his tour card at qualifying school and by the end of 2007 was ranked 75th in the world with over $1.5 million in earnings.

Kim's final round scoring average in 2007 was a staggering 69.80, good for 7th on the PGA Tour and a testament to his ability to play well down the stretch. The next step of course is for Kim to give himself more opportunities close to the lead on Sunday.

Like many young players Kim can be erratic off the tee (134th in driving accuracy in 2007), but he can bomb it (12th in driving distance) and that can be a major weapon for him. More than stats however Kim has the attitude and short memory necessary for any player looking to score and ultimately win.

In addition to his golfing prowess, I have to admit it's nice to see a young American player who isn't lily white (Kim is of Korean descent). To me, Kim is the embodiment of what we were promised way back in 1996 when Tiger turned pro, and that is a more diverse PGA Tour in terms of non-white, American-born players.

In his first event of 2008 Kim finished T-3 which equals his second best finish on the PGA Tour. Watch for this talented youngster to pick off his first win at some point this season.

Evan Longoria - 3B - Tampa Bay Rays

When the Rays traded away one of their brightest young stars in right fielder Delmon Young, it seemed like a curious move. Getting rid of a 21-year-old who finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting isn't something you just do.

Luckily for the Rays (they dropped the "Devil") they have as much if not more young talent in their organization as any in baseball, and third baseman Evan Longoria is arguably the best of the bunch.

Drafted in 2006 out of Long Beach State, Longoria has risen quickly through the Rays farm system, making it all the way up to Triple-A Durham last season while hitting a combined .299 with 26 HRs and 95 RBIs between Durham and Double-A Montgomery in 2007.

No relation to smoking hot Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria, Evan projects as the most coveted of hitters, those who not only hit for power but for average as well. He plays a solid third base and is noted for his competitiveness and leadership ability.

Ranked as the Rays top prospect for 2008 by Baseball America, Longoria could shed the "prospect" mantle with a strong spring training and is on the fast track to claiming the Rays starting third base job for years to come.

Chase Budinger - Shooting Guard - Arizona Wildcats

Everyone knows the big name guys like Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, Eric Gordon and O.J. Mayo who seem primed to set the NBA on fire as soon as next year. One name that gets overlooked however is Arizona's sophomore standout Chase Budinger.

At 6'7" Budinger plays above the rim and also has legit NBA range, a combo scouts covet. As a freshman last season Budinger started all 30 games for the Wildcats and averaged 15.6 points per game in the ultra-competitive Pac-10.

So far this season he's averaging 17.1 points per game, and on a team loaded with players who have NBA potential, Budinger has established himself as arguably the Wildcats best player.

At 12-6 and looking strong, the Wildcats have already endured the loss of their head coach Lute Olsen who is on a leave of absence for the entire year and it's been the 19-year-old Budinger who by all accounts has stepped into a leadership role.

That mentality along with his ability to score have made him a top target for many teams in the 2008 NBA Draft should he choose to leave school early after this season. A rare athlete, Budinger was also named the MVP of the 2006 U.S. Junior Olympic Volleyball Tournament; a sport he's since given up.

Whatever Budinger chooses to do he might be overshadowed by bigger names, but as they say, talent rises to the top and Budinger is primed to take his talent all the way up.

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