Top Phillies Prospect Scott Kingery Is MLB’s Next Dustin Pedroia

It was just one scout and one opinion, but then it was another scout, sharing the same sentiment.

What player impressed you most this spring?

Scott Kingery, Philadelphia Phillies.

Yes, I know about Ronald Acuna, and so do the scouts. I'll stick with what I wrote about the Atlanta Braves' 20-year-old star-to-be when spring training began. Whatever the service-time advantages of sending Acuna down—as the Braves did Monday—he's ready to play and ready to star.

This isn't about tearing up the top prospect lists (like this one on MLB.com) that had Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels and Acuna at the top and had Kingery at a respectable but not eye-popping No. 35. This is about impressions and the way a veteran scout feels after a few days watching the 23-year-old Phillies infielder.

"The guy is making a name for himself by the way he plays," the one American League scout said. "He's gritty, he's tough and he plays the game the right way."

He's a second baseman who was a top college hitter in the Pacific-12 Conference (University of Arizona), so naturally there will be comparisons to Dustin Pedroia (Arizona State) and Chase Utley (UCLA). Like Pedroia, Kingery is a touch undersized (he's listed at 5'10"), one reason both lasted until the second round of the draft.

And just as Utley was the grit of the Phillies team that won a World Series in 2008, Kingery could be key to the team the Phillies are building now.

He could be ready now, and one National League scout who watched him in the minor leagues last season suggested Kingery should be the Phils' starting second baseman on Opening Day. That's unlikely, though, with Cesar Hernandez in place.

Kingery only played 63 games last year in Triple-A, after a midseason promotion from Double-A Reading, so it would be easy for the Phillies to justify having him start the season back in Lehigh Valley. It would also save service time and delay his free-agent eligibility, not that they would ever admit that's a consideration.

What has been just as interesting this spring has been the way the Phillies have moved Kingery around, having him play third base, shortstop, center field and second base.

"Based on his skill set, I think he could play, legitimately, anywhere on the diamond and be just fine," new Phillies manager Gabe Kapler told reporters. "I don't think there's much he can't do on a baseball field, athletically."

He's the kind of player who grows on managers and scouts. Pedroia was that way. David Chadd, who drafted Pedroia for the Red Sox, once told me he realized that every time he went to see Arizona State play that year, Pedroia did something to help his team win.

It takes more than that, obviously, and Pedroia had enough skill that he became the AL MVP in 2008. Kingery has skill, too, enough that he hit 26 home runs with an .889 OPS in 132 minor league games last year. His numbers this spring have been even better, with three home runs, four steals and a 1.086 OPS in 39 plate appearances.

He's handled the multiple positions well, too, as you can see in the video on this MLB Pipeline tweet:

Maybe third base becomes Kingery's spot, especially if Maikel Franco struggles the way he did for a significant part of last season. Or maybe he replaces Hernandez as the second baseman, inheriting the job Utley held for more than a decade at Citizens Bank Park.

Or maybe with that versatility the Phillies end up playing him everywhere, Ben Zobrist style.

"I love that they're moving me around," he said.

The manager and the scouts had to love that answer, too, just one more part of a great impression Scott Kingery has made this spring.

        

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Top Phillies Prospect Scott Kingery Is MLB’s Next Dustin Pedroia

It was just one scout and one opinion, but then it was another scout, sharing the same sentiment.

What player impressed you most this spring?

Scott Kingery, Philadelphia Phillies.

Yes, I know about Ronald Acuna, and so do the scouts. I'll stick with what I wrote about the Atlanta Braves' 20-year-old star-to-be when spring training began. Whatever the service-time advantages of sending Acuna down—as the Braves did Monday—he's ready to play and ready to star.

This isn't about tearing up the top prospect lists (like this one on MLB.com) that had Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels and Acuna at the top and had Kingery at a respectable but not eye-popping No. 35. This is about impressions and the way a veteran scout feels after a few days watching the 23-year-old Phillies infielder.

"The guy is making a name for himself by the way he plays," the one American League scout said. "He's gritty, he's tough and he plays the game the right way."

He's a second baseman who was a top college hitter in the Pacific-12 Conference (University of Arizona), so naturally there will be comparisons to Dustin Pedroia (Arizona State) and Chase Utley (UCLA). Like Pedroia, Kingery is a touch undersized (he's listed at 5'10"), one reason both lasted until the second round of the draft.

And just as Utley was the grit of the Phillies team that won a World Series in 2008, Kingery could be key to the team the Phillies are building now.

He could be ready now, and one National League scout who watched him in the minor leagues last season suggested Kingery should be the Phils' starting second baseman on Opening Day. That's unlikely, though, with Cesar Hernandez in place.

Kingery only played 63 games last year in Triple-A, after a midseason promotion from Double-A Reading, so it would be easy for the Phillies to justify having him start the season back in Lehigh Valley. It would also save service time and delay his free-agent eligibility, not that they would ever admit that's a consideration.

What has been just as interesting this spring has been the way the Phillies have moved Kingery around, having him play third base, shortstop, center field and second base.

"Based on his skill set, I think he could play, legitimately, anywhere on the diamond and be just fine," new Phillies manager Gabe Kapler told reporters. "I don't think there's much he can't do on a baseball field, athletically."

He's the kind of player who grows on managers and scouts. Pedroia was that way. David Chadd, who drafted Pedroia for the Red Sox, once told me he realized that every time he went to see Arizona State play that year, Pedroia did something to help his team win.

It takes more than that, obviously, and Pedroia had enough skill that he became the AL MVP in 2008. Kingery has skill, too, enough that he hit 26 home runs with an .889 OPS in 132 minor league games last year. His numbers this spring have been even better, with three home runs, four steals and a 1.086 OPS in 39 plate appearances.

He's handled the multiple positions well, too, as you can see in the video on this MLB Pipeline tweet:

Maybe third base becomes Kingery's spot, especially if Maikel Franco struggles the way he did for a significant part of last season. Or maybe he replaces Hernandez as the second baseman, inheriting the job Utley held for more than a decade at Citizens Bank Park.

Or maybe with that versatility the Phillies end up playing him everywhere, Ben Zobrist style.

"I love that they're moving me around," he said.

The manager and the scouts had to love that answer, too, just one more part of a great impression Scott Kingery has made this spring.

        

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Yankees’ Chapman Trade Throw-in Billy McKinney Finally Living Up to the Hype

Early on in the 2017 season, a National League scout tracking the New York Yankees farm system saw outfielder Billy McKinney and came away underwhelmed.

"Marginal prospect," the scout said, and while he had some kinder words about the way McKinney approaches the game, it's hard to get past those first two words. First-round picks aren't supposed to be marginal prospects. Minor leaguers who become part of big midseason deals are supposed to be better than that, significantly better.

It turns out maybe Billy McKinney is better than marginal, that maybe he's just one of those players who needed a while to develop, one of those guys who will eventually get a chance and justify that first-round pick and those big trades.

"Wow," the same scout said after seeing McKinney later last year. "It's all coming together."

Fast-forward to this spring, when McKinney homered four times in his first 16 Grapefruit League at-bats.

"He may be one of those sleeper guys," an American League scout said this week.

Prospects are talked about more than ever before. Prospect rankings and projections are everywhere, and everyone wants to look at a guy in Class A and tell you how good he is going to be in the big leagues.

But the fact is, there are "sleeper guys." Talent doesn't develop along a straight line. Players do go from "marginal prospect" to "wow."

Especially players who were talented enough to be drafted eight spots ahead of Aaron Judge. Judge was the 32nd player picked in June 2013, out of Fresno State. McKinney went 24th, to the Oakland A's, out of Plano West HS in Texas.

"There are few, if any, high school bats better than McKinney's," MLB.com wrote that spring.

McKinney was 18 years old then. He's 23 now, with a very good half-season in Triple-A (.877 OPS in 55 games at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre) and a pretty good month in the Arizona Fall League (.800 OPS in 19 games with Scottsdale) behind him.

"Big league ready," said two scouts who have seen him.

"It's just quality at-bat after quality at-bat," new Yankees manager Aaron Boone said, according to Randy Miller of NJ.com. "He's really impressed me all the way around."

McKinney could become a key player to watch for the Yankees in 2018. But will he even get a chance?

The Yankees have Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, Clint Frazier and Jacoby Ellsbury in front of him, and there's top prospect Estevan Florial behind him. Ellsbury and Frazier have been hurt this spring, possibly opening up a spot, but the Yankees are loaded with outfielders, one reason they had McKinney play a little first base last fall and again this spring. With fragile Greg Bird the projected starter at first, maybe an opportunity will open up there.

"They've got too many high-end guys," the AL scout said. "He could be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Go to Triple-A, put up big numbers and make the Yankees decide if they want to trade you to someone else."

It wouldn't be the first time McKinney got traded. Or the second time.

The A's spent $1.8 million to sign him out of the draft, but before he'd even gotten out of Class A, they shipped him and Addison Russell to the Chicago Cubs as part of the package to get Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in 2014. Two years later, the Cubs sent him to the Yankees as part of the Aroldis Chapman deal.

McKinney wasn't the big name going to the Yankees in that trade. He was the second prospect, with all the focus on Gleyber Torres. The 21-year-old Torres is still the big name, ranked by MLB.com as the No. 5 prospect in all of the minor leagues.

He's never been considered just marginal. Billy McKinney has. But like Torres, McKinney is a guy who can still make scouts say, "Wow!"

      

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Ichiro’s Dream of Playing Baseball Until He’s 50 Is Alive and Well

There's nothing better in spring training than a hot young prospect. So why am I most excited this week about a guy who was getting paid to play before those young guys were even born? Nothing is better than 21-year-old Kyle Tucker hitting four home runs in 25 spring at-bats for the Houston Astros or 23-year-old Billy McKinney becoming the early talk of New York Yankees camp with four home runs of his own.

But did you see that Ichiro Suzuki is back with the Seattle Mariners?

There's seemingly no way Ichiro is the missing piece the Mariners have been seeking as baseball's longest postseason drought has extended to 17 years, but what if he is? It was 2001 the last time he was the new guy in town in Peoria, Arizona, and he was the spark that sent the Mariners into October the year after Alex Rodriguez left.

They haven't been back to the playoffs since.

No one else from that 2001 Mariners club was available. Every one of them has been retired for at least five years.

Every one but Ichiro.

He's 44 now, and not only hasn't he retired, if you take him at his word, he's not even close to leaving the game yet.

"I think everybody has heard I want to play till I'm 50," he said through a translator at his introductory press conference. "But I always say I want to play at least until I'm 50. Make sure everybody understands that."

Everybody should understand it, and everybody who loves baseball should be thrilled to hear it. You may have spent the winter wondering when J.D. Martinez or Jake Arrieta would get a job. I spent it hoping like heck that we hadn't seen the last of Ichiro.

He's not the hitter he once was. His last All-Star appearance was in 2010, which was also the last time his OPS topped .750 for a full season. It's hard to imagine him being productive if he plays left field 4-5 times a week, which Mariners manager Scott Servais said was possible.

But with the right number of at-bats, he could be good enough to help.

These reunions don't always go well. It sounded like a great idea when the Mariners brought Ken Griffey Jr. back to Seattle in 2009, and he even hit 19 home runs in 117 games that season. But Griffey's batting average for his second Seattle stay was .208, and all that's remembered about it is the story about how he was fast asleep in the clubhouse during a game.

Ichiro might hit .208, but there's no chance he'll be sleeping and no chance anyone is going to sleep through his at-bats, even if he does hit .208.

He should still hit enough to contribute. He'll definitely work as hard as he needs to, as hard as anyone his age or 20 years younger. Work ethic has never been an issue with Ichiro, and Wright Thompson's fine story on ESPN.com details all the work Ichiro did this winter, even when he wasn't sure he'd have a job.

Thompson writes about how Ichiro rents a ballpark near Kobe, Japan, in the winter, about how his ritualized workouts include four jogging laps, baserunning and exactly 50 soft-toss pitches. He does things his own way. Always has.

"I'm not normal," he told Thompson.

Normal guys eventually give in to the realities of age. Even Ichiro will eventually, but it doesn't need to happen yet.

His quest for 50 is a story worth celebrating, and now, maybe it can go along with him being a small part of bringing the Mariners back too. Their long postseason drought has always been something of a puzzle because it's not like they've been terrible for two straight decades. The drought began with a pair of 93-win seasons (pre the addition of the Wild Card Game). Even more recently, they've had seasons of 87 (2014) and 86 (2016) wins.

In a division where the Astros are the overwhelming favorites and the exciting Japanese newcomer is Shohei Ohtani with the Los Angeles Angels, Ichiro and the Mariners go in as underdogs.

That's fine. Ichiro had plenty of doubters the first time around too, a point I made in a Bleacher Report story that ran in 2016 when he got his 3,000th major league hit. Back in 2001, it wasn't that he was too old—he was 27—but there were many who wondered if his style of hitting would work in the big leagues.

It worked so well that he hit .350, was the Rookie of the Year and the Most Valuable Player and won a Gold Glove along with the Slver Slugger Award.

"Ichiro became the face of the franchise in a very short time," said Lou Piniella, who managed the M's then.

He comes back as a returning hero but as more than just a novelty. He stayed 12 years the first time. Twelve years now would take him to 56, so you've got to figure that won't happen.

Then again, wouldn't it make a great story in spring training 2030 if it did?

 

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Jose Ramirez: The Infectious Swagger of MLB’s New Hitting Machine

It's more of a strut than a walk.

Jose Ramirez's shoulders bounce. His arms pump. His legs shuffle forward. His head nods.

And that's just as he's leaving the dugout to head to the on-deck circle.

There are so many things that make Ramirez special, so many things that make his Cleveland Indians teammates love him. But it's the walk they all try to imitate.

"No one can do it like him," Indians catcher Roberto Perez said.

They all try.

"It's difficult to imitate," Ramirez said. "But it's natural for me. I've been doing it all my life."

So much seems to come naturally for Ramirez, a likable 25-year-old who stands out in a crowd despite being just 5'9". He plays second base or third base, whatever the Indians need. He's a shortstop, too. And when the Indians needed a left fielder in 2016, Ramirez stepped in and started 47 games there, no problem. He was back at third base when the Indians went to the World Series for the first time in 19 years later that fall, split time between second and third in 2017 and is pencilled in as the third baseman this spring.

He batted third for the Indians in last week's first exhibition game, just as he did through an American League-record 22-game winning streak in August and September of 2017. Ramirez was in a 1-for-24 slump before the streak, but he had two hits the night it began, two home runs in a win at Yankee Stadium a week later, a five-hit game with two home runs and three doubles a few days after that in Detroit and a 4-for-4 night in the 22nd straight win. Altogether, he hit .423 with eight home runs and 11 doubles while the Indians were streaking.

He can play everywhere. He can hit anywhere. Last year, manager Terry Francona used Ramirez at each of the nine spots in his batting order at least once.

"Regardless of where you put him, he's going to get the job done," shortstop Francisco Lindor said. "That's impressive."

Lindor was always the prize of the Indians' farm system, when he and Ramirez were both in the minor leagues. He was a first-round draft pick out of Puerto Rico in 2011, signed for $2.9 million a year-and-a-half after the Indians spent just $50,000 to sign Ramirez as a 17-year-old lottery ticket from the Dominican Republic.

Lindor has become every bit the star the Indians hoped he would be, already a two-time All-Star at age 24. But when the American League All-Stars took the field in Miami last July, the one Indians player in the starting lineup was Ramirez.

Despite playing for a team that ranked 22nd among the 30 major league teams in home attendance this season, Ramirez received nearly 2 million votes.

Maybe it was the walk. Or maybe it was the coffee.


Yes, the coffee. The Jose! Jose! coffee, on sale for $13.50 per pound from the Cleveland Coffee Company. It comes with his picture on the package, and it comes with his endorsement.

If you showed up at the Indians' final home game before the All-Star break, you may have gotten a free pack which Ramirez handed out himself.

"He told us he wanted to buy 500 bags and hand them out to thank the fans for voting for him," said Brendan Walton, who owns the company.

Walton said that since then, orders for Jose! Jose! coffee have come in from 10 states, from as far away as Vermont and California. He figures that most of them must be displaced Clevelanders, but he also insists it's a tasty blend.

Ramirez does, too.

He has worked coffee into interviews, including the time in July when he had a little trouble getting thrown out on the bases and explained he had been drinking too much coffee.

Ramirez even stopped by the warehouse one day to see the coffee being roasted.

"I asked him if he spoke English," said Walton, who gave the tour. "He said he could understand some of it."

He doesn't speak much. While many of his Spanish-speaking Indians teammates will try to do interviews in English, Ramirez relies on a team interpreter. Even Francona said the language barrier has kept him from getting to know Ramirez well, although the manager loves what Ramirez does for his team.

Indians fans certainly don't seem to mind. They gave him all those votes for the All-Star team, they buy his coffee and they buy any number of quirky Ramirez T-shirts.

"When the boogeyman goes to sleep, he checks the closet for Jose Ramirez," one of them reads.

"Unless he pukes, faints or dies, Jose Ramirez will keep going," reads another.

And then there's the one Ramirez calls his favorite.

"The red one," he said, before clarifying to say it's the one his teammates like to wear around the clubhouse.

It's the one that has a drawing of Ramirez with nothing colored in except his blond hair.

"Yes way Jose," that one reads.

"I like that," he said.

He liked the yarn ball, too.

The Indians had a bunch of them by the end of last season, cut-up baseballs with a player's face drawn on and the yarn pulled out to resemble the player's hair. Yarn ball originator/starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco said he had versions for 17 Indians, with the goal of eventually having one for each player on the roster.

"We started with Jose," Carrasco said.

Of course they did.

With his hair, which can shoot out in all directions and show up in any color, Ramirez was a natural for a yarn ball. It takes Carrasco a couple of days to make one, in a process he shared last year with MLB.com, and the Ramirez one became so popular there's now a T-shirt showing that, too.

"It's entertaining," Ramirez said. "It's a long season, and you have to have diversions."

Ramirez is something of a diversion all by himself. It probably starts with his size, because as even his own mother once told him, short guys usually don't make it in the majors.

Then there's the way he acts.

"He's always messing around," Indians infielder Giovanny Urshela said. "If he says 'Hi,' he's going to punch you in the stomach or the head. That's the way he says 'Hi.' It's in a fun way."

His teammates laugh and say there's no one else like him.

"There's only one," Urshela said. "I hope he's the only one."

Others can try. They can do some of what Ramirez does. Take Lindor, who showed up for spring training this month with platinum blond hair.

But then check out Ramirez's response, courtesy of this tweet from Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer:

Catcher Yan Gomes remembers walking into a clubhouse in the winter of 2012-13, when he was playing for the Toros del Este in the Dominican Winter League and Ramirez was his teammate. Ramirez was just 20 years old, a kid coming off his first taste of Class-A (and headed to the big leagues by the end of the next season).

"He had the same walk he has now," Gomes said. "Full of swag. Full of confidence."

Oh yes. That walk.


"He walks around like he owns the place," Francona said.

That's the Jose Ramirez walk.

It's distinctive and fitting because if you're an undersized kid, you'd better have confidence in yourself and be prepared to show it.

He didn't get to play in the big prospect games set up for major league scouts who come to the Dominican Republic. He wasn't the subject of a bidding war when he turned 16, the way the high-profile prospects are.

"I don't think he had any other offers except the one from us," Indians senior director of scouting operations John Mirabelli told Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer last year. "... He is an amazing story."

The top prospects got the big money. Ramirez was fortunate to even get a chance.

"He didn't look like a ballplayer," Mirabelli told Pluto. "He wasn't fluid. He didn't have a great arm. He didn't look that fast."

But Ramirez did get three hits the day Mirabelli was in the Dominican Republic to see him.

It was the same story after he signed. Ramirez hit .325 as an 18-year-old in the Arizona Rookie League and .354 as a 19-year-old at Single-A Lake County, but he never made it to MLB.com's list of baseball's top 100 prospects. Baseball America never ranked him in its top 100, either.

Even some in the Indians organization never believed he'd be more than a utility player in the big leagues.

He hit enough and the Indians had enough of a need that he eventually did win a spot. When the 2015 season opened, Ramirez was 22 and was Cleveland's starting shortstop. By early June, when his slash line was a dreadful .180/.247/.240, Ramirez ended up back at Triple-A.

Not long after, the Indians called up Lindor and made him the shortstop.

When Ramirez made it back to the Indians later that season, he was a second baseman. And a left fielder. And a third baseman.

By the end of 2015, Ramirez had played in 180 major league games, but outside of Cleveland, he was still a relative unknown. His .644 career OPS at that point was nothing to get excited about. But he was still just 23, and the biggest decision-makers in the organization never lost faith in his ability to hit.

"We were cognizant that he was really young," Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations, said. "It takes young players time to transition to the major leagues."

For Ramirez, it took until 2016. He got a chance to play when the season began because Michael Brantley's shoulder injury left the Indians needing a left fielder. He hit so well and was able to handle so many positions that Francona found a place for him in the lineup nearly every day. His OPS soared to .825, and by the end of the year, he even made it onto one voter's Most Valuable Player ballot.

He led the majors last season with 56 doubles, the most by an Indian in 11 years. He also hit 29 home runs, making him one of just two major leaguers (along with Albert Pujols in 2012) in the last 10 years with 50-plus doubles and 29-plus homers. His OPS went up again, to .957, and he finished third in American League MVP voting.

He was so good, Francona and the Indians coaches couldn't stop saying nice things about him.

"Just an awesome individual," bench coach Brad Mills said.

And he has that walk. Yes, Mills admitted, he has tried to imitate it.

"We all have," he said.

They all have, and not one of them has yet succeeded in getting it right.

"Nobody can do that," Carrasco said. "No chance. No one else is like him."

    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Jose Ramirez: The Infectious Swagger of MLB’s New Hitting Machine

It's more of a strut than a walk.

Jose Ramirez's shoulders bounce. His arms pump. His legs shuffle forward. His head nods.

And that's just as he's leaving the dugout to head to the on-deck circle.

There are so many things that make Ramirez special, so many things that make his Cleveland Indians teammates love him. But it's the walk they all try to imitate.

"No one can do it like him," Indians catcher Roberto Perez said.

They all try.

"It's difficult to imitate," Ramirez said. "But it's natural for me. I've been doing it all my life."

So much seems to come naturally for Ramirez, a likable 25-year-old who stands out in a crowd despite being just 5'9". He plays second base or third base, whatever the Indians need. He's a shortstop, too. And when the Indians needed a left fielder in 2016, Ramirez stepped in and started 47 games there, no problem. He was back at third base when the Indians went to the World Series for the first time in 19 years later that fall, split time between second and third in 2017 and is pencilled in as the third baseman this spring.

He batted third for the Indians in last week's first exhibition game, just as he did through an American League-record 22-game winning streak in August and September of 2017. Ramirez was in a 1-for-24 slump before the streak, but he had two hits the night it began, two home runs in a win at Yankee Stadium a week later, a five-hit game with two home runs and three doubles a few days after that in Detroit and a 4-for-4 night in the 22nd straight win. Altogether, he hit .423 with eight home runs and 11 doubles while the Indians were streaking.

He can play everywhere. He can hit anywhere. Last year, manager Terry Francona used Ramirez at each of the nine spots in his batting order at least once.

"Regardless of where you put him, he's going to get the job done," shortstop Francisco Lindor said. "That's impressive."

Lindor was always the prize of the Indians' farm system, when he and Ramirez were both in the minor leagues. He was a first-round draft pick out of Puerto Rico in 2011, signed for $2.9 million a year-and-a-half after the Indians spent just $50,000 to sign Ramirez as a 17-year-old lottery ticket from the Dominican Republic.

Lindor has become every bit the star the Indians hoped he would be, already a two-time All-Star at age 24. But when the American League All-Stars took the field in Miami last July, the one Indians player in the starting lineup was Ramirez.

Despite playing for a team that ranked 22nd among the 30 major league teams in home attendance this season, Ramirez received nearly 2 million votes.

Maybe it was the walk. Or maybe it was the coffee.


Yes, the coffee. The Jose! Jose! coffee, on sale for $13.50 per pound from the Cleveland Coffee Company. It comes with his picture on the package, and it comes with his endorsement.

If you showed up at the Indians' final home game before the All-Star break, you may have gotten a free pack which Ramirez handed out himself.

"He told us he wanted to buy 500 bags and hand them out to thank the fans for voting for him," said Brendan Walton, who owns the company.

Walton said that since then, orders for Jose! Jose! coffee have come in from 10 states, from as far away as Vermont and California. He figures that most of them must be displaced Clevelanders, but he also insists it's a tasty blend.

Ramirez does, too.

He has worked coffee into interviews, including the time in July when he had a little trouble getting thrown out on the bases and explained he had been drinking too much coffee.

Ramirez even stopped by the warehouse one day to see the coffee being roasted.

"I asked him if he spoke English," said Walton, who gave the tour. "He said he could understand some of it."

He doesn't speak much. While many of his Spanish-speaking Indians teammates will try to do interviews in English, Ramirez relies on a team interpreter. Even Francona said the language barrier has kept him from getting to know Ramirez well, although the manager loves what Ramirez does for his team.

Indians fans certainly don't seem to mind. They gave him all those votes for the All-Star team, they buy his coffee and they buy any number of quirky Ramirez T-shirts.

"When the boogeyman goes to sleep, he checks the closet for Jose Ramirez," one of them reads.

"Unless he pukes, faints or dies, Jose Ramirez will keep going," reads another.

And then there's the one Ramirez calls his favorite.

"The red one," he said, before clarifying to say it's the one his teammates like to wear around the clubhouse.

It's the one that has a drawing of Ramirez with nothing colored in except his blond hair.

"Yes way Jose," that one reads.

"I like that," he said.

He liked the yarn ball, too.

The Indians had a bunch of them by the end of last season, cut-up baseballs with a player's face drawn on and the yarn pulled out to resemble the player's hair. Yarn ball originator/starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco said he had versions for 17 Indians, with the goal of eventually having one for each player on the roster.

"We started with Jose," Carrasco said.

Of course they did.

With his hair, which can shoot out in all directions and show up in any color, Ramirez was a natural for a yarn ball. It takes Carrasco a couple of days to make one, in a process he shared last year with MLB.com, and the Ramirez one became so popular there's now a T-shirt showing that, too.

"It's entertaining," Ramirez said. "It's a long season, and you have to have diversions."

Ramirez is something of a diversion all by himself. It probably starts with his size, because as even his own mother once told him, short guys usually don't make it in the majors.

Then there's the way he acts.

"He's always messing around," Indians infielder Giovanny Urshela said. "If he says 'Hi,' he's going to punch you in the stomach or the head. That's the way he says 'Hi.' It's in a fun way."

His teammates laugh and say there's no one else like him.

"There's only one," Urshela said. "I hope he's the only one."

Others can try. They can do some of what Ramirez does. Take Lindor, who showed up for spring training this month with platinum blond hair.

But then check out Ramirez's response, courtesy of this tweet from Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer:

Catcher Yan Gomes remembers walking into a clubhouse in the winter of 2012-13, when he was playing for the Toros del Este in the Dominican Winter League and Ramirez was his teammate. Ramirez was just 20 years old, a kid coming off his first taste of Class-A (and headed to the big leagues by the end of the next season).

"He had the same walk he has now," Gomes said. "Full of swag. Full of confidence."

Oh yes. That walk.


"He walks around like he owns the place," Francona said.

That's the Jose Ramirez walk.

It's distinctive and fitting because if you're an undersized kid, you'd better have confidence in yourself and be prepared to show it.

He didn't get to play in the big prospect games set up for major league scouts who come to the Dominican Republic. He wasn't the subject of a bidding war when he turned 16, the way the high-profile prospects are.

"I don't think he had any other offers except the one from us," Indians senior director of scouting operations John Mirabelli told Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer last year. "... He is an amazing story."

The top prospects got the big money. Ramirez was fortunate to even get a chance.

"He didn't look like a ballplayer," Mirabelli told Pluto. "He wasn't fluid. He didn't have a great arm. He didn't look that fast."

But Ramirez did get three hits the day Mirabelli was in the Dominican Republic to see him.

It was the same story after he signed. Ramirez hit .325 as an 18-year-old in the Arizona Rookie League and .354 as a 19-year-old at Single-A Lake County, but he never made it to MLB.com's list of baseball's top 100 prospects. Baseball America never ranked him in its top 100, either.

Even some in the Indians organization never believed he'd be more than a utility player in the big leagues.

He hit enough and the Indians had enough of a need that he eventually did win a spot. When the 2015 season opened, Ramirez was 22 and was Cleveland's starting shortstop. By early June, when his slash line was a dreadful .180/.247/.240, Ramirez ended up back at Triple-A.

Not long after, the Indians called up Lindor and made him the shortstop.

When Ramirez made it back to the Indians later that season, he was a second baseman. And a left fielder. And a third baseman.

By the end of 2015, Ramirez had played in 180 major league games, but outside of Cleveland, he was still a relative unknown. His .644 career OPS at that point was nothing to get excited about. But he was still just 23, and the biggest decision-makers in the organization never lost faith in his ability to hit.

"We were cognizant that he was really young," Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations, said. "It takes young players time to transition to the major leagues."

For Ramirez, it took until 2016. He got a chance to play when the season began because Michael Brantley's shoulder injury left the Indians needing a left fielder. He hit so well and was able to handle so many positions that Francona found a place for him in the lineup nearly every day. His OPS soared to .825, and by the end of the year, he even made it onto one voter's Most Valuable Player ballot.

He led the majors last season with 56 doubles, the most by an Indian in 11 years. He also hit 29 home runs, making him one of just two major leaguers (along with Albert Pujols in 2012) in the last 10 years with 50-plus doubles and 29-plus homers. His OPS went up again, to .957, and he finished third in American League MVP voting.

He was so good, Francona and the Indians coaches couldn't stop saying nice things about him.

"Just an awesome individual," bench coach Brad Mills said.

And he has that walk. Yes, Mills admitted, he has tried to imitate it.

"We all have," he said.

They all have, and not one of them has yet succeeded in getting it right.

"Nobody can do that," Carrasco said. "No chance. No one else is like him."

    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

The Next Vlad Guerrero: MLB’s Top Hitting Prospect Ronald Acuna Is Ready to Star

Alex Anthopoulos is still new on the job with the Atlanta Braves, hired as general manager barely three months ago after the guy who had the job before, John Coppolella, broke too many rules and eventually got banned from baseball. Anthopoulos knows he inherited an organization that should be on the rise, helped by a 20-year-old outfielder who may well be the best prospect in the game.

"I'm just anxious to see him play," Anthopoulos said by phone when Ronald Acuna's name came up this week.

So is everybody else. And while it's Anthopoulos and his staff who will have to make the decision on whether Acuna is ready for the big leagues right now, scouts who have followed the young Venezuelan on his quick journey through the minor leagues have no doubt he is.

"Tell Alex to turn him loose," one National League scout said. "Don't lose this kid by not challenging him."

The scout went on to say that Acuna is the best prospect he has seen in the last couple of years and that "his skills shadow" those of new Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero.

"Bottom line, he resembles a 30-30 type [30 home runs, 30 steals], a terrific athlete in the middle of the order playing a skilled position," the scout said. "He has a demeanor like Vlad. Loves to play. Work habits, makeup, instinct are sound. He's a guy you edge up on your seat when he gets in the box."

"He's ready," another NL scout agreed. "Just get out of the way and let him play."

So there you go, Alex, and you're welcome for the help making your decision easier.

"We're going to keep an open mind," Anthopoulos said. "We do feel he's going to impact us at some point in 2018."

"We'll let the spring play out," Braves manager Brian Snitker agreed. "And we'll see where we're at at the end of camp."

Fair enough. The Braves play their first Grapefruit League game Friday against the New York Mets. They have more than a month to go before their March 29 Opening Day game against the Philadelphia Phillies at SunTrust Park.

Acuna has plenty of time to make an impression.

Or maybe he already has.

"He's a better athlete than everybody else," Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson told David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "... I mean, it's pretty special. It's one of those things that’s even hard to explain really. If you just watch it, you can tell there's a difference, whether you know a lot about baseball or whether you know nothing, you just kind of say, that guy is doing something right."

"He's way ahead of me [as a prospect]," new Hall of Famer Chipper Jones told Mark Bowman of MLB.com. "... He's as good a prospect as I've seen."

On the traditional scouting scale of 20-80, Acuna has a 70 arm and is a 70 runner, one of the scouts said. Think of a .300 hitter who has 25 home runs a year and a guy who qualifies as a "grinder," even though he's a great player.

"He's going to be an All-Star," the scout said. "I don't see any issues."

Neither do the Braves, who originally signed Acuna for a bargain $100,000 and were convinced enough by his talent that they moved him from Class A to Double-A to Triple-A in 2017, all while he was still 19 years old.

On its list of baseball's top 100 prospects, MLB.com ranked Acuna second, behind Japanese import Shohei Ohtani (and just ahead of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.). Baseball America listed him first, ahead of Ohtani. On ESPN.com, Keith Law also listed him first, saying he has a "Mike Trout-ish" profile.

The Trout comparison is understandable if you only look at numbers. In his 54 games at Triple-A Gwinnett in 2017, Acuna had a .940 OPS. He hit with power (nine home runs, 14 doubles in just 243 plate appearances), and he stole 11 bases. And when he moved on to the Arizona Fall League, he had a 1.053 OPS and became the youngest MVP in AFL history.

When Baseball America put together a list of the best minor league seasons primarily above Class A by players who were still in their teens, Acuna was the only player since Trout in 2011 to make the top 10. Trout's 2011 OPS+ was 156; Acuna's OPS+ in 2017 was 155.

But scouts who have seen Acuna play reject the Trout comparison because their body types and profiles are so different. Trout is more powerful, Acuna more athletic.

Veteran Braves people prefer a comparison to Andruw Jones, who topped that Baseball America list with a 188 OPS+ in 1996 and went on to hit two home runs at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the World Series that fall.

One NL scout didn't totally dismiss the Jones comparison. He said Acuna isn't the center fielder Jones was but seems more driven to succeed.

The Braves don't need Acuna to be a center fielder, at least not now. They have Ender Inciarte in center, and he won a Gold Glove for the second straight time last year. They don't have an easy answer in left field, not unless they simply hand the position to Acuna.

"We want to do what's best for his development long-term," Anthopoulos said. "He rocketed through the minor leagues last year. There's been some talk about how Dansby Swanson was handled and whether he would have had fewer growing pains if he had stayed longer in the minor leagues."

It's a fair question, given that the Braves had to send Swanson back to the minors for a brief tuneup last July.

"This kid is different," the NL scout countered. "Dansby hurt Dansby because he's so tough on himself. Dansby will be a solid consistent complementary player when he realizes he can't save the world. Or the Braves!"

As for Acuna, he might be able to save the Braves. But he first needs to be unleashed.

                        

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

The Next Vlad Guerrero: MLB’s Top Hitting Prospect Ronald Acuna Is Ready to Star

Alex Anthopoulos is still new on the job with the Atlanta Braves, hired as general manager barely three months ago after the guy who had the job before, John Coppolella, broke too many rules and eventually got banned from baseball. Anthopoulos knows he inherited an organization that should be on the rise, helped by a 20-year-old outfielder who may well be the best prospect in the game.

"I'm just anxious to see him play," Anthopoulos said by phone when Ronald Acuna's name came up this week.

So is everybody else. And while it's Anthopoulos and his staff who will have to make the decision on whether Acuna is ready for the big leagues right now, scouts who have followed the young Venezuelan on his quick journey through the minor leagues have no doubt he is.

"Tell Alex to turn him loose," one National League scout said. "Don't lose this kid by not challenging him."

The scout went on to say that Acuna is the best prospect he has seen in the last couple of years and that "his skills shadow" those of new Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero.

"Bottom line, he resembles a 30-30 type [30 home runs, 30 steals], a terrific athlete in the middle of the order playing a skilled position," the scout said. "He has a demeanor like Vlad. Loves to play. Work habits, makeup, instinct are sound. He's a guy you edge up on your seat when he gets in the box."

"He's ready," another NL scout agreed. "Just get out of the way and let him play."

So there you go, Alex, and you're welcome for the help making your decision easier.

"We're going to keep an open mind," Anthopoulos said. "We do feel he's going to impact us at some point in 2018."

"We'll let the spring play out," Braves manager Brian Snitker agreed. "And we'll see where we're at at the end of camp."

Fair enough. The Braves play their first Grapefruit League game Friday against the New York Mets. They have more than a month to go before their March 29 Opening Day game against the Philadelphia Phillies at SunTrust Park.

Acuna has plenty of time to make an impression.

Or maybe he already has.

"He's a better athlete than everybody else," Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson told David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "... I mean, it's pretty special. It's one of those things that’s even hard to explain really. If you just watch it, you can tell there's a difference, whether you know a lot about baseball or whether you know nothing, you just kind of say, that guy is doing something right."

"He's way ahead of me [as a prospect]," new Hall of Famer Chipper Jones told Mark Bowman of MLB.com. "... He's as good a prospect as I've seen."

On the traditional scouting scale of 20-80, Acuna has a 70 arm and is a 70 runner, one of the scouts said. Think of a .300 hitter who has 25 home runs a year and a guy who qualifies as a "grinder," even though he's a great player.

"He's going to be an All-Star," the scout said. "I don't see any issues."

Neither do the Braves, who originally signed Acuna for a bargain $100,000 and were convinced enough by his talent that they moved him from Class A to Double-A to Triple-A in 2017, all while he was still 19 years old.

On its list of baseball's top 100 prospects, MLB.com ranked Acuna second, behind Japanese import Shohei Ohtani (and just ahead of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.). Baseball America listed him first, ahead of Ohtani. On ESPN.com, Keith Law also listed him first, saying he has a "Mike Trout-ish" profile.

The Trout comparison is understandable if you only look at numbers. In his 54 games at Triple-A Gwinnett in 2017, Acuna had a .940 OPS. He hit with power (nine home runs, 14 doubles in just 243 plate appearances), and he stole 11 bases. And when he moved on to the Arizona Fall League, he had a 1.053 OPS and became the youngest MVP in AFL history.

When Baseball America put together a list of the best minor league seasons primarily above Class A by players who were still in their teens, Acuna was the only player since Trout in 2011 to make the top 10. Trout's 2011 OPS+ was 156; Acuna's OPS+ in 2017 was 155.

But scouts who have seen Acuna play reject the Trout comparison because their body types and profiles are so different. Trout is more powerful, Acuna more athletic.

Veteran Braves people prefer a comparison to Andruw Jones, who topped that Baseball America list with a 188 OPS+ in 1996 and went on to hit two home runs at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the World Series that fall.

One NL scout didn't totally dismiss the Jones comparison. He said Acuna isn't the center fielder Jones was but seems more driven to succeed.

The Braves don't need Acuna to be a center fielder, at least not now. They have Ender Inciarte in center, and he won a Gold Glove for the second straight time last year. They don't have an easy answer in left field, not unless they simply hand the position to Acuna.

"We want to do what's best for his development long-term," Anthopoulos said. "He rocketed through the minor leagues last year. There's been some talk about how Dansby Swanson was handled and whether he would have had fewer growing pains if he had stayed longer in the minor leagues."

It's a fair question, given that the Braves had to send Swanson back to the minors for a brief tuneup last July.

"This kid is different," the NL scout countered. "Dansby hurt Dansby because he's so tough on himself. Dansby will be a solid consistent complementary player when he realizes he can't save the world. Or the Braves!"

As for Acuna, he might be able to save the Braves. But he first needs to be unleashed.

                        

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Sixto Sanchez: 19-Year-Old Pedro Martinez Clone Already Has 102 MPH Heat

The kid on the mound stood 6' tall, maybe a tick under. He had signed a couple of years earlier out of the Dominican Republic, and right away it was obvious he had a strong right arm.

Comparisons were made to Pedro Martinez. That was no surprise, because there are always Pedro Martinez comparisons for right-handed pitchers out of the Dominican Republic, especially the ones a tad shorter and slimmer than normal by major league standards.

But for one National League scout who showed up to watch Sixto Sanchez last summer at a Class A ballpark down by the Jersey shore, there was no need to imagine if this was what Pedro Martinez looked like at the same age. The scout had seen the young Pedro, well before he was winning Cy Youngs in Montreal and Boston and making All-Star teams and eventually riding an 18-year big league career right into Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame.

He'd seen Pedro as a thin kid pitching in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, and now he was watching Sanchez and having flashbacks.

"It was like he was a clone," the scout said a few months later. "Physically, he looks like him. He has the same style of pitching, the same delivery. And for a young guy, I loved his poise and presence. For me, he is Pedro Martinez."

Or as close as you're going to get at age 18, anyway.

Sanchez will turn 20 in July. He could be in Double-A by then, on a fast track to the big leagues and perhaps even to stardom. He could be a guy for whom one name is sufficient, where you just say "Sixto" and everyone knows it's him, just as you say "Pedro" and everyone knows which one you mean.

For now, he's Sixto Sanchez, one of the crown jewels of the Phillies system, a talent ranked 26th on MLB.com's list of the Top 100 prospects in the minor leagues, up from 47th a year ago. Baseball America has him one spot higher, at No. 25, up from No. 80 a year earlier.

MLB.com wasn't around when Pedro was young. Baseball America left Martinez off its Top 100 when he was 19, then listed him 10th when he had just turned 20. Brien Taylor, Todd Van Poppel and Roger Salkeld (all pitchers) were the top three prospects on that 1992 list—a rough reminder that prospects don't always develop as planned.

So far, there's no reason to believe Sanchez won't.

"He's one of those guys where you can't wait to see what he'll be in a couple years," said Shawn Williams, who managed Sanchez at Class A Clearwater, where he finished the 2017 season.

"I know I'm biased because I was his manager," said Marty Malloy, who had Sanchez at Class A Lakewood, his first 2017 stop. "But this kid is special. A special talent."


Watching Sanchez now, it's hard to imagine there was a time when he wasn't special. But back in the fall of 2014, he was just a 16-year-old shortstop who had just started learning how to pitch. A Phillies scout named Luis Garcia liked him enough to bring him to a workout at the Phillies' academy in the Dominican Republic.

Sanchez was not the featured player at the workout. Instead, he was there to throw batting practice to Lednier Ricardo, a Cuban catcher the Phillies wanted to check out. Ricardo was a big enough deal that then-Phils general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. sent special assistant Bart Braun to take a look.

"I remember calling Ruben and Mike [Ondo] and telling them, 'We're not going to sign the catcher, but we might have found a pitcher,'" Braun recalled in a 2016 interview with Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia. "It was kind of an accident, a luck deal. We were in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, when you keep working, you bump into stuff."

The Phillies signed Sanchez for $35,000. Ladnier eventually signed with the New York Mets, never made it past Class A and was released after the 2016 season.

By then, Sanchez was on his way. He'd made 11 starts in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, pitching 54 innings and allowing just four runs (three earned) to go with 44 strikeouts and only eight walks.

"You want to see this kid," GCL Phils pitching coach Hector Mercado told Aaron Fultz, who was the pitching coach for Clearwater.

Fultz went to see Sanchez. Then he went to see him again.

"I must have seen five different starts that season," Fultz said. "He was already as good as any starter I had on the high-A team. He had poise, and he was as dominant a pitcher as I've ever see in the Gulf Coast League.

Sanchez was just 17, but he was already throwing his fastball 97-98 mph.

"It would be like [Justin] Verlander facing a team of 13-year-olds," Fultz said. "It was that dominating."


While the stats weren't there in five late-season starts with the Class A Threshers in 2017, the "stuff" was. Hidden in a 4.55 ERA was a fastball that has been clocked as high as 102 mph and a changeup Sanchez throws with great arm action. There's also a slider that shows potential and a curveball he can throw for strikes. Then there's the fast pace at which he works. He gets the ball and wants to throw the next pitch. There's no self doubt, no overthinking.

"He didn't act like he was 19," Williams said. "He wasn't scared at all. He wants to pitch every day, the whole game."

The Phillies didn't let him do that, choosing to put the same type of pitch and innings limits on Sanchez that just about every organization now imposes on young pitchers. Sanchez never exceeded 80 pitches in his 13 starts for the Lakewood Blue Claws, the Phillies' Class A affiliate, and never threw more than 85 pitches in a game all season.

He threw enough strikes to make it through five innings in all but one of his final 15 starts. There was even some concern that he threw too many strikes at times, that he still needed to learn how to spot the ball on or just off the corner with two strikes.

It's all part of his learning process. It wasn't long ago he was a shortstop.

"They made me a shortstop because I was little," Sanchez told Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer last winter. "I wasn't strong."

He's still not big, but there's no questioning his arm strength. His managers and coaches speak glowingly about his dedication to work, on the mound and also in the weight room. Even with the electric stuff, Malloy said Sanchez impressed him just as much with what he did when he wasn't pitching.

"Just the way he handled everything," Malloy said. "The smile on his face every day of the week. But maybe if I threw 100, I'd have that smile, too."


Scouts are always looking for comparables, using the image of a player you know to help you picture a prospect you haven't yet seen. Johnny Cueto, Jose Fernandez and Luis Severino come up as Sanchez comparables, but it's the Martinez correlation that may have the best chance to stick.

That would no doubt be fine with Sanchez, who told Gelb he admired the Hall of Famer.

"He's good-looking," Sanchez said. "And he's tough."

Martinez rode that toughness to Cooperstown. Sanchez has just reached Class A. Given his age and experience level, he'll begin this season back at Clearwater.

"The Florida State League is a good challenge for him," Phillies minor league director Joe Jordan said. "He's going to tell us when he needs a new challenge. If he stays in the Florida State League all season, that would be fine. But if he performs the way he has, that likely won't be the case."

Pitchers can move fast, particularly pitchers with 102 mph fastballs. And once a pitcher with Sanchez's potential gets to Double-A, he's only a hot streak, an injury-created need or a phone call away from his major league debut.

"To me, this year will be a big sign of where he is, how good he is, how good he's going to be," Malloy said. "It was easy for him last year. That's why, in my opinion, this year is going to be important."

He's still just 19. His birthday is July 29. Pedro was a month from turning 21 when he made his major league debut in 1992.

Sanchez isn't Pedro, not yet. But the potential is there. And the reason to watch him is, too.

    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Full Year of Justin Verlander Can Drive Houston Astros to World Series Repeat

No matter what, the Justin Verlander trade will always be seen as a success in Houston.

He showed up, and barely two months later the Astros were 2017 world champions. They won each of the first 10 games in which he pitched, and though he lost a tough World Series Game 6 in the Astros' first chance to clinch the title, they don't win the ring without him.

But here's where the Verlander story gets even better for the Astros: They have him for the full year in 2018. They have him as a full-fledged Astro, not someone whose first job was to fit in.

They have the right arm they saw in September and October, but they also have the bravado they saw this week.

"The American League goes through us," Verlander told reporters, including Hunter Atkins of the Houston Chronicle, when the Astros began spring training Wednesday.

No one familiar with Verlander will be surprised he said that. No one will be surprised by his tweet the day before, when he took on Christopher Russo of MLB Network, who said there was "no way" the New York Yankees aren't the team to beat in the American League:

It's who Verlander has always been, ever since he arrived in the major leagues with the Detroit Tigers in 2006. He was good, he wasn't afraid to say it and, more importantly, he was determined to prove it.

It's one reason some people who know Gerrit Cole welcomed the January trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Astros. Cole, the thinking went, will only benefit by spending as much time as possible around Verlander.

The two were already linked; both first-round draft choices by Greg Smith, who both times saw a very talented college pitcher with enough rough edges to suggest room for improvement. Both times, Smith bypassed some pitchers with bigger reputations (such as Jeff Niemann and Homer Bailey in the Verlander draft, and Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy in the Cole draft).

Both times, Smith was right.

Cole hasn't yet come close to Verlander's accomplishments. Not all those rough edges have been smoothed over—even though he has made an All-Star team and twice pitched in the playoffs. But he should make the Astros better, completing a rotation that looks significantly better than when the 2017 season began.

The Astros rotation then: Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr., Charlie Morton, Joe Musgrove, Mike Fiers.

The Astros rotation now: Verlander, Keuchel, Cole, McCullers, Morton.

Does that mean they automatically win the American League West? Of course not.

Does it mean they're far better than the Yankees, the Cleveland Indians and maybe even the Boston Red Sox? No, not far better. Remember, it took them seven games to beat the Yankees last October.

But if you want to anoint a favorite in the AL as spring training begins, it's hard not to agree with Verlander. The league goes through the Astros.

It was true last year, it's true now and it may be true for a few years to come. The Yankees rightfully boast about the young talent on the way and the potential for home run records with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the same lineup. But the Astros weren't the kind of champion that was going to go away quickly.

They're the kind of team that can have you thinking "dynasty," another thought Verlander didn't shy away from in his opening day of spring talk with reporters.

"We definitely have the opportunity to do that," he said.

Last summer's last-minute Verlander trade helped give them that chance. It already paid off with one ring.

It's still amazing it even happened, that a deal that went right down to the wire actually got done. It's still amazing other contenders allowed it to happen, by not putting in a claim on Verlander when the Tigers sent him through waivers earlier in August.

The other contenders essentially stood by and allowed Verlander to become an Astro (although no deal was in place at the time). They allowed the Astros to get the last piece they needed to win a championship.

And because Verlander still had this year and next remaining on his contract, they allowed the Astros to go into 2018 as favorites to win again.

     

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

MLB Free-Agency Nightmare Creates Opportunity for Surprise Teams to Strike Gold

Already this winter the New York Mets have benefited from baseball's free-agent slowdown. They brought in Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier, quality players signed for what in other years would have qualified as bargain prices. They added Anthony Swarzak to their bullpen and took a flier on Adrian Gonzalez.

"Some opportunities arose for us that probably would not have been expected right after the end of the World Series," general manager Sandy Alderson told reporters, including James Wagner of the New York Times.

The opportunities are still out there. You can call this the winter of the slowdown, the stare down or the deep freeze, and you can debate from now until Opening Day whether players and agents have been unrealistic or whether owners are engaged in group-think (which isn't against the rules) or full-on collusion (which is).

But if you're an owner who wants to win—there still have to be a few of those out there, right?—you should see this as an opportunity. If you're a fan who hasn't been blinded by too much talk about "process," you should be pushing your team to grab that opportunity.

Alderson's Mets could double down by going after one of the top remaining starting pitchers on the market, instead of settling for a rotation-filler. The Milwaukee Brewers, who already seized opportunities by signing Lorenzo Cain and trading for Christian Yelich, could make the National League Central really interesting by adding a top starter such as Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb.

"The way [owner Mark Attanasio] operates is that when there's justification for an investment, he's open to it," Brewers GM David Stearns told Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

There's justification right now. Those pitchers are going to sign sometime. So is J.D. Martinez, the outfielder who hit 45 home runs in just 119 games in 2017. And Mike Moustakas, whose 38 homers were a franchise record in a tough ballpark in Kansas City.

It's fine for players to suggest they'll sit out until they get the offer they want. Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports wrote Thursday that Martinez "is telling folks he's prepared to remain jobless until he is paid what he is worth." But why not be the team that tests his resolve with an offer well short of his reported $200 million goal but more significant than what he has seen so far?

It's true that not every big free-agent contract works out. It's true that owners who spend big risk being ridiculed for throwing their money away. That's always been true. Bill Madden once wrote in the New York Daily News of the "mind-boggling reality and stupefying stupidity" of a $210 million contract the Washington Nationals handed out.

Ted Lerner was "One Dumb Owner," as Madden liked to dub anyone who spent his own money trying to win.

That contract, by the way, was the one Max Scherzer signed in January 2015. Since signing it, Scherzer has a 2.76 ERA, with back-to-back Cy Young Awards.

One Dumb Owner? Sounds more like an owner who took advantage when the market presented an opportunity.

Mike Ilitch did the same thing with his Detroit Tigers when he signed Pudge Rodriguez in February 2004 and Magglio Ordonez in February 2005. There wasn't a general free-agent freeze those winters, but for various reasons Rodriguez and Ordonez went through the winter without finding a fair offer. Eventually, agent Scott Boras convinced Ilitch these were opportunities that could change his franchise.

They did. The Tigers went to the World Series in 2006. Attendances boomed, and for a decade the Tigers were one of the best teams in the game.

It's fashionable these days to say you're building by developing young players. If you rely on analytics and win some games without spending big you're called smart.

Everyone wants to be called smart, right?

It's fashionable to point to the collective bargaining agreement and say you want to re-set the luxury tax to take advantage of better free-agent classes in future years. But, as Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal tweeted last week:

Here's the other reality: The team that spent the most money last year was the Los Angeles Dodgers ($244 million, according to USA Today), and they went to the World Series. The team that spent the second most, the New York Yankees ($209 million), fell one win short of going to the World Series. Two of the other four teams that spent enough to pay luxury tax (the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox) were division champions.

Not every team has the revenues to justify that kind of spending. Not every team has a strong enough core to justify adding a big free agent right now.

But in a winter where the Yankees and Dodgers have been among the teams holding back, and where the Cubs and Red Sox so far haven't been willing to flex their financial might, there's room for another team to step up and seize on the opportunity available.

There's a chance for One Smart Owner to step up and say "winning matters."

            

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Yankees and Astros Are on Inevitable Collision Course for Control of MLB

In this slowest-moving of baseball winters, one big hitter and one big pitcher have changed teams. Giancarlo Stanton went to the New York Yankees. Gerrit Cole went to the Houston Astros.

That fits.

It's always a little dangerous to declare in January which team will be on top in October. But whether Scott Boras is right when he says free agents will eventually get big paydays, the super agent was half right when he told Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports: "Ironically, in our game, Houston may be the only team that doesn't have a problem."

The Astros don't seem to have any major problems, even if they could stand to boost a bullpen that needed help from starters Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton in October and November. They've added Cole to a rotation that already includes Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, they kept the lineup that won a championship and they traded for Cole without giving up the prospects who could help them win for years to come.

The Yankees lost out on Cole, but they added Stanton, the National League Most Valuable Player who hit 59 home runs. They've kept their rotation and bullpen together, their best players are young, and when Baseball America announced its ranking Monday of the top 100 prospects, six of them were Yankees.

Oh, and two of the top 15 were Astros—right-hander Forrest Whitley and outfielder Kyle Tucker.

The Astros have young stars with more on the way. The Yankees have young stars with more on the way.

The Astros have money to spend, and winning a World Series will no doubt help them generate even more of it. The Yankees always have money to spend, and by (so far) staying under the luxury-tax threshold for 2018, they're setting themselves up to spend plenty of it on next winter's super free-agent class.

They're not the only two teams positioned well for the future. But if you watched their seven-game ALCS and thought, "I wouldn't mind seeing more of this," you should have plenty to look forward to.

This is never going to be a repeat of Yankees-Red Sox from the early 2000s. The history isn't there. They don't play in the same division. But just as the Yankees of that era measured every move against the Sox, and vice versa, they now take note of the team that edged past them on the way to the World Series.

Sure enough, when the Astros traded for Cole, MLB Network Radio's Casey Stern tweeted that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had recently referred to the Astros as a "beast."

Maybe the Yankees find a way to fit Yu Darvish into their budget (Joel Sherman of the New York Post suggested a way to make it happen). Maybe they give themselves better cover on the infield in case touted prospects Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar aren't quite ready.

There's still time, and given the way this winter has gone, there are plenty of players available.

With all those free agents, there's of course time for other teams to step up, too. Maybe the Red Sox finally do sign J.D. Martinez, the home run threat they were missing last year (when they still topped the Yankees in the American League East). Maybe the Chicago Cubs finally add to an uncertain rotation with Jake Arrieta still a free agent.

There will be challengers, no matter how Boras made it sound when he told Heyman, "Houston is now Goliath. The other teams are going to need to tell their fans, 'Our club is not seriously a World Series contender.'"

The Astros are a Goliath. They won last year, they look good now and they have the talent and resources to be great for quite a while to come. Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman are still just 23. Jose Altuve and George Springer are on the right side of 30.

But the Yankees are a Goliath, too. They had a breakout year last year, they look good now and they have the talent and resources to be great for quite a while to come. Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are 25, Luis Severino is 23 and Stanton and Didi Gregorius have yet to turn 30.

It's been more than a decade since the same two teams met in the ALCS in back-to-back years (Yankees-Red Sox in 2003-04). It's been even longer since a team won the World Series two straight seasons (Yankees from 1998-2000). Things change from one year to the next. The offseason feels too short for the team that just won. Injuries get in the way. The magic of the previous season seems hard to recreate. And other teams get better.

The Yankees did when they added Stanton, enough so that sports books in Las Vegas made them the World Series favorite. The Astros got better when they added Cole.

Either one is good enough to win—for now and quite a few years thereafter.

      

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Yankees and Astros Are on Inevitable Collision Course for Control of MLB

In this slowest-moving of baseball winters, one big hitter and one big pitcher have changed teams. Giancarlo Stanton went to the New York Yankees. Gerrit Cole went to the Houston Astros.

That fits.

It's always a little dangerous to declare in January which team will be on top in October. But whether Scott Boras is right when he says free agents will eventually get big paydays, the super agent was half right when he told Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports: "Ironically, in our game, Houston may be the only team that doesn't have a problem."

The Astros don't seem to have any major problems, even if they could stand to boost a bullpen that needed help from starters Brad Peacock and Charlie Morton in October and November. They've added Cole to a rotation that already includes Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, they kept the lineup that won a championship and they traded for Cole without giving up the prospects who could help them win for years to come.

The Yankees lost out on Cole, but they added Stanton, the National League Most Valuable Player who hit 59 home runs. They've kept their rotation and bullpen together, their best players are young, and when Baseball America announced its ranking Monday of the top 100 prospects, six of them were Yankees.

Oh, and two of the top 15 were Astros—right-hander Forrest Whitley and outfielder Kyle Tucker.

The Astros have young stars with more on the way. The Yankees have young stars with more on the way.

The Astros have money to spend, and winning a World Series will no doubt help them generate even more of it. The Yankees always have money to spend, and by (so far) staying under the luxury-tax threshold for 2018, they're setting themselves up to spend plenty of it on next winter's super free-agent class.

They're not the only two teams positioned well for the future. But if you watched their seven-game ALCS and thought, "I wouldn't mind seeing more of this," you should have plenty to look forward to.

This is never going to be a repeat of Yankees-Red Sox from the early 2000s. The history isn't there. They don't play in the same division. But just as the Yankees of that era measured every move against the Sox, and vice versa, they now take note of the team that edged past them on the way to the World Series.

Sure enough, when the Astros traded for Cole, MLB Network Radio's Casey Stern tweeted that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had recently referred to the Astros as a "beast."

Maybe the Yankees find a way to fit Yu Darvish into their budget (Joel Sherman of the New York Post suggested a way to make it happen). Maybe they give themselves better cover on the infield in case touted prospects Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar aren't quite ready.

There's still time, and given the way this winter has gone, there are plenty of players available.

With all those free agents, there's of course time for other teams to step up, too. Maybe the Red Sox finally do sign J.D. Martinez, the home run threat they were missing last year (when they still topped the Yankees in the American League East). Maybe the Chicago Cubs finally add to an uncertain rotation with Jake Arrieta still a free agent.

There will be challengers, no matter how Boras made it sound when he told Heyman, "Houston is now Goliath. The other teams are going to need to tell their fans, 'Our club is not seriously a World Series contender.'"

The Astros are a Goliath. They won last year, they look good now and they have the talent and resources to be great for quite a while to come. Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman are still just 23. Jose Altuve and George Springer are on the right side of 30.

But the Yankees are a Goliath, too. They had a breakout year last year, they look good now and they have the talent and resources to be great for quite a while to come. Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are 25, Luis Severino is 23 and Stanton and Didi Gregorius have yet to turn 30.

It's been more than a decade since the same two teams met in the ALCS in back-to-back years (Yankees-Red Sox in 2003-04). It's been even longer since a team won the World Series two straight seasons (Yankees from 1998-2000). Things change from one year to the next. The offseason feels too short for the team that just won. Injuries get in the way. The magic of the previous season seems hard to recreate. And other teams get better.

The Yankees did when they added Stanton, enough so that sports books in Las Vegas made them the World Series favorite. The Astros got better when they added Cole.

Either one is good enough to win—for now and quite a few years thereafter.

      

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Yankees Already Have Stud Pitcher They Need in 98 MPH Lefty Justus Sheffield

The team that won the World Series just added the best pitcher available on the winter trade market. The team that lost to the eventual champions in the ALCS did not.

That's actually not a problem for the New York Yankees, who no longer feel the need to scratch every itch with a splashy acquisition.

The Yankees aren't out of that business altogether. They made one of the moves of the winter when they traded for Giancarlo Stanton, they're still considered a possible destination for Yu Darvish and if they follow through on the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold in 2018, they'll be set up to play big on a much bigger free-agent market after this season.

But they had no desperate need for Gerrit Cole, which is why they could declare their top four prospects off limits in their trade talks with the Pittsburgh Pirates, as Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com reported. The Yankees could have told the Pirates they couldn't have 21-year-old left-hander Justus Sheffield, among others, because Yankees general manager Brian Cashman knew that by the middle of the season Sheffield might be all the rotation help the Yankees need.

"I would have to think he helps them this year," said one National League scout who follows the Yankees farm system closely and considers Sheffield their top young arm. "The only thing he needs to improve is fastball command. But it's all there. Everything [about his stuff] is plus. Once he clears up [the fastball command], he's definitely a top-of-the-rotation guy. He's going to be really, really good."

Not every scout who has seen Sheffield agrees, with some seeing him fitting closer to the back end of a major league rotation.

"He reminds me a little of Mike Hampton," said one scout who works for an American League team.

Hampton won 148 games in a 16-year career and once finished second in Cy Young voting, so even that assessment isn't completely negative. And given that Sheffield is a lefty who stands a tick under 6'0" tall, as Hampton did, he doesn't grab your attention walking to the mound.

But what happens once he gets there can be pretty special. According to Baseball America, Sheffield threw his fastball as hard as 98 mph during a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He also throws a slider at 84-87 mph, and the scout who loves Sheffield praised him for the way he mixes his pitches and his feel for the game.

If not for an oblique injury that limited him to 17 starts and 93.1 innings at Double-A Trenton, Sheffield might already have been on the verge of breaking into the major league rotation. As it was, the Yankees sent him to the Fall League to make up for the time missed, and they were rewarded by seeing him walk just three and strike out 20 in 20.1 innings against other top prospects.

They can have him start 2018 at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, even if they don't add any more starters this winter, because by re-signing CC Sabathia they kept together the entire rotation that took them to Game 7 against the Houston Astros last October. They have Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery and Sabathia, and they also have guys like Chad Green who could move out of the bullpen if needed.

A year ago, the rotation was a major question. But Severino developed into an ace, Tanaka pitched extremely well down the stretch and the Yankees traded for Gray. Just as importantly, the Yankees kept their deep bullpen intact, which means new manager Aaron Boone should be able to limit the innings thrown by the back-end guys in the rotation.

The Astros, with a more unsettled rotation and a lesser bullpen, had a greater need for Cole. Because of the depth in their farm system, they were able to get him while also leaving several of their top prospects out of discussions with the Pirates.

It's always dangerous to count on any one pitching prospect, no matter how good his stuff or reputation. Some young pitchers get hurt, others struggle with adjusting to the big leagues. Severino went from top prospect in 2015, out of the rotation in 2016, to top of the rotation in 2017.

It could be that Chance Adams is the young starter who ends up helping the Yankees this year, or that Albert Abreu overtakes Sheffield as the best young high-end arm the Yankees have. Abreu was one of two pitchers the Yankees got from the Astros in exchange for Brian McCann, four months after they added Sheffield as part of the Andrew Miller trade with the Cleveland Indians. One scout who studied the Yankees system in 2017 pointed to 21-year-old right-hander Freicer Perez, who was at low Class A Charleston but impressed greatly.

For now, Sheffield is the best bet to help soon, and the best bet to help big. And if the Yankees end up playing the Astros again in October, perhaps Sheffield will be the guy who matches up with Gerrit Cole.

              

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Now’s the Perfect Time to Move Former MVP Josh Donaldson in MLB Megatrade

Everything the Toronto Blue Jays have said suggests they won't be trading Josh Donaldson this winter.

"We're trying to win," Jays general manager Ross Atkins told Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com in late December. "And I can't imagine our team being better without Josh Donaldson."

Neither can I, if you're just talking about 2018. And it sure is refreshing, in this era of process and tanking, to hear a general manager and team talking about trying to win.

The problem is if trying to win in 2018 means turning down quality offers for a 32-year-old third baseman on the verge of free agency, it might make trying to win in 2019 and beyond a tough task. For a team that lost 86 games in 2017 and has at least two more talented teams to compete with in the American League East, that's just not a good trade-off.

This isn't about trying to lose. It's not about tearing the team apart and playing for four or five years down the line. It's about recognizing reality and taking advantage of what could be a real opportunity.

The free-agent market this winter just isn't that strong. It's not moving fast, either, as you may have heard. Teams haven't yet been willing to commit huge dollars and big years to players who may not be difference-makers.

Meanwhile, the Jays would be able to offer a guy who was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 2015 and finished fourth in the voting in 2016. They could offer a guy who produced similar numbers in 2017, even as he was limited to 113 games by injuries.

A team trading for Donaldson wouldn't be taking on an albatross of a contract, either. He has one more season of arbitration eligibility—MLBTradeRumors.com estimated he'll get $20.7 million—and then he's a free agent. A team like the St. Louis Cardinals could trade for Donaldson with the idea of signing him to an extension, but his contract status shouldn't be a burden.

In fact, as USA Today's Bob Nightengale suggested on Twitter, the Cardinals would have a better chance of signing Donaldson than Manny Machado, another star third baseman who has been part of trade rumors over the last few months.

The Cardinals have been the team most often mentioned in Donaldson trade rumors, but Jon Heyman of FanRag reported on Twitter that five teams have shown interest and three have been "persistent." Then again, Heyman also said the Blue Jays "have no intention to trade [Donaldson] whatsoever."

It's easy to believe that, and not just because Atkins has said it with some regularity. The better proof is what the Jays have already done, most significantly in not seriously considering a Donaldson deal last summer. He was a year-and-a-half from free agency then, and the Jays were in last place, but they made it clear he wasn't moving.

The key, according to what Blue Jays executives told their counterparts with other teams, wasn't the Jays' position in the American League East standings. It wasn't the wins and losses, it was the number of tickets the Blue Jays were selling. They were a close second to the New York Yankees atop the AL attendance standings (with 39,554 a game), and they've drawn three million for two straight years—the first two times since the back-to-back championship seasons of 1992-93.

The Blue Jays know from experience how easily and how quickly a team can lose its fan base. They know how hard they worked to build that base back.

Trading for Donaldson in November 2014 helped bring the fans back. Understandably, those fans don't want to see the Blue Jays take a step back. They'd rather see them add, perhaps by signing a free agent like Lorenzo Cain or trading for a young star like Christian Yelich.

Atkins acknowledged interest in Yelich in an interview on Toronto's Prime Time Sports (via Sportsnet.ca).

"We'll do what we can," he said. "We are definitely going to do everything we can to consider how we can make our team better."

The Jays GM also acknowledged 28 other teams probably had some interest in trading for Yelich. He didn't say, but could have, that many of those teams would have more top prospects to offer than the Blue Jays do. Former GM Alex Anthopoulos traded away a good part of his farm system in pursuit of a championship.

The championship hasn't come, at least not yet, but Anthopoulos' deals helped revitalize the franchise. Now the Blue Jays need another big move. They need to turn Josh Donaldson into the players who take them into a better future.

And they need to do it this winter.

      

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a National Columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Now’s the Perfect Time to Move Former MVP Josh Donaldson in MLB Megatrade

Everything the Toronto Blue Jays have said suggests they won't be trading Josh Donaldson this winter.

"We're trying to win," Jays general manager Ross Atkins told Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com in late December. "And I can't imagine our team being better without Josh Donaldson."

Neither can I, if you're just talking about 2018. And it sure is refreshing, in this era of process and tanking, to hear a general manager and team talking about trying to win.

The problem is if trying to win in 2018 means turning down quality offers for a 32-year-old third baseman on the verge of free agency, it might make trying to win in 2019 and beyond a tough task. For a team that lost 86 games in 2017 and has at least two more talented teams to compete with in the American League East, that's just not a good trade-off.

This isn't about trying to lose. It's not about tearing the team apart and playing for four or five years down the line. It's about recognizing reality and taking advantage of what could be a real opportunity.

The free-agent market this winter just isn't that strong. It's not moving fast, either, as you may have heard. Teams haven't yet been willing to commit huge dollars and big years to players who may not be difference-makers.

Meanwhile, the Jays would be able to offer a guy who was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 2015 and finished fourth in the voting in 2016. They could offer a guy who produced similar numbers in 2017, even as he was limited to 113 games by injuries.

A team trading for Donaldson wouldn't be taking on an albatross of a contract, either. He has one more season of arbitration eligibility—MLBTradeRumors.com estimated he'll get $20.7 million—and then he's a free agent. A team like the St. Louis Cardinals could trade for Donaldson with the idea of signing him to an extension, but his contract status shouldn't be a burden.

In fact, as USA Today's Bob Nightengale suggested on Twitter, the Cardinals would have a better chance of signing Donaldson than Manny Machado, another star third baseman who has been part of trade rumors over the last few months.

The Cardinals have been the team most often mentioned in Donaldson trade rumors, but Jon Heyman of FanRag reported on Twitter that five teams have shown interest and three have been "persistent." Then again, Heyman also said the Blue Jays "have no intention to trade [Donaldson] whatsoever."

It's easy to believe that, and not just because Atkins has said it with some regularity. The better proof is what the Jays have already done, most significantly in not seriously considering a Donaldson deal last summer. He was a year-and-a-half from free agency then, and the Jays were in last place, but they made it clear he wasn't moving.

The key, according to what Blue Jays executives told their counterparts with other teams, wasn't the Jays' position in the American League East standings. It wasn't the wins and losses, it was the number of tickets the Blue Jays were selling. They were a close second to the New York Yankees atop the AL attendance standings (with 39,554 a game), and they've drawn three million for two straight years—the first two times since the back-to-back championship seasons of 1992-93.

The Blue Jays know from experience how easily and how quickly a team can lose its fan base. They know how hard they worked to build that base back.

Trading for Donaldson in November 2014 helped bring the fans back. Understandably, those fans don't want to see the Blue Jays take a step back. They'd rather see them add, perhaps by signing a free agent like Lorenzo Cain or trading for a young star like Christian Yelich.

Atkins acknowledged interest in Yelich in an interview on Toronto's Prime Time Sports (via Sportsnet.ca).

"We'll do what we can," he said. "We are definitely going to do everything we can to consider how we can make our team better."

The Jays GM also acknowledged 28 other teams probably had some interest in trading for Yelich. He didn't say, but could have, that many of those teams would have more top prospects to offer than the Blue Jays do. Former GM Alex Anthopoulos traded away a good part of his farm system in pursuit of a championship.

The championship hasn't come, at least not yet, but Anthopoulos' deals helped revitalize the franchise. Now the Blue Jays need another big move. They need to turn Josh Donaldson into the players who take them into a better future.

And they need to do it this winter.

      

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a National Columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com