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

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

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

Early Verdict on Derek Jeter the Owner: ‘He Doesn’t Know What He’s Doing’

Arte Moreno has a mixed record in his time owning the Los Angeles Angels. Some good. Some bad. Some in between. Not the best owner. Not the worst.

But for years after Moreno bought the team from Disney in 2003, there was one thing he was known for that convinced fans he cared about them. Arte Moreno was the guy who took over the team and immediately lowered the price of beer at the ballpark. No matter what else he did, he was the guy who made beer cheaper.

"The People's Owner," Forbes called him.

Derek Jeter should click the link.

First impressions matter, and if Moreno would always be the guy who gave you a drink, Jeter is on his way to always being the guy who traded the MVP…and pushed Mr. Marlin out…and turned Marlins Man into a former season-ticket holder.

He came in as the guy who could save South Florida from Jeffrey Loria and David Samson, who were hugely (and rightly) unpopular as owner and president of the Miami Marlins. Three months later, he's the guy who already has some in the area convinced he's going to be just as bad as they were.

It doesn't matter that in many ways the perception is worse than the reality. The perception matters, and it's bad enough to make you wonder who would ever be a fan of this team. Who would ever buy a ticket?

First impressions matter, and this is the first impression Jeter has left since he and his investment group paid $1.2 billion to take over the Marlins.

"It's because he doesn't know what he's doing," said Jonathan Zaslow, host of the Zaslow, Romberg & Amber morning show on Miami's 790 The Ticket. "It really is that simple. He's a shortstop. No more, no less."

Jeter may well turn the Marlins into a winner before he's done. He may prove to be as successful as an owner as he was as a shortstop. He might build a winning team and rebuild relationships with the community that suffered under Loria and Samson. It's entirely possible the early baseball decisions he oversaw and directed will prove to be the right ones.

But this is where he starts. Unless and until some of those other things come through, this is what Jeter the owner will be.

He's not The People's Owner. He's the shortstop who doesn't know what he's doing.

He's the guy so out of touch that the day the Marlins traded MVP Giancarlo Stanton to the New York Yankees—Jeter's former team!—at the winter meetings in Orlando, Jeter was back home sitting in a suite watching the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football.

It doesn't matter that he stayed back in Miami to announce a charity initiative to help hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, Miami and Key West. It doesn't matter that he while the headlines read "Jeter trades Stanton," he's actually the CEO and it was general manager Mike Hill who worked out the trade. It doesn't even matter that rival executives are near-unanimous in believing the Marlins did the right thing by moving Stanton's massive contract.

In fact, the early reviews on Jeter as owner are that he's a good listener and a hard worker. People who have met with him say he seems committed to player development and scouting in a way Loria wasn't, and that the franchise has a direction it never did when Loria and Samson were in charge.

"There's a feeling it's going to be a good place to be a baseball person," said one Marlins employee, who nevertheless asked not to be identified.

Veteran baseball officials with rival teams offered cautious praise for the Marlins' early moves since Jeter officially took over the team Oct. 3. As unpopular as those moves have been with fans in South Florida, there's a general consensus in the game that Loria's mismanagement had made them necessary.

"I don't think anyone in baseball would disagree with what they're doing," one American League executive said. "If anyone does, they don't know the depth of the debt issues they were facing."

It was never realistic to try to build a winning team right away, even with a lineup that produced more runs than the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017. Keeping the team together would have required a payroll rise from $115 million to around $140 million, and adding enough pitching to have a chance to compete may have required spending $170 million or more. With the Marlins' subpar revenues and weak farm system, that was never a workable option.

It may well be that Jeter's biggest early problems have been the result of perception more than reality. Then again, it's a perception he has helped feed, and perception matters.

First impressions matter, and this is the first impression Jeter and Co. have left in their new home.

"We now know that Jeter will be just as unpopular as Loria, though fiscally smarter, and that he doesn't care what you think," Greg Cote wrote in a Dec. 9 column for the Miami Herald.

The danger in that comes if fans respond by saying they don't care what Jeter says, or even what he does. That's what happened with Loria, perfectly expressed by a woman I spoke to at a Marlins spring training game in 2013, for a story that ran on CBSSports.com.

"It's almost like they defy you to care," Susan Hart said that day.

Whatever else happened, that part was supposed to change the day Loria sold the team. That, as much as selling tickets, adding talent and winning games, is the challenge Jeter faces, the one he is having trouble accomplishing.

He needs to convince people to care.


 

The first report that Loria was thinking about selling the Marlins came from Forbes on Dec. 15, 2016. It said Loria wanted $1.7 billion for the team, which sounded absurd for a franchise that had long struggled to prove Major League Baseball could work in South Florida.

Four months later, just after Opening Day, Fox Business reported Jeter's interest in buying the team. The legendary Yankees shortstop seemed to quickly become MLB's preferred buyer, and while it took all summer, the group led by Jeter and Florida businessman Bruce Sherman were unveiled as the new owners in an Oct. 3 press conference in Miami. The purchase price was $1.2 billion, with Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reporting that Jeter put up about $25 million of his own money.

However much money was his, there was never any question about who was in charge or who would get the credit or the blame. Jeter is the CEO, and it's not just a title. Even before the sale was final, every Marlins move was linked to the rookie owner.

Right away, there were issues. Jeter asked the outgoing ownership team to fire ex-manager Jack McKeon, Hall of Fame advisors Andre Dawson and Tony Perez and Jeff Conine, the former player who became known as "Mr. Marlin." He would later backtrack slightly, offering them contracts at $25,000, according to Bleacher Report sources, but the effect was the same. Four big, popular names who were associated with the Marlins under Loria were suddenly gone.

So was television announcer Rich Waltz. Jeter later blamed Fox Sports for the Waltz firing, but a source said Jeter was the one pushing for "a new voice."

Various Marlins executives were also dumped, which isn't completely unusual when a new owner takes over. Loria was known for giving big contracts to his favorites, and it was understandable Jeter would want to make his own decisions. But even one of those moves blew up after Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported on Dec. 1 that the Marlins had fired longtime scout Marty Scott while Scott was recovering from cancer surgery.

By that time, though, the bigger issue was Stanton, who led the league with 59 home runs and became the first Marlin to be named the National League's Most Valuable Player. Jeter's Marlins were talking seriously about trading him, and the reaction in South Florida wasn't good.

When the Marlins eventually traded Stanton to the New York Yankees on Dec. 10, the reaction was even worse.


For all the other moves Jeter's Marlins have made, it's the Stanton deal and the decision to rebuild that has caused by far the biggest local stir. While executives around the game saw it as the necessary dumping of a contract that never had made sense for a team with below-average revenues, local fans saw only echoes of previous Marlins fire sales. This was the same franchise sent into sell mode by Wayne Huizenga immediately after winning the 1997 World Series, the same team that traded Miguel Cabrera in 2007 and Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle in 2012.

"Baseball has betrayed South Florida," popular Miami sports talk host Dan Le Batard bellowed at commissioner Rob Manfred in a contentious Dec. 20 interview on ESPN radio.

For Le Batard, the issue was whether MLB knew going in that Jeter planned to trade the team's biggest star. Manfred contended that baseball "did not have player-specific plans" before approving Jeter and Sherman as the new owners. Le Batard called Manfred a liar, and it went from there.

It made for great radio, and the commissioner didn't come off well. He struggled to explain why fans should give the Marlins their support and was unconvincing in defending the new owners against charges they are seriously underfunded.

"You have no idea what the cash was in this deal," Manfred told Le Batard. "This club after the transaction had the same amount of debt as it did pre-transaction."

The Marlins' books aren't public, so there's no way to prove whether that is technically true. But the perception that Jeter's group is underfunded is widespread in the game and in South Florida, and Jeter hasn't helped it by continuing to solicit new investors.

Jeter has met with local business executives, a smart and needed move to build community support that was lacking in the Loria days. But when he held a "Breakfast with the Miami Marlins and CEO Derek Jeter" in November, local radio host Andy Slater reported Jeter was also asking people to invest.

Around that same time, Jon Heyman got hold of an "investment teaser" the Marlins had sent to potential investors. Heyman quoted two people who received the emails as saying the Marlins were hoping to raise as much as $250 million.

At a town hall meeting with about 200 season-ticket holders Dec. 19, Jeter insisted his group has enough money to run the team.

"Our group is a bunch of financially successful individuals, not motivated by near-term cash flow needs," he said, according to a transcript provided by the team. "This is an organization that has been losing a lot of money—a significant amount of money. We did not buy this organization to continue that trend of losing money—and more importantly, losing games. It’s been 14 years since this organization has been in the postseason. That’s a long time. More of the same is not the answer. There are changes needed.  We have a plan. We will put this team in a financially sound and stable position."

To a fanbase soured by previous Marlins sales, that was hardly a satisfactory answer.

It didn't help that when the Miami Herald got hold of a pre-sale document Jeter's group provided to investors, it showed a projected "cash flow" profit of $68 million for 2018. While the projection seemed wildly optimistic, based on negotiating a huge new local television deal and increasing ticket revenue, it fed the image of another owner who cared about his bottom line rather than how many games the team wins or loses.

"Without the previous fire sales, we'd have to have a little perspective," Zaslow said. "Two World Series titles, but they haven't made the postseason in 14 years. Obviously, something needs to change, even if it's going to be bad at first. We've seen what happened in Chicago and Houston. It wouldn't be that big a deal.

"But the whole selling point on the new ballpark was that these types of moves were never going to be necessary ever again. That park opened just five years ago, and all we hear now is how the team is losing all this money. It feels like a scam."

For fans who have been let down before, it's not all that comforting to hear that in trading seven major leaguers since June of this year, the Marlins have begun to remake their system. Eight of the team's current top 15 prospects, as ranked by MLB.com, arrived in those trades. The Marlins should do even better if they trade outfielder Christian Yelich and/or catcher J.T. Realmuto, who both expressed discomfort with the rebuilding effort, as confirmed by Bleacher Report sources. For now, though, the Marlins are telling other teams they plan to build around Yelich and Realmuto.


Zaslow also attended the town hall, and he disputed the idea it was a free-for-all with irate fans tearing into Jeter.

"I think Jeter handled himself really well," Zaslow said. "He listened to every fan who had a question, and it was for over 90 minutes. All things considered, it was pretty tame. You had a couple of fans who expressed their anger, one woman who was very sad that Ichiro [Suzuki] is gone, and the absurdity that was Marlins Man."

Ah yes, Marlins Man. He's Laurence Leavy, a local attorney you've no doubt seen sitting behind home plate at every big game in every stadium, wearing a bright orange Marlins jersey. He's the team's self-styled and self-appointed biggest fan, and he announced at the town hall that he hasn't renewed the season tickets he has held since the Marlins were born in 1993.

"I’m very angry," Leavy said, according to Jackson. "This makes us miss Jeffrey Loria. Who would have thought that?"

As Leavy no doubt wanted, his speech at the town hall got national attention, in large part because he began by asking Jeter, "Do you know me?"

The better question after the town hall was whether we really know Derek Jeter, and whether we yet know what he'll be like as an owner. The early missteps have harmed his image, but the eventual verdict will depend on whether Jeter can turn the Marlins into winners on and off the field.

Multiple people inside the Marlins front office described him as a hard worker and a good listener, but even they struggled to say what exactly Jeter intends to do with the team. While there's some optimism that he will use the savings gained by trading Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon to fund spending on scouting and development that Loria nixed, Jeter himself has yet to make that commitment.

Jeter has said repeatedly that he doesn't like operating through the media, but his reluctance to speak in anything other than generalities has left it for others to define what he is and what he'll do. Instead of making a Moreno-like gesture and immediately lowering prices, Jeter has allowed the firings and the trades to become his early legacy.

For all the work he has done, the image of the Jeter Marlins so far is of their best player putting on the Yankees uniform Jeter once wore with pride. It's of Stanton using his Instagram account to speak of the "unprofessional, circus times" in Miami, and to use his press conference to suggest Marlins fans "watch from afar" as the team rebuilds.

And it's of the new CEO, skipping that press conference in Orlando and instead sitting in a suite watching the Miami Dolphins play on Monday Night Football.

Images do count, and Jeter should know that as well as anyone. For two decades as the Yankees shortstop, playing in the biggest market and the biggest fishbowl, he carefully preserved his image.

In three months as an owner, he has let that image slip.

 

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

Can Shohei Ohtani Stay Healthy Enough to Match MLB Phenom Hype?

Shohei Ohtani is a unique talent. He's not a superhuman talent.

He can be one of the best hitters in the world. He does things no one else can.

But he also does things plenty of other guys do...like getting hurt.

No one should be overly alarmed by the latest news on Ohtani, who has been diagnosed with a first-degree sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament by a doctor in Japan, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports. But nobody should be too quick to dismiss it as nothing, either.

Pitchers have elbow strains all the time, and Los Angeles Angels general manager Billy Eppler responded to the report with a statement saying the team's MRI of Ohtani's elbow "was consistent with players his age."

However, pitchers his age (23) get hurt all the time, too, and more and more of them end up needing Tommy John surgery that costs them an entire season.

And while no one is suggesting Ohtani needs such surgery now—or that he will definitely need it in the future—it's fair to wonder whether we're all expecting a little too much from the player dubbed "the Babe Ruth of Japan."

The talent is real, but so is the challenge Ohtani faces now that he is coming to the major leagues after signing with the Angels last week. And the first challenge will be getting on the field and staying there.

Remember, Ohtani missed much of the 2017 season in Japan with an ankle injury serious enough that he eventually needed surgery. He suffered the injury running the bases in the 2016 Japan Series, missed the World Baseball Classic in March and only ended up with 231 plate appearances and five games on the mound for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.

During his five seasons in Japan, Ohtani also missed time with an ankle injury in 2013 and missed pitching assignments because of a blister in 2016.

He's far from a physical wreck, but he made fewer starts as a pitcher than guys such as Masahiro Tanaka, Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka in their years in Japan's major leagues and had far fewer plate appearances than players like Ichiro Suzuki or Hideki Matsui.

He's a two-way player, if by that you mean he can both pitch and hit at an elite level. But if you're thinking he can hold down a full-time spot in a rotation and anything close to a full-time spot in the lineup, well, he never did that in Japan, even in a shorter season with more built-in off days.

None of that comes as a surprise to the 27 major league teams that tried to sign Ohtani. The elbow issue wasn't a surprise, either, given a report available to all major league teams said he had a platelet-rich plasma injection in October, as Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated first reported Monday.

They knew, and they still wanted him. And they were right to want him, because of the talent and the unique circumstances that made him a bargain. The Angels paid Ohtani only a $2.3 million signing bonus, in addition to the $20 million posting fee paid to the Fighters, and he'll play for the league minimum $545,000 salary as a rookie in 2018.

As Jon Heyman of Fanrag Sports tweeted after Passan's report Tuesday night:

Heyman is right on both counts. Ohtani's unique ability on both sides of the ball makes him a $200 million talent, even if the elbow is a risk (and we don't know how big a risk it really is). And the Angels, who have had trouble keeping pitchers healthy, have a big job ahead trying to keep this one on the mound.

One answer could be a six-man rotation, which would give Ohtani a more similar experience to what he had in Japan. It's a serious consideration, according to what Eppler told reporters (including Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register) at the winter meetings this week in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

"I can tell you medically, that I have had reputable doctors and biomechanists say that a six-man would be advantageous when rehabilitating players," Eppler said. "These are professionals who went to school for this and have dedicated their lives to studying these things."

None of those professionals has yet come up with a way to keep pitchers healthy. Ohtani and the Angels face the further challenge of keeping him healthy while he is expected to perform more and at a higher level than other pitchers. Remember, the ankle injury that cost him much of last season happened while running the bases.

He's doing things others don't, which is one reason so many of us can't wait to see him play. I know I can't. After all, I planned a trip to Japan last March in part because of the chance to see Ohtani.

I never did see him. He was hurt.

Hopefully it wasn't a sign of things to come.

                 

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

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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Would Landing Both Giancarlo Stanton, Shohei Ohtani Make Giants an NL Threat?

The San Francisco Giants aren't one player away, even if that player is Giancarlo Stanton. Or Shohei Ohtani.

But what if you change "one" to "two" and "or" to "and"? Then the Giants might have something.

It can't be Stanton or Ohtani. It has to be Stanton and Ohtani.

Then you can call the Giants a true contender for the rival Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West.

Add Stanton or Ohtani and the Giants would have a star on a team without enough depth to win. The farm system is thin, the budget would be tight and there would a strong and legitimate argument that what they really ought to be doing is tearing down and rebuilding.

"Didn't Miami just go through this?" asked one National League scout who knows the Giants well.

The Marlins couldn't win with Stanton, even in a year when he hit 59 home runs and was the National League's Most Valuable Player. For that matter, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters couldn't win this year with Ohtani, although that had more to do with injuries that limited the two-way star to 65 games at the plate and just five on the mound.

Now Stanton and Ohtani are the twin prizes of baseball's winter market, with very different price tags but perhaps a similar impact. Each can basically choose his next destination, Stanton because of a no-trade clause and Ohtani because he is coming to America through the posting system.

Ohtani narrowed his field to seven teams last Saturday, per Mark Feinsand of MLB.com, and the Giants made the cut. Stanton's field is less certain, but as Buster Olney of ESPN.com reported, the Marlins allowed him to meet with the Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals last week as a prelude to possibly accepting a deal. While Stanton may well prefer a move to the Los Angeles Dodgers, it's not at all clear that the Dodgers have any willingness to take on that big a contract this winter (Stanton has $295 million and 10 years remaining).

If the Dodgers somehow added both Ohtani and Stanton, that would be interesting. But as anyone who paid attention in 2017 realizes, the Dodgers already have a great team.

If the Giants end up with both—now that would be fascinating.

"Would be fun to watch," said another scout based in the west.

It's hard to know for sure how much chance it has of happening. Stanton has kept quiet about what he wants. Ohtani has kept even quieter, and while one scout with ties to the Japanese market predicted Tuesday that Ohtani will go to either the Giants, the Seattle Mariners or the San Diego Padres, it's worth noting that plenty of people who thought they knew considered the New York Yankees the favorites to sign him, all the way up until he eliminated them without even holding a meeting.

The Giants and Dodgers both got Ohtani meetings Monday, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported on Twitter.

The Giants sent nearly their entire front office to meet with Ohtani on Monday, according to a report by Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area. Their Ohtani pursuit hasn't received as much national attention as that of some other teams, but they have been working hard on it. In an earlier story, Pavlovic quoted manager Bruce Bochy as calling Ohtani "special" and saying he could see him taking a regular rotation turn and also getting 300 to 400 at-bats.

The Giants need what Ohtani could give them, and also what Stanton could provide. Their 128 home runs last season were by far the fewest in the majors. Their middle of the order consisted of Buster Posey and little else. Their rotation should have Madison Bumgarner back for a full season but still needs another top arm.

"They need to upgrade their pen as well," said another American League scout.

They're not going to be able to do enough this winter to supplant the Dodgers as NL West favorites, even if they add Stanton and Ohtani. A Stanton trade could also cost them a player from their current lineup, with second baseman Joe Panik mentioned in some reports.

There would be more work to do and a limited budget to work with. It wouldn't be simple, which is why it's so easy to say the Giants aren't one player away. In a normal winter, you'd probably say they're not two players away either.

This winter is unusual with two big stars, both young enough to have a long-term impact (Stanton is 28, Ohtani 23). This winter is unusual because baseball's international signing rules severely limit how much money teams can offer Ohtani and make him a bargain the Giants and other teams can easily afford. This winter is unusual because Stanton is from California and Ohtani seems to have a preference for the West Coast (five of his seven finalists are out west).

Finally, this winter is unusual because, after a 98-loss season, the Giants have begun to worry that fans might stop packing AT&T Park on a nightly basis. If they're not going to rebuild, they badly need to show they're going for it.

Getting Stanton or Ohtani would only get them halfway there. Getting Stanton and Ohtani?

Now that would be fascinating.

           

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

Rob Manfred Strikes Fear in Heart of MLB by Banning Former Braves GM for Life

The press release from Major League Baseball dropped just before the close of business Tuesday.

"Commissioner's Statement Regarding Braves' Violations," it said, and that's exactly what this was.

It was a statement, perhaps the strongest one Rob Manfred has made yet in his three years as the commissioner of baseball. It was a statement heard round the baseball world, one that many who have decried the Wild West nature of baseball's international signing game had been hoping for but never really expected.

Manfred's full release describing the findings and the penalties were posted on MLB.com.

The Braves organization later responded to MLB's decision, saying it “cooperated fully throughout this investigation and we understand and accept the decision regarding the penalties that have been handed down.”

"Game changer," said one executive who has worked in the international market. "I think this will have a major impact in how people operate."

It should. It might not, because the incentives to cheat are still great. But at least now everyone in baseball should understand the penalties for cheating can be even greater.

Ask John Coppolella, the former Braves general manager who had already lost his job but now has lost any chance at getting another one. In addition to stripping the Braves of 12 prospects Coppolella and his staff signed over the last three years, Manfred placed Coppolella on MLB's permanently ineligible list.

To be clear, that's the Pete Rose list, the Shoeless Joe Jackson list, the list that says you did something so bad baseball wants no part of you anymore.

That's a statement.

Manfred also effectively prohibited the Braves from signing any significant international free agent between now and July 2, 2020, and cut their signing bonus pool in half for the year after that. Gordon Blakeley, who had been a Braves special assistant until he and Coppolella were both forced to resign Oct. 2, received a one-year ban. Manfred also took away the Braves' third-round draft pick next June, because they were found to have broken one of the draft signing rules, too.

That's a statement, too.

There will be those who say everyone cheats on the international market, that the Braves were simply the team that got caught. Multiple officials from teams around baseball strongly disputed that sentiment in the hours after Manfred's announcement. All of them agreed the penalties were strong, even stunningly strong, but not one of them suggested they weren't justified.

"The Braves were reckless," one major league general manager said.

What did they do? Like everything in the international market, it's a little complicated, but we'll try to simplify it here.

While players from outside the U.S. and Canada aren't subject to the June draft, teams can't simply sign anyone they want for as much money as they want to give. For the last several years, MLB has given each team a pool of money. What the Braves did, according to MLB, was circumvent those rules by giving some prospects smaller bonuses on paper, while channeling more money to them through their agents and claiming it went to players not covered by the signing rules.

By doing so, they stayed within their cap for the 2015-16 signing period, enabling them to overspend the next year. Had they reported the bonuses they actually gave in 2015-16, they would have been prohibited from signing any player for more than $300,000 in 2016-17, effectively taking them out of the market for the nine "high-value" prospects they signed that year.

Basically, the Braves found a way to get around the rules and sign a huge number of players they could not have signed within the rules. Other teams trying to sign the same players suspected right away something fishy was going on, and an MLB investigation that took nearly two months found significant cheating.

Other teams have been charged with similar "bundling" violations in the past. Five players originally signed by the Boston Red Sox were made free agents in 2016, and the Red Sox were banned from international signings for a year.

"My [international scouts] have been upset for a long time because it progressively gets worse with more clubs each year," said another general manager, who agreed the Braves have been the worst offenders.

Both general managers contacted by Bleacher Report said the only long-term solution that would work is an international draft. One of the GMs called the current system unfair to the players involved, saying many of the bonuses never get to the players and are instead diverted to trainers and others who deliver the players to teams that sign them.

The players union has long fought the idea of an international draft, believing it would cut bonuses even further by limiting players to negotiating with a single team. Baseball officials and players in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other countries have feared a draft and lower bonuses would harm the baseball infrastructure in their countries. The current collective bargaining agreement, which runs through 2021, doesn't allow for a draft.

Baseball is going to continue to operate under the current system, at least for a while. Manfred is determined to get teams to play by those rules, or else. He showed Tuesday what "or else" means.

"I think it will put the brakes on things, at least for the immediate future," one of the GMs said. "MLB has done a lot, and I believe they will continue to work on this."

The Braves got hit hard, make no mistake about it. Coppolella got hit even harder. The penalties are severe, unprecedented for this type of violation.

They were strong enough to catch the attention of everyone in baseball. The hope is they're strong enough to convince everyone that serious cheating on the international market isn't worth the risk.

    

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

Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger Are Perfect Fits for Title-or-Bust Yanks, Dodgers

One of them inspired a comparison to fellow Yankees star Derek Jeter, which sounds pretty good until you find out someone compared the other one to Ted Williams. One of them set a National League record with 39 home runs as a rookie, which would have gotten him much more attention except the other one set the major league rookie record by blasting 52.

We're not really here to pit Aaron Judge against Cody Bellinger, although it's understandable why anyone would do that on the day both will add Rookie of the Year to their resumes. Judge, the New York Yankees right fielder, is the certain winner in the American League. Bellinger, the Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman, is just as sure to win in the National League.

There is one other rare trait nearly as crucial to their instant success as their record-setting power, impressive maturity and limitless gifts. They can play their best and stand their tallest under the biting pressure of New York and L.A.

The stage that has swallowed up so many promising young careers is the same environment these two thrive in. They are seemingly tailor-made for it. 

On this day, there's no need to pick between the two. No need for baseball to pick either because the sport will benefit from having two young, likable power-hitting stars on the most prominent teams in the two biggest markets in the country.

"One is playing right field in New York, just like [Roger] Maris did, and he's hitting home runs like Maris," said Charlie Steiner, who once worked in New York as the Yankees' radio voice and is now in Los Angeles broadcasting Dodgers games. "The other one wasn't even supposed to come up until September, and then when he did come up, the entire dynamic of the lineup changed."

Judge is the face of the new Yankees, the Baby Bombers as the tabloids took to calling them. Without him, they'd still be rebuilding. With him, they went to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

Bellinger was the key piece that made the Dodgers lineup complete. Los Angeles was off to a sub-.500 start when it called him up in late April and then went an incredible 76-21 in the first 97 games he started. Eventually, the team went to Game 7 of the World Series.

It's not entirely fair to compare the two because Bellinger joined a Dodgers team that had already won four straight division titles. Judge's Yankees hadn't won a postseason game since 2012. It's not entirely fair because the Dodgers had plenty of other stars (including Corey Seager, the 2016 NL Rookie of the Year), while Yankees fans were still looking for someone to love.

It's also not fair because Bellinger is three years younger (22 compared to 25), and while the first baseman isn't small (the Dodgers list him at 6'4", 210 lbs), Judge (6'7", 282 lbs) stands out in any crowd.

When I asked Steiner if there was a buzz around Bellinger at Dodger Stadium this year, he said, "Yes, but not like Judge [at Yankee Stadium] because Judge is Paul Bunyan. There's a physical presence, and that's part of what people perceive.

"He's Paul Bunyan."

Judge was also the star of the 2017 Home Run Derby before the All-Star Game, when Commissioner Rob Manfred said he "can become the face of the game." He was the unanimous winner of the "Talk of the Town" award from the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He's the cover boy for the "MLB The Show 18" video game.

Oh, and he's one of the three finalists for the AL Most Valuable Player award, which will be announced Thursday at 6 p.m. ET on MLB Network.

"If I was a GM, I want him on my team because he plays the right way, and he's very humble," Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, Judge's main competition for MVP, said during the ALCS. "Maybe in another life I want to be Aaron Judge and hit all those homers."

**

The homers are a big deal for both Judge and Bellinger. Judge hit 52 of them in 155 games for the Yankees, while Bellinger hit 39 in 132 games for the Dodgers. Judge hit his farther (an average of 412 feet, according to MLB.com's Statcast, compared to 394 feet for Bellinger), but Judge benefits from playing in a more home run-friendly ballpark. (ESPN's Park Factor had Yankee Stadium as the second-best home run park in baseball in 2017, while Dodger Stadium tied for 15th.)

 

Bellinger better fits the 2017 trend of trying to hit everything in the air (47.1 percent of his balls in play were fly balls, according to FanGraphs, compared to 43.2 percent for Judge). Both of them strike out at a rate that would have been considered alarming in earlier times (Judge led MLB with 208 strikeouts in 2017, while Bellinger's 26.6 percent strikeout rate would have been highest in the majors any year from 1980-85). Both had rough stretches in the postseason before eventually hitting a few big home runs.

Both are above-average defensively too, although Bellinger has the edge there. One National League scout called him "the best defensive first baseman on the planet" and said he could also be a plus at all three outfield spots.

The bigger comparison, though, is what Judge and Bellinger can mean for their teams in the years to come. Both play in big markets, obviously, for teams with huge resources and expectations. After the way 2017 went for the Dodgers and Yankees, it's a given that both franchises will go into 2018 believing it's time to win a World Series.

The Dodgers have a strong young core, led by Bellinger and Seager. The Yankees do too, with Judge and catcher Gary Sanchez, who finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2016. The Dodgers have more prospects on the way, and the Yankees do too.

"You can't believe the talent [the Yankees] have coming," one National League scout who follows their system closely said.

The expectations will be high both in New York and in Los Angeles, but that shouldn't bother Judge and Bellinger. Both were well-known by fans before they even got to the big leagues.

"Bellinger understands who he is, and he understands the accountability of playing for the Dodgers," said Ned Colletti, who was Los Angeles' general manager when it drafted Bellinger and now works on Dodgers broadcasts for SportsNet LA. "He didn't live up to expectations. He exceeded them. And this market, like New York, is not a place for second-best."

 

Bellinger was the higher-rated prospect when he and Judge were in the minor leagues, but Judge faced bigger scrutiny this year in the big leagues. Once he got off to a big start—Judge had 13 home runs in 25 games by May 3—the Yankees made him a focus of their marketing. Playing off his name, they used "All Rise" as a slogan and dubbed a section of seats in right field the "Judge's Chambers."

Right around that time, Yankees manager Joe Girardi made the Jeter comparison.

"He's a little bit like Derek for me," Girardi said, per Andrew Marchand of ESPN.com. "He has a smile all the time. He loves to play the game. You always think he is going to do the right thing on the field and off the field. He has a presence about him. He plays the game to win all the time, and that is the most important thing. It is not about what you did that day."

Across the country, the Dodgers weren't marketing Bellinger the same way. They had Seager and Justin Turner and Clayton Kershaw, among others, so there wasn’t the need to latch onto the newest star. But Bellinger quickly got hot, with nine home runs in May and 13 in June, and a big-name comparison came his way too.

"I was at a game with a veteran scout, a guy who you can never get to really praise young players," one National League scout said. "He saw Bellinger, and he said, 'That's the closest I've seen to Ted Williams. That life, and that power.' And this guy played with Ted Williams."

**

Anyone who watched baseball the last couple of Octobers understands the sport is blessed with a large group of charismatic young stars. From Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo with the Chicago Cubs to Francisco Lindor with the Cleveland Indians and Carlos Correa with the Houston Astros, there's plenty of competition when it comes to finding a face of the game.

Judge and Bellinger fit right in. Because they play for teams in the two biggest markets, for teams that figure to be in the spotlight for a few years to come, they might stand out even more.

"I love [Judge's] mindset, and I love his behavior," said former major league pitcher Al Leiter, who calls some Yankees games for the YES Network.

"From the time we drafted him, [Bellinger] had tremendous presence and intellect," Colletti said. "He and Seager were both far above their years in their ability to adjust to situations. Both are good people, solid guys you want on your team."

Not every Rookie of the Year goes on to be a big star in the game. But sometimes you have a guy like Jeter, who won the award in 1996, just as he and his team were on the way to dominating baseball. Sometimes you have a year when the Rookie of the Year in the National League and the American League both stand out, just as Bryce Harper and Mike Trout did in 2012 and Bryant and Correa did in 2015.

And then you have a year with two sluggers, playing for two of the biggest teams in the game in the two biggest cities in the country.

You have Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, and you just imagine how exciting the years ahead can be.

These incredible kids are built for the bright lights and pressure of New York and Los Angeles, and that bulletproof mindset will ensure their limitless star power never burns out.


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

J.D. Martinez Is Perfect Big-Money Red Sox Splash to Solve Home Run Void

In the year of the home run, a Houston Astros team that hit plenty of them just won the World Series. Meanwhile, in Boston, a Red Sox team that didn't hit enough of them just brought in a guy from Arizona with some home run history.

Do you think Tony La Russa might be able to bring J.D. Martinez along with him?

If nothing else, the new Red Sox vice president and special assistant has seen in person how Martinez's power can affect a team. In his prior role as the chief baseball officer of the Arizona Diamondbacks, La Russa saw Martinez hit 29 home runs in just 62 games after a midseason trade to push the D-backs into the playoffs.

The 2017 Red Sox were the only team in the American League that didn't have anyone hit 25 home runs for the entire season. A year after David Ortiz retired, it was the first Red Sox team since 1992 without a 25-homer guy and the first Red Sox team since 1993 to finish last in the league in home runs.

Do you think Martinez might be able to help?

"That's a perfect fit," one American League scout who knows the Red Sox well said Thursday. "That's what I've been telling people. Trade Jackie Bradley Jr. Move [Andrew] Benintendi to center field. Sign J.D. Martinez."

Simple, except this doesn't figure to be as easy a transaction as the one Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski made when he signed Martinez three-and-a-half years ago to play for the Detroit Tigers. Back then, Dombrowski got Martinez on a minor league deal after the Astros released him (one of their rare very bad decisions).

Martinez is available again, one of 149 players who automatically became free agents Thursday, the day after the World Series ended and the baseball winter officially began. But he won't be anywhere close to free this time around, and the reason is clear when you look at the other 148 names on that list.

We won't bore you by listing all of them, but trust us: It's not filled with power hitters. An already thin market got even thinner Thursday when Justin Upton (who could have opted out) signed a new five-year contract with the Los Angeles Angels.

If the Red Sox want a powerful first baseman to replace Mitch Moreland, who hit 22 home runs, the best free-agent options are Eric Hosmer (who hit 25) or Carlos Santana (who hit 23). Jon Heyman of Fanrag Sports suggested Thursday Hosmer could be their target. There's a power-hitting third baseman they could sign in Mike Moustakas (38 in 2017 with the Kansas City Royals), but in 21-year-old Rafael Devers, the Red Sox have that spot covered.

That leaves outfielders, which in this free-agent market means either Martinez (45 home runs in 2017) or Jay Bruce (36).

You could say the outfield is covered as well with Bradley, Benintendi and Mookie Betts, but if the Red Sox are going to add a bat, somebody is going to have to move. And while adding Martinez would be a step down defensively, he should be able to handle playing left field in Fenway.

"Just play on the warning track and come in on everything," the scout said.

He should love hitting there, too, even though, in seven career games as a Fenway visitor, he has no home runs. Martinez is strong enough to hit it out to all fields, but what right-hander wouldn't want to take a shot at the Monster 81 times a season?

Dombrowski isn't one to tip his hand this early in the winter, but on Thursday's conference call to introduce La Russa, he did acknowledge the obvious.

"We'd like to add offense," he said. "Hopefully, we'll get another bat that helps us do that."

The baseball winter has just begun. Martinez, according to a Wednesday tweet from Rob Bradford of WEEI.com, has just hired Scott Boras to handle his free agency. Martinez figured to hit the open market even before switching to Boras. The D-backs seem to have interest in keeping him, but budget concerns make it unlikely they would move fast.

"He's a fantastic player," D-backs general manager Mike Hazen said at a mid-October news conference, according to Nick Piecoro of AZCentral.com. "We wouldn't be where we got to without him. He changed the middle of our lineup significantly, in a way that we've obviously recognized. … We'll certainly stay engaged with him."

Martinez did change the D-backs lineup. He could change the Red Sox lineup just as much if not more.

In a division where the rival New York Yankees hit the most home runs in baseball in 2017, the Red Sox need a power boost if they want to hold onto their AL East title.

Signing J.D. Martinez would be a good start to finding it.

 

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

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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Joc Pederson’s Huge Power, Emotion Making Him World Series Star After NLDS Snub

On a Los Angeles Dodgers team that sailed through much of the 2017 season, Joc Pederson was the guy who nearly sunk. On a team where young stars delivered and surprising stars emerged, he was the guy shoved so far into the background that his last regular-season home run came against a team from Texas.

Round Rock, Texas, that is—the home of the Texas Rangers' Triple-A affiliate.

The Dodgers were supposed to be here, in the World Series and even in Game 7 Wednesday night. Pederson was not, unless he was just going to be leading cheers.

He can still do that. Or didn't you see him pounding his chest, waving his arms, twisting and turning and almost floating through the air in the seventh inning of the Dodgers' 3-1 win over the Houston Astros in Game 6?

Of course you saw him. Everyone saw him as he rounded the bases after his third home run of this World Series. Everyone is seeing him, everyone is hearing him and everyone is starting to understand that right now, it's hard to describe the Dodgers without a few loud words about (and maybe from) Pederson.

You like that?

It's been easy to like this whole World Series, although if you're a fan of one of the two teams involved, there certainly have been moments that made you want to scream in agony. For every one of them, though, there's been a moment that made you want to scream in exhilaration, to shout the way Pederson shouted after his home run last Saturday night in Houston.

"You like that!"

Maybe it had something to do with Kirk Cousins, maybe it didn't. Pederson said he sort of blacked out and didn't remember what he said or why, just as he said Tuesday he blacked out and didn't remember putting his fingers together and mouthing the words "Pay me!" towards the Dodgers dugout after his opposite-field home run.

"Yeah, emotions run high," he said in his postgame press conference. "So I'm going to rewatch it to see what I did."

He'll see it again, see it for years if the Dodgers win Game 7. It wasn't the hit that won Game 6, but the home run and Pederson's reaction symbolized what this Dodgers team has become. They're a team that has embraced Yasiel Puig's eccentricity, a team that didn't flinch when Puig guaranteed there would be a Game 7 after the Dodgers fell behind three games to two Sunday night. They're a team sure enough of itself that closer Kenley Jansen told Fox reporter Ken Rosenthal the Astros would have "no shot" in a Game 7, even before the Dodgers forced the decisive game.

Pederson may not have made the Dodgers what they are, but in some ways, he might represent what they are. They're confident, and when they get knocked down a little, they seem to bounce back up.

He got knocked down a lot, dropped from the lineup, sent to the minor leagues in August, left mostly on the bench when he returned and left off the roster for the National League Division Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Even when Pederson was back on the roster for the National League Championship Series, he started just one of the five games against the Chicago Cubs.

And now here he is, set to be one of the stars if the Dodgers can finish this off and win a World Series for the first time since 1988. He has three home runs, as many as anyone on either team aside from Astros center fielder George Springer. He's driven in five runs, as many as anyone on either team.

His "You like that! You like that!" scream will be replayed over and over if the Dodgers finish this off. His trip around the bases after Tuesday's home run will be replayed plenty of times, too, in all of its chest-pounding, arms-waving glory. Pederson wasn't the guy who gave the Dodgers the lead—they were already up 2-1 before he connected off Joe Musgrove—but he was the guy who gave them their moment.

There have been so many of them in this World Series, enough to make it a classic even before Game 7. There will be even more, because something eventually must separate these two 100-plus-win teams.

It began a week ago with the Dodgers winning 3-1 in Game 1, with Pederson sitting on the bench and still expected to play just a small part. It picked up steam the next night, when Pederson's fifth-inning home run was the first Dodgers hit off Justin Verlander and just the first of the eight home runs the two teams would hit in Game 2.

The Astros won Game 3 but the Dodgers came back in Game 4, with a five-run ninth inning that included another Pederson home run. Then came the wild 13-12 Astros win in Game 5, and Tuesday's Dodgers win to even up the series at three games apiece.

Through it all, Pederson has five hitsthe three home runs and two doubles. He also has six strikeouts in his 14 at-bats, no surprise for anyone who has followed his career. The Dodgers got tired of the strikeouts and the inconsistency, but manager Dave Roberts said in his postgame press conference Tuesday that he loved the way Pederson worked hard and earned his way back.

"And he continues to amaze us and put together good at-bats," Roberts said.

Or maybe it just comes down to what Alex Rodriguez said on the Fox postgame show.

"I think I struggled [in the postseason] because I overthought things," Rodriguez said. "Joc Pederson never thinks."

He doesn't have to. He just has to hit and then float around the bases. If he does it again Wednesday, you can bet all the Dodgers will be joining him.

They'd like that.

 

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

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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A.J. Hinch’s Managerial Genius Solves Astros’ Closer Nightmare with His Starters

Hey look, the managers still matter.      

Flexibility still matters. A plan is only good until your eyes tell you it's time to change the plan.

Brad Peacock never expected to get the final 11 outs of a World Series game. There's a pretty good chance A.J. Hinch never thought he'd have Peacock get the final 11 outs of a World Series game.

But Hinch saw what you saw, if you were paying attention during the Houston Astros' 5-3 Game 3 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Minute Made Field on Friday night. The guy he had on the mound looked great. Why go to someone else who might not be?

Credit to Hinch. Credit to Jeff Luhnow, the Houston Astros general manager who believes in analytics as much as anyone alive but also believes in allowing his manager to do the job. Luhnow and his staff give Hinch plenty of information, but they also give him leeway.

They didn't have an issue when he let Justin Verlander go a third and even (gulp!) a fourth time through the order in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees. They understood when he turned Verlander into a key reliever in the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox and when he had Lance McCullers Jr. pitch the final four innings in Game 7 of the ALCS.

The Astros bullpen has been an issue in this postseason. Closer Ken Giles has allowed runs in five of his six postseason appearances. Plenty of people saw the Dodgers keeping Friday's game close and predicted a comeback win.

Hinch saw that with Peacock on the mound, the Dodgers weren't getting anyone on base. It didn't matter to him that the 29-year-old right-hander had never gotten a save in the major leagues, the minor leagues or probably anywhere else. Hinch brought Peacock into the game with one out in the sixth inning. He left him in the game for the seventh and for the eighth.

"I didn't think they were going to give me the ninth," Peacock said on MLB Network. "I'm glad they did. I'm glad they did."

Peacock pitched 3.2 innings and didn't allow a hit.

Joe Torre taught us long ago that managing in the postseason demands a sense of urgency. Hinch is reminding us this month that it also demands flexibility and creativity, and now he and his Astros have a two games to one lead in the World Series.

Torre's Yankees won in October with the most dominant closer of all time, but history reminds us there are other ways to do it. Mariano Rivera saved 11 World Series games, but Madison Bumgarner saved a huge one for the San Francisco Giants three years ago.

No one should understand it more than the Dodgers, who advanced through the first round a year ago with closer Kenley Jansen appearing in the seventh inning of Game 5 and Clayton Kershaw following him to the mound for a two-out save.

In this World Series, though, the Dodgers are the team that has seemed chained to a plan. Rich Hill gave up just three hits in the first four innings of Game 2, but for the third time through the order, the Dodgers followed their formula and went to the bullpen. Eventually, that forced Jansen into a two-inning save opportunity he didn't convert, and it forced manager Dave Roberts to whatever pitchers he had left when the game went to extra innings.

When Yu Darvish allowed five straight Astros to reach base in the second inning Friday, you could almost see the Dodgers analytics guys wondering how to fix problems with a pitcher the first time through the order. Soon enough, Darvish was gone, and the Dodgers were in a bind.

The game was too close to give up on, but there were too many innings to go. Like it or not, Roberts ended up using almost his entire bullpen again.

I'm not sure Roberts actually did anything to damage L.A. on Friday, but it was clear that Hinch did basically everything right. He only made one pitching change, but in this era of matchups, that's what was so brilliant. He trusted what he was seeing.

As MLB Network's Brian Kenny relayed on Twitter:

He's right. In the same month Hinch let Verlander face 32 batters and throw 124 pitches, he has had McCullers and now Peacock join Bumgarner as the only pitchers since 1997 with postseason saves of three innings or more.

"It doesn't map out this way," Hinch said. "You have to react to the game."

You have to have a manager who can adapt. You have to trust your manager when he wants to trust his eyes.

Managers still matter.

Who knew?

               

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

A.J. Hinch’s Managerial Genius Solves Astros’ Closer Nightmare with His Starters

Hey look, the managers still matter.      

Flexibility still matters. A plan is only good until your eyes tell you it's time to change the plan.

Brad Peacock never expected to get the final 11 outs of a World Series game. There's a pretty good chance A.J. Hinch never thought he'd have Peacock get the final 11 outs of a World Series game.

But Hinch saw what you saw, if you were paying attention during the Houston Astros' 5-3 Game 3 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Minute Made Field on Friday night. The guy he had on the mound looked great. Why go to someone else who might not be?

Credit to Hinch. Credit to Jeff Luhnow, the Houston Astros general manager who believes in analytics as much as anyone alive but also believes in allowing his manager to do the job. Luhnow and his staff give Hinch plenty of information, but they also give him leeway.

They didn't have an issue when he let Justin Verlander go a third and even (gulp!) a fourth time through the order in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees. They understood when he turned Verlander into a key reliever in the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox and when he had Lance McCullers Jr. pitch the final four innings in Game 7 of the ALCS.

The Astros bullpen has been an issue in this postseason. Closer Ken Giles has allowed runs in five of his six postseason appearances. Plenty of people saw the Dodgers keeping Friday's game close and predicted a comeback win.

Hinch saw that with Peacock on the mound, the Dodgers weren't getting anyone on base. It didn't matter to him that the 29-year-old right-hander had never gotten a save in the major leagues, the minor leagues or probably anywhere else. Hinch brought Peacock into the game with one out in the sixth inning. He left him in the game for the seventh and for the eighth.

"I didn't think they were going to give me the ninth," Peacock said on MLB Network. "I'm glad they did. I'm glad they did."

Peacock pitched 3.2 innings and didn't allow a hit.

Joe Torre taught us long ago that managing in the postseason demands a sense of urgency. Hinch is reminding us this month that it also demands flexibility and creativity, and now he and his Astros have a two games to one lead in the World Series.

Torre's Yankees won in October with the most dominant closer of all time, but history reminds us there are other ways to do it. Mariano Rivera saved 11 World Series games, but Madison Bumgarner saved a huge one for the San Francisco Giants three years ago.

No one should understand it more than the Dodgers, who advanced through the first round a year ago with closer Kenley Jansen appearing in the seventh inning of Game 5 and Clayton Kershaw following him to the mound for a two-out save.

In this World Series, though, the Dodgers are the team that has seemed chained to a plan. Rich Hill gave up just three hits in the first four innings of Game 2, but for the third time through the order, the Dodgers followed their formula and went to the bullpen. Eventually, that forced Jansen into a two-inning save opportunity he didn't convert, and it forced manager Dave Roberts to whatever pitchers he had left when the game went to extra innings.

When Yu Darvish allowed five straight Astros to reach base in the second inning Friday, you could almost see the Dodgers analytics guys wondering how to fix problems with a pitcher the first time through the order. Soon enough, Darvish was gone, and the Dodgers were in a bind.

The game was too close to give up on, but there were too many innings to go. Like it or not, Roberts ended up using almost his entire bullpen again.

'm not sure Roberts actually did anything to damage L.A. on Friday, but it was clear that Hinch did basically everything right. He only made one pitching change, but in this era of matchups, that's what was so brilliant. He trusted what he was seeing.

As MLB Network's Brian Kenny relayed on Twitter:

He's right. In the same month Hinch let Verlander face 32 batters and throw 124 pitches, he has had McCullers and now Peacock join Bumgarner as the only pitchers since 1997 with postseason saves of three innings or more.

"It doesn't map out this way," Hinch said. "You have to react to the game."

You have to have a manager who can adapt. You have to trust your manager when he wants to trust his eyes.

Managers still matter.

Who knew?

               

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

Justin Verlander’s Journey from Untradeable $28M/Year Man to Postseason Hero

The Christmas card came from Justin Verlander's parents a few years back. It wasn't like anything you could buy in a store. It wouldn't have been fit for anyone but Verlander, anyway.

But for him, it was perfect. The best Christmas card ever.

And it was also a challenge.

One side of the card listed Verlander's career numbers. The other had the career numbers of Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher Verlander idolized as a kid growing up in Virginia.

"My parents got [Ryan] to sign it," Verlander said this week. "I always loved that card, because I looked at it like, 'Hey kid, you've got a long way to go.'"

He still does. But as Verlander prepares to pitch Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on Friday night at Minute Maid Park, his idol is right there in front of him. Right there, sitting in the front row, as Verlander pitches for Ryan's team, the Houston Astros.

"That's pretty cool," Verlander said.

So is this: The winter Ryan turned 35 years old, in January 1982, he had 189 career wins. Verlander turns 35 in February. He has 188.

Wins have gone out of style as a way to measure pitchers' success, and understandably so, but to pitchers like Verlander, they still matter. Even if he pitched to 46 as Ryan did, Verlander might never come close to his totals of seven no-hitters (Verlander has two) or 5,714 strikeouts (Verlander has 2,416), but joining him in the 300-win club (Ryan had 324) wouldn't be outrageous.

In the much more immediate future, this weekend Verlander could do something Ryan never quite managed, by pitching the Astros into a World Series.

He can't do it by himself, thanks to three straight Astros losses to the New York Yankees this week at Yankee Stadium. But another Verlander win Friday, perhaps a repeat of his brilliant effort in Game 2, would send the ALCS to a decisive Game 7 on Saturday.

They may as well take it to the last day, to the last minute, even to the last second. After all, wasn't that how the Astros got Verlander in the first place? It was sudden, it was stunning and it even included two guys sitting in a parked car for an hour. More on that later.

First, here's what Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila told Astros GM Jeff Luhnow the night of the trade: "This guy is going to take you to the World Series. And he might win it for you."

"He did [say that]," Luhnow confirmed nearly seven weeks later, with the Astros one step from the Series. "He was still selling at that point. I said, 'You don't need to sell. I've already given you everything I can give you.'"

He gave the Tigers Daz Cameron, Franklin Perez and Jake Rogers, three prospects he had resisted giving up. The Tigers agreed to pay a little more than $17 million of the $61 million or so remaining on Verlander's contract. Verlander agreed to waive his no-trade protection in exchange for the Astros dropping a $22 million vesting option for 2020.

And just like Nolan Ryan nearly four decades earlier, Justin Verlander became a Houston Astro.


None of this seemed possible in the early days of July, when Verlander had a 4.96 ERA and had just allowed seven runs to the Cleveland Indians in just 3.1 innings. Nobody was trading for Verlander then, not if it meant taking on any significant part of a $28 million-a-year contract that ran for two more seasons after this one.

He was a guy who had thrown too many pitches over the years, a guy who was getting old, a guy on the decline. Except he never believed that.

Verlander felt too good to be struggling. He kept watching video, kept making changes, kept listening to suggestions, and he kept going out to the mound and seeing nothing substantial change.

 

Then one day it did.

"I still remember late one night him telling me and [Mick] Billmeyer he knew why he'd been struggling," said Matt Martin, who was on the Tigers coaching staff with Billmeyer. "I rolled my eyes, but when he told me what it was I said, 'That makes sense.' He took off from there."

It was a small adjustment, Verlander said, a mechanical tweak so small he had missed it all those other times he looked at the video. One day, he saw it, and he fixed it.

Plenty has been said since Verlander came to the Astros about how Houston pitching coach Brent Strom helped him with his changeup and how the Astros' high-def cameras helped him fine-tune the release point on his slider. It's not wrong, but it is a little misleading.

The Astros didn't fix Justin Verlander. They traded for an elite and ultra-competitive pitcher who a month earlier had basically fixed himself.

In the final 11 starts of a Tigers career that began when they made him the second overall pick in the 2004 draft, Verlander had a 2.31 ERA. He was even better in three starts against teams that would make the 2017 playoffs, with an 0.87 ERA against the Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers and the Astros, whom he shut out for six innings on July 30.

By then, the Tigers were well out of the race and fully committed to a rebuild. They assembled thorough scouting reports on the farm systems of the Dodgers, Astros, New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs. Those turned out to be the four teams that would reach the League Championship Series, but they were also the four that seemed to fit best for a Verlander trade.

At the July 31 non-waiver deadline, not one of them bit.

The Dodgers and Yankees both told the Tigers they weren't interested, according to sources familiar with the trade discussions, because adding Verlander's contract would make it nearly impossible for them to get under the luxury-tax threshold next year. The Cubs made a July 13 trade with the Chicago White Sox for starter Jose Quintana. That left them with enough prospects to make a deadline deal with the Tigers for reliever Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila (Al Avila's son), but not enough to get Verlander.

If Verlander was going anywhere, it was going to be the Astros. And at that point, Luhnow wasn't prepared to part with the prospects or take on the money.

The calendar turned to August, and Verlander stayed with the Tigers.


Four things happened in August that changed the story.

First, Verlander's resurgence on the mound continued. Twice he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, ending up allowing one hit in eight innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates and two hits in eight innings against the Dodgers.

Second, the Astros' lack of a move at the deadline brought quick and harsh criticism, even from within their own clubhouse.

"I mean, I'm not going to lie, disappointment is a little bit of a understatement," starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel told reporters, as MLB.com's Brian McTaggart posted on Twitter.

Third, the Astros slumped on the field. They still had a healthy lead in the American League West, but they were 11-17 in August, the only month they had a losing record.

Finally, when the Tigers placed Verlander on the type of waivers required to make a deal after July 31, no team put in a claim. A claim would have blocked the Tigers from trading Verlander—but would also put a team at risk of assuming the pitcher's entire enormous contract. No team was willing to take that risk, despite repeated public statements by Avila that he wouldn't give Verlander away.

Even with all that, a Verlander trade remained a long shot. Tigers president Chris Ilitch, who took over control of the team from his late father, told Avila he was fully prepared to pay the rest of Verlander's contract, unless a deal could be made that helped jump-start the Tigers' rebuild. No team was showing real interest. Finally, on Aug. 31, the final day an acquired player would be eligible to play in the postseason, Luhnow checked back in.

Even then, the chances of a deal seemed remote.

So at 6 p.m. ET, after making a trade to send Justin Upton to the Los Angeles Angels, and with no Verlander trade in sight, Avila and his staff left Comerica Park and headed for Avila's home in suburban Bloomfield. Avila's wife would cook dinner and with the Tigers off that night, they'd watch whatever game they could find on TV and wait out a quiet deadline.

A few hours later, it was anything but quiet.


The Astros had a series in Anaheim the weekend before the deadline. They were supposed to go home after that, but because of Hurricane Harvey, their series against the Texas Rangers was moved to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Luhnow stayed in Southern California, where his wife's parents live.

As Avila remembers it, Luhnow called him again at about 10:30 p.m. ET. The Astros wanted Verlander, and they were ready to offer enough of the players the Tigers wanted to get a deal done. It didn't take long for the teams to reach an agreement on players and money. By 11 p.m. or so, they had a tentative deal. But there was just one hour to go until the deadline, and a lot still to do to get things finalized.

Both teams had to get ownership approval. The Tigers had to review medical reports on the three prospects involved. Fortunately, Avila was prepared. He had kept athletic trainer Kevin Rand on call, and Rand started going over medicals even before the full deal was agreed to.

Verlander had to agree to the deal or none of it would have mattered. Not only did he have to agree, but the Tigers had to have Verlander's signature on a form saying he agreed.

Fortunately, Avila was prepared for that, too.

Verlander was at his apartment in Birmingham, Michigan. Sometime around 11 p.m., a car pulled up outside the apartment and parked. Avila had instructed two of his assistants to go there and wait, ready to get Verlander's signature and send it to the Commissioner's Office in New York by midnight.

Verlander had less than an hour to make one of the biggest decisions of his life. He says now he was never close to turning the deal down, but it took time for him to say yes. He had a lot of questions that needed answers.

At some point during the hour, Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel called. Verlander didn't have much time to talk.

"I know you've got to go," Keuchel told him. "But if you come here, you won't regret this decision."

"What he said resonated with me," Verlander said.

"I don't know if I helped," Keuchel said. "But I like to think I'm a good salesman."

As the hour passed, Luhnow called Avila asking for updates. Avila checked in with Verlander to remind him they needed a decision. The two Tigers staffers stayed in the parked car, waiting.

Maybe 10 minutes before the deadline, Luhnow told his manager, A.J. Hinch, that he didn't think the deal would happen. As it turned out, right about that time, Verlander was telling Avila he would accept the trade.

Avila called his aides and told them to go up to Verlander's apartment and get his signature on the form. With no time to make it back to Avila's house, they pulled out a phone, took a picture of the signed form and sent the picture to New York. The Tigers and Astros both sent their part of the paperwork to New York, too, getting done with maybe a minute to spare. Avila put Verlander on one speakerphone and the Commissioner's Office on the other, so New York could hear Verlander say yes.

Meanwhile, in California, Luhnow got in his car and took his wife to dinner. He still didn't know if everything had gotten to New York in time.

"MLB didn't call me until 15 minutes after the deadline," he said. "Even then, I thought it was 50-50 it had gone through. For those 15 minutes, I could barely breathe. My wife is asking me questions, and I couldn't think about anything. When MLB finally called, I answered on the first ring."

The deal had gone through. Verlander was an Astro. He would fly to Houston the next day. He made his Astros debut Sept. 5 in a 3-1 win in Seattle, and won again a week later in Anaheim. Five days after that, in his first home start, he allowed one run in seven innings in the game that clinched the division. He won twice in the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox, once as a starter, once in relief. He beat the Yankees in Game 2 of the ALCS, pitching perhaps as well as he has in any start in his career.

"Where would we be if we didn't have him?" Luhnow asked this week.


It's not just where the Astros are this year or where Verlander is right now. The way he's pitching, few who watch him have any doubt he can keep this up through the end of this contract or even further.

Ryan pitched until he was 46. Could Verlander do the same?

"If that's what he wants, he can get it," said Jack Morris, another former Tigers ace.

"I'm going to play as long as I can," Verlander said. "I love the game. I've always told everyone, I realize how fortunate I am to make a lot of money, but if I wasn't playing this game at a big league level, I'd be in some backyard playing baseball. I love the game."

He wants to win a World Series. He wants to add to his own win total. He knows the numbers Ryan finished with.

They're right there on the card.

 

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

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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Yankees Have Returned Yankee Stadium to an Impenetrable Big-Game Fortress

NEW YORK — There were nights in May when it wasn't this loud, afternoons in August when the stands weren't full. The New York Yankees won a whole lot of those games at Yankee Stadium, too.

It's not just the noise. It's not just the aura.

Then again, noise and aura don't hurt. The beer and the insults cascading out of the bleachers don't help if you're a visiting team coming to Yankee Stadium hoping to win in October. Three of them have been there this month, from the Minnesota Twins in the American League Wild Card Game through the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS to the Houston Astros this week in the ALCS.

Three teams, six games, zero wins for the visitors. And as Wednesday night ended with the Yankees one win away from the World Series, don't let anyone tell you the ballpark and those who inhabit it aren't part of this team's story.

Take it from Todd Frazier, the kid from New Jersey who grew up to be a Yankee. He's the one who hit the three-run home run Monday, the one who was leaping over the dugout railing to wave baserunners home during Tuesday's comeback, the one who was laughing and smiling again after Wednesday's 5-0 Yankee win that put his team ahead three games to two in this best-of-seven series.

"This is New York, baby," he said. "Only the strong survive. And that's why I love playing here."

Or take it from George Springer, the kid from Connecticut who grew up to be an Astro.

"This is wild," he said, after three days as a target in center field. "This is a wild place to play, to say the least. It's definitely tough. The fans are into the game. They act as if they've won 27 world championships. I understand."

They have won 27 world championships, of course, and the Astros have won none. None of that should really matter in terms of what happens in 2017, and maybe it won't. As the Astros were quick to point out on their way out of town, they get back to their fans and their atmosphere when the series resumes Friday night at Minute Maid Park.

"They had their three games here," third baseman Alex Bregman said. "We have our four at home. It's home-field advantage."

And if it works out that way, with the Astros coming back to win Games 6 and 7 in Houston, perhaps the story of the 2017 Yankees will include a chapter or two on why they couldn't win on the road. They were the lone team to make the postseason with a losing road record (40-41) during the regular season, and the trend has kept up in October.

The Yankees are 1-4 on the road this month, although that one win was in a pretty important Game 5 in Cleveland…after they'd saved themselves in that series with two straight wins at home.

There was plenty more to what happened this week, for sure, with the best-hitting team in the major leagues suddenly finding itself ice-cold at the plate and with one of the biggest Yankee-killing pitchers of all time failing to make it through the fifth inning in Wednesday's Game 5.

It's hard to say it was the ballpark or the fans that got Dallas Keuchel, who gave up the first four runs Wednesday. The last time he was at Yankee Stadium for a postseason game, he pitched six scoreless innings and the Astros won the 2015 Wild Card Game 3-0.

"If you don't give the crowd anything to cheer for, they can't cheer," Keuchel said. "Two years ago, it seemed like they were searching for something to cheer for. It just wasn't there. These last three games, there was plenty to cheer for."

There was enough to make a ballpark come alive, enough for the Yankees and their fans to start up comparisons to the iconic place that once stood across the street from the current version of Yankee Stadium. In our memories, it was always louder there than anywhere else and the Yankees always won more there than anyone else won anywhere else.

Mystique and aura and all that, as Curt Schilling once said.

It was true, except when it wasn't. The 1996 Yankees won the first World Series of their era because they were perfect on the road, allowing them to overcome two bad Yankee Stadium losses to the Atlanta Braves. The 2004 Yankees own the worst postseason collapse ever, completed at Yankee Stadium. In the final 23 postseason games the old place hosted, the Yankees were a mediocre 11-12.

In the first season at the new place, they went 7-1 at home to win the World Series for the first time in nine years. It was loud that October, too.

"I feel like it's been a lot better this year," said CC Sabathia, the ace of the 2009 staff. "It's been nuts. And we feed off it."

He's not wrong, and neither are Frazier or Springer. Neither was Chase Headley, the Yankees designated hitter who compared it to a college football atmosphere after he had three hits Wednesday.

"They're going crazy the whole game," Headley said. "It's a huge advantage for us."

How do you argue with him, when the Yankees have been perfect at home this October? How do you argue, when even with regular-season noise and aura they went 51-30 at home from April through September?

They do seem to love this place. It's not just the hitters, the guys who can take advantage of the right field porch. Masahiro Tanaka, the starting pitcher who dominated the Astros on Wednesday, has made eight Yankee Stadium starts since the final week of July. His ERA in those eight games: 0.96.

Tanaka went seven innings Wednesday, allowing just three hits. Springer had one of them, although you can be sure the fans in the bleachers were more interested in reminding him about the time he struck out. And about a few other things.

"Stuff I can't repeat," Springer said. "Stuff I probably won't repeat in 20 years."

He won't forget playing here. The fans won't forget being here.

And the Yankees? They hope to get one win this weekend in Houston, just so they can come back here.

 

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

Stephen Strasburg Rewrites His October History, Now Nats Must Do the Same

Fair or not, the reputation was there. It was there before, and it was certainly there Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.           

Stephen Strasburg was the guy who doesn't pitch in October.

That's gone now.

Fair or not, the reputation remains. It was there before this week and it hasn't been erased yet.

The Washington Nationals are the team that doesn't win in October.

Strasburg wrote a completely different story Wednesday. Now the Nationals need to write a completely different story Thursday in Game 5.

They can end someone else's season, just the way theirs ended in 2012 and 2014 and again last year. They can leave another fan base disappointed or even angry, the way theirs has been all too often in this sometimes cruel month.

Strasburg made all that possible, with his seven brilliant innings in Wednesday's Game 4 at Wrigley Field. The Nationals made all that possible, with a 5-0 win that set up up Game 5 at Nationals Park.

Now Strasburg is the ace that saved a season. Now the Nationals can go back to being the team with as good a chance as any to win it all, which is how a lot of us saw them when the regular season ended 10 days ago.

It all started with five words from Strasburg Wednesday morning

"Just give me the ball," Strasburg told a postgame press conference, repeating what he said he told Nationals pitching coach Mike Maddux a few hours earlier.

Strasburg doesn't say much, as Nats manager Dusty Baker said in his own press conference. But those five words said plenty, and Strasburg's seven brilliant innings against the Cubs said even more.

Just give him the ball. Strasburg has often pitched like an ace, ever since he struck out 14 in his 2010 major league debut. But could he act like an ace?

The shutdown that cost him a chance to pitch in the 2012 postseason wasn't Strasburg's idea, but plenty of people in baseball—especially other big-time pitchers—wondered why he didn't speak up publicly against it. The partially torn pronator tendon that cost him the 2016 postseason wasn't his fault, but it added to the reputation.

Fair or not, it was there.

He was great when he pitched. But could you count on him?

So when the Nationals announced after Tuesday's rainout that Strasburg wouldn't pitch in an elimination game because he was "under the weather," you can imagine what everyone thought. Actually, you don't have to imagine.

As Ron Darling said right at the start of the TBS broadcast Wednesday: "There's absolutely no one in the history of the game that has ever missed this kind of start … because of the flu."

Yeah. By that time, we knew Strasburg wasn't missing the start at all. The Nationals said a change in the antibiotics Strasburg was given had done the trick. He woke up Wednesday feeling better. He was indeed going to pitch.

Some people wondered how he would do. Some people probably hoped he wouldn't do well.

I texted a friend and told him I thought Strasburg would pitch well.

"Once he's on the mound, he's usually fine," I said.

He was a lot better than just fine, and you could see it right from the start. It was 1-2-3 in the first inning, with strikeouts of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. It was 1-2-3 in the third inning, with three more strikeouts.

It was domination, with a changeup the Cubs just couldn't hit.

As TBS analyst Pedro Martinez tweeted after the game:

Pedro, by the way, had a 3.46 postseason ERA in his Hall of Fame career. Strasburg's postseason ERA: 0.47 in three starts.

So yeah, Strasburg can handle big games. Yeah, he enjoys pitching in big games.

No one ever should have doubted that.

"Games like this, you have to go out and give it everything you have, whatever it is," Strasburg said.

Everything Strasburg has is quite often enough. He was 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA in his 28 regular season starts this year. He struck out 204 in 175.1 innings. He has that fastball he can throw as hard as 99 mph, that slider he can throw at 91, that changeup.

Oh, that changeup.

Check out this tweet from Inside Edge:

So the best thing the Cubs have going for them in Game 5 is that Strasburg won't be pitching again. But the Nationals still have Gio Gonzalez, whose 2.96 ERA ranked fifth in the National League. They have Max Scherzer, who will be on two days' rest but is expected to be available out of the bullpen.

They have that lineup that dominated all season but hasn't yet really shown up against the Cubs. Trea Turner and Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon … it's on those guys now.

They can make this their October, just as Stephen Strasburg chose Wednesday to make this his.

Whether the Nationals win or lose Thursday, what happened Wednesday will forever come up when we think of Strasburg. Just give him the ball.

They gave it to them. When he gave it back, their season was saved.

Now it's up to the rest of them to figure out what they do with it.

 

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

Trea Turner’s Lightning Speed Is About to Electrify the 2017 Postseason

Trea Turner wasn't always fast.

Well, that's not exactly right, because Turner was probably always faster than the average kid. But he wasn't fast fast when he started playing baseball at Park Vista Community High School in Lake Worth, Florida. He wasn't the guy everyone stopped to watch, the way he is with the Washington Nationals now.

"He was a solid runner, but I wouldn't even say he was a good runner," said Chris Hart, thinking back to the first time he saw Turner play. "I'd say he ran a 6.7 or 6.8 60 [yard dash]. But he was athletic and he had coordination and body control, and I just felt like he was going to be a good baseball player."

Hart was then and is now the assistant baseball coach at North Carolina State University, and it was on his word that NC State head coach Elliott Avent offered the undersized and still-not-lightning-fast Turner a scholarship. And it was right in front of his eyes that Turner evolved into not just a good baseball player but potentially a great one, a super-speedy and super-skilled all-around talent who might just be the most electric player to watch in Major League Baseball's postseason.

"He's obviously one of the most dynamic players in the game," Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley said.

In a year when the home run has been front and center in baseball, Turner is a leadoff hitter who can hit the ball out of the park. But in an era when some in baseball worry about dead time and all the minutes when the ball isn't in play, Turner also is the guy who keeps you paying attention every second he's on the field.

"You can hear the crowd," Nationals first baseman Adam Lind said. "If he gets on second base with no outs, it's hard for him not to score."

Watching Turner run, Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez said, is like watching someone hit a ball 500 feet, like watching a pitcher throw a ball 105 mph.

"Everybody likes speed," Gonzalez said.

That is a sensible point of view. But with MLB collectively launching a record 6,105 home runs this season, and as analytics (and their emphasis on not risking the loss of baserunners caught stealing) have taken over, the idea that speed matters sometimes seems to have faded into the past. No one wants to make an out on the basepaths when the next guy up might hit the ball into orbit.

Home runs are up. Strikeouts are up. Stolen bases? The average team today steals 39 percent fewer bases than the average team did 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, Turner stole 46 bases in a season shortened to 98 games by a broken bone in his wrist that cost him two months. He stole seven bases in one four-game series against the Chicago Cubs, who just happen to be the team the Nationals are facing in the National League Division Series beginning Friday night.

The Nationals haven't won a postseason series since moving to Washington in 2005, but there are plenty of reasons to think this October could be different. They have their top starting pitchers (Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez) all ready to go, they fixed their bullpen and they finally have the devastating middle of their batting order healthy.

And they have Turner at the top of the lineup, ready to make everything work.

"You can have guys in the center all you want to, but a leadoff man is invaluable," manager Dusty Baker said. I think it's easier to find a middle-of-the-order guy than it is to find a leadoff man—a true leadoff man, especially if he can hit. You expect him to be able to run, but if he can hit and he can hit for power, you've got Rickey Henderson."

Or you have Trea Turner, who does all of those things, too. He hasn't yet done all of them at the Hall of Fame level Henderson reached in his 25-year career, but Turner is only 24 years old and has played just 198 games in the big leagues.

This should have been Turner's first full season, after he played a few games for the Nationals in 2015 and was a June call-up last season. And though he missed that time in July and August when he was hurt, he still set a team record for stolen bases in a season.

He also did it while only getting thrown out eight times, which is one reason Baker was never hesitant to let him run. Rather than taking the bat out of the hands of all the great hitters behind him in the Nats lineup, Turner gives those hitters more chances to drive in runs.

 

Add in the 41 extra-base hits to the 32 times he stole second base, and Turner got himself into scoring position 73 times in 447 plate appearances. Exactly half of his steals helped lead to a Nationals run.

And if you think he can't have the same impact in the postseason, be aware that a leadoff hitter named Davey Lopes stole 10 bases in 16 postseason games for the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers. Lopes is the Nationals first-base coach and baserunning guru now. His boss, Baker, played for those 1981 Dodgers, too, the only time in 41 years as a major league player or manager he has won the World Series.

Runs can be hard to come by in October. A run that Turner creates could be the one that turns the Nationals into champions, too.

"There's a lot of fast guys," Lind said. "He puts it to use."


Hart first saw Turner play in July 2010, and then saw him again in October the same year.

"It was a massive difference," Hart said. "He was starting to turn into a guy with electric speed."

As Turner himself recalled to B/R: "I was a lot smaller in high school, and guys were a lot bigger and faster than me. I stole some bases in high school, but it wasn't until my senior year that I started getting faster. And then my freshman year in college, I kind of knew."

Even so, when Turner called in February and said he had run a 6.5 60, Hart wasn't sure whether to believe it.

"A lot of kids say that and it's really 6.7," Hart said. "But by the time Trea got on campus (at NC State), he was flying."

When the Wolfpack held a scout day that fall, the players ran the 60 again. Turner ran a 6.26.

Avent says he gave Turner the green light to run from the very first game of his freshman year.

"He says that's not true," Avent said. "But that's how I remember it. I didn't know when to run. He did."

Turner stole 57 bases in 63 games as a freshman, and was only thrown out four times. The year before, a kid named Brett Williams led the Wolfpack in steals, with nine. The school record was 30. Turner nearly doubled it.

"Trea changed my whole thinking," Avent said.

A year later, teamed with pitcher Carlos Rodon, who now pitches for the Chicago White Sox, Turner got NC State to the College World Series for the first time since 1968. A year after that, just five spots before the Nationals had their first pick, the San Diego Padres took Turner 13th overall in the June draft.

The Nationals had wanted him. They loved his speed, they loved his ability and they loved his baseball IQ.

"The reports we had almost exactly described the player he has become," general manager Mike Rizzo said.

Turner signed with the Padres and went to play in their minor league system, but Rizzo didn't give up. In 2014, A.J. Preller had taken over for Josh Byrnes as the Padres general manager, and Preller wanted to make big changes. He wanted Wil Myers from the Tampa Bay Rays, and a two-team trade wasn't going to work. Rizzo knew the Rays would have interest in Steven Souza Jr. and saw a way to get Turner in a three-team deal.

The trade was announced Dec. 19, 2014. Officially, the Nationals got pitcher Joe Ross and a player to be named later. It didn't take long for everyone to know Turner would be the player to be named, but he couldn't change teams until a year after he had originally signed coming out of the draft.

That led to an awkward situation, with Turner playing the first half of the 2015 season for an organization that had already traded him. It led to what became known as the "Trea Turner rule," with drafted players now eligible to be dealt the day after the World Series ends in the year they sign.

More important for Rizzo and the Nationals, they had the speedy shortstop and leadoff man they coveted.

"The old adage is that speed has no slump," Rizzo said. "The key to us is having offensive efficiency. He really helps. He changes our offensive dynamic."


Fast as he is, Turner isn't the speediest player in the game today. MLB.com's Statcast developed a Sprint Speed Leaderboard this season, and it shows that while Turner is very fast (29.2 feet/second), there are actually a few guys in the big leagues who are faster. Center fielder Byron Buxton of the Minnesota Twins tops the list at 30.2 feet/second, with Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds, Bradley Zimmer of the Cleveland Indians and Dee Gordon of the Miami Marlins just behind him.

"I could care less," Turner said. "There's always going to be someone bigger, faster, stronger than anybody. [Giancarlo] Stanton's the biggest guy in baseball, and all of a sudden Aaron Judge comes around. It doesn't matter. … It's if there's an opportunity to steal bases, can you steal one?

Turner takes the opportunities as well as just about anyone, and translates that speed to other parts of the game as well as anyone. Only nine players in baseball history had more steals in the first 190 games of their career. Of those, only Eric Davis (33) hit more home runs in that span than Turner (24) did.

"He's a combination of power and speed you just don't see," one National League scout said. "He makes defensive plays that are unbelievable. And can you name a better leadoff hitter in the game today?"

Turner wants to think of himself as an all-around player, and not just a speedster. He still bristles at the memory of people saying he didn't have the arm to play shortstop in the big leagues (the Padres were among those with such concerns, which was one of the reasons they were willing to trade him). He played center field last season for the Nats, because that's where they needed him, but he's very happy to be back at short.

"That's what I want to do," he said. "I want to be a complete player, and not rely on one thing too much."


Baker likes to say that for a baserunner to make a big impact, "You have to have larceny in your veins and you have to like to run."

Turner has that, as his old college coach well remembered from his play at the 2014 ACC baseball tournament:

Turner was on third base, with the Wolfpack down a run to North Carolina. The batter looked at a third strike for the second out of the inning. As the catcher threw the ball back to the mound, Turner sensed the Tar Heels weren't paying close attention, and he took off for home.

"He got called out," said Hart, who was coaching third base but had no idea Turner was going to go. "He was safe. Look at the replay. It should have been 4-4."

That's what speed can do. That's what Turner can do, and Hart is convinced he can do the same type of thing for the Nationals this month.

"When he does this in the playoffs, with the whole country watching, he's going to become a household name," Hart said.

And everybody will be talking about how fast he is.

    

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

Trea Turner’s Lightning Speed Is About to Electrify the 2017 Postseason

Trea Turner wasn't always fast.

Well, that's not exactly right, because Turner was probably always faster than the average kid. But he wasn't fast fast when he started playing baseball at Park Vista Community High School in Lake Worth, Florida. He wasn't the guy everyone stopped to watch, the way he is with the Washington Nationals now.

"He was a solid runner, but I wouldn't even say he was a good runner," said Chris Hart, thinking back to the first time he saw Turner play. "I'd say he ran a 6.7 or 6.8 60 [yard dash]. But he was athletic and he had coordination and body control, and I just felt like he was going to be a good baseball player."

Hart was then and is now the assistant baseball coach at North Carolina State University, and it was on his word that NC State head coach Elliott Avent offered the undersized and still-not-lightning-fast Turner a scholarship. And it was right in front of his eyes that Turner evolved into not just a good baseball player but potentially a great one, a super-speedy and super-skilled all-around talent who might just be the most electric player to watch in Major League Baseball's postseason.

"He's obviously one of the most dynamic players in the game," Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley said.

In a year when the home run has been front and center in baseball, Turner is a leadoff hitter who can hit the ball out of the park. But in an era when some in baseball worry about dead time and all the minutes when the ball isn't in play, Turner also is the guy who keeps you paying attention every second he's on the field.

"You can hear the crowd," Nationals first baseman Adam Lind said. "If he gets on second base with no outs, it's hard for him not to score."

Watching Turner run, Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez said, is like watching someone hit a ball 500 feet, like watching a pitcher throw a ball 105 mph.

"Everybody likes speed," Gonzalez said.

That is a sensible point of view. But with MLB collectively launching a record 6,105 home runs this season, and as analytics (and their emphasis on not risking the loss of baserunners caught stealing) have taken over, the idea that speed matters sometimes seems to have faded into the past. No one wants to make an out on the basepaths when the next guy up might hit the ball into orbit.

Home runs are up. Strikeouts are up. Stolen bases? The average team today steals 39 percent fewer bases than the average team did 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, Turner stole 46 bases in a season shortened to 98 games by a broken bone in his wrist that cost him two months. He stole seven bases in one four-game series against the Chicago Cubs, who just happen to be the team the Nationals are facing in the National League Division Series beginning Friday night.

The Nationals haven't won a postseason series since moving to Washington in 2005, but there are plenty of reasons to think this October could be different. They have their top starting pitchers (Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez) all ready to go, they fixed their bullpen and they finally have the devastating middle of their batting order healthy.

And they have Turner at the top of the lineup, ready to make everything work.

"You can have guys in the center all you want to, but a leadoff man is invaluable," manager Dusty Baker said. I think it's easier to find a middle-of-the-order guy than it is to find a leadoff man—a true leadoff man, especially if he can hit. You expect him to be able to run, but if he can hit and he can hit for power, you've got Rickey Henderson."

Or you have Trea Turner, who does all of those things, too. He hasn't yet done all of them at the Hall of Fame level Henderson reached in his 25-year career, but Turner is only 24 years old and has played just 198 games in the big leagues.

This should have been Turner's first full season, after he played a few games for the Nationals in 2015 and was a June call-up last season. And though he missed that time in July and August when he was hurt, he still set a team record for stolen bases in a season.

He also did it while only getting thrown out eight times, which is one reason Baker was never hesitant to let him run. Rather than taking the bat out of the hands of all the great hitters behind him in the Nats lineup, Turner gives those hitters more chances to drive in runs.

 

Add in the 41 extra-base hits to the 32 times he stole second base, and Turner got himself into scoring position 73 times in 447 plate appearances. Exactly half of his steals helped lead to a Nationals run.

And if you think he can't have the same impact in the postseason, be aware that a leadoff hitter named Davey Lopes stole 10 bases in 16 postseason games for the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers. Lopes is the Nationals first-base coach and baserunning guru now. His boss, Baker, played for those 1981 Dodgers, too, the only time in 41 years as a major league player or manager he has won the World Series.

Runs can be hard to come by in October. A run that Turner creates could be the one that turns the Nationals into champions, too.

"There's a lot of fast guys," Lind said. "He puts it to use."


Hart first saw Turner play in July 2010, and then saw him again in October the same year.

"It was a massive difference," Hart said. "He was starting to turn into a guy with electric speed."

As Turner himself recalled to B/R: "I was a lot smaller in high school, and guys were a lot bigger and faster than me. I stole some bases in high school, but it wasn't until my senior year that I started getting faster. And then my freshman year in college, I kind of knew."

Even so, when Turner called in February and said he had run a 6.5 60, Hart wasn't sure whether to believe it.

"A lot of kids say that and it's really 6.7," Hart said. "But by the time Trea got on campus (at NC State), he was flying."

When the Wolfpack held a scout day that fall, the players ran the 60 again. Turner ran a 6.26.

Avent says he gave Turner the green light to run from the very first game of his freshman year.

"He says that's not true," Avent said. "But that's how I remember it. I didn't know when to run. He did."

Turner stole 57 bases in 63 games as a freshman, and was only thrown out four times. The year before, a kid named Brett Williams led the Wolfpack in steals, with nine. The school record was 30. Turner nearly doubled it.

"Trea changed my whole thinking," Avent said.

A year later, teamed with pitcher Carlos Rodon, who now pitches for the Chicago White Sox, Turner got NC State to the College World Series for the first time since 1968. A year after that, just five spots before the Nationals had their first pick, the San Diego Padres took Turner 13th overall in the June draft.

The Nationals had wanted him. They loved his speed, they loved his ability and they loved his baseball IQ.

"The reports we had almost exactly described the player he has become," general manager Mike Rizzo said.

Turner signed with the Padres and went to play in their minor league system, but Rizzo didn't give up. In 2014, A.J. Preller had taken over for Josh Byrnes as the Padres general manager, and Preller wanted to make big changes. He wanted Wil Myers from the Tampa Bay Rays, and a two-team trade wasn't going to work. Rizzo knew the Rays would have interest in Steven Souza Jr. and saw a way to get Turner in a three-team deal.

The trade was announced Dec. 19, 2014. Officially, the Nationals got pitcher Joe Ross and a player to be named later. It didn't take long for everyone to know Turner would be the player to be named, but he couldn't change teams until a year after he had originally signed coming out of the draft.

That led to an awkward situation, with Turner playing the first half of the 2015 season for an organization that had already traded him. It led to what became known as the "Trea Turner rule," with drafted players now eligible to be dealt the day after the World Series ends in the year they sign.

More important for Rizzo and the Nationals, they had the speedy shortstop and leadoff man they coveted.

"The old adage is that speed has no slump," Rizzo said. "The key to us is having offensive efficiency. He really helps. He changes our offensive dynamic."


Fast as he is, Turner isn't the speediest player in the game today. MLB.com's Statcast developed a Sprint Speed Leaderboard this season, and it shows that while Turner is very fast (29.2 feet/second), there are actually a few guys in the big leagues who are faster. Center fielder Byron Buxton of the Minnesota Twins tops the list at 30.2 feet/second, with Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds, Bradley Zimmer of the Cleveland Indians and Dee Gordon of the Miami Marlins just behind him.

"I could care less," Turner said. "There's always going to be someone bigger, faster, stronger than anybody. [Giancarlo] Stanton's the biggest guy in baseball, and all of a sudden Aaron Judge comes around. It doesn't matter. … It's if there's an opportunity to steal bases, can you steal one?

Turner takes the opportunities as well as just about anyone, and translates that speed to other parts of the game as well as anyone. Only nine players in baseball history had more steals in the first 190 games of their career. Of those, only Eric Davis (33) hit more home runs in that span than Turner (24) did.

"He's a combination of power and speed you just don't see," one National League scout said. "He makes defensive plays that are unbelievable. And can you name a better leadoff hitter in the game today?"

Turner wants to think of himself as an all-around player, and not just a speedster. He still bristles at the memory of people saying he didn't have the arm to play shortstop in the big leagues (the Padres were among those with such concerns, which was one of the reasons they were willing to trade him). He played center field last season for the Nats, because that's where they needed him, but he's very happy to be back at short.

"That's what I want to do," he said. "I want to be a complete player, and not rely on one thing too much."


Baker likes to say that for a baserunner to make a big impact, "You have to have larceny in your veins and you have to like to run."

Turner has that, as his old college coach well remembered from his play at the 2014 ACC baseball tournament:

Turner was on third base, with the Wolfpack down a run to North Carolina. The batter looked at a third strike for the second out of the inning. As the catcher threw the ball back to the mound, Turner sensed the Tar Heels weren't paying close attention, and he took off for home.

"He got called out," said Hart, who was coaching third base but had no idea Turner was going to go. "He was safe. Look at the replay. It should have been 4-4."

That's what speed can do. That's what Turner can do, and Hart is convinced he can do the same type of thing for the Nationals this month.

"When he does this in the playoffs, with the whole country watching, he's going to become a household name," Hart said.

And everybody will be talking about how fast he is.

    

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