Luis Severino Exploded from $225K Signing into MLB Ace with 101 MPH Heat

Luis Severino was two outs into the seventh inning and 106 pitches into his day's work when Jose Peraza stepped to the plate on a recent Wednesday afternoon at Yankee Stadium. Two unearned runs had already scored in the inning, but New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi let his 23-year-old ace continue.

A year after plenty of people were calling for Severino to be left full-time in the bullpen, Girardi was willing to let him be his own setup man. And why not?

First pitch to Peraza: A 99.8 mph fastball, taken for strike one.

Second pitch: A 99.9 mph fastball, fouled off for strike two.

Then three straight attempts to make Peraza chase—a pair of sliders (90.5 and 90 mph) and a changeup (90.3 mph).

Finally, another fastball, at an even 100 mph, and all Peraza could do was bounce it high in the air and back to Severino, who barehanded it and threw to first.

So yeah, Severino is a starter, and not just because he has a 3.18 ERA pitching exclusively in that role in 2017. Severino is a starter, with a chance to be great, because the great starters are the ones who can do what he did that day against Peraza and the Cincinnati Reds. Even in this era where teams are hesitant to let starting pitchers go through a batting order a third time, the great ones maintain their stuff to the point where they can do exactly that.

The great ones don't want to come out of games. Even after 112 pitches, even after that sequence to finish the seventh inning, Severino didn't want out of that one.

"I was feeling good," he told B/R. "I could have gone one more."

In a Yankees season where so much of the early focus was on Aaron Judge and so much of the recent focus has been on newly acquired Sonny Gray, the biggest development of all may well be the emergence of Severino as the homegrown ace, for a franchise that hasn't developed a starting pitcher with staying power since Andy Pettitte arrived in the major leagues in 1995.

His ERA ranks fourth in the American League. His 10.46 strikeouts per nine innings rank fourth. According to MLB.com's Statcast, his 97.3 mph average fastball velocity is highest among full-time major league starters, and a 101.2 mph fastball he threw July 20 in Seattle is the fastest single pitch thrown by a major league starter this season.

Severino, 46 starts into his career, is already in position to shoot past the other touted starters who have come through the Yankees system since Pettitte. Phil Hughes won 18 games one year and made an All-Star team, but he was hardly a classic ace. And Chien-Ming Wang had two 19-win seasons, but he was never an All-Star.

Severino was an All-Star this year, in his first full season as a big league starter, six years after the Yankees signed him out of his native Dominican Republic for just $225,000.

It wasn't all that much money in a year when Baseball America said the Texas Rangers gave 16-year-old Nomar Mazara $4.95 million, and three pitchers who signed on the international market got bonuses of $1 million or more.

"It was the age," Severino said. "I was almost 18."

The best prospects from the Dominican Republic often sign when they're 16. Severino, two months shy of his 18th birthday, was considered a little too old to be worth the big bucks.

"I didn't throw hard when I was 16, maybe 84-86," he said. "I started throwing hard when I was 17. I had a nasty slider, too, better than I have now. The Yankees said that's why they wanted me."

They almost didn't get him. Severino said he had already signed some initial paperwork with the Colorado Rockies when a Yankees scout came to him with an identical offer and got him to switch.

"I was a Yankee fan all my life," he explained. "When I was growing up, I was a hitter, and I loved A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez] and [Robinson] Cano."

Too bad for the Rockies he didn't love Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez.

It didn't take the Yankees long to realize they had something special.

Severino didn't throw as hard then as he does now, but he had a 1.68 ERA in 14 starts in the Dominican Summer League.

"He had a very quick arm," Mark Newman, then the team's vice president of baseball operations, said in a 2015 interview with Brendan Kuty of NJ.com. "He was athletic. He had a feel for the strike zone."

He had more than that. Teammates quickly realized Severino had the right makeup to succeed. He worked hard, and he picked up English quicker than many other kids from the Dominican Republic.

"He's got the mentality of a winner," first baseman Greg Bird said in a Bleacher Report story I wrote about Severino a few weeks after his big league debut in 2015. "You've got to have poise. He's special, talent-wise and his head. He's got a good head."

He needed it last year, when he came into the season with a spot in the Yankees rotation that he couldn't hold onto. Perhaps it was that he had bulked up, perhaps the pressure of expectations got to him, or perhaps it was just normal growing pains for a young pitcher.

Whatever it was, Severino found himself back in Triple-A for June and part of July, and again for a while in August. When he returned to the big leagues, it was mostly as a reliever, and he was impressive in that role, with a 0.39 ERA in 11 appearances.

All along, though, Severino maintained he was a starting pitcher.

"I think I was kind of wasting my time in the bullpen," he says now. "I knew I could give more than that. I knew I could give six or seven innings."

He also knew he would need to show it this season. Severino dropped some of the weight he had added, worked hard on getting confidence in his changeup and sought help from Pedro Martinez, who may not have been eager to help the Yankees but was more than willing to aid a fellow Dominican pitcher.

"He helped me a lot, mostly on my mechanics," Severino says, demonstrating a change-up Martinez suggested in which he keeps his hands closer to his body during his delivery. "It really helped my fastball command."

Severino isn't using the change-up significantly more often than he did when he was starting last season, but he is using it more effectively. According to BrooksBaseball.net, opponents are hitting just .159 when they put Severino's changeup in play, compared to .242 in 2016.

Meanwhile, his fastball keeps getting better. He's throwing harder than ever this season, and regularly holding his velocity deep into games. Severino said he's not sure why, but he feels stronger four or five innings into a start than he does in the first inning.

It shows. There have only been four times this season a starting pitcher has thrown a 100 mph fastball after the sixth inning, according to Statcast. One was by Carlos Martinez of the St. Louis Cardinals. The other three? Severino.

Those aren't isolated incidents, either. Statcast shows Severino has thrown 47 pitches at 98 mph or above from the seventh inning on. No other big league starter has thrown more than 17 (also Martinez). All the other starters combined, besides Severino and Martinez, have thrown just 42.

Severino's teammate CC Sabathia said Justin Verlander and the young Bartolo Colon were the only other pitchers he's seen who maintained 100 mph stuff as deep into a game as Severino.

"I think the guys who really put up big numbers are able to [maintain their stuff]," Girardi said.

Because Severino can do it, Girardi has allowed him to start the seventh inning 16 times in 24 starts, quite a statement on a team with a deep bullpen. Far from crumbling after he sees hitters twice in the same game, Severino's numbers are actually better the third time through, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Opponents have a .557 OPS against Severino the third time they see him, as opposed to .674 and .586 the first two times.

He's a starting pitcher for sure, a very good starting pitcher. And the numbers suggest he could become a great one.

        

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

Luis Severino Exploded from $225K Signing into MLB Ace with 101 MPH Heat

Luis Severino was two outs into the seventh inning and 106 pitches into his day's work when Jose Peraza stepped to the plate on a recent Wednesday afternoon at Yankee Stadium. Two unearned runs had already scored in the inning, but New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi let his 23-year-old ace continue.

A year after plenty of people were calling for Severino to be left full-time in the bullpen, Girardi was willing to let him be his own setup man. And why not?

First pitch to Peraza: A 99.8 mph fastball, taken for strike one.

Second pitch: A 99.9 mph fastball, fouled off for strike two.

Then three straight attempts to make Peraza chase—a pair of sliders (90.5 and 90 mph) and a changeup (90.3 mph).

Finally, another fastball, at an even 100 mph, and all Peraza could do was bounce it high in the air and back to Severino, who barehanded it and threw to first.

So yeah, Severino is a starter, and not just because he has a 3.18 ERA pitching exclusively in that role in 2017. Severino is a starter, with a chance to be great, because the great starters are the ones who can do what he did that day against Peraza and the Cincinnati Reds. Even in this era where teams are hesitant to let starting pitchers go through a batting order a third time, the great ones maintain their stuff to the point where they can do exactly that.

The great ones don't want to come out of games. Even after 112 pitches, even after that sequence to finish the seventh inning, Severino didn't want out of that one.

"I was feeling good," he told B/R. "I could have gone one more."

In a Yankees season where so much of the early focus was on Aaron Judge and so much of the recent focus has been on newly acquired Sonny Gray, the biggest development of all may well be the emergence of Severino as the homegrown ace, for a franchise that hasn't developed a starting pitcher with staying power since Andy Pettitte arrived in the major leagues in 1995.

His ERA ranks fourth in the American League. His 10.46 strikeouts per nine innings rank fourth. According to MLB.com's Statcast, his 97.3 mph average fastball velocity is highest among full-time major league starters, and a 101.2 mph fastball he threw July 20 in Seattle is the fastest single pitch thrown by a major league starter this season.

Severino, 46 starts into his career, is already in position to shoot past the other touted starters who have come through the Yankees system since Pettitte. Phil Hughes won 18 games one year and made an All-Star team, but he was hardly a classic ace. And Chien-Ming Wang had two 19-win seasons, but he was never an All-Star.

Severino was an All-Star this year, in his first full season as a big league starter, six years after the Yankees signed him out of his native Dominican Republic for just $225,000.

It wasn't all that much money in a year when Baseball America said the Texas Rangers gave 16-year-old Nomar Mazara $4.95 million, and three pitchers who signed on the international market got bonuses of $1 million or more.

"It was the age," Severino said. "I was almost 18."

The best prospects from the Dominican Republic often sign when they're 16. Severino, two months shy of his 18th birthday, was considered a little too old to be worth the big bucks.

"I didn't throw hard when I was 16, maybe 84-86," he said. "I started throwing hard when I was 17. I had a nasty slider, too, better than I have now. The Yankees said that's why they wanted me."

They almost didn't get him. Severino said he had already signed some initial paperwork with the Colorado Rockies when a Yankees scout came to him with an identical offer and got him to switch.

"I was a Yankee fan all my life," he explained. "When I was growing up, I was a hitter, and I loved A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez] and [Robinson] Cano."

Too bad for the Rockies he didn't love Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez.

It didn't take the Yankees long to realize they had something special.

Severino didn't throw as hard then as he does now, but he had a 1.68 ERA in 14 starts in the Dominican Summer League.

"He had a very quick arm," Mark Newman, then the team's vice president of baseball operations, said in a 2015 interview with Brendan Kuty of NJ.com. "He was athletic. He had a feel for the strike zone."

He had more than that. Teammates quickly realized Severino had the right makeup to succeed. He worked hard, and he picked up English quicker than many other kids from the Dominican Republic.

"He's got the mentality of a winner," first baseman Greg Bird said in a Bleacher Report story I wrote about Severino a few weeks after his big league debut in 2015. "You've got to have poise. He's special, talent-wise and his head. He's got a good head."

He needed it last year, when he came into the season with a spot in the Yankees rotation that he couldn't hold onto. Perhaps it was that he had bulked up, perhaps the pressure of expectations got to him, or perhaps it was just normal growing pains for a young pitcher.

Whatever it was, Severino found himself back in Triple-A for June and part of July, and again for a while in August. When he returned to the big leagues, it was mostly as a reliever, and he was impressive in that role, with a 0.39 ERA in 11 appearances.

All along, though, Severino maintained he was a starting pitcher.

"I think I was kind of wasting my time in the bullpen," he says now. "I knew I could give more than that. I knew I could give six or seven innings."

He also knew he would need to show it this season. Severino dropped some of the weight he had added, worked hard on getting confidence in his changeup and sought help from Pedro Martinez, who may not have been eager to help the Yankees but was more than willing to aid a fellow Dominican pitcher.

"He helped me a lot, mostly on my mechanics," Severino says, demonstrating a change-up Martinez suggested in which he keeps his hands closer to his body during his delivery. "It really helped my fastball command."

Severino isn't using the change-up significantly more often than he did when he was starting last season, but he is using it more effectively. According to BrooksBaseball.net, opponents are hitting just .159 when they put Severino's changeup in play, compared to .242 in 2016.

Meanwhile, his fastball keeps getting better. He's throwing harder than ever this season, and regularly holding his velocity deep into games. Severino said he's not sure why, but he feels stronger four or five innings into a start than he does in the first inning.

It shows. There have only been four times this season a starting pitcher has thrown a 100 mph fastball after the sixth inning, according to Statcast. One was by Carlos Martinez of the St. Louis Cardinals. The other three? Severino.

Those aren't isolated incidents, either. Statcast shows Severino has thrown 47 pitches at 98 mph or above from the seventh inning on. No other big league starter has thrown more than 17 (also Martinez). All the other starters combined, besides Severino and Martinez, have thrown just 42.

Severino's teammate CC Sabathia said Justin Verlander and the young Bartolo Colon were the only other pitchers he's seen who maintained 100 mph stuff as deep into a game as Severino.

"I think the guys who really put up big numbers are able to [maintain their stuff]," Girardi said.

Because Severino can do it, Girardi has allowed him to start the seventh inning 16 times in 24 starts, quite a statement on a team with a deep bullpen. Far from crumbling after he sees hitters twice in the same game, Severino's numbers are actually better the third time through, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Opponents have a .557 OPS against Severino the third time they see him, as opposed to .674 and .586 the first two times.

He's a starting pitcher for sure, a very good starting pitcher. And the numbers suggest he could become a great one.

        

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

40-Year-Old Postseason Hero Carlos Beltran Could Be Astros’ 2017 X-Factor

This may seem like a funny time to discuss why the Houston Astros can win in October, given the trouble they're having winning in August. But bear with us, and remember that nine of the last 16 teams to win the World Series lost at least 13 of 18 at some point, as the Astros had done before they beat the Arizona Diamondbacks Tuesday.

And none of those teams had Carlos Beltran.

The fact is the Astros have a few advantages over those past champions, beginning with their lead in the American League West. Even though the Astros are slumping and the Los Angeles Angels are streaking, the Astros are still up by 12.5 games. The computers at FanGraphs give them a 99.9 percent chance of winning the West, and that sounds about right.

The recent slump has exposed some issues. With Lance McCullers Jr. still out because of a back injury, perhaps the Astros should have been more aggressive at the deadline. Perhaps they should be more aggressive pursuing Justin Verlander now (Jon Heyman of FanRag reported Tuesday that they've talked again to the Tigers without apparent progress).

Reliever Chris Devenski, so good and so key in the first half, is now having trouble throwing strikes. That's another issue. But the Astros will get Carlos Correa back from the disabled list, and they'll get Brian McCann back, too.

And they have Carlos Beltran.

"He has been the perfect fit for us," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Tuesday. "His calmness and presence have been influential and will help us down the stretch. Being around him, I can see why and how is revered  in the league."

Beltran is revered, and he was the perfect fit for an Astros team with tons of young talent. He's also 40 years old, which means he's no longer the overall threat he was the first time around in Houston, when he hit .435 with eight home runs in 12 postseason games and very nearly got the Astros to their first World Series.

He's not that guy anymore. His .700 OPS this season would be his lowest for a season since 2000, when he was a 23-year-old kid with the RoyalsLike many older players, he has to get his swing going faster, making it harder to lay off some tough pitches. He's striking out 20.8 percent of the time, the highest rate of his career.

Don't be surprised if he outdoes all that in the games that matter most. Don't be surprised if he's a 40-year-old who changes a series, the way Raul Ibanez did for the New York Yankees with his two-homer game against the Baltimore Orioles in October 2012.

Ibanez, Willie Mays, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray and Joe Morgan are among those with postseason home runs in their 40s, and if you think it's a reach to include Beltran in that group, you're shortchanging a guy who has been one of the best postseason performers of our time.

Of the 190 players to appear in at least 35 postseason games, only one has a higher career October OPS than Beltran's 1.078, according to research through Baseball-Reference.com. You may have heard of him. His name was Babe Ruth.

Ruth never heard of OPS as a stat or "the postseason" as a concept. His 15 October home runs all came in the World Series.

Beltran has 16, and none of them came in the World Series. He's only been to the Fall Classic once, with the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals, who lost to the Boston Red Sox. Beltran drove in 12 runs in 11 games to help get them there.

He was already an influential veteran then, already respected as a thinker and a strong clubhouse presence. The Astros brought him in as a free agent, and the conversations he has had with players like Correa and Alex Bregman will stick with them long beyond the time Beltran remains in the Astros lineup.

The Astros love the way he prepares for games. They love the way he sees games, and the way he reacts to his own struggles by watching video and working to get better.

"Carlos has been a tremendous influence on our team from the day he arrived," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "Everyone respects his experience and his opinion, and he is open to helping all his teammates. He is a calming and positive influence on everyone."

The Astros need a guy like that now, but they'll need it even more two months from now. Many of their players have postseason experience thanks to the American League Division Series meeting with the Royals two years ago, but besides Beltran, only outfielder Josh Reddick and relievers Tyler Clippard and Francisco Liriano have ever played on a team that won a postseason series.

Beltran has been on the winning side of six series. He's had a huge influence on many of them.

He could have a huge influence on this postseason, too.

 

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

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Chad Bettis Completes Road Back to MLB Mound After Battling Cancer with a Smile

Chad Bettis had to be hiding the hurt. No one confronts cancer with a smile.

Not all the time, not for every minute of every day. Not when he hears a diagnosis in November and has doctors tell him a month later he has it beat, only to find out in March the cancer has returned.

Not when he was 27 years old, with his first child due weeks later.

Stand up to cancer, sure, as Major League Baseball's favored charity says. But as his Colorado Rockies teammates watched with admiration, Bettis did more than simply not let cancer get him down.

"On the inside, I'm sure he was pissed off," Rockies pitcher Kyle Freeland said. "But he kept projecting positivity."

He projected it at the ballpark. He projected it at home. He even projected it the night he got the call telling him he had testicular cancer, right in the middle of an anniversary dinner in November with his wife, Kristina.

"We didn't even leave the restaurant," Kristina Bettis remembered. "It's how Chad is. He's so positive. He just said, 'We're going to finish dinner. We're going to have a great night.'

"He's a rare breed."

He finished dinner and he finished cancer treatments, the first time and then the second time, when a CT scan in spring training showed the cancer had returned to his lymph nodes. He made it to the hospital to be there when Kristina gave birth to Everleigh on March 29, in between Chad's chemotherapy sessions.

Now, not even three months after the last of those sessions, Bettis has just about made it back to the major leagues. He's expected back with the Rockies next week, with the Denver Post reporting he will likely start Monday at Coors Field against the Atlanta Braves, and a whole bunch of people couldn't be happier for him.

"A piece of our family is coming back," Freeland said.

Now there really is a reason to smile.

The road back from cancer has been a long one, but to hear Bettis tell it, it's been filled with blessings. Becoming a father was the biggest, and Bettis still marvels at the timing.

It was a doctor visit early in Kristina's pregnancy that encouraged him to do the self-exam that led to catching the tumor early. Everleigh's arrival gave the family a focus other than Chad's cancer, providing everyone with a reason to feel good and allowing Chad to avoid constant questions about how he was doing.

"It completely took the attention off of me," he said. "That was really nice."

"He was telling me, 'You'll get through this,'" Kristina said. "And he was going through chemo."

The chemotherapy came with some of the usual side effects. Bettis' hair fell out. But there was another blessing. Unlike many patients, he didn't lose significant weight. He didn't lose his appetite.

He was strong enough to hold his newborn daughter, even after two nights sleeping on the couch in Kristina's hospital room.

He was also strong enough to keep throwing a baseball in between treatments, whenever he felt up to it. The Rockies' Salt River Fields spring training complex is near the couple's Arizona home, so Chad would head over and play catch to keep his arm in shape.

Beating cancer was the first goal, the most important goal. But Bettis was determined to resume a baseball career that saw him get to the major leagues in 2013. He was a 14-game winner with the Rockies in 2016, and before the cancer diagnosis he was supposed to be a big part of their rotation this year.

"Our pitching coaches, they love this guy," said Bud Black, who took over as Rockies manager this season.

The Rockies players love him, too, and they were thrilled when he walked back into the clubhouse June 6, just three weeks after his final round of chemotherapy.

"He's one of our energy guys," pitcher Jon Gray said. "A lot of people look up to him."

He joined a team that had been one of baseball's first-half surprises, a team that was in first place in the National League West, one game ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bettis would have been happy to be back no matter what their record was, but the way the team had played made his return that much more exciting.

"It was a lot of fun to have him around," second baseman DJ LeMahieu said.

He was around, at home and on the road. But Bettis' only game experience since last season had been two innings in spring training, so he wasn't close to being ready to pitch. That first day back, he threw from 75 and 90 feet in the outfield and told reporters he felt winded, according to Nick Groke's report in the Denver Post.

It was basically a spring training routine, leading up to his return to the mound July 13, in a rehabilitation start for Double-A Hartford. Bettis pitched again for the Yard Goats five days later, and he then made four starts for Triple-A Albuquerque to set up his return to the Rockies.

On the mound, it seemed little had changed from before the cancer. Bettis was still able to throw his fastball 91-93 mph, and his changeup, curveball and slider were there.

But there was a difference Bettis noticed, even if no one else saw it.

He was having fun.

He thought he always had, but as he looks back now, he sees there was a time baseball had taken over his life.

"It was not fun," he said.

Now, taking the mound as a father and a cancer survivor, Bettis felt better.

"It's more fun," he said after his second start in Hartford. "I feel like I'm enjoying baseball much more than I have before. Baseball still matters to me. I love it, and I want to play it for as long as I possibly can. But when you have to go through a situation where your livelihood's at stake, there's not a lot of things that matter before your life."

Thanks to early detection and good care, Bettis has his life again. He wants to make sure others have the same chance, which is why he has used any opportunity to talk about his own experience with cancer. He reached out to Stand Up to Cancer and the Testicular Cancer Society.

"As a major league player, he has almost unlimited access to reach people," said Mike Craycraft, the Society's founder. "It's just an incredible platform, and he's doing such a good job."

As Bettis said, women are told all the time to perform self-exams to detect breast cancer. Men are rarely told the same about testicular cancer, even though it's the most common form of cancer for men aged 15 to 35.

"It shouldn't be, but testicular cancer is hard for some guys to talk about," Craycraft said.

Bettis is talking about it now, telling the story about a little bump the size of a grain of rice was the only sign of a problem. He didn't feel sick, and at first he wondered if it really was anything to worry about.

"I'm so glad we didn't wait," Kristina said.

Tests showed it was cancerous, and doctors quickly scheduled surgery. And when that surgery was done and the blood work was clean, Bettis thought that was it. He worked to get ready for spring training and began the spring with a normal program. He kept up with the blood tests, but they showed no changes.

Then came the CT scan that showed the cancer was back.

Amazingly, Bettis still pitched in a spring game for the Rockies, even after finding out. But doctors told him this time he would need chemo.

"He handled it with such poise," Kristina said.

He handles most everything that way. When Bettis was in Hartford, he did the traditional rehabbing big leaguer thing of buying a nice postgame meal for his minor league teammates. But Bettis didn't "big league it" in other ways. When the Yard Goats played a 13-inning game, he stayed in the dugout to support his teammates for every inning.

"He was here from noon to midnight," Hartford manager Jerry Weinstein said. "That's all you need to know about him. He just makes good choices. I had him in [Class A] Modesto [in 2011]. He hasn't changed.

"He's the kind of guy you'd like your daughter to marry, the kind you'd like your son to be. Be like Chad."

He's the kind of guy who was easy to root for through his battle with cancer. LeMahieu and Charlie Blackmon held up cards with Bettis' name during the Stand Up to Cancer salute at the All-Star Game.

"I don't want to say I know what he's been through, but I've been told what he's been through," Blackmon said. "What an unbelievable attitude. He's just a pleasure to be around."

"I can't wait for him to be back here," LeMahieu said. "He's a great person."

On top of it all, the Rockies need Chad Bettis the pitcher as much as Chad Bettis the person. They're one of the NL's best teams and in the thick of the playoff race despite a struggling rotation, and he can provide a very tangible impact.

And now Bettis is coming back, as he always believed he would.

"I think God's grace got me through," he said. "At no point in time was I ever worried. It was like, 'This sucks. It really sucks.' I just knew. There was some real grace there, knowing I was going to get through it."

Now he has. Now there really is a reason to smile.

  

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

Contenders Can Answer Dodgers ‘Superteam’ with August Justin Verlander Splash

Baseball's non-waiver trade deadline passed more than a week ago, but the pitcher who might be the biggest difference-maker of all remains on the market.

He's healthy, he's strong and he's pitching as well as he has all season. Just last Friday, he punctuated a solid seven innings with a 99.8 mph fastball—on his 104th pitch of the night—for a strikeout that kept runners at second and third.

He's also cleared waivers, making him eligible to be traded during the season until August 31, as reported by Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press and confirmed by Bleacher Report sources.

Forget for a moment about Justin Verlander's age (34) and his contract (he makes $28 million this year, with the same salary due next year and the year after). Put him on any contending team, and that team has an improved chance of winning the World Series.

So why, when I contacted an American League executive who has followed the Verlander market, did he make it "one in 100" that the Detroit Tigers right-hander gets moved anywhere this month? Why are those chances going down, since the same executive said it was "three out of 10" when asked about Verlander when the July trading season began?

How could the chances have gotten worse, as Verlander's pitching has gotten better? In four starts since making a mechanical tweak in his delivery, Verlander has a 2.33 ERA with 33 strikeouts and six walks in 27 innings.

Oh, and by the way, that includes six shutout innings against the Houston Astros, the team that probably could use Verlander the most.

The Astros, according to sources, did show some interest in a Verlander deal, but were unwilling to surrender any of the prospects the Tigers wanted or to take on a significant amount of his remaining contract.

The Chicago Cubs could also use Verlander, even though their starting rotation has rebounded since the All-Star break. But after making trades for Jose Quintana (from the Chicago White Sox) and Justin Wilson and Alex Avila (from the Tigers), the Cubs have little of value left in their farm system. Even if they had interest, which so far they haven't, it's hard to see them being able to match the Tigers' price in prospects.

The Los Angeles Dodgers? Even before they got Yu Darvish from the Texas Rangers, they'd told the Tigers Verlander's contract wouldn't fit into their future budget. The New York Yankees? Even before they got Sonny Gray from the Oakland A's, Verlander apparently wasn't on their radar.

The Milwaukee Brewers? That was never happening.

Remember, Verlander has full no-trade protection because he's been with the Tigers for more than 10 years. While he prefers not to talk about where he would go and where he wouldn't, it's believed he would accept a deal to a contending team in a large market. Chicago, Los Angeles and New York would certainly qualify. Houston? That's harder to say, but it doesn't really matter unless the Tigers and Astros could come a lot closer to agreeing on Verlander's value than they have so far.

The Tigers aren't going to move him simply for salary relief. Club owner Chris Ilitch has already made that call. When the July 31 deadline passed, general manager Al Avila said he and the team were fully prepared to keep Verlander until his contract runs out in 2019.

"He's an icon in Detroit," Avila said, according to MLB.com's Jason Beck. "He's an original Tiger. We drafted him, developed him, and we think he's going to be a future Hall of Famer. We're very happy to have him."

All of that is fine, but logic suggests there's a deal out there that would benefit all parties. The Tigers would get a jump on their needed rebuild. Verlander would get a chance to chase team (World Series) and personal (200 wins and beyond) goals.

And a club that acquired him would get a pitcher who is still one of the best in the game, a guy who can still go get 100 mph when he needs it and throws a four-seam fastball that still has the highest spin rate (2,536 RPM, according to MLB.com's Statcast) among all starting pitchers.

It's the spin rate that gives a fastball the illusion of rising as it passes through the strike zone. It's a measure of what scouts call "late life," and it's something Verlander has always had. His curveball ranks high on the spin-rate chart, too, which leads to swings and misses and weak ground balls.

The stuff is still there, and given Verlander's drive and his health history (he's never had a serious arm injury), it's more than possible it will be there the next two years, too.

Is he worth $28 million a season, or anything close to that? Is he worth the type of prospects the Tigers continue to seek in a deal?

If he's the difference in winning a World Series, then yes he most definitely is.

Good luck finding another pitcher available this month who can do that.

        

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

Paul DeJong Is Breakout MLB Star Thanks in Part to Man Serving 4 Years in Prison

It was the day before the 2015 draft began, the day before some team was going to give the most unlikely pre-med student at Illinois State University the chance to take another step towards his dream.

Plenty of kids have a backup plan in case medical school falls through. For Paul DeJong, medical school was the backup plan. Baseball was always the first choice, and it was baseball that had him driving 2 1/2 hours down I-55 to Busch Stadium on that Sunday in early June.

He couldn't actually work out, because of a broken left thumb, but the St. Louis Cardinals asked him to come down to shake hands and talk.

Tom Lipari, the area scout who liked DeJong so much, was there. So was John Mozeliak, then the Cardinals general manager and now the club's president of baseball operations.

And Chris Correa.

"He seemed like he was pretty smart," DeJong said.

Smart or not, he was pretty important to a college kid hoping to get drafted. Correa was the Cardinals scouting director, the guy who would make the picks. And when the Cardinals used their fourth-round pick on DeJong two days later, it was Correa's call to take him in the only draft he would ever run.

"He's really a bright kid," Correa told Rob Rains of STL Sports Page that day.

He's a bright kid, and he's turned into quite a baseball player too. Not even two years after the draft, DeJong was in the major leagues with the Cardinals this May. He just turned 24 on Wednesday, he's playing every day at shortstop and he's batting third for a Cardinals team that still has hopes of making a run at a playoff spot in the National League and he was just named National League Rookie of the Month for July.

He's the first Cardinals rookie to play short and bat third since Red Schoendienst in 1945. He hit more home runs in his first 53 major league games (14) than any Cardinal in history other than Albert Pujols. His 13 home runs since his his most recent call-up on June 15 are tied for the second most in the majors behind only Giancarlo Stanton.

He won't be going to medical school, at least not any time soon.

Oh, and Chris Correa, the scouting director who called DeJong's name in the draft?

He was fired a month later when an investigation showed he had hacked into the Houston Astros' computer system. He pled guilty to five criminal charges, was permanently banned from baseball and sentenced to 46 months in prison. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website, he's serving his time at FCI Cumberland in Cumberland, Maryland, with a release date of Dec. 31, 2018.

**

Correa was responsible for making DeJong a Cardinal, but it was Lipari who scouted DeJong at Illinois State and emphatically made DeJong's case in pre-draft meetings.

"I ended up speaking for quite some time," Lipari, a former college coach who was in his first year scouting, said. "Not only on the physical strengths of Paul, but the type of person he was. And of course, we had cross-checkers and analysts who thought highly of Paul as well. Total team effort."

DeJong remained on the board through the first three rounds of the draft, and at some point Correa had Lipari call and ask if DeJong would consider signing for fourth-round money. DeJong, a junior in eligibility but graduating senior academically, quickly said he would (he eventually got a $200,000 bonus).

It didn't matter that he was graduating with a 3.76 GPA, or that he had been as serious as any other pre-med about his academics.

"Paul was an incredibly hard-working student," said Dr. Christopher G. Hamaker, who had DeJong in a first-year chemistry class.

But medical school had always been a backup plan. Being a doctor sounded cool, but playing professional baseball was his first choice.

The question was whether he'd get a chance. Not only did DeJong go undrafted out of high school, but no college offered him an athletic scholarship. He considered going to Wisconsin, which didn't have a baseball team, but chose Illinois State after coaches showed interest in having him walk on.

"That's what it seems to come down to for me," DeJong said. "I've struggled to get opportunities. Once I finally get it, I take advantage. That's my whole life. I was never considered the elite player. I just quietly wait my turn, and then never look back."

After his third year at Illinois State, the Pittsburgh Pirates chose him in the 38th round of the draft. DeJong didn't sign, but he did decide professional baseball would be his next step. He kept up his challenging academic program—Biochem 2 was particularly tough, he said—but baseball became the priority.

DeJong wasn't a shortstop then. He was a second baseman, third baseman and an occasional catcher. He was catching when a foul tip broke his thumb.

"A lot of teams probably freaked out," DeJong said.

Fortunately for him, and for them, the Cardinals didn't.

**

The road from fourth-round draft pick to starting shortstop batting third was a quick one, but it wasn't direct. DeJong played third base after he signed and for most of last season at Double-A Springfield. He didn't move to shortstop until last July, but the Cardinals thought enough of his offense and defense to send him to the Arizona Fall League to play the position.

He came to the big leagues in late May as a second baseman when Kolten Wong got hurt. He moved to shortstop in late June because he was hitting and Aledmys Diaz wasn't.

He waited his turn. At least so far, he hasn't looked back.

"I see an aggressiveness with the first step, and I like the way the ball is carrying across the infield too," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "I just like what he's doing, the way he's going about it defensively."

And, of course, he's hitting.

There could be some concerns because DeJong had 63 strikeouts and just eight walks in his first 54 major league games. Cardinal fans, who have seen some other youngsters get off to good starts before struggling, want to be sure the same won't happen with DeJong.

For now, the team says it's not concerned.

"If you hit the ball hard, good things will happen," Mozeliak said.

DeJong has hit the ball hard. Of Cardinals players with at least 100 plate appearances this season, MLB.com's Statcast says DeJong has the highest average exit velocity, at 97.9 mph.

**

Matheny knows DeJong's background, but he said his shortstop looks like a ballplayer and not like a science student who lost his way and ended up at the field. But he can still talk chemistry, especially with his grandmother, who worked 30 years at Dow Chemical. He still keeps in touch with some of his professors at Illinois State.

Thoughts of medical school are behind him now.

"It would be tough," DeJong said. "The biggest challenge would be the MCATs. And the workload is way more than in college. There's no way you could do medical school and play baseball."

Besides, those reasons he wanted to be a doctor in the first place kind of apply to baseball too.

"I liked math, but I didn't want to write and I didn't want to read," he said. "I had an uncle who was a doctor. He was always fishing or hunting, and he made a lot of money. I thought, this is a good thing to go into."

He's into baseball now, the first player from that Correa draft to make the big leagues (although outfielder Harrison Bader has since followed). He's the only current major league shortstop out of that 2015 draft now that the Atlanta Braves have sent Dansby Swanson to the minor leagues and the Houston Astros have moved Alex Bregman to third base.

And maybe, just maybe, that chemistry background has played a part.

"I knew he would succeed in baseball because of his work ethic," Hamaker said. "I knew that if he put as much work into baseball as he did into his biochemistry studies he'd play in the majors."

And maybe there was another thing, too.

"He's used to experiments failing in the lab and having to adjust," said Burton Rocks, DeJong's agent. "His background scares some people off because they think chemistry and baseball don't go together. But they do, in a tangential way."

DeJong and baseball go together in a pretty obvious way. Lipari understood that, perhaps a little more than any of the other scouts who were watching.

He made his case. And the guy headed for prison made the right call.

           

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

Dallas Keuchel Right to Be Mad Astros Blew Deadline Chance to Run Away with AL

If you'd asked in April which major league team was most likely to add a significant starting pitcher at the trade deadline, the answer would have been easy.

The Houston Astros.

If you'd asked in May, the answer would have been the same.

The Astros.

"One more very good starter could make them really dangerous," an American League scout told me, for a May 8 Bleacher Report column I did on Dallas Keuchel's resurgence.

Still could, but the difference now is the non-waiver trade deadline passed Monday afternoon. The Los Angeles Dodgers got Yu Darvish. The New York Yankees got Sonny Gray.

The Astros? They made a small deal for left-hander Francisco Liriano, who they plan to use out of the bullpen and could help. They did not get a starter.

As Keuchel said Tuesday, in an interview MLB.com's Brian McTaggart posted on Twitter, "disappointment is a little bit of an understatement."

Or a big bit of an understatement.

The Astros front office has done tons of good work building a super team that reached the deadline with a 16-game lead in the American League West and by far the best record in the entire American League. The Astros drafted well, developed well, signed free agents well and even traded well.

But anyone who picked them to win did it assuming they were going to add to the starting rotation. They were going to get Jose Quintana, who they were seriously linked to all winter (but was traded from the Chicago White Sox to the Chicago Cubs at the All-Star break). They were going to get Gray. They were going to get Darvish, as long as the Texas Rangers could get past the idea of helping their in-state rivals.

They didn't get any of them. Instead, Gray was introduced as the newest member of a budding American League superteam in New York at Yankee Stadium Tuesday. Darvish was on his way to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where players were celebrating yet another Dodger win.

"The fact that the front office did what they did at the deadline shows they're as serious as we are," Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said, as Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times reported on Twitter.

And the fact that the Astros front office did what they did?

"I'd be lying if I didn't say I was disappointed," general manager Jeff Luhnow admitted to Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle. "I do believe that this team has what it takes to win in the postseason with the players we have. It doesn't mean we didn't try hard to improve those chances even just a little bit. Each little bit that you can improve your chances of winning in the postseason helps and we tried."

What's that line about how anybody can try? This is the major leagues. Results are what matter.

And just as hitters are expected to hit (not just to try) and pitchers are expected to get outs (not just to try) and managers are expected to put the right players in the right spots (not just to try), general managers of teams with a chance to win it all are expected to make needed deals at the deadline.

The fact Luhnow couldn't get it done doesn't mean the Astros can't win, no more than a Keuchel loss (there haven't been many of those) or a Jose Altuve 0-for-4 (there haven't been many of those either) would by itself stop this team. The Astros were 15-9 in July even though Keuchel (pinched nerve in his neck) pitched only three innings and No. 2 starter Lance McCullers Jr. had a 9.64 ERA.

McCullers went on the disabled list because of back discomfort a few hours before the trade deadline, which only seemed to add to the urgency to make a trade.

The Astros couldn't get it done, despite a farm system that's well regarded in the game. They couldn't get it done, even though Luhnow told Kaplan they were so close on some deals he wouldn't name that he had been "90 percent-plus" they were going to get done.

Maybe he was referring to talks with the Baltimore Orioles, who inexplicably didn't trade closer Zach Britton and even more inexplicably positioned themselves as deadline buyers. Or maybe he was talking about something else.

It doesn't really matter now, because the deals didn't get done. It doesn't matter, because at a time of year that is partly about getting better and at least a small bit about front offices breathing more life into a clubhouse, the Astros' non-moves got this response from their current ace:

Listen in as reporters give Keuchel a possible out, suggesting that maybe the front office simply believed the Astros as currently constituted are already good enough to win. Listen in as Keuchel's tone doesn't change.

Maybe Luhnow can still change the tone with a waiver deal in August. Detroit Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander has a contract that should see him sail through waivers, and a 2.25 ERA since making a mechanical fix three starts back. He also has a full no-trade clause and would need to approve any deal.

Or maybe the Astros go on to win their first World Series crown anyway. The 1998 Yankees tasted deadline disappointment when the pitcher they coveted—Randy Johnson—ended up somewhere else at the deadline.

He ended up in Houston. The Yankees won the World Series. It's not always about who you get at the deadline.

Don't try to explain that to Dallas Keuchel, though. Not today.

             

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

‘My Country Is Misery:’ The MLB Stars Who Are Too Scared to Go Back Home

After a trying first half of the season, Carlos Gonzalez just wanted to relax with his family during the All-Star break in July. But as he sat around the pool at his house in Florida, the topic no Venezuelan can avoid kept coming up.

"Venezuelans, we only talk about politics now," the Colorado Rockies right fielder said a week or so later. "There doesn't go one day that we don't say anything about a political issue. That's it. If you see someone from Venezuela, it's the first thing that comes up."

The conversations aren't easy, because what has gone on in their homeland this year hasn't been easy. The marches and battles in the streets are a constant in their lives, no matter their views on the underlying issues and even though they have the safety of distance.

There's a physical distance, because they're here and the troubles are there. But mentally and emotionally, the troubles are never far away.

"It's really tough," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, who regularly visited Venezuela in past offseasons, said he won't be making the trip this winter.

"I love going there every offseason, but I always tell my wife that I would never take a chance," he said. "The way my family describes how the streets are, [it's like] they're living in a war. I won't go there."

For him and for so many other Venezuelans, it just adds to the sadness.

They can't go home.

There are 98 Venezuela-born players who have played in the major leagues this season, according to research through Baseball-Reference.com, and many more in the minor leagues. Some, like Gonzalez, have avoided publicly taking sides—"The country is completely apart, divided in two, and at the end of the day, we're baseball players," Gonzalez said. Others have come out against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli took to the Players' Tribune in May to write a heartfelt plea for the troubles to end, and he's been openly critical of Maduro's government. Cervelli and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder-infielder Hernan Perez organized other Venezuelan players in a "Basta Ya" video that appeared on Cervelli's Instagram page.

Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera also posted on Instagram, begging the government not to hurt his family and saying he was told by pro-government people he would be killed if he returned to the country.

"What do you want me to do to help in Venezuela?" Cabrera asked in a video, according to a translation by the Detroit Free Press. "You want me to send guns? Because I have already helped Venezuela a lot; I have sent medicine, I have sent food, I have sent this and that."

Cabrera also said he's tired of hearing his mother will be kidnapped. In 2011, Tampa Bay Rays catcher Wilson Ramos was kidnapped in Venezuela. He was seized at gunpoint in Valencia and rescued by police commandos two days later.

No active major leaguer has openly taken the government's side in the disputes, though ex-major leaguer Magglio Ordonez is a mayor who represents Maduro's United Socialist Party. Carlos Guillen, another ex-major leaguer, works under Maduro's vice president, Tareck El Aissami, as president of a state sports ministry.


There are more Venezuelan players in the major leagues than ever before. The commissioner's office reported that 76 Venezuelans made Opening Day rosters in 2017, the most in history. The numbers grew dramatically while the country was under the control of President Hugo Chavez, Maduro's predecessor and mentor.

Chavez had played baseball as a youth, and Melissa Segura wrote in a 2013 story in Sports Illustrated that "the former player-turned-politician's social policies unintentionally spurred an era of unprecedented baseball success for his homeland."

In Segura's view, the government policies led formerly middle-class families to struggle economically and see baseball as a way out for their children.

Venezuela continues to develop players today, but the conditions in the country have gotten so bad that major league teams tell their scouts not to travel there. Two weeks ago, many scouts were in nearby Aruba, where some of the top young players from Venezuela had traveled for a showcase event.

Meanwhile, the conditions in Venezuela seem to grow worse and worse. The New York Times reported last Sunday that in three months of daily street protests, over 90 people have been killed and 3,000 arrested.

The country's major league players can try to help in various ways, but their biggest assist may be in using their celebrity to help bring attention to the suffering.

Cervelli, for one, is doing just that.


This should be the best time in Cervelli's life. After seven seasons with the New York Yankees in which he never played more than a backup role, he was traded to the Pirates and found a home. In May 2016, at age 30, he signed the first multiyear contract of his career, for three years and $31 million.

But as Cervelli stood before a small group of reporters two months ago at Citi Field, he looked anything but content. His face showed pain as he spoke emotionally and eloquently about what he has done and how powerless he still felt.

"The reality is I don't have a million followers on social media," he said. "What I'm trying to do is start something."

His parents have left Venezuela. He understands he has to stay away, too.

"The reality is I cannot go there," Cervelli said. "I haven't been there in a year-and-a-half. I'm scared to go."

His extended family remains there, however, and he realizes that speaking out could put them in danger.

"I know what can happen, but I think it would be worse if this government stays," Cervelli said.

He said the Pirates have been understanding and that the organization has even helped send supplies to Venezuelans in need.

"They've been good," he said. "They know I'm not a politician. I'm just a human being born and raised in Venezuela."

For Cervelli and for so many of his countrymen who play in the major leagues, that's really what this is about. Yes, it's political, because it's impossible to discuss the protests without getting political. More than that, though, it's about trying to help their fellow citizens, who deal every day with ugly realities.

"We just want people to speak for themselves," San Diego Padres starting pitcher Jhoulys Chacin told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "We don't want anybody to tell us what to do, and we just want to be free. We want more safety for our friends and families."

Chacin joined with other Padres and Texas Rangers players from Venezuela in an Instagram video similar to the one Cervelli did with the Brewers' Perez and 11 other Venezuelans from around the major leagues.

Cervelli said he came up with the idea in early May, during a conversation with Perez. He said they wanted to go beyond simply offering their moral support to the protesters.

"It's not only saying, 'I'm supporting you,'" Cervelli said. "It's screaming loud and asking for help. Every day I wake up and I feel worse.

"You see how the world is so quiet about this stuff. We have to make a change. [The socialist government] has been there 18 years, my friend, talking about how bad it was before. They made everything worse. It's time for them to go.

"My country is misery."


Gonzalez's family continues to travel back and forth between Venezuela and the United States.

"They love our country," he said. "It's not easy to just take off, because you have so many other family members there. You can never disconnect. You can never say, 'I don't care what's happening over there.' I do care. That's the place that I love, and it's always a concern for each one of us."

It's a concern that goes far beyond baseball, but there's no way to get around the sport's place in Venezuelan society. The game has been part of the culture for more than 100 years, and Venezuelan players began arriving in the major leagues in 1939, when Alex Carrasquel played for the Washington Senators.

Nearly 400 players have followed Carrasquel over the years, according to Baseball-Reference.com, and in 1984 Luis Aparicio became the first (and as of now only) Venezuelan in the Hall of Fame. But the current crisis has touched Aparicio, too.

With the All-Star Game in Miami this year, MLB invited all Hall of Famers of Latin American descent to take part in a pregame ceremony. Aparicio declined, leaving his explanation on Twitter, as Marly Rivera of ESPN translated:

The fighting continues, and no Venezuelan can easily escape it. Dozens of them in the major leagues play on, knowing that for now, they can't go home.

Their country is misery.

    

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

20-Year-Old Phenom Rafael Devers’ Light-Tower Power Can Save Red Sox from Yanks

The kid on the mound Wednesday afternoon for the New York Yankees was just 23 years old, but by the end of the day, Luis Severino was being touted as the new ace.

The kid batting second for the Yankees was even younger, but it was 22-year-old Clint Frazier who drove home the first two runs in a win over the Cincinnati Reds that could have put the Yankees in first place for the first time this month.

It didn't, in part because the Boston Red Sox showed off a star kid of their own.

This is the American League East, the 2017 version, and even in this month where everyone is thinking about trades, the key may well be the kids. The Yankee kids, yes, but now it's a Red Sox kid, too.

Rafael Devers: Remember the name. And if you have any influence with Red Sox management, make sure the 20-year-old third baseman stays on the roster and in the lineup unless, or until, he proves he doesn't yet belong.

The early evidence is he might. Devers has raced through Double-A and Triple-A already this season, and in his major league debut Tuesday in Seattle, he had a key walk against Felix Hernandez. In his second big league game Wednesday, his two hits included a long home run to center field in a 4-0 win that saved first place in the AL East for the Red Sox for now.

No surprise there.

"Serious, easy light-tower power," a National League scout who has followed Devers' career said Wednesday. "The ball explodes off his bat. His bat will play. Devers will be a superstar!"

There will be questions about his defense and questions about his youth, but Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has never been afraid to push talented kids. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't—Andrew Benintendi proved ready last year, Yoan Moncada did not—but Dombrowski will try.

Dombrowski is never shy on the trade market, either, and just this week he engineered a deal for Eduardo Nunez, theoretically to fill the Sox's Pablo Sandoval-sized hole at third base.

Fortunately Nunez can play anywhere and everywhere, because even if Dombrowski and manager John Farrell haven't been willing to say it yet, Devers has to play third base until he shows he can't.

As Evan Drellich wrote for CSNNE.com, "Nunez is not what the Sox need most: A bopper."

In this first season without David Ortiz, the Red Sox rank 27th in the major leagues in home runs. The Red Sox have never finished 27th in the majors in home runs.

Nunez has 38 home runs, total, in eight years in the big leagues. Devers has 21 home runs this year. Yes, 20 of them were in the minor leagues, but give the kid a break, he won't be old enough to drink until Oct. 24which is also the date for Game 1 of the World Series.

The Red Sox have a chance to get there, in part because Chris Sale has been everything Dombrowski could have wanted when he gave up Moncada and others in last December's trade with the Chicago White Sox.

After seven shutout innings Wednesday against the Mariners, Sale is 13-4 with a 2.37 ERA that easily leads the league.

The Sox are good, despite the lack of home runs, but they're in a close race in the AL East. The Yankees are good, too, mostly because their kids have been so good. Aaron Judge was the best player in the league in the first half, Severino is pitching like an ace, Jordan Montgomery has been a solid starter and now Frazier is contributing, too.

Frazier has been so impressive in his first 18 major league games that there's no reason to take him out of the lineup. He plays every day in the outfield and Jacoby Ellsbury, making $21.1 million this season, does not.

Manager Joe Girardi faced questions Wednesday about whether the Yankees could send Frazier to the minors when Aaron Hicks comes back from the disabled list, as general manager Brian Cashman had said was the plan. Girardi dodged the question by saying it doesn't have to be answered now, because Hicks isn't ready.

The Red Sox can't put off their Devers decision, because Nunez is due in town when they begin a Fenway Park series against the Kansas City Royals on Friday night. But they can keep both players, using Nunez's versatility to make sure both get at-bats.

They can't just wait until rosters expand in another month, because the division race is so close that every win matters. Each of the 10 remaining head-to-head meetings with the Yankees will matter, and the first seven of those will be in August, before the roster limit goes up from 25 to 40.

By then, perhaps Devers has proved he's not yet ready to impact a big league pennant race. Or maybe he's become the reason the Red Sox are putting that race away.

It's time to find out, time to see if he can build on what he did Wednesday in Seattle. The light-tower power and explosive bat could be just what the Red Sox need to counter the Yankee kids.

                

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

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Yu Darvish Must Be Traded Before He Bolts for $100 Million FA Deal

In the space of six days last week, the Pittsburgh Pirates made up six games in the National League Central standings. The Texas Rangers have 10 weeks to make up a 2.5-game deficit in the American League wild-card race.

Put it that way, and it sounds like there's no reason for the Rangers to give up on this season.

But try thinking of it this way: The Rangers haven't been more than a game over .500 since Memorial Day, and even after a weekend sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays, they're still two games under .500. They're in the middle of eight teams battling for the two spots in the American League Wild Card Game, and given the Houston Astros' 17-game lead in the AL West, the Rangers have no other route to the playoffs.

They also have a 6'5", 30-year-old asset named Yu Darvish, who would be the best starting pitcher on a market with plenty of potential buyers and is headed for a big free-agent payoff at the end of the season. His price figures to be well above $100 million and maybe closer to $200 million, and there's every reason to believe the Rangers will balk at paying it.

They could cash in big now, or they can hold out for what is something of a long-shot opportunity to make the playoffs—and maybe an even longer shot at signing Darvish long term.

Put it that way, and the answer seems clear. Even with a shot at the postseason, this is the time for the Rangers to cash in on Darvish.

One thing is absolutely certain: If the Rangers put Darvish on the market, teams with a chance at a championship will line up to get him. He would not be a long-term investment like the Oakland Athletics' Sonny Gray, who would be under control through 2019. But he could be a difference-maker this October.

Darvish isn't Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer, but he would be the second starter in the rotation for almost any contender. He could be the guy who puts the Los Angeles Dodgers over the top for their first World Series since 1988 (and would give them a touch less reason to stress with Kershaw headed to the disabled list) or the guy who gives the Chicago Cubs a shot at their first World Series since last October.

He could be the guy who teams with Dallas Keuchel to give the Houston Astros their first World Series title ever.

All the Rangers have to do is pick out the best of what should be a bunch of great offers. But first they have to accept this just isn't going to be their year.

It's not—not unless things turn around dramatically. This is the Astros' year in the AL West, and while a wild-card spot is hardly worthless (ask the 2014 San Francisco Giants), a long-shot run at the wild card isn't worth missing a chance at a big return on the trade market.

The New York Yankees faced a similar question in July 2016 with Aroldis Chapman. They chose right.

The Detroit Tigers faced almost the exact same question two years ago with David Price. They chose right too.

According to the Baseball Prospectus playoff odds, the Tigers had a 19.4 percent chance at a wild-card spot on July 24, 2015, and an 11.5 percent shot when they dealt Price on July 30. According to the same site, the Yankees were at 8.5 percent when they dealt Chapman.

As of Sunday, Baseball Prospectus gave the Rangers a 18 percent chance.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Rangers started reaching out to teams to let them know Darvish could be available, according to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports. Heyman also reported via Twitter that the Yankees like Darvish, and George A. King III of the New York Post reported the Yankees had a scout at Darvish's Friday night start against the Rays.

There's a good chance that scout and others liked what they saw, because Darvish struck out a season-high 12 while giving up three runs in eight innings. He has a 3.44 ERA, and other scouts who have seen him recently say he looks all the way back from 2015 Tommy John surgery.

"He didn't throw the split he did back in the day, at least not when I saw him," one American League scout said. "But he still has that wipeout slider."

It hasn't been enough to carry the Rangers on his back. The team is just 9-12 in Darvish's 21 starts, with six consecutive losses before Friday's win over the Rays.

That same night, according to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, a top Rangers scout was spotted in Des Moines, Iowa, watching the Triple-A affiliates of the Dodgers and Cubs. No surprise the Rangers are doing their homework.

But that doesn't mean they make a trade. According to reports and to people who have spoken to Rangers management, that decision may not come until closer to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

"I genuinely believe in the guys on this team," general manager Jon Daniels told Grant. "We are confident that we can play well for an extended period. I know they are confident they can, too. I look at the competition for the wild card, and I think we stack up well."

For now, teams interested can only wait and root for a few more Rangers losses, anything that would push them toward a trade. It won't happen yet.

"If and when they are completely convinced they are out of the race," one rival executive said. "That may or may not come by [this] week."

A win or two shouldn't convince them. A true winning streak? That could be different.

They have a week to do 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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Can the Los Angeles Dodgers Win the World Series Without a Deadline Deal?

There was a team, not all that many years ago, that got to the final weeks of July looking pretty much unbeatable, which is how the Los Angeles Dodgers look now. The trade deadline was approaching, and everybody wanted to know what those 1998 New York Yankees would do.

"It was hard to find an upgrade," Brian Cashman said Thursday.

It turned out he didn't need one.

The Yankees, in Cashman's first season as general manager, engaged the Seattle Mariners in deep discussions about Randy Johnson but eventually passed on the price. Cashman exhaled when he found out Johnson, an eventual Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, was heading to the Houston Astros, then in the National League, rather than to American League rival Cleveland Indians.

The Yankees ended up doing nothing at the deadline, and they ended up doing everything the rest of the year. They won 114 games and swept through the World Series.

Two decades later, they're still the last team to win it all without making a single trade deadline move.

Which brings us back to the Dodgers, who may or may not make a move in the next 11 days—and may or may not need one.

"A need? I don't think we need anything," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told reporters. "We still know we're the best team. ... We're still expecting to win the division and the championship."

It's hard to blame him for feeling that way, with a team that has won 31 of the last 35 games entering play Thursday night (even the '98 Yankees never won 31 of 35). It's hard to find a glaring need, even though it's easy to see why the Dodgers would like to add a top left-handed reliever (Zach Britton, Justin Wilson, Brad Hand, Felipe Rivero and Tony Watson have been mentioned in various reports).

You can pick apart any team, even one this good.

"A good general manager never feels confident," Cashman said.

A good general manager never stops trying until he runs out of time, and the Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has a front-office team that includes plenty of good former general managers and Farhan Zaidi, who holds the current title. There's no doubt they'll keep trying.

But is it OK if they don't find an upgrade? Can they win the World Series with the team they have, breaking a drought that has lasted since Kirk Gibson's famous season in 1988?

"Possibly," a top American League scout said. "They're really good."

They're 66-29, one of four teams in the last 50 years with a 95-game record that good (the '98 Yankees, 2001 Mariners and 1970 Cincinnati Reds were the others). They're an incredible 57-18 since calling up Cody Bellinger on April 25.

They have Clayton Kershaw, who can still hold claim to the title of baseball's best pitcher (they're 18-2 when he starts a game). They have Bellinger, who will be the Rookie of the Year and might even get some votes as the NL Most Valuable Player. They have Kenley Jansen, who didn't walk a batter until June 25 and still hasn't lost a game or even blown a lead.

They had six All-Stars, not exactly one at every position, but what do you want?

Their rotation hasn't been deep enough in recent Octobers, but the Dodgers have Alex Wood, Rich Hill and even Kenta Maeda behind Kershaw. I'd feel more confident if Wood pitched a few more innings and if Hill didn't have a history of getting hurt all the time, but again, you can't have everything.

As another AL scout said, "If Kershaw can get through with just three playoff starts before the World Series, then they could use him in Games 1, 4 and 7."

Their bullpen has a collective 2.90 ERA, best in the National League and second in baseball behind the Cleveland Indians. For all the talk about lefty relievers, left-handed hitters have combined for a .687 OPS against Dodger pitchers. Only three teams in baseball have been better.

The Randy Johnson of 1998 could probably help them, but Randy Johnson isn't getting traded this month. There's a good chance no one like Randy Johnson gets traded this month.

If the Dodgers do end up trading for Britton, maybe they're the ones who end up with the best trade of the month. Maybe they make a great team greater.

Or maybe they end up like the 1998 Yankees. Maybe they don't make a July deal at all.

And maybe it'll turn out they don't need one.

      

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

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How to Dominate the Trade Deadline: A Lesson from the 2016 Yankees

The game is about winning, on the field and off. Of course everyone wanted to be the 2016 Chicago Cubs, or at least the Cleveland Indians. But if you can't, at least be the New York Yankees.

The Yankees won 84 games last year, which doesn't sound bad except it equaled their lowest total in a non-strike year since 1992. But last July, the Yankees won.

By acclamation, the 2016 Yankees were trade-deadline winners for turning Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and others into 13 younger players, many of them top prospects. They cashed in on a season in which they weren't a serious World Series contender, and they built a better future—not just for four or five years down the line but for this season, too.

A year later, it's worth looking back on how and why they did it, and at which teams can learn from it as this year's non-waiver deadline fast approaches. There's no team that's a perfect match for the 2016 Yankees, but there are some who could gain by following what the Yankees did.

Think of the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles, who entered Tuesday 4.5 games out of a playoff spot, right about where the Yankees were a year ago. Close enough to think you have a chance with 70 games still to play but far enough back and flawed enough to realize how slim that chance really is.

Think of the Texas Rangers, who are a couple of games closer to a wild-card spot but much further behind in their division. Think of the St. Louis Cardinals, in range but not really close in either the division or the wild-card race.

Can any of them become the 2016 Yankees? Can the Blue Jays do it by trading Josh Donaldson and Marcus Stroman? What about the Orioles with Zach Britton, the Rangers with Yu Darvish or the Cardinals with Carlos Martinez and Lance Lynn?

Every team is different, but every team can learn. Here's what they can learn from the 2016 Yankees:

          

1. You'd better have the goods. Teams pay (and overpay) for value, and elite players with reasonable contracts are trade-deadline gold. Years of control add big value, which is why the Yankees could cash in so big on Miller and why the Chicago White Sox have already done so this month with Jose Quintana.

You also need a robust market to sell to, which the Yankees had last year, with multiple teams seeking back-end relievers. Top-level starters seem to be in the highest demand this month, which is why the Blue Jays (Stroman), Rangers (Darvish) and Cardinals (Martinez) could be best positioned.

Darvish is a free agent at the end of this season, more comparable to Chapman than Miller. Stroman is under control through 2020 and Martinez through 2023, which makes them much more valuable but also harder to consider trading.

Hey, this isn't supposed to be easy, which brings us to...

          

2. You'd better be bold. The Yankees didn't have to trade Miller last year. There were plenty of good reasons not to trade him, starting with how good he is. He was under control, his contract was affordable, and if they were going to try to contend soon, it sure would have been nice to have him in the bullpen.

But Yankees general manager Brian Cashman understood the market. As good as Miller is, Cashman understood how the desire to win now could tempt another team to give up more than equal value for him. He got Clint Frazier, who a year later is already contributing in the big leagues, and also pitching prospect Justus Sheffield and two other players.

It's (relatively) easy to make the decision to trade someone who is going to be a free agent. It's a lot harder to reconcile trading someone who is supposedly key to your future success. It's even harder when it's a young starting pitcher, as opposed to a reliever like Miller, who was 31 years old at last year's deadline.

But does it really hurt to find out what you can get back? Joel Sherman made the argument in the New York Post that the Mets would be foolish not to find out how much someone will pay for Jacob deGrom. Same goes for the Blue Jays and Stroman, the Cardinals and Martinez and the Detroit Tigers and Michael Fulmer.

Ask for a supposedly untouchable prospect. The Yankees got Frazier and Gleyber Torres last year. The White Sox got Yoan Moncada over the winter in the Chris Sale trade, and Moncada was ranked as the best prospect in all of baseball.

But even if they say yes, there's one other huge obstacle.

           

3. You'd better have an understanding owner. After he traded Miller last year, Cashman acknowledged he had decided fairly early on it was time to exploit the market. He also said others above him took more convincing. Steinbrenner consented to trading Chapman more than a week before the deadline, but he held off on green-lighting more moves until the Yankees lost the first two games of a series at Tampa Bay the weekend before the deadline (they went on to lose the third game, too).

"The inconsistency of our club reared its ugly head," Cashman said a couple of days later. "A playoff contender wouldn't have done that."

Even then, not every owner would have done what Steinbrenner did. The Yankees were only 4.5 games out of a playoff spot when Steinbrenner gave his OK. The Orioles and Blue Jays were 4.5 games out as of Monday.

But as Jon Heyman wrote last week for FanRag Sports, owner Peter Angelos has always been a "go for it" kind of guy. As Ken Rosenthal wrote Sunday on Facebook, when Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette tells teams he's willing to deal Britton and others, it comes with the caveat "as long as he receives ownership approval."

As for the Blue Jays, ownership no doubt has an eye on attendance. The Jays are averaging 39,645 fans a game, fourth-best in the major leagues. How will those people react if Toronto trades away its stars?

The choices aren't easy. It's not easy to win—on the field or off.

         

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

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Pablo Sandoval Was a $95M Disaster with Red Sox, but Was Boston the Problem?

Pablo Sandoval was 28 years old when he signed that big deal with the Boston Red Sox.

I'm not sure what that is in panda years, but it turns out a panda ages quickly at Fenway Park. The real question is whether the aging process can be reversed elsewhere.

"I haven't seen him play in a while, but I have to believe there is more in the tank," a National League scout who knows Sandoval said Friday, a few minutes after the Red Sox designated him for assignment. "It will be interesting to see if the Giants have any interest."

Yes, it will. It will be interesting to see if anyone has any interest in a player who was good enough to hit .366 in the 2014 postseason but bad enough that the Red Sox are willing to eat $48.3 million just to make him go away.

Speaking of eating...

When you ask people why it all went wrong, they remind you that Sandoval showed up at spring training badly out of shape in 2015, a little more than two months after signing a five-year, $95 million contract. His look in spring training 2016 was even worse, prompting Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy to write "Get a load of that gut."

It's worth clicking on the link to see the photo at the top of Shaughnessy's column and, yes, "get a load of that gut."

It's also worth clicking this Shaughnessy link, the one from October 2014 where he begs the Red Sox to sign Sandoval and says, "I promise never to rip Sandoval for being out of shape or going on the disabled list."

Look, we all make promises we can't keep. We all make mistakes, too, and it's not like the Red Sox were the only team that wanted to give Sandoval a ton of money. Reports at the time of the deal suggested the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres both offered more than $90 million, and Bob Nightengale of USA Today tweeted Friday that the Padres had actually made the biggest offer.

So maybe the biggest mistake was the one Sandoval made in believing Boston was the best place for him.

"Boston has a way to sidetrack a career," the NL scout said. "He is not the first and won't be the last."

True enough, but try to come up with a guy who failed as miserably as Sandoval did in Boston and then picked up the pieces somewhere else.

Certainly not Carl Crawford, who was much happier but only slightly better after he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Perhaps Yoenis Cespedes, whose half-season with the Red Sox was the low point of his career, or Edgar Renteria, who was an All-Star both the year before he came to the Red Sox and the year after he left.

Adrian Gonzalez didn't love Boston, but he was an All-Star and got MVP votes in his only full season with the Sox. David Price may be battling the New England media, but he's actually pitching well.

Sandoval did not play well. Not his first year, when his Baseball-Reference.com OPS-plus dropped from 111 (11 percent better than average) to 75 (25 percent worse than average). Not his second year, when he needed shoulder surgery and barely played at all.

Not even this year, when by all accounts he came to spring training in much better shape. Sandoval still ended up on the disabled list twice and his numbers were even worse, offensively and defensively. When his minor-league rehab assignment ended last weekend, there was no spot for him on the big league team.

"Bad defense, couldn't hit right-handed, poor health," an American League scout said of the switch-hitter, summing it up. "It just didn't work out. His warts were exposed outside of San Francisco."

Fair or not, he left people in Boston with the impression the big contract turned him complacent. As Tony Massarotti of 98.5 The Sports Hub tweeted:

You can forget about a buyout provision. The union would rightly fight that, arguing that players can't demand to re-negotiate when they outperform contracts.

But if the Panda really did get "fat and happy" in Boston, is there any chance he could turn slim and motivated somewhere else?

It won't cost a team much to find out. The Red Sox have 10 days to try to trade Sandoval, but you can be sure they've already tried that. It also seems unlikely that the Sox will outright him to the minors after those 10 days, though it's possible the team would spend some time working with him like it did for Allen Craig before releasing the former Cardinal last month. He'll likely be released soon either way, at which point another team could sign him for the prorated major league minimum.

Will we ever see him again on an MLB diamond? Sandoval thankfully still has some time to get right physically and try to find out.

After all, he's still just 30 years old.

 

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

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Cubs’ Jose Quintana Blockbuster Is Needed Win-Now Risk Without Blowing Future

For the Chicago Cubs, "now" was never supposed to last just one year.

Now was last year, as Theo Epstein so aptly put it when he traded for Aroldis Chapman ("If not now, when?"). Now is this year, as the Cubs showed again Thursday by trading for Jose Quintana. Now is next year and the year after that, too, because trading for a 28-year-old starter under control for three more seasons after this one means the Cubs didn't really mortgage the future Thursday.

They just rearranged it a little, and they hope in the process rearranged the 2017 race in not just the National League Central but perhaps the entire National League.

Quintana isn't the game-changer in the rotation Chapman was in the bullpen. His acquisition may not be enough, especially if Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta don't pitch better in the second half.

"He's probably not the guy you want starting Game 1 of the World Series," a National League scout said. "But you'd be happy to start him in Game 3."

Quintana, in other words, isn't Chris Sale. He could well be the best starting pitcher traded this month, but when I suggested that to the NL scout, he mentioned that Johnny Cueto and Justin Verlander could still be moved. But even if the Cubs could have gotten one of them for something similar to what they gave up for Quintana, that doesn't mean they should have.

The Cubs gave up a lot—a four-player prospect package headed by outfielder Eloy Jimenez and pitcher Dylan Cease—because Quintana can help them for more years than just 2017. They did it because they need pitching now, with John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks on the disabled list, and will need pitching in the near future, with Lester and Lackey aging and Arrieta headed for free agency.

The White Sox seem to be doing well with rebuilding, adding Jimenez and Cease to guys like Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech and Lucas Giolito that they acquired in the Sale and Adam Eaton deals last winter. All credit to owner Jerry Reinsdorf for allowing his front office to rebuild, and general manager Rick Hahn and his staff for holding out for big returns.

Full credit, too, for not limiting themselves by refusing to deal with an in-city rival.

"Rick made it clear as far back as the winter meetings he had no restriction on who he could deal with," an NL executive said Thursday.

And full credit to Epstein and his Cubs front office for understanding that one reason you gather top prospects is to use some of them in trades when you have a chance to win now.

MLB.com had ranked Jimenez and Cease Nos. 1-2 on the list of Cubs prospects, but they're 20 (Jimenez) and 21 (Cease) and have yet to play above Class A. They weren't going to help the Cubs win another World Series this year—not unless they traded them for someone who might.

If this were two years ago, and the Cubs were coming out of the All-Star break two games under .500 and 5.5 games out in the National League Central, perhaps they don't make this deal. But this is a team coming off a World Series title, with a seemingly beatable Milwaukee Brewers team leading them in the division.

Is Quintana enough, I asked an American League scout who follows the NL Central.

"In this division, perhaps," he said. "If the injured pitchers aren't too far away."

One more thing to remember: It's July 13, not July 31.

"I don't think we're done yet," a person familiar with the Cubs' plans said.

They'll try to add to the bullpen, or at the very least help raise bullpen prices for their NL rivals who need bullpen help more than they do (the Washington Nationals, for one). Maybe they do something else.

Already they have Quintana, in the first big deal of baseball's trading season.

He's a better pitcher than his 4-8 record and 4.49 ERA with the White Sox this year suggest. One American League scout who knows him believes going to the National League and to a team that will catch the ball better than the White Sox do will help Quintana.

"He's a really good solid starting pitcher," the AL scout said. "But if you're telling your front office he has a 70 curveball or a 70 changeup [on a 20-80 scouting scale], you're lying. He's not the dominating top-of-the-rotation guy."

Those guys don't seem to be on the market this month. And those guys cost even more than what the Cubs gave up Thursday.

To get one of them, even if one becomes available, would mean trading from the Cubs' major league core.

Jimenez should develop into a middle-of-the-order hitter, according to scouts who have seen him. Cease should be a legit major league starter, eventually.

Neither one is a "now" player, which is fine on the rebuilding South Side but not too useful a few miles north.

At Wrigley Field, now still means now.

 

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

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Aaron Judge’s Star Power Explodes on Home Run Derby’s National Stage

There was a moment, sometime early this season, when Aaron Judge took over New York.

Monday, he took over all of baseball.           

He did it with power. He did it with style. He did it with grace.

Maybe it's too early to call him the game's biggest star, just halfway into his rookie season with the New York Yankees. But maybe it's not.

He is the biggest, obviously, if you just go by his 6'7", 282-pound frame. But in taking over a Home Run Derby that quickly became all about him, Judge showed everything New York has seen this year and more.

"I am buying Aaron Judge for the long, long haul," Mark Teixeira said on ESPN after Judge needed barely half the allotted time to dispose of Miguel Sano in the Derby's final round.

Teixeira, by the way, was another star of the night, clearly showing he deserves more exposure in his rookie season as a broadcaster. He was fun and funny, and early on, he asked Judge the perfect question:

"Can you get over 500 [feet]?"

"I'm going to try for it," Judge said.

And he did. No one else did, but Judge did it four times, going 501, 504, 507 and 513 feet. He hit one off the roof and another one over Marlins Park's home run sculpture in left-center field. He went to left field and to right field. He hit line drives and spectacular towering shots.

He hit 47 home runs in all, totaling 3.9 miles according to MLB.com's Statcast. Do yourself a favor and click on the "staggered fast" option on Baseball Savant, which makes Judge's home runs look like a cool fireworks show.

He said he just wanted to put on a show for the fans. This was a show.

"Next year for the Derby, we're just going to have Aaron Judge try to beat himself," Teixeira said at one point. "We're going to have brackets where he's just going to play himself."

The official numbers will tell you Judge barely survived the first round, needing the extra 30 seconds he earned with two 440-foot homers to top the 22 home runs hit by Miami Marlins first baseman Justin Bour. It looked like a potential disaster for Major League Baseball and ESPN, which set this up as Judge vs. Giancarlo Stanton but had already lost Stanton to a first-round knockout by Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez.

Bour was popular with the Marlins fans in attendance, but it wouldn't have played well around the baseball world to have Stanton and Judge out early.

As it turned out, Stanton's exit hardly mattered because Judge could more than carry this show by himself.

He's done that all season with the Yankees, where his at-bats quickly became the one thing you never wanted to miss. His batting-practice shows are becoming legendary too, with tales of damage to a television set high above center field at Yankee Stadium and balls hit over the center field restaurant in Toronto.

"I watched him hit [batting practice home runs] in Oakland to places not even [Mark] McGwire and [Jose] Canseco used to go," one American League scout said a couple of weeks back.

In this season where home runs are dominating the game more than ever before, there have been suggestions that the number of homers could hurt interest in baseball. The ball needs to be in play more, some have said.

Overall, perhaps that's true. But nobody ever complains about watching Judge, not after any of his major league-leading 30 home runs and not after the show he put on Monday night in Miami.

He did everything right, no surprise to anyone who has watched him closely in New York. The big stage didn't bother him at all, also no surprise.

And when it came time to claim the trophy, he made sure Yankees batting practice pitcher Danilo Valiente got his hands on it too.

Judge handles all of this so well, which is a big reason you never hear a word of criticism from teammates, opponents or even grouchy fans.

The players see. The players know.

MLB handed Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner a microphone midway through Monday's Derby and asked him to interview some National League teammates on Facebook Live.

"If you were a superhero, who would you want to be?" Turner asked Bryce Harper.

"Probably Judge," Harper shot back.

This was his night. This is his year.

Right now, you'd have to say, this is his game.

                                 

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

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Tim Tebow vs. Michael Jordan: Who Is the Better Baseball Player?

There were Crying Jordan memes all over the internet last week.

To be fair, there are probably Crying Jordan memes all over it every week, for one reason or another. But this time they fit, because Tim Tebow had just hit his fourth minor league home run.

Michael Jordan only hit three.

There's no real reason to compare Tebow to Jordan, except that who else could you compare Tim Tebow to? There aren't that many celebrities who interrupted the rest of their lives to ride buses around the minors.

Tebow hasn't won any NBA titles and Jordan didn't win any Heisman Trophies, but 23 years apart and with little more to offer than the strength of their personalities, they each filled small-town ballparks.

"Tremendous charisma," an American League scout said after watching Tebow in the Florida State League this week. "Just like Michael. You have to be careful you don't get carried away just with the aura."

The crowds are big. The aura is big. The baseball talent is...well, at least Tebow seems to be improving.

"He's actually swinging the bat a lot better," said a National League scout who saw him earlier this season in the South Atlantic League and then again this week after his promotion to the high-A Florida State League. "And he's playing better defense. He's more aggressive, more confident.

"Saying that, he's not close to being a prospect."

Baseball isn't easy, especially when you've been away from it for a decade while you pursue another sport. You can work and work, as Jordan did in 1994 and as Tebow has in 2017, but even hitting in the minor leagues can be too much of a challenge.

"Neither of them could deal with breaking balls," said the NL scout, who saw both play in the minor leagues. "They're a mystery to them."

It's why Jordan hit .202 in his one season with the Double-A Birmingham Barons. It's why Tebow is hitting .234 this season at his two stops in the New York Mets organization.

Jordan's swing was too long, said scouts who saw him play. Tebow's swing is too stiff, too mechanical.

"It's not the swing you see with a guy who is going to hit," the scout said.

And yet, in one way it hardly matters. The fans are drawn to Tebow, every bit as much as fans two decades ago were drawn to Jordan. They fill ballparks that are rarely full for any other game, watching the way they would watch no other player.

They cheer when Tebow gets to the on-deck circle, just as fans in 1994 did with Jordan. They cheer when he swings and misses, just as with Jordan. They cheer when he gets a hitand when he doesn't.

"The fanaticism is off the charts, just like it was with Jordan," the AL scout said.

This is how it is, and this is how it was, and this is why it's really not that bad a thing that the Mets gave Tebow a chance to chase his baseball dream. Sure, it's more about marketing than it is about developing a player to make a major league impact, but is that necessarily wrong?

"Every time we played Birmingham with Jordan, we saw more kids at the ballpark," said Dave Trembley, who managed the Orlando Cubs in the Southern League in 1994. "I've heard it's like that with Tebow, too. They've really given baseball a shot in the arm as far as attracting people. That's what Jordan did, and that's what Tebow is doing.

"These guys do more for the game than you read in the box score. The game is indebted to them."

Scouts who have watched Tebow come back raving about the way he treats the fans and the way he treats his teammates. For the most part, they also come away unimpressed with his baseball skills.

"He works hard, but he's really stiff," one said. "The worst outfielder I've ever seen. He was diving for balls that fell 20 feet from where he started."

"One ball almost hit him in the head in the outfield," another said.

He doesn't run well ("Takes the smallest steps when he strides," said one scout). He doesn't throw well ("The shortstop goes way out in the outfield to get the relay," said another). He can hit a fastball (he homered off a 96 mph fastball, according to one scout), but even his power might be exaggerated ("I watched all of batting practice one day, and he didn't get a ball out of the park," the first scout said).

And yet…

"You can't believe the popularity," the NL scout said.

Jordan was like that. He was coming off three straight NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls, when he suddenly announced he needed a break and wanted to try baseball. The Chicago White Sox gave him a chance, and they played him in spring training games and an exhibition game at Wrigley Field before sending him to Birmingham.

He played in 127 games that season with the Barons, at age 31. The next spring, during the lockout, he gave up baseball and announced his return to the NBA (where he played six more seasons and won three more titles).

He had 17 doubles in 1994 and 30 stolen bases. And those three home runs.

Tebow hit his fifth home run Wednesday night, in his 73rd game. Last week, when he hit his fourth, the Twitter account @CryingJordan took note:

In other parts of the game, scouts who saw both play say Jordan was easily better. He was a better runner and a better outfielder. And he was such a good athlete that some believe he would have succeeded if he'd gone to baseball earlier.

"Michael was fluid, agile, one of the best athletes of all time," the AL scout said. "Tebow, on the other hand, is stiff. It's not fluid. I think if Michael had tried to do it earlier, he could have been a big leaguer. Michael was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Tebow was not one of the greatest football players."

Tebow isn't the athlete Jordan was, but he does have the drive of a player who reached the top level of the sport he first pursued.

"The one thing you can't put a number on is determination," said another National League scout who saw both Jordan and Tebow. "Don't count him out. If Michael had kept playing, I wouldn't have counted him out, either."

Jordan didn't keep playing. He was 31 the year he played baseball, but he still had basketball to go back to. Tebow is 29 now, but it's pretty clear he has put his football career behind him.

He's a baseball player now. It seems he's getting better.

And for whatever it's worth, he has more career home runs as a pro than Michael Jordan did.

            

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

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Tim Tebow vs. Michael Jordan: Who Is the Better Baseball Player?

There were Crying Jordan memes all over the internet last week.

To be fair, there are probably Crying Jordan memes all over it every week, for one reason or another. But this time they fit, because Tim Tebow had just hit his fourth minor league home run.

Michael Jordan only hit three.

There's no real reason to compare Tebow to Jordan, except that who else could you compare Tim Tebow to? There aren't that many celebrities who interrupted the rest of their lives to ride buses around the minors.

Tebow hasn't won any NBA titles and Jordan didn't win any Heisman Trophies, but 23 years apart and with little more to offer than the strength of their personalities, they each filled small-town ballparks.

"Tremendous charisma," an American League scout said after watching Tebow in the Florida State League this week. "Just like Michael. You have to be careful you don't get carried away just with the aura."

The crowds are big. The aura is big. The baseball talent is...well, at least Tebow seems to be improving.

"He's actually swinging the bat a lot better," said a National League scout who saw him earlier this season in the South Atlantic League and then again this week after his promotion to the high-A Florida State League. "And he's playing better defense. He's more aggressive, more confident.

"Saying that, he's not close to being a prospect."

Baseball isn't easy, especially when you've been away from it for a decade while you pursue another sport. You can work and work, as Jordan did in 1994 and as Tebow has in 2017, but even hitting in the minor leagues can be too much of a challenge.

"Neither of them could deal with breaking balls," said the NL scout, who saw both play in the minor leagues. "They're a mystery to them."

It's why Jordan hit .202 in his one season with the Double-A Birmingham Barons. It's why Tebow is hitting .234 this season at his two stops in the New York Mets organization.

Jordan's swing was too long, said scouts who saw him play. Tebow's swing is too stiff, too mechanical.

"It's not the swing you see with a guy who is going to hit," the scout said.

And yet, in one way it hardly matters. The fans are drawn to Tebow, every bit as much as fans two decades ago were drawn to Jordan. They fill ballparks that are rarely full for any other game, watching the way they would watch no other player.

They cheer when Tebow gets to the on-deck circle, just as fans in 1994 did with Jordan. They cheer when he swings and misses, just as with Jordan. They cheer when he gets a hitand when he doesn't.

"The fanaticism is off the charts, just like it was with Jordan," the AL scout said.

This is how it is, and this is how it was, and this is why it's really not that bad a thing that the Mets gave Tebow a chance to chase his baseball dream. Sure, it's more about marketing than it is about developing a player to make a major league impact, but is that necessarily wrong?

"Every time we played Birmingham with Jordan, we saw more kids at the ballpark," said Dave Trembley, who managed the Orlando Cubs in the Southern League in 1994. "I've heard it's like that with Tebow, too. They've really given baseball a shot in the arm as far as attracting people. That's what Jordan did, and that's what Tebow is doing.

"These guys do more for the game than you read in the box score. The game is indebted to them."

Scouts who have watched Tebow come back raving about the way he treats the fans and the way he treats his teammates. For the most part, they also come away unimpressed with his baseball skills.

"He works hard, but he's really stiff," one said. "The worst outfielder I've ever seen. He was diving for balls that fell 20 feet from where he started."

"One ball almost hit him in the head in the outfield," another said.

He doesn't run well ("Takes the smallest steps when he strides," said one scout). He doesn't throw well ("The shortstop goes way out in the outfield to get the relay," said another). He can hit a fastball (he homered off a 96 mph fastball, according to one scout), but even his power might be exaggerated ("I watched all of batting practice one day, and he didn't get a ball out of the park," the first scout said).

And yet…

"You can't believe the popularity," the NL scout said.

Jordan was like that. He was coming off three straight NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls, when he suddenly announced he needed a break and wanted to try baseball. The Chicago White Sox gave him a chance, and they played him in spring training games and an exhibition game at Wrigley Field before sending him to Birmingham.

He played in 127 games that season with the Barons, at age 31. The next spring, during the lockout, he gave up baseball and announced his return to the NBA (where he played six more seasons and won three more titles).

He had 17 doubles in 1994 and 30 stolen bases. And those three home runs.

Tebow hit his fifth home run Wednesday night, in his 73rd game. Last week, when he hit his fourth, the Twitter account @CryingJordan took note:

In other parts of the game, scouts who saw both play say Jordan was easily better. He was a better runner and a better outfielder. And he was such a good athlete that some believe he would have succeeded if he'd gone to baseball earlier.

"Michael was fluid, agile, one of the best athletes of all time," the AL scout said. "Tebow, on the other hand, is stiff. It's not fluid. I think if Michael had tried to do it earlier, he could have been a big leaguer. Michael was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Tebow was not one of the greatest football players."

Tebow isn't the athlete Jordan was, but he does have the drive of a player who reached the top level of the sport he first pursued.

"The one thing you can't put a number on is determination," said another National League scout who saw both Jordan and Tebow. "Don't count him out. If Michael had kept playing, I wouldn't have counted him out, either."

Jordan didn't keep playing. He was 31 the year he played baseball, but he still had basketball to go back to. Tebow is 29 now, but it's pretty clear he has put his football career behind him.

He's a baseball player now. It seems he's getting better.

And for whatever it's worth, he has more career home runs as a pro than Michael Jordan did.

            

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

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Former Speed Demon OF Anthony Gose Could Ride 100 MPH Fastball Back to Majors

Anthony Gose didn't want to pitch.

He made that clear, to his coach and to every one of the scouts who came to see him in Bellflower, California, in the days and weeks leading up to the 2008 baseball draft. And just in case they missed the message, Gose made sure to tell the Los Angeles Times the same thing.

No matter how many times anyone asked, he said he was an outfielder. He was not a pitcher.

"If I didn't have to do it again, I wouldn't even miss it," he told the Times.

Nine years later, he's doing it again.

He's pitching, showing off the same fastball the scouts wanted all those years ago, the one Gose wouldn't let them have then. He's lighting up radar guns in Class A for now, but he could be on a fast track back to the major leagues, where he was last seen as a speedy outfielder who just couldn't hit enough.

"We'll see where it goes," Detroit Tigers minor league pitching coordinator A.J. Sager told Bleacher Report. "But I can tell you what I've seen so far is exciting."

It's also fascinating, because while it's hardly unheard of for one-time position players to transition to pitching, almost all of them (Kenley Jansen, Sean Doolittle, Troy Percival, Trevor Hoffman, to name four) made the switch before ever reaching the major leagues.

Gose, though, spent parts of five seasons as an outfielder in the big leagues, the first three with the Toronto Blue Jays and the last two with the Tigers. He could run and he could play defense, but he struck out too often (353 times in 1,252 plate appearances) and struggled to get on base (.309 career on-base percentage).

When the Tigers saw more of the same this past spring, they told Gose he wasn't going to make their Opening Day roster. He told them he was finally ready to give pitching another try. One extremely impressive bullpen session later, the Tigers decided this was an experiment worth pursuing.

That was in late March.

By late May, Gose pitched in a professional game for the first time, making news when his first pitch for Class A Lakeland was clocked at 99 mph. By the middle of last week, he had nine appearances in relief and a 9.72 ERA that is misleadingly high.

Two of his Lakeland outings were bad (nine batters faced, two hits, four walks and a hit batter). But seven of his last eight have been very good (8.0 innings, no runs, two hits, one walk, 12 strikeouts combined).

Oh, and that 99 mph fastball? Since then, Gose has touched triple digits.

And while the Tigers originally sold him on the pitching plan by telling him he could also keep working as an outfielder, Gose doesn't have a single at-bat this season.

He's a pitcher, and by all accounts, he's committed to it, although through his agent he declined an interview request.

For now, his pitching will have to speak for itself. Given the triple-digit fastball, a clean repeatable delivery and the makings of a good changeup and breaking ball, it's already speaking loudly.

Gose may have a major league future yet—in a big league bullpen.

Maybe even this season.

"In a perfect world, he'll work his way through the system this year and we'll see if there's interest in Detroit," said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers' vice president of player development. "The talent is there. My guess is it will happen."


Nine years ago, there was plenty of interest from major league teams. Scouts phoned Bellflower High all the time, asking when the 17-year-old kid with a 97 mph fastball would be on the mound.

Gose had a 0.63 ERA as a high school senior, allowing just 22 hits in 71 innings while striking out 124 and walking just 21.

When Baseball America previewed the 2008 draft, the magazine listed Gose as a pitcher, declaring he had "perhaps the strongest left arm of any Southern California high school pitching prospect since Bill Bordley, a first-round pick in the mid-1970s."

There was only one problem. Gose didn't want to be drafted as a pitcher. The day scouts from the Philadelphia Phillies arrived to watch Gose in a workout, he told then-Phillies scouting director Marti Wolever: "My coach wants me to pitch, but I don't want to pitch."

His coach was Keith Tripp, who believed then and still believes now that Gose's best chance at big league success would be on the mound.

"I thought he was going to be a pitcher," Tripp said. "But he told me, 'I'm only pitching because you want me to pitch. I like playing outfield. I want to play every day.'"

Gose was a two-way player in high school, mostly an outfielder as a sophomore but eventually more as a pitcher when he was a junior and senior.

"One day against Hawthorne High School, he struck out 12 in five innings," Tripp said. "One of the kids, I'll never forget this, Anthony threw a first-pitch fastball and the kid took it. The coach said to him, 'Swing the bat.' The kid stepped out and held up his bat, as if to say, 'You want me to hit this?'"

Another day, Gose was pitching against Long Beach Wilson High, which featured current New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks. Hicks singled the first time up, but the next time Gose struck him out.

"He threw hard," Hicks remembered. "He always had a really good arm."

He just didn't want to pitch. Fortunately for Gose, there was a professional team that wanted him to play the outfield.


The Phillies were on their way to the World Series title in 2008, but that June they had three of the first 51 picks in the draft, as compensation for losing free-agent outfielder Aaron Rowand to the San Francisco Giants. They passed on Gose with the 24th and 34th overall picks (taking high school players who didn't end up making it to the major leagues), and then, with the 51st pick, they announced:

Anthony Gose, Bellflower High School, outfielder.

"We liked him as an outfielder first," said Wolever, who now works as a scout with the Tigers. "I thought the way he ran and threw, he could be an impact guy offensively and defensively. And I thought he had a very good chance to hit."

Tim Kissner, the Phillies area scout who saw Gose the most, remembered seeing him make spectacular catches.

"He'd turn his back on the plate and catch it over the shoulder, a la Jim Edmonds," Kissner said.

The Phillies gave Gose a $772,000 signing bonus and sent him to their Gulf Coast League rookie team in Florida. Two years later, they traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays as part of a three-team deadline deal that sent Roy Oswalt to the Phillies.

By 2012, Gose was in the major leagues. Back in California, Tripp was thinking how cool it was that a kid who many thought should be a pitcher had made it as an outfielder.

"His first game was at Yankee Stadium," Tripp said. "The first ball hit to him was by Derek Jeter."

A month later, after a 4-for-36 slump, Gose was back in Triple-A.


It was more of the same over the next two years. Gose was good enough to get to the big leagues but not good enough to stay. In 2014 alone, he was called up from Triple-A Buffalo six times only to get sent back down (twice after appearing in just one game).

Every now and then, someone would even suggest putting him on the mound.

"It came up briefly in conversations, but we never spent much time on it," said Alex Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays general manager at the time. "We were more focused on trying to develop him as a position player."

 

That winter, the Blue Jays traded Gose to the Tigers for second baseman Devon Travis.

Gose spent all of 2015 in the major leagues, but in 2016 he was back on the Triple-A shuttle. And eventually on the Double-A shuttle, after a much-publicized dugout spat with Toledo manager Lloyd McClendon.

"It was just a heat-of-the-battle thing," said McClendon, now the Tigers hitting coach. "It was about defensive alignment, and he didn't agree. I told him, 'You play, I manage.' People blew it out of proportion like you wouldn't believe.

"Anthony Gose is a good kid. He doesn't have a malicious bone in his body."

He just couldn't hit enough to stay in the big leagues. But he could still throw.

Twice while he was with the Tigers, Gose made throws from the outfield that clocked at better than 100 mph, according to MLB.com. By the end of the 2016 season, the idea of putting him back on the mound was gaining steam.


Gose came to spring training as an outfielder, but in a healthy 42 plate appearances in 16 Grapefruit League games, he hit just .237 and struck out 15 times.

They told him he wasn't going to make the team. He told them he'd be willing to give pitching a try.

His initial bullpen sessions were encouraging—"The ball just jumped out of his hand," Sager said—but Gose still wasn't sure.

"He doesn't want to give up on center field," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus told reporters at the end of spring. "He feels there's a possibility he will be forgotten as an outfielder."

The Tigers left Gose in extended spring training, where they said he could get some at-bats but also work on the transition to the mound. He added a breaking ball to the fastball and changeup he threw in his initial bullpen sessions, and worked on the other skills needed to become a professional pitcher.

"There's still a lot to learn," Sager said. "Fielding his position, holding runners, setting up hitters. But he's a good athlete. Generally speaking, when there's a pop-up, the pitcher is the last guy you want touching the ball. He's the first guy. Even over our shortstop, he's got priority to catch a pop-up."

By the end of April, Gose was appearing in extended spring training games. A month later, he was ready for the Florida State League, making his professional mound debut in a game for Lakeland against the Palm Beach Cardinals.

Dan Lauer, the Flying Tigers assistant general manager, tweeted a picture of the first pitch:

Wolever, the scouting director who committed to Gose as a hitter, saw him throw an inning in Lakeland and now believes in him as a pitcher.

"He made it look easy," Wolever said. "I laughed and said it looked like he had never left it."

Back in California, Tripp watched a YouTube video of Gose pitching for Lakeland.

"I think he will be successful," Tripp said. "He really will. I believe in him."

With every 99 mph fastball Gose throws, the Tigers start to believe a little more. Presumably, Gose does, too.

"He's fully committed to it," said Wolever, who spoke with Gose in Lakeland.

Now they'll see where it goes.

          

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

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MLB’s No. 1 Prospect Amed Rosario Is Ready but Being Refused His Shot by Mets

A scout who recently finished a trip through the upper levels of the New York Mets system came back with a laptop full of negative reports.

Dominic Smith? "Overweight, out of shape, moves like he's 50 [years old]."

Hansel Robles? "Spiraling downward."

David Thompson? "Not as good as I expected."

Oh, but he loved Amed Rosario. Everyone loves Amed Rosario.

Presumably Sandy Alderson loves the 21-year-old shortstop, too, given that Alderson is the Mets general manager and Rosario is the team's prized prospect, perhaps even the best prospect in all the minor leagues.

So what's he still doing in Las Vegas, playing for the Mets' Triple-A team while the major league makes a last best effort to save its season?

"I don't understand why he's not there," said the scout, who works for a National League team. "He's the best shortstop they have, by far. It's perplexing to me."

It's perplexing to many of us. Various baseball columnists in the New York newspapers have called for Rosario's promotion for weeks, and Alderson has offered mostly quips or difficult-to-understand explanations in return.

For a while, you could understand the Mets sticking with Asdrubal Cabrera, given how well Cabrera played for them last year. But Cabrera went on the disabled list, and when he returned the Mets moved him to second base.

They've stuck with Jose Reyes, which would have been fine if this were 2011 and Reyes was on his way to a batting title. He's not, not even with a three-hit night Wednesday that raised his batting average to .202. He's 34 years old, and as much as everyone likes his energy and enthusiasm, he's not a quality major league shortstop.

Rosario would be.

"I'm not saying he's a better player than [Carlos] Correa or [Corey] Seager," the scout said. "But he's better defensively than either of them."

It's harder to know if Rosario will hit in the major leagues. His walk/strikeout numbers aren't great (18 walks, 55 strikeouts in 336 plate appearances), especially for a Mets team that emphasizes strike-zone discipline.

His overall numbers have fallen off recently in Triple-A, with just a .230 batting average this month, going into Las Vegas' game Wednesday night. The scout discounted those numbers, though, saying he thinks Rosario has been dragged down by being stuck playing with a last-place Las Vegas team.

"He looked like he had lost a little of his passion and energy, because of how bad that team is," said the scout, who has seen Rosario play many times in the past.

Rosario was still named to the Pacific Coast League All-Star team, which was announced Wednesday. He retweeted the announcement himself, and also retweeted this video of his game-winning triple for Las Vegas Tuesday night:

The Mets have been a sub-.500 team, too, but Wednesday's 8-0 win over the Miami Marlins was their fourth in the last five games. Meanwhile, the Colorado Rockies, current holders of the National League's final wild-card spot, have lost eight in a row.

The Mets remain 10 games behind the Rockies (and 11.5 games behind the first-place Washington Nationals in the NL East), but they're just approaching the halfway point of the schedule. Making up all that ground will be a challenge, particularly with four starting pitchers and a closer on the disabled list and with the front office already considering a midseason sell-off of veterans.

Perhaps Alderson's plan is to wait to see if he can trade Cabrera before calling Rosario up. Perhaps he and his staff really believe Rosario will benefit from more Triple-A time.

"We want to make sure when Rosario or any of our other top prospects come up, we don't want them to go back," Alderson said in a press conference during the Mets' last homestand.

Oh, you mean like Mike Trout, who went back to the minor leagues after his first major league call-up? He was Rookie of the Year the next year and could have been the Most Valuable Player.

Rosario isn't Trout, we don't think. But on MLB.com's current list of baseball's top prospects, he ranks third, behind Yoan Moncada of the Chicago White Sox and the injured Gleyber Torres of the New York Yankees. ESPN.com's Keith Law ranked Rosario even higher, putting him atop his list of prospects in April.

Law ranked Torres right behind Rosario. Third on the list was Cody Bellinger, who also began the season in the minor leagues.

The Los Angeles Dodgers called up Bellinger April 25. As you may have heard, he's had a little success since then, and the Dodgers have gone 43-16, going into Wednesday, since they added him to their lineup.

There's no guarantee Rosario would have the same impact. There's every reason in the world for the Mets to find out.

    

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

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Starlin Castro Has Gone from Cubs Castoff to New York All-Star

NEW YORK — The week begins with Starlin Castro back in Chicago, and it should end with Castro back in the All-Star Game.

The first barely matters. Castro went through all the back-home nostalgia last month at Wrigley Field. He and the New York Yankees will be on the South Side this time, playing the Chicago White Sox.

The All-Star part of the week? That should mean a lot for a player who came to the Yankees last year saying, "I just want to be the player I used to be."

He is that playerthe guy who was a three-time All-Star when he played for the Chicago Cubs. He should be an All-Star again when the teams are announced next Sunday. He's a .300 hitter (.315), just as he was in his best years with the Cubs, among the league leaders in hits.

"The guy's done nothing but hit," said an admiring American League scout who has watched Castro closely throughout his career.

He is the player he used to be, maybe even a better and more consistent version of it. Castro had a great April and a strong May. Even after a tough last week, he's hitting .295 in June.

"That's one of the best partsthe consistency," he said.

He has worked hard to maintain that, but he also stayed in the lineup while playing a month with a sore wrist. The Yankees decided to give him a cortisone shot Saturday, and Castro missed Sunday's 7-6 loss to the Texas Rangers. He said afterward he'll be back in the lineup against the White Sox on Monday night.

"He comes to play every day," the scout said. "There's something to be said for that, isn't there?"

There's a lot to be said for it, but by the end of Castro's six years with the Cubs, it seemed there was more to be said about his inconsistency and his lack of patience at the plate. When the Cubs had a chance to sign Ben Zobrist after the 2015 season, they couldn't wait to find a taker for Castro and the remaining $38 million on his contract.

But this isn't a story about a Cubs mistake. It can't be, not with a World Series title still fresh in everyone's mind and with Zobrist, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Ian Happ all available to play the infield spots that once belonged to Castro.

There's no reason for regrets at Wrigley and no reason to do anything but celebrate when Castro is an All-Star. As Cubs manager Joe Maddon said last month to reporters, "I like the guy a lot."

He'll no doubt say the same when he and Castro are both in Miami for the All-Star Game.

Like him or not, though, the Cubs didn't keep him. Castro was at a low point in his last year in Chicago—low enough that the "I just want to be the player I used to be" comment was easy to understand.

The trade has worked out for the Yankees, and it has worked out for Castro as well. The Yankees have allowed him to be a free swinger—his strikeout rate has been higher both years in New York than it ever was in Chicago—taking the swings and misses in exchange for the production that comes with it.

Besides, while Castro still strikes out and rarely walks—his 2017 walk rate of 4.8 percent is right at his career average—he is hitting the ball with enough authority to be productive. His weighted on-base average (wOBA), a FanGraphs stat designed to measure overall production, is .357, easily the best of his career.

"The last two years, he has looked under control," the scout said. "He looks so much happier than the last two years in Chicago."

Castro says he felt comfortable right away with the Yankees.

"Big team, big history," he said.

He's part of that history now, and he's given the Yankees reason to believe he can be part of their next team that wins. They still hope that can happen this season, and even with 10 losses in their last 12 games, the Yankees remain percentage points ahead of the Boston Red Sox in first place in the American League East.

They have a chance, thanks in significant part to the second baseman who is at least the player he used to be.

        

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

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