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

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

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

And it was also a challenge.

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

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

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

"That's pretty cool," Verlander said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

Then one day it did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Four things happened in August that changed the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even then, the chances of a deal seemed remote.

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

A few hours later, it was anything but quiet.


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

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

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

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

Fortunately, Avila was prepared for that, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

They're right there on the card.

 

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

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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

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

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

That's gone now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It all started with five words from Strasburg Wednesday morning

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

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

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

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

Fair or not, it was there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As TBS analyst Pedro Martinez tweeted after the game:

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

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

No one ever should have doubted that.

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

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

Oh, that changeup.

Check out this tweet from Inside Edge:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

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

Trea Turner wasn't always fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Everybody likes speed," Gonzalez said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Trea changed my whole thinking," Avent said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And everybody will be talking about how fast he is.

    

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

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

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

Trea Turner wasn't always fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Everybody likes speed," Gonzalez said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Trea changed my whole thinking," Avent said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And everybody will be talking about how fast he is.

    

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

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Aaron Judge Needed Just 1 Game to Start Writing Yankees Postseason Legend

NEW YORK — The kid is the star. He has been since April.

It's just as true in October.

You see it with all those shirts with No. 99 on them. You hear it when Aaron Judge comes to the plate at Yankee Stadium.

"Obviously, he's a guy [the fans] get excited about," Brett Gardner said. "We get excited about him, too."

The fans got excited again Tuesday. They chanted for Didi Gregorius and David Robertson and Gary Sanchez, all through an 8-4 New York Yankees win over the Minnesota Twins in the American League Wild Card Game.

But it was the 25-year-old outfielder who had them chanting, "M-V-P! M-V-P!" over and over and over again. They chanted his first time up, when his single played a part in the Yankees' key three-run first inning. They chanted in the fourth inning, when his laser of a home run (108.1 mph, according to Statcast) turned a close game into one the Yankees led a little more comfortably. They chanted again in the seventh inning, when Judge clobbered a pitch an incredible 116.5 mph, impressive even though it went foul.

The other guys may have been more important on this night—Gregorius with his huge three-run first-inning home run and Robertson with his 10 huge outs in relief. But the biggest star was still the guy who stands 6'7", and the fans let it be known.

"I didn't hear much," Judge said. "It was a loud crowd. I was so focused on the game."

He acknowledged having nerves before the first postseason game he ever played, with more to come this week now that the Yankees have advanced to play the Cleveland Indians, and probably a lot more after that, either later this month or in years to come.

"Once the first pitch was thrown, it was still the same ballgame," Judge said.

It sure was. It was the same game the Yankees have played for much of the year, at least after the blip of a first inning by starter Luis Severino. Going down three runs early and going to the bullpen one out into the game was obviously a little different, but a dominant bullpen, an impressive lineup and a rocket of a home run from the rookie right fielder was basically Yankees baseball 2017.

"Don't change a thing," Judge said. "Play our game."

The bigger stage didn't change him, but did you expect it to? This is a guy who had the attention of all the baseball world during All-Star week and came away as the star of the show. This is the guy who didn't get beat down by a serious midseason slump, rebounding with 15 home runs in 27 games in September.

He finished the season with 52, the most a major league rookie has ever hit. He finished with 33 home runs in 77 home games, beating Babe Ruth's record for the most ever by a Yankee.

He was a Statcast star way back in April, from the time a home run off Baltimore's Kevin Gausman was clocked at 119.4 mph. He had four of the five hardest-hit balls in the major leagues this season, according to the MLB.com metric. He hit the longest home run in the majors this season, too, a 495-foot shot off Logan Verrett of the Orioles on June 11.

And if you had any doubt about how popular he has become, just look around at all those Judge jerseys. MLB announced Tuesday that Judge led all of baseball this season in jersey sales. No other rookie even made the top 15.

He moved to a bigger stage Tuesday, the postseason stage that eventually tests all Yankees stars. Judge understands that playing for a franchise that has won 27 World Series means you'll be remembered most for what you do in October.

He's off to a good start, and so is his team. The Yankees hadn't won a postseason game since Game 5 of a 2012 American League Division Series, so even though they were expected to beat the Twins, this was a significant night.

"The place was rocking," Judge said. "They were electric from the first pitch on."

They were, but they were at their most electric every time a certain rookie right fielder stepped to the plate.

It's been that way all season. On the first night of baseball's postseason, it was still the same ballgame.

    

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

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Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

The Baby Bombers: We’re Witnessing the Beginning of MLB’s Next Powerhouse

NEW YORK — Alex Rodriguez was the cleanup hitter the last time the New York Yankees played a postseason game.

It was the 2015 American League Wild Card Game, and it felt like the end for a franchise that had been winning for two decades. The Houston Astros won 3-0, and they were the team on the rise. The Yankees had three hits. They were not.

Two years later, the American League Wild Card Game has come back to Yankee Stadium. But if 2015 felt like the end of something, 2017 feels like the beginning.

In 2015, the Yankees players who started the most games in the field and on the mound included just one player in his 20s. That was shortstop Didi Gregorius, and he's still here. But on this Yankees team, five of the nine players who will join Gregorius in the lineup against the Minnesota Twins Tuesday night are younger than he is.

A-Rod isn't here anymore. These are Aaron Judge's Yankees.

"It's an exciting time to be a Yankee," Judge said. "And an exciting time to be a Yankee fan. Bright future ahead."

Judge, 25, has been their best player, their MVP candidate. Gary Sanchez, 24, regularly bats third. Luis Severino, 23, leads the rotation.

This would be what rebuilding looks like, except for the win total (91). Even if all those wins and a spot in the postseason mean it can't be called rebuilding, it sure looks like something to build on.

It's interesting how it has all come together. It's impressive how it has happened so quickly, and without the 100-loss seasons and high draft picks that come with most rebuilding projects in this era. It helps to have tons of money to spend, obviously, but other high-payroll teams haven't been able to do what the Yankees have done. And it's hard to say those teams that accumulated prospects through trades and high draft picks have a brighter future than the Yankees do.

Midway through July, I was sitting at a minor league game with an American League scout who had just been through the Yankees farm system.

"Everyone is talking about the talent the White Sox have in the minors," the scout said. "But I don't think anybody has as much as the Yankees do."

That night, as I was driving home, the story broke that the Yankees had traded three of those prospects to the White Sox in exchange for relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle and third baseman Todd Frazier. Two weeks later, they traded three more prospects to the Oakland A's for starting pitcher Sonny Gray.

They made both deals without giving up any of the young players on their major league roster and without touching the players they considered the best in their system. They traded six minor leaguers and promoted others to the major leagues, and yet, according to scouts, their system is stronger now than it was before they dealt Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller in exchange for prospects last summer.

"There's a lot more to come," agreed Clint Frazier, who was one of those prospects acquired last summer (in the Miller deal with the Cleveland Indians). "It's going to be very exciting for a long time in this organization."

MLB.com ranks 20-year-old shortstop Gleyber Torres as the top prospect in all of baseball. Torres, who was part of the Chapman deal with the Chicago Cubs, was already at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre before an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery ended his season in June.

Beyond Torres, the Yankees have some promising pitchers (right-handers Chance Adams, Domingo Acevedo and Albert Abreu and left-hander Justus Sheffield) and some promising hitters (center fielder Estevan Florial and third baseman Miguel Andujar). A National League scout who saw Scranton/Wilkes-Barre said outfielders Billy McKinney and Jake Cave would already be in the big leagues with some other teams but have their paths blocked by even more talented players with the Yankees.

It's tempting to say this is a rerun of the mid-1990s, when the Yankees first made it to the postseason in 1995, the year Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte all debuted. But for this group to have anywhere near the success that group did, it'll need to develop, have lasting power and have the organization make the right decisions in building a team around it.

As in that era, the Yankees will have money to spend. Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported Sept. 21 that they intend to get under the $197 million luxury tax threshold in 2018, but that would only set them up to be able to spend big on the 2018-19 free-agent class, which is expected to include Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and possibly Clayton Kershaw, among others. With big money coming off the books after this season (CC Sabathia's deal runs out, as does the A-Rod contract the Yankees are still paying), the Yankees could reset their tax rate to a lower level while preparing to add one or two more stars.

Even this winter, they could go after Shohei Ohtani, assuming the two-way Japanese star follows through on reported plans to come to the major leagues. Ohtani's ability as a starting pitcher would be particularly attractive, because the rotation is probably the least certain part of the Yankees' future.

The current rotation is also a reminder of how quickly things can change. Severino looked like an ace of the future when he debuted in 2015, but by the end of 2016 there were people saying he would need to stay in the bullpen. Now he's the ace of the present, let alone the future.

He'll start against the Twins, when the Yankees go after their first postseason win since Oct. 12, 2012. That night, Sabathia pitched a four-hit complete game against the Baltimore Orioles in a winner-take-all Game 5 of an American League Division Series.

Jeter was the leadoff hitter. Robinson Cano batted third. Not one of the nine players in the order remains in the organization today.

Those Yankees, it turned out, had no future. Win or lose in the Wild Card Game, the Yankees who face the Twins should have a bright one.

                    

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

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J.D. Martinez Is MLB’s Hottest Home Run Machine as Postseason Looms

Danny Duffy would not be J.D. Martinez's favorite pitcher to face. The two met plenty of times in the American League Central. The first time, back in 2014, Martinez homered. In 23 plate appearances against Duffy since then, Martinez is 2-for-21 (.095) with no home runs and nine strikeouts.

You might say Duffy has Martinez figured out. And here's what he has figured:

"He seems to have really mastered his craft," the Kansas City Royals left-hander said this week. "He's a master of his gift. It's fun to watch, and on top of all that, he's a really good guy, too."

OK then. So even the guy Martinez struggles to hit realizes he is a pretty special hitter. And maybe we shouldn't be surprised by what Martinez has done in the 71 days since the Arizona Diamondbacks traded for Martinez in July. And maybe we should all take a moment off from watching Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge to see what J.D. Martinez is doing out there in Arizona.

What he did Wednesday was follow a two-run first-inning double with a second-inning grand slam as the Diamondbacks beat the Giants. What he has done since that July 19 trade with the Detroit Tigers is hit as many home runs as anyone in the major leagues. Martinez and Stanton each have 28 since then, and while it took Stanton 280 plate appearances to hit his, Martinez has his 28 in just 243 plate appearances.

Surprised?

"I'm not," Duffy said.

Some other people must be, given how few teams made any real attempt to trade for Martinez when the Tigers put him on the market in July. Tigers general manager Al Avila told reporters (including Chris McCosky of the Detroit News) his options were "somewhat limited," which is a nice way of saying no one but the Diamondbacks was offering anything (and they weren't offering much).

Good for the Diamondbacks and first-year general manager Mike Hazen, who wanted to find someone to hit behind star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and ended up with a guy who has outdone Goldschmidt in the second half. Goldschmidt's numbers since the trade have been outstanding (.285/.371/.565, with 15 home runs and 49 RBI in 60 games). It's just that Martinez's have been arguably the best in baseball (.303/.370/.752, with 28 home runs and 64 RBI in 58 games).

"He's been everything we'd hoped for and then some," D-backs manager Torey Lovullo said a few weeks back.

You'd have to believe some of those teams that passed on Martinez in July will be more interested when he becomes a free agent this winter. You'd have to believe plenty of them would rather not face Martinez and the Diamondbacks when the postseason opens next week.

The D-backs will be there for the first time since 2011, hosting the National League Wild Card Game Oct. 4. They'll be a dangerous opponent for whoever they meet, most likely the Colorado Rockies in the Wild Card Game and the Los Angeles Dodgers if they advance to the division series.

The Dodgers might remember Martinez. He's the guy who hit four home runs against them. In one game.

It was Sept. 4, it ended 13-0 to the Diamondbacks, and it began the D-backs' second three-game sweep of the Dodgers in two weeks. It wasn't long after that Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports quoted a rival official saying the D-backs were "simply a better team [than the Dodgers] right now."

It's not all Martinez. Robbie Ray came back from a month on the disabled list and has a 2.45 ERA in six starts, all of them Arizona wins. Reliever Archie Bradley has a 1.23 ERA since the start of August. Fernando Rodney has converted 18 of his last 19 save opportunities. Goldschmidt is a top candidate to be the National League's Most Valuable Player.

But Martinez was the one big midseason addition, and he's the one who has been the biggest difference-maker in the second half.

Not that it should come as a surprise. Two years ago with the Tigers, Martinez hit 38 home runs. In the first half of this season, he homered 16 times and had a 1.018 OPS.

"You could seemingly throw a four-seam running in to him at his kneecap, and he'll find a way to hit it out to right field," Duffy said.

Duffy knew it. Apparently the Diamondbacks did, too. They won't worry that other teams didn't.

They have Martinez, they're in the playoffs and some of those other teams aren't.

             

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

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Jacoby Ellsbury Has Gone from $153M Bust to Critical Yankees Playoff Race Spark

There was a time, not all that long ago, when Joe Girardi kept getting asked how he could afford to keep Jacoby Ellsbury in the New York Yankees lineup. There was a time, not long after that, when Ellsbury was sitting more than he was playing.

So if you want to understand how far Ellsbury has come in the last couple of months, all you need to know is this: Sunday, everybody wanted to know why Ellsbury wasn't in the Yankees lineup.

Just a day off, Girardi explained to reporters.

"I don't want to wear him down physically where his bat and his legs are not alive," the Yankees manager said, via MLB.com's Bryan Hoch on Twitter.

In other words, the Yankees really need Ellsbury these final two weeks of the season, if they're going to have any chance of catching the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. They really need Ellsbury in October, if they're going to have any chance of winning a postseason game for the first time since 2012.

He wasn't good enough to play in August. He's too important to risk wearing down in September.

Go ahead and bring up his contract if you want. Go ahead and wonder what the Yankees are going to do with him in the years to come, when they owe him more than $21 million a year for each season through 2020 (the year he turns 37).

That will be more than relevant again, at some point. It's totally irrelevant now, because the Yankees are trying to win something and Ellsbury's revival has given them a better chance of doing it.

Even Sunday, when Ellsbury was supposed to be getting a rest, he came on as a pinch hitter and later had a ninth-inning double that gave the Yankees a chance against Orioles closer Zach Britton. The Yankees lost, but it was another example of what Ellsbury has been doing for nearly a month now.

He got back in the lineup Aug. 26 against the Seattle Mariners, after starting just one of the five previous games. At the time he was hitting .237 for the season and just .186 since spending a month on the concussion disabled list.

Ellsbury had two hits that day, and two hits again the next day. The Yankees won both games. They've won 12 of the last 17 games he has started, and starting with that Aug. 26 game against the Mariners Ellsbury is hitting .381 and scoring nearly a run a game.

"He's just played extremely well," Girardi said. "Jacoby's been a big part of us winning [five] series in a row, the way he's played. He's going to continue to play."

Why is it happening now?

"Staying on the ball better," said an American League scout who saw the Yankees earlier this year and again this week.

Maybe the concussion he suffered running into an outfield wall May 24 had lingering effects that have gone away with the passage of more time. Maybe he had trouble getting going after missing so much time. Or maybe he's just having a good month in the midst of what has been a multiyear decline.

Whatever it is, Ellsbury deserves credit for keeping himself ready when he wasn't playing much. Girardi regularly praised him for keeping himself ready to play, and Ellsbury said last month that he knew no other way.

"I just prepare each day like I'm going to start," he said, at a time when he often wasn't starting. "I do everything I can in the video room and the batting cage, and in early work on the field. And then you're just ready when your number is called. You're just trying to help the team win. At the end of the day, that's what it's all about."

If Ellsbury ever makes things more complicated than that, he rarely shares it publicly. He didn't complain when he wasn't playing. He hasn't said all that much now that he is.

He got back in the lineup at a time when Aaron Judge was struggling and stayed in the lineup in part because Aaron Hicks got hurt again. He's certainly not going to win an MVP award, as he nearly did with the Red Sox in 2011, but he could be key in October, as he was when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2007 and 2013.

He scored 14 runs in 16 games in the 2013 postseason. He was still a good enough player that the Yankees seemed to be overpaying by only a bit when they gave him $153 million over seven years the same winter they drew a line on keeping Robinson Cano.

It turned out they overpaid by quite a bit. A $153 million player ought to be an All-Star once in a while, and Ellsbury hasn't been one in any of his four seasons in New York.

He's not an All-Star now, but he is a very important part of what is beginning to look like a very good team. Whatever he cost and whatever the Yankees still have left to pay, the fact is they need Jacoby Ellsbury.



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

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Struggles Show Dodgers Were Never Super Team, but They Don’t Have to Be

For three weeks now, the Cleveland Indians haven't lost. For nearly three weeks, the Los Angeles Dodgers have barely won.

For the season, the Dodgers still have more wins.

Keep that in mind, and keep in mind that years from now, what happened in August and what has happened in September won't be remembered nearly as much as whatever will happen this October (and the first few days of November). The Indians' 21-game winning streak has been ultra-impressive. The Dodgers' 16 losses in 17 games were ultra-puzzling.

But the Indians were already a real World Series contender, before their winning streak began. The Dodgers are still a real World Series contender, even after they went days without winning a game.

The Dodgers weren't the best team ever, not last month and obviously not this week. But they're going to be in the postseason and they're going there with a strong rotation, a deep and talented lineup and a strong enough bullpen to do the job.

They were never far better than every other team this year, let alone better than every other team all-time. They won more games than they probably should have for nearly four months, and they've lost more games than they should have the last three weeks.

Why did it happen? How could it happen?

It's hardly a satisfying answer to say it's the way baseball works, but it's the way baseball works. No one ever had a satisfying answer for how the 2011 Boston Red Sox could go from the best record in the American League on Aug. 27 to not even making the playoffs. No one ever had a satisfying answer for how the 2007 Colorado Rockies could go from a record that was barely over .500 on Sept. 15 to a 21-1 run that took them all the way to the World Series.

The Dodgers haven't lost anyone to injury since they won their 90th game before anyone else in the majors had won even 80. They've even got Cody Bellinger back from the disabled list since then.

They have the same starting pitchers they did then, the same relievers they had then.

Sure, Curtis Granderson has struggled (3-for-26 with no RBI during the 11-game losing streak), but he was always supposed to be the guy that gave the Dodgers an embarrassment of riches, not the guy they depended on to win. Sure, Yu Darvish had a couple bad starts, giving up five runs and not making it through the fifth inning in each, but the Dodgers had 11 games earlier this season when the starter gave up five and didn't make it through the fifth.

If the Dodgers fell apart because Clayton Kershaw got hurt, that would have been a huge concern for October. If they fell apart because Corey Seager tore up his knee or Justin Turner broke his hand, that would have been a problem.

That's not what happened. What happened was that Seager slumped (.525 OPS during the losing streak). Turner hasn't been as good in the second half of the season as he was in the first half. Kershaw didn't make it out of the fourth inning in one start, before returning to form and pitching the Dodgers to a streak-snapping win Tuesday night in San Francisco.

That win, incidentally, clinched a playoff spot for the Dodgers. That night, Kenley Jansen told Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times the incredible run of losing was "just part of baseball."

"I don't care how good the Indians are playing," Jansen said. "I don't care how good the Nationals are playing. We are still the best team in baseball."

The record says he's right.

The records also say no team has ever gone through even a 1-13 stretch and won the World Series. The Dodgers went 1-16 from Aug. 26 through Monday night.

No other team in baseball went 1-16 at any point this year, or last year. Then again, no other team in baseball went 44-7 through any 51-game stretch this year, last year or any year since the 1912 New York Giants.

For what it's worth, the 1912 Giants were never worse than 7-10 in any 17-game stretch. But they didn't win the World Series.

The 2017 Dodgers still could.

         

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

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Rhys Hoskins’ Historic Power Adds Yet Another Poster Child to MLB’s HR Explosion

We think we know all about MLB prospects nowwho's No. 1, who's No. 2 and all the way down to who's No. 100.

Then Rhys Hoskins comes around and shows us we don't know as much as we thought.

He should have been on those lists during the years when he wasn't, and he should have been higher up when he did get noticed. We should have known far more about him, well before he showed up with the Philadelphia Phillies in the second week of August and started hitting home runs in just about every game he played. We should have known long before Hoskins became the first player ever with 11 home runs in his first 64 major league at-bats.

His name should have been familiar, not something that still gets mispronounced with regularity. It's spelled R-H-Y-S, it's pronounced "Reece," and his father gave it to him because he had a friend with that name and liked it.

Rhys likes it, too.

"I think the uniqueness of it is something not everyone has," he said.

It should make him easy to remember, but somehow Hoskins kept slipping past us. Not just us, but college coaches who didn't offer him a scholarship—credit to Sacramento State coach Reggie Christiansen, the one guy who did—and to major league organizations that didn't draft him out of high school and let him slip all the way to the fifth round of the 2014 draft when he was a college junior.

That was the Kyle Schwarber draft, the Trea Turner draft, the Michael Conforto draft, the Bradley Zimmer draft. It's perfectly reasonable that Hoskins didn't get picked in front of any of them. They were all well-known first-round picks, while he was a offense-first first baseman at a smaller school. He only hit 25 home runs across three full college seasons.

He was a good hitter even then, but to believe in him, you had to believe there was power in there that had yet to develop. Fortunately for the Phillies, scout Joey Davis believed.

"Joey Davis did a nice job with that one," said Ruben Amaro, who was the Phillies' general manager at the time.

"He did a tremendous job," said Marti Wolever, who was then the Phillies' scouting director.

What all of us are seeing in Hoskins now, Davis saw back then.

"I was hoping he'd maybe be a poor man's Paul Goldschmidt," said Davis, who still scouts northern California for the Phillies. "I knew he was big and strong and that he'd work at it. I knew he was a good hitter with good balance, and that he always had good command of the strike zone."

He is big (6'4", 225 pounds) and strong, and he did work at it. Hoskins listened when Phillies minor league hitting coordinator Andy Tracy suggested adding a leg kick to his swing. He went to Australia one winter and to the Dominican Republic the next to get extra plate appearances.

The leg kick allowed him to keep his weight on his back leg, and it gave him a rhythm that allowed him more time to identify pitches to hit. He learned to pick out pitches he could drive out of the park, and he began driving them with regularity.

At Double-A Reading last year, Hoskins hit 38 home runs in 589 plate appearances. At Triple-A Lehigh Valley this year, he was leading the International League with 29 home runs in 475 plate appearances when the Phillies called him up.

"A big thing is knowing who I am and what pitches I can do damage with," Hoskins said.

Going into this season, MLB.com still didn't list him as one of the top 100 prospects in baseball. Even at midseason, he had only made it to 69th on the list.

He's better than that.

He's better because in an era where home runs matter so much, he can hit them with regularity. Entering play Wednesday, he had as many as Giancarlo Stanton over the last 24 days (12), more than anyone else in baseball.

He's better because in an era where home run hitters can be all-or-nothing guys, Hoskins is more than that. He has nearly as many walks (17) as strikeouts (18), and he has a 1.195 OPS that reflects those walks, those home runs and his .319 batting average.

"He doesn't like to strike out," Christiansen said. "He's never liked to strike out. Some of these guys are OK with it. He's not OK with it. He texted me the other day and said, 'This guy struck me out, and he shouldn't strike me out.'"

Yes, Hoskins still texts regularly with his college coach. He keeps in contact with Davis, the scout who believed in him. He regularly mentions the influence of his father, who taught him to play the game, and he thinks often of his mother, who died of cancer when he was still in high school.

"'I think if she was here, she'd be enjoying the heck out of all of this," he said.

He has the kind of personality that sticks with people who met him along the way, the kind that makes Christiansen and Davis stop what they're doing to catch nearly every one of his major league at-bats via MLB.com's phone app.

Hoskins has made a quick impact with the Phillies' major league staff, too.

"I've been so impressed with him," bullpen coach John McLaren said. "He's so well-grounded. When we first got him here, there was something special about him. I remember having the same feeling the first time I saw Trevor Hoffman. Or Alan Trammell. That's a pretty good comparison. He's so respectful of the game."

They learn more about him every day, about how he gave back some of his college scholarship money so Christiansen could add a much-needed pitcher, about how Davis became convinced Hoskins could make it when he saw him swing and miss against an Oregon State pitcher's 95 mph fastball.

"I wanted to see him really attack and let it go," Davis said. "It was a 3-1 count, and he swung like he wanted to hit it eight miles. I wanted to see that killer instinct, and there it was."

Davis had Hoskins better pegged than most, but even he got one thing wrong. In the report he sent the Phillies back in 2014, Davis listed Hoskins as "first base only," as in that's the only place he could play.

So even Davis was surprised when Hoskins played 20 of his first 26 major league games as a left fielder.

It was the position the Phillies had open after a few injuries. They had Tommy Joseph at first base. Hoskins had played just three minor league games in the outfield and hadn't played there since he was a college freshman—"He was not a good outfielder," Christiansen said—but that was the only way to get him in the lineup.

You know what? He's played the outfield just fine. He's shown so much aptitude that if the team wanted him to play there next year, Phillies outfield coach Juan Samuel said he has no doubt Hoskins could do it.

"He's a very smart kid," Samuel said. "He asks good questions. He throws to the right base. He picks up things quick."

He's brought life to a Phillies team that needed it. He's brought hope to an organization still struggling through a painful rebuilding process.

He's hit home runs at a pace never seen before.

How did we not see this coming?

 

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

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2-Way MLB Superstar Revolution Is Looming, but Can Anyone Make It Big?

Brendan McKay believes he can do this. He really does.

He can pitch and he can hit, and he can do both at a high level. He did it in the College World Series for the University of Louisville. He's been doing it this summer in the Class A New York-Penn League, in his first months as a professional in the Tampa Bay Rays organization.

He's hitting .220 in 31 games with the Hudson Valley Renegades, with four home runs. He has a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings.

"At this moment, I love both equally as much," McKay said. "I've been doing it for so long, for me it feels easy to do both."

Why would he think he should stop? Why, other than years and years of history where baseball has had hitters and baseball has had pitchers, but baseball hasn't had full-time pitchers who are also full-time hitters?

Matt Bush doubts anyone can do this.

"Very difficult," Bush said. "It's not high school or college anymore. You need to focus on one area and perfect it. It's hard enough to put in the time to be the best you can be at shortstop, or whatever."

Bush was picked first overall in the 2004 draft as a shortstop. He tried that path to the big leagues and only when it didn't work did he switch to pitching. Now he's a major league pitcher—a full-time major league pitcher who hasn't had as much as a single major league at-bat—with the Texas Rangers.

"One or the other is going to click," Bush said. "They're not going to be dominant at both."

For now, though, McKay can try. The Rays drafted him in the first round in June (fourth overall) and said right away they would at least initially give him a two-way chance. Two picks earlier in the first round, the Cincinnati Reds took Hunter Greene, another two-way prospect. He's doing both in the minor leagues, too.

 

Greene's professional pitching career consists so far of only one inning in the Rookie level Pioneer League, but according to 406mtsports.com, his sixth pitch for the Billings Mustangs was clocked at 100 mph.

With McKay and with Greene and with Shohei Ohtani, who has already been a two-way star at the top level of Japanese baseball, the prospect of a true two-way player in the major leagues is more real than it has been in decades. Ohtani, described by one MLB club official as the "best baseball player in the world" in a Scott Miller story for Bleacher Report in March, may jump to the major leagues as soon as this winter.

Thursday, when Ohtani pitched for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, scouts from 15 of the 30 major league teams were in attendance, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic.

One reason there were so many scouts: Ohtani was making just his second start as a pitcher this season, because of ankle and thigh injuries.

The risk of injury and the toll on the body of trying to play full-time as a hitter and work as a pitcher is one reason to doubt that anyone can do both in the major leagues. Even some scouts who believe Ohtani has the talent to make it as either a hitter or pitcher don't think he'll be able to (or be allowed to) try both at the same time.

Some major league players and coaches expressed even stronger doubts, not just about Ohtani, McKay and Greene, but also about anyone who would want to try.

"No chance," said Rangers pitching coach Doug Brocail, who pitched in the major leagues for 15 years (and hit .174, respectable for a pitcher, in 69 at-bats). "Look at all the work you have to put in to do just one of them. I don't see it happening. I'm not saying [McKay] is not a better athlete than most. But it's so difficult to do one thing. I don't see a guy being able to do both."

No one really has, not in the major leagues, not since Babe Ruth pitched 17 games and made 106 starts in the outfield for the 1919 Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox sold Ruth to the New York Yankees that winter, and he basically gave up pitching before he went on to become the best offensive player of his era.

There have been a few attempts since then, but no one who came anywhere close to making it big while doing both at the same time. Brooks Kieschnick's name sometimes comes up, but the two years he pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers, he started just three games in the outfield. Rick Ankiel went from pitching to hitting after he lost the ability to throw strikes, but he didn't do both at the same time, either.

Joe Maddon said he absolutely loved the versatility Travis Wood gave him with the Chicago Cubs, but even Maddon only used Wood as an outfielder three times all season (and as a pinch hitter or pinch runner a handful of other times).

The ever-creative Maddon is one major league manager willing to at least consider the idea of a true two-way player.

"I see nothing wrong with it," he said.

Maddon agreed it would be easier for an American League team, which could use the player as a designated hitter on the days he didn't pitch. As for a National League team, "they'd have to be in a position where they did limited throwing," he said.

McKay plays first base on the days he doesn't pitch for Hudson Valley. Greene was a shortstop in high school, but his limited appearances so far in pro ball have been either as a designated hitter or pitcher. Ohtani has been an outfielder at times in Japan, although since 2014 he almost exclusively has been a DH on days he didn't pitch.

"First base isn't going to take a whole lot out of you," said McKay, who played first base most days he didn't pitch at Louisville, although he would DH the day after he pitched.

The position question is another complication on the road to a true two-way player. To be able to do it and keep doing it, the guy is going to need to be a strong enough hitter that a team will decide DH at-bats should go to him and not someone else.

And in the case of McKay and Greene, will their offensive and pitching skills develop at a similar pace? In other words, will they be able to handle Double-A pitching as a hitter at the same time they'll be advanced enough to compete in Double-A on the mound?

"Obviously, there could be a time that one is ahead of the other," McKay agreed. "But they're typically close together."

McKay said that before the draft, several teams told him they were excited by the chance to let him both pitch and play a position. He was excited to be drafted by the Rays, a team that was open to the idea, just as he had chosen to go to Louisville in part because the Cardinals coaches told him he could try to do both.

He doesn't even think that makes him unique.

"If you show it could be done, I think it could open it up to other players, too," McKay said.

For now, most remain skeptical. Most are like Joey Gallo, who threw 97 mph as a high school pitcher but has never thrown even a single pitch since he signed his first professional contract in 2012.

"Pitching and hitting at this level would be tough," said Gallo, who plays first base for the Rangers. "I think eventually, they pick the one that's more advanced."

Gallo made his pick while he was still in high school. He said as many as 25 of the 30 teams wanted to sign him as a pitcher, but he was so determined to play every day that he wouldn't tell scouts what days he would be pitching.

"I'd literally hide, so they wouldn't see me pitch," he said. "Pitching was fun. I liked pitching a lot. I enjoyed being out there controlling the game. But I wanted to play every day. I liked playing the field. I liked hitting."

McKay does, too. He loves hitting. It's just that he loves pitching, too. For now, at age 21, he's still convinced he can eventually do both in the major leagues.

You'd think after all these years, someone would be able to do it. With McKay, Greene and Ohtani all seemingly ready to try, perhaps this is the time it happens.

 

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

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Curtis Granderson Gives Dodgers Embarrassment of Riches on Field, Leader off It

They were watching video the other day in the New York Mets clubhouse, not to get ready for a game but just out of personal interest. The Mets have traded away plenty of players who felt like family over the last few weeks, so it can take a while to keep track of how they're all doing with their new teams.

This was the day after Curtis Granderson hit his first home run with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and something stood out to the watching Mets.

It wasn't the swing. They'd seen plenty of Granderson swings over his four seasons in Queens.

It wasn't the ball hitting the right field foul pole. Granderson hit 95 home runs in his time with the Mets.

It was what happened after that.

"They celebrated like he had been there all year," Mets bench coach Dick Scott said. "That tells you something right there."

It tells you that even on a team with as much going for it as the Dodgers have going this season, Granderson was an instant and easy fit.

"I think Curtis fits in anywhere," said Jay Bruce, another ex-Met, who has been an instant and easy fit himself with the Cleveland Indians. "He's a professional. You know Curtis. You know what he stands for. You know that he epitomizes professionalism."

As much as it seemed the Dodgers didn't need any help—"I don't think we need anything," manager Dave Roberts had told reporters in mid-July—they did end up finding ways to upgrade. They did it in a big way by trading for pitcher Yu Darvish, but also in smaller ways by adding left-handed relievers Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani.

And by adding Granderson three weeks after the non-waiver trade deadline. His contract allowed him to pass through waivers, and the Dodgers got an outfielder who is more than just a spare part.

Granderson has played every day of late, with Cody Bellinger on the disabled list with a sprained right ankle. He has just four hits in 29 at-bats, but three of those were home runs. The first one broke up a Justin Verlander no-hit bid in the sixth inning Aug. 20 in Detroit. The next one was a grand slam that gave the Dodgers a seventh-inning lead the following night in Pittsburgh.

They watched tape of that one in the Mets clubhouse, too.

"It was all the talk: 'Hey, Grandy hit a grand slam,'" Scott said. "How cool is that?"

Scott calls Granderson "the most professional teammate I've ever been around."

Reliever Jerry Blevins, who has pitched for three teams in 11 big league seasons, says simply: "There's not a better personality to have in a clubhouse."

The Dodgers got Granderson for his left-handed bat, for his ability to play all three outfield spots and for the experience that comes from playing 14 years in the major leagues and making it to the playoffs in six of those seasons.

The Dodgers haven't been to the World Series since 1988. Granderson has been there twice, with two different teams.

"He's a big-game player; he's been on the big stage his entire career," Roberts told reporters, including MLB.com's Catherine Slonksnis, soon after Granderson arrived.

The Dodgers know that from experience. When they lost to the Mets in the National League Division Series two years ago, Daniel Murphy hit the big home runs, but Granderson hit .389 and drove in five runs in five games.

That same October, he homered three times in the World Series.

The Dodgers are built around their stars, but what turned them from good to great was how useful all the rest of their parts have been. Granderson becomes another one of those useful parts.

Beyond the big stage, though, there's what Granderson brings backstage. He's never been a vocal leader, but he's always been someone who knows the right thing to say at the right time to a teammate. He's not one to join a new team and try to change what it's doing, but the Dodgers weren't a team that needed changing.

As Bill Plunkett wrote a few weeks back in the Orange County Register, the Dodgers' clubhouse culture has changed dramatically over last two seasons.

"Thirteen and '14, we knew we were gifted. We knew we were talented," closer Kenley Jansen told Plunkett. "I hate to say it but '13 and '14 it was all superstars. Everybody wanted to be superstars. Everybody wanted the spotlight.

"This team, there's no comparison. No comparison. We know we have the talent, but it's like we're a unit, we're a family. This team, it's never about one guy."

That made it a perfect group for Granderson to join. But Scott contends any team would be improved by adding Granderson.

"He has universal respect around the league," Scott said. "Curtis could plug himself into any team in the league and fit right in. That is not easy to do. We've traded for guys here, and there's always a grace period.

"Curtis blends right away. He's always upbeat."

Scott thought back to two other Granderson videos, both posted on his @cgrand3 Twitter account. One went to Mets fans right after he found out he'd been traded. The next came from the dugout at Comerica Park, his message to Dodger fans:

"He's so genuine," Scott said. "He's one of a kind."

He'll help the Dodgers. He already has.

And back in New York, the Mets will be as happy for him as any ex-team could be.

How cool is that?

          

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

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Giancarlo Stanton’s Race for 62 Dubs Him King of MLB’s New Golden Home Run Era

Even for the people who watch Giancarlo Stanton every day, each at-bat is something to be savored. Even for the guys who see him close up, it never stops being special.

"Every time he comes up, you think he's going to pop one," said Perry Hill, whose perspective comes from the first base coaching box. "Every sound is loud. You think he's going to let one go every time he swings. I expect a loud sound."

That's what it's like. That's why it's special, this run the Miami Marlins slugger has been on since early July.

It's not true that he hits a home run every at-bat, or even every day. But that's what it feels like.

This is what home run history feels like, a special kind of daily anticipation that doesn't really come with any other kind of sports record. This is what Mark McGwire 1998 felt like, and though I wasn't around to see it myself, I've got to believe this is what Babe Ruth 1927 and Roger Maris 1961 felt like, too.

Those are the comparisons, as is Barry Bonds 2001, and if you want to make this into an argument over which number matters most, you might well be missing the point.

This is special. Enjoy it.

"He's creating the pace and the hoopla," Marlins infielder Mike Aviles said. "It's enjoyable coming to the park every day."

Stanton creates it with what he does with his bat, rather than with what he says. After some mildly interesting comments about the relative merits of 60, 61 and 73 last week in Miami, Stanton spent the weekend mostly avoiding the media and the issue while the Marlins were in New York. He apparently doesn't enjoy talking about this stuff, and to be honest, that's fine.

I'd rather watch him hit.

There's no real answer for it, anyway. As quite a few of Stanton's teammates agreed, 73 home runs (Bonds 2001) is the single-season record, tainted or not. At the same time, 61 (Maris 1961) is a more magical number for many or even most baseball fans. And 60 (Ruth 1927) is a number that lives on despite being eclipsed seven times now.

Heck, even 50 matters, because in 13 seasons since baseball began testing for drugs in 2005 and penalizing those who were caught, only seven players have reached 50 (none have reached 60).

Stanton has 46 with more than a month to go, so barring injury, he's certain to become the eighth.

"If he falls asleep the rest of the year, he's going to hit 50," Marlins manager Don Mattingly said.

And 60?

"Why not?" Mattingly said.


To get the latest on Giancarlo Stanton and the Marlins—all in one place—download the new B/R app.


Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna gave the same answer a couple weeks back about 70.

"He can get 70," Ozuna told Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald. "Why not? The way he's going right now?"

When Ozuna said 70, the way Stanton was going was a home run a day, one each day for six straight games. The way he was going then, 70 had to seem possible.

It seems a little less possible now. Stanton followed his six-game streak with three homerless games, before again homering in back-to-back games Sunday and Tuesday. He entered play Wednesday needing 24 home runs in 38 games to get to 70.

Even for him, that seems like a little too much. Do the math, though, and that means he needs 14 homers in 38 games to get to 60 and tie Ruth, or 16 in 38 games to get to 62 and top Maris.

So what's realistic? Well, since July 5, Stanton has started 40 games and hit 25 home runs.

So anything's possible.

"I have not seen a run of power hitting like this in my career," said Marlins catcher A.J. Ellis, who debuted in the major leagues in 2008. "Not from my team or from an opponent."

"For a month or so, he was as locked in as any hitter I've ever seen," said Marlins reliever Brad Ziegler, who came to the big leagues the same year as Ellis.

What amazes Ziegler even more is that Stanton has done all this while working with a different batting stance than the one he used for most of his career. He's more closed now, as David Adler explained in a fine story this week for MLB.com. While the new stance seems to be helping, Ziegler's point was that it's not easy to make such a significant change in the middle of the season this deep into a career.

Ziegler also has an interesting perspective on the 61 vs. 73 debate. He was in college at Missouri State in 1998, close enough to St. Louis that he couldn't avoid the McGwire hype that summer if he tried. He obviously understands what has happened since then, with revelations about McGwire's PED use and all the PED issues that surrounded Bonds, but he remembers the feeling of McGwire and Sammy Sosa and the chase for 62.

"Where the game was in '98, after the strike, we needed that," he said.

As Stanton himself pointed out in those comments last week, every home run number is the product of a great hitter but also a product of the times. Ruth hit 60 in an era before integration. Maris hit 61 the year baseball expanded and added pitchers who previously would have been in Triple-A. McGwire and Bonds hit 70 and 73 in the years before baseball began testing for steroids.

Even Stanton's 2017 number, whatever it ends up being, will be seen in the context of a season where home runs are up for everyone, with the talk of juiced baseballs that naturally comes with that.

It felt simpler two decades ago, even though it really wasn't. McGwire's run at Maris was a celebration of the game, and the week he got to 61 and then 62 was one of the most positive events (at the time) I've ever covered. Everyone was happy.

Everyone should be happy now, watching Stanton. Yes, it would be easier if he had a single number to chase, one that no one viewed as tainted. It would be easier if this all went on without any mental asterisks.

But take a step back as you follow Stanton and count the home runs over the weeks and games that remain. Or take a step forward, get a little closer to Perry Hill's perspective and just wait for the loud sound that is sure to come.

Watch and count and appreciate, because what Giancarlo Stanton is doing is something special.

"There's so many obsessed with who's best," Ziegler said. "It doesn't matter if he stops at 55. It's still a great year."

True enough. But wouldn't 60 or 62 or 73 be even greater?

 

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

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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.

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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.

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