Cardinals Blockbuster for Giancarlo Stanton Would Be Cubs’ Worst Nightmare

If the St. Louis Cardinals want to intimidate the Chicago Cubs, it would help to have some muscle.

This could explain their interest in Giancarlo Stanton.

Stanton, who uses his many muscles to hit many home runs, is still under contract with the Miami Marlins for a whopping $295 million over the next 10 years. But new Marlins owners Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter aren't hiding their desire to cut payroll, so any team with the capacity and desire to bring the 28-year-old right fielder aboard is welcome to do so.

According to Jon Morosi of MLB.com, the Cardinals are already among the most aggressive suitors:

To an extent, the Cardinals need Stanton the least. Their offense boasted six above-average hitters in 2017. That's twice the amount the Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants and Philadelphia Phillies had.

The catch is St. Louis' offense was mediocre anyway, as it finished seventh in the National League in runs and eighth in home runs and OPS. Although the depth was there, it lacked a superstar to tie it together.

As president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told reporters in October: "For us, we have a talented team, but when you look at our club, no one stood out as an All-Star, that threat. I think for all of us up here, it's trying to find what that might look like."

With Stanton, it would look pretty darn good.

This is a guy who owns a .914 career OPS and 267 home runs through eight major league seasons. He's coming off an MVP-caliber year highlighted by career bests in home runs (59), OPS (1.007) and wins above replacement (7.6, per Baseball Reference). Such numbers qualify him as a dandy upgrade for a right field slot that was a relative weakness in St. Louis, as the team got just a .764 OPS from the spot.

Of course, there are significant hurdles between the Cardinals and Stanton.

The Southern California native has a no-trade clause that he may or may not—Chad Jennings of the Boston Herald and Evan Drellich of NBC Sports Boston offered conflicting reports—use to block a trade to St. Louis. He also has an opt-out after 2020, which could cut a potential 10-year partnership down to a mere three-year pact.

In the meantime, the Marlins are playing hard to get.

According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, Jeter told reporters this week that it hasn't even been determined that Stanton will be moved. That could have something to do with their asking price, which ESPN's Buster Olney has heard is enormous:

Because Stanton is a franchise cornerstone who's coming off an epic season, Sherman and Jeter can't be blamed for putting an exorbitant asking price on his head. But even after the season he just had, it's uncertain whether he'll offer much value on top of what he's already set to earn.

I ran Stanton through the same valuation method that I ran the winter's top free agents through and found he projects to be worth about $260 million through 2027, $35 million less than he's owed. It might sound low, but it's reasonable in light of his history of injuries and performance fluctuations.

Between this and the fact that power isn't exactly a rare skill in today's MLB, the Marlins should have to eat some of Stanton's contract to land the prospects they crave.

That would make life easier for all his suitors, but perhaps the Cardinals in particular.

Shaving a few million dollars off his long-term cost would obviously make it easier to fit him into the club's payroll. St. Louis is projected for $126 million for 2018 after opening 2017 near $150 million, and it will gain additional wiggle room when Adam Wainwright's $19.5 million salary comes off the books after the upcoming season.

The Cardinals also have a strong farm system to draw from. B/R's Joel Reuter ranked it No. 11 in MLB in September, with talents such as right-handers Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty, catcher Carson Kelly and outfielder Tyler O'Neill leading the way. 

The Giants (No. 26 system) and Red Sox (No. 23 system) can't match the Cardinals in this arena. The Phillies are a good match in terms of both prospects (No. 7 system) and payroll space (seriously, though) but aren't the kind of winner Stanton is apparently desperate to play for.

Long story short: There's a deal to be made between Miami and St. Louis. 

A Stanton blockbuster wouldn't cure all the Cardinals' problems. They would still need to fill at least one vacant spot (Lance Lynn's) in their starting rotation, and perhaps two if the deal costs them Reyes. They would also still require fixes for a bullpen that was weak in 2017 and now looks like a real fixer-upper.

What a deal for Stanton would do, however, is elevate their offense to among the best in the National League. That alone would position them to build on last year's 83-win campaign.

As a bonus, it would also turn up the heat on the Cubs.

Chicago looked destined for long-term rule over the NL Central when it won 103 games and the World Series in 2016, but 2017 pulled the rug out from under that assumption. It was a struggle for the Cubs to win even 92 games, and it wasn't until late September that they pulled away from the Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers.

Further complicating matters is the Cubs will likely lose a good chunk of their team to free agency, including 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and ace closer Wade Davis. With $132 million already on their books for 2018, they don't have limitless funds with which to patch these holes. Nor do they have a deep farm system to pull from, as theirs has been steadily fished out in recent seasons.

So if St. Louis does land Stanton, the Cubs might not be able to respond with a similarly seismic move. Maybe that won't doom them to second-fiddle status, but it would doom them to a more level playing field.

With Stanton in their midst, that could prove to be merely the first in a series of victories for the Cardinals.

               

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference. Contract and payroll data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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MLB Turned NBA: Blockbuster Offseason Trade Ideas to Build ‘Superteams’

Today's Major League Baseball isn't all that dissimilar to today's National Basketball Association. They're leagues of haves and have-nots, wherein the latter are tanking while the former are loading up.

Thus, a Hot Stove hypothetical: What would it look like if a few MLB franchises took a cue from the most recent NBA offseason and used the winter trade market to put "superteams" together?

To recap: The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers swapped Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving, the Houston Rockets traded for Chris Paul, and the Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. All for the ostensible purpose of taking down the Golden State Warriors, the O.G. NBA superteam.

Could a wave such as this roll over MLB this winter?

Eh, probably not.

But, then again, maybe! 

It's plausible enough to entertain a few ideas, anyway. Going in order from least outrageous to most outrageous, let's look at six possible blockbusters that would super-fy six teams.

Begin Slideshow

Can J.D. Martinez Ride MLB-Best HR Pace to $200 Million Megadeal?

'Tis the season for holiday wish lists. Little boys and girls wish for the hottest new toys. Bigger boys and girls wish for a little peace and quiet.

J.D. Martinez, meanwhile, wishes for $200 million.

Or, at least, that's what mega-agent Scott Boras is wishing for on Martinez's behalf. This is according to ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick:

After a 2017 season in which Martinez, 30, tallied a 1.066 OPS and 45 home runs for the Detroit Tigers and Arizona Diamondbacks, he's certainly in a position to aim high for his first big free-agent payday. Boras is just the guy to aim high for him, not to mention just the guy to sell him in appropriately glowing terms.

Take it from Boras himself, who channeled his inner Leonard Maltin in sharing his thoughts on Martinez with Jon Morosi of MLB.com:

Beyond the slugging-percentage crown, Boras can also argue that his client was actually the best home run hitter of 2017.

Giancarlo Stanton (59) and Aaron Judge (52) may have hit more total homers, but Martinez hit his at a higher rate. He launched his 45 homers in only 489 plate appearances. Thus did 9.2 percent of his trips to the plate end in a long ball, the highest of any player who logged at least 400 plate appearances.

Player Total HR HR%
J.D. Martinez 45 9.2
Giancarlo Stanton 59 8.5
Joey Gallo 41 7.7
Aaron Judge 52 7.7
Cody Bellinger 39 7.1

Another thing that helps Boras' cause is that Martinez was barred from receiving a qualifying offer when he was traded from Detroit to Arizona in July. Because of that, he isn't tied to draft-pick compensation.

Of course, there's a world of difference between seeking $200 million and actually getting it.

My projections have Martinez pegged for a five-year contract worth $145 million. That's roughly where other prognosticators—e.g. MLB Trade Rumors and FanRag Sports—have him ending up. Ditto MLB executives surveyed by Crasnick.

The reasons to take the $200 million idea seriously, however, are twofold: Neither the willingness of teams to spend big bucks in free agency nor Boras' determination to acquire said big bucks should ever be underestimated.

Most valuations of Martinez see him as a $25-million-per-year player. That's not an outrageous number by the standards of MLB free agency. Boras can aim to push that number higher while seeking a seven-year contract that would take the total value near or over $200 million. 

Signing Martinez for seven years is a stretch, given his age, but not too far of a leap. Just since 2010, Matt Holliday, Jayson Werth, Albert Pujols, Jacoby Ellsbury, Robinson Cano, Shin-Soo Choo and Chris Davis all got seven-year deals that started in their 30s. Boras secured five of those.

Each of those players was a well-established star at the time. The same is true of Martinez now. His 2017 season was the latest stop in a run of success that began when he emerged with a revamped swing in 2014. He's averaged a .936 OPS and 32 homers over the last four seasons.

Perhaps emboldened by a juiced ball, modern hitters aim to keep the ball off the ground and hit it as hard as they can. Martinez handles both but is particularly good at the latter. Since 2015, his average fly ball exit velocity of 96 miles per hour is tied for fifth among qualified hitters.

However, this is also where Martinez's $200 million dream begins to crack.

The best equation for a big-money contract is one in which a player with specific skills meets a market with a widespread need for his specific skills. Unfortunately for Boras, he's tasked with selling Martinez's power at a time when power is everywhere.

The 2017 season set a new all-time mark for home runs, with 3.3 percent of all plate appearances producing a long ball. The 5.9-percentage point gap between Martinez's home run rate and the league's home run rate is big, but below the biggest gaps (notably 8.1 percent by Barry Bonds in 2001 and Babe Ruth in 1920) ever recorded by 40-homer sluggers.

Granted, extreme environments aren't necessarily guaranteed to hurt players with extreme skills. A good example would be pitching aces Jon Lester and Max Scherzer getting $155 million and $210 million, respectively, following a 2014 season that was the best year for starting pitchers in decades.

But Lester and Scherzer didn't just boast talent. They also boasted durability and reliability, two things that are becoming less common even as pitching dominance is becoming more common.

As it happens, durability and reliability are two areas where Martinez falls short.

Injuries have limited him to 239 games over the last two seasons. In the meantime, his usefulness outside the batter's box is diminishing. Whether one consults defensive runs saved or ultimate zone rating at FanGraphs, or Statcast's catch probability metric, there's no avoiding the conclusion that he's been a well-below-average fielder since 2016.

Martinez isn't without red flags, even within the batter's box. It's good that he's steadily adding patience to go with his power, as his walk rate is trending further above average. But it's not really helping to fix his strikeout rate, which is stuck too high.

These things suggest that Martinez is far from a foolproof long-term investment. Maybe that won't hurt his average annual value, but it should create a big gap in the contract years that Boras is seeking versus the contract years that teams are willing to dish out.

Lastly, the elephant in the room is the Plan B that Martinez suitors can turn to: Stanton.

Acquiring him and the $295 million remaining on his contract in a trade with the Miami Marlins would be costly, to say the least. But relative to Martinez, a fellow right fielder, it would mean getting an equally powerful hitter who's also younger and more athletic. This is a route that some of the top suitors for Martinez—such as the Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants—can afford to go.

Not all the stars are aligned for Boras to bag a $200 million deal for Martinez this winter. A much more likely scenario is him starting there, teams countering much lower, and then, eventually, a meeting in the middle.

                   

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Contract data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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Champion Astros Can Own MLB by Forming Keuchel-Verlander-Arrieta Super Rotation

In winning 101 regular-season games and the franchise's first-ever World Series championship, the Houston Astros ascended to the top of Major League Baseball in 2017.

Now they should aim for the moon by signing Jake Arrieta.

This isn't something they need to do. They already have co-aces Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel set to lead their starting rotation in 2018. Behind them are Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers Jr. and Brad Peacock. Should they choose to shift Peacock to a bullpen that could use a shutdown arm, Collin McHugh or Mike Fiers could slide in.

But then again, why stop at "good enough" when "even better" is within reach?

If the Astros can land Arrieta, their rotation would be headed by a trio of former Cy Young winners. Arrieta and Keuchel won in the National League and American League, respectively, in 2015. Verlander won his way back in 2011, but he should have won a second Cy Young in 2016.

The catch with Arrieta is how he's fallen from his Cy Young form.

In 2015, the right-hander was to hitters what John Wick is to henchmen, posting a 1.77 ERA over 229 innings. He then regressed to a 3.10 ERA over 197.1 innings in 2016, and then to a 3.53 ERA over 168.1 innings in 2017. Since he'll soon be 32 years old, these regressions can't be dismissed as random noise.

One bright side, however, is that even the 2017 Arrieta would have been a boon to Houston's rotation.

Although the late addition of Verlander helped stabilize things in time for the postseason, Astros manager A.J. Hinch spent much of 2017 improvising with his rotation. He used 11 different starters, among whom Fiers had the biggest workload with only 153.1 innings.

Despite how things look on paper, it shouldn't be assumed that Hinch is out of the woods. Keuchel, McCullers, Morton and McHugh (if needed) all come with durability questions. 

Another bright side is that both Arrieta's recent track record and the qualifying offer he received from the Chicago Cubs should drive down his price.

Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported in March that Arrieta and super-agent Scott Boras were looking for something "along the lines" of Max Scherzer's seven-year, $210 million contract with the Washington Nationals. Instead, he'll be lucky if he gets a four- or five-year deal worth half that.

Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Astros already have nearly $143.6 million projected on their books for 2018. That alone would shatter their $124.3 million Opening Day payroll from 2017 as their largest ever.

However, this isn't a wall between them and Arrieta. He figures to be much cheaper than fellow free-agent ace Yu Darvish, so he should therefore fit nicely into the club's plans to expand its payroll.

"We're probably going to have roughly a league-average payroll this year for the first time in a while, and I think that's going to continue to increase," Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow said in Februrary, per Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle. "And that helps. You need fuel to fuel the fire, and we've got plenty of resources right now."

The Astros can also afford the consequences tied to Arrieta's inevitable rejection of his qualifying offer. They didn't exceed the luxury tax in 2017, and they also receive revenue sharing, according to Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald. So, signing Arrieta would only cost them their third-highest pick in the 2018 draft.

There will, of course, be plenty of competition for Arrieta's services. But beyond the money and the golden opportunity to give some company to the 2016 World Series ring that he won with the Cubs, a few things could attract him to Houston.

One: The chance to return home and play for a team that employs one of his idols. The Plano, Texas, native has professed to being a fan of Nolan Ryan, who played nine seasons in Houston and now works for the Astros.

Two: The possibility that the Astros might do for his slider what they did for Verlander's slider.

As Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reported, the Astros welcomed Verlander by putting him in front of a high-speed camera that revealed a sub-optimal grip on his slider. One thing led to another, and the pitch gained devastating downward tilt to go with the high-80s velocity it already had.

Like so:

Including the postseason, opposing hitters managed just a .154 batting average against the 246 sliders that Verlander threw as an Astro.

Arrieta's slider is a different beast. Although he told Eno Sarris of FanGraphs in 2015 that he always uses the same grip, he can manipulate the spin to make it act like either a traditional slider with diving action or as a cutter with sharp glove-side run.

"I spin the ball the same almost every time," he said. "It's just grip pressure, effort on the pitch, all of that."

What's true either way, though, is that the slider doesn't loom as large in Arrieta's repertoire as it used to.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant, here's a look at how the usage and effectiveness (as measured by whiffs and "poor" contact) of Arrieta's slider has progressed over the last three seasons:

It peaked in usage in the first half of 2015 before finding a perfect equilibrium between usage and effectiveness in the second half of the year, when he went on an all-time great tear.

Ever since then, however, it's been a downhill ride for its usage and a mostly downhill ride for its effectiveness. Arrieta's overall effectiveness has paid the price.

Granted, this could be a case of the veteran trying to save his arm from the health risks associated with heavy slider usage. But since it's become slower and has, at times, also looked a lot flatter than it did at its peak, there are things Houston's toys might be able to help.

Even if all the Astros get in the end is something like the 2016 or 2017 version of Arrieta, they would still occupy the No. 3 slot in their rotation with an outstanding starter. At a time when good starters are increasingly difficult to come by, that alone would constitute a huge advantage.

And if the Astros managed to turn Arrieta back into an ace, their 2017 title likely wouldn't be their last.

                

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

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Champion Astros Can Own MLB by Forming Keuchel-Verlander-Arrieta Super Rotation

In winning 101 regular-season games and the franchise's first-ever World Series championship, the Houston Astros ascended to the top of Major League Baseball in 2017.

Now they should aim for the moon by signing Jake Arrieta.

This isn't something they need to do. They already have co-aces Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel set to lead their starting rotation in 2018. Behind them are Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers Jr. and Brad Peacock. Should they choose to shift Peacock to a bullpen that could use a shutdown arm, Collin McHugh or Mike Fiers could slide in.

But then again, why stop at "good enough" when "even better" is within reach?

If the Astros can land Arrieta, their rotation would be headed by a trio of former Cy Young winners. Arrieta and Keuchel won in the National League and American League, respectively, in 2015. Verlander won his way back in 2011, but he should have won a second Cy Young in 2016.

The catch with Arrieta is how he's fallen from his Cy Young form.

In 2015, the right-hander was to hitters what John Wick is to henchmen, posting a 1.77 ERA over 229 innings. He then regressed to a 3.10 ERA over 197.1 innings in 2016, and then to a 3.53 ERA over 168.1 innings in 2017. Since he'll soon be 32 years old, these regressions can't be dismissed as random noise.

One bright side, however, is that even the 2017 Arrieta would have been a boon to Houston's rotation.

Although the late addition of Verlander helped stabilize things in time for the postseason, Astros manager A.J. Hinch spent much of 2017 improvising with his rotation. He used 11 different starters, among whom Fiers had the biggest workload with only 153.1 innings.

Despite how things look on paper, it shouldn't be assumed that Hinch is out of the woods. Keuchel, McCullers, Morton and McHugh (if needed) all come with durability questions. 

Another bright side is that both Arrieta's recent track record and the qualifying offer he received from the Chicago Cubs should drive down his price.

Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported in March that Arrieta and super-agent Scott Boras were looking for something "along the lines" of Max Scherzer's seven-year, $210 million contract with the Washington Nationals. Instead, he'll be lucky if he gets a four- or five-year deal worth half that.

Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Astros already have nearly $143.6 million projected on their books for 2018. That alone would shatter their $124.3 million Opening Day payroll from 2017 as their largest ever.

However, this isn't a wall between them and Arrieta. He figures to be much cheaper than fellow free-agent ace Yu Darvish, so he should therefore fit nicely into the club's plans to expand its payroll.

"We're probably going to have roughly a league-average payroll this year for the first time in a while, and I think that's going to continue to increase," Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow said in Februrary, per Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle. "And that helps. You need fuel to fuel the fire, and we've got plenty of resources right now."

The Astros can also afford the consequences tied to Arrieta's inevitable rejection of his qualifying offer. They didn't exceed the luxury tax in 2017, and they also receive revenue sharing, according to Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald. So, signing Arrieta would only cost them their third-highest pick in the 2018 draft.

There will, of course, be plenty of competition for Arrieta's services. But beyond the money and the golden opportunity to give some company to the 2016 World Series ring that he won with the Cubs, a few things could attract him to Houston.

One: The chance to return home and play for a team that employs one of his idols. The Plano, Texas, native has professed to being a fan of Nolan Ryan, who played nine seasons in Houston and now works for the Astros.

Two: The possibility that the Astros might do for his slider what they did for Verlander's slider.

As Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reported, the Astros welcomed Verlander by putting him in front of a high-speed camera that revealed a sub-optimal grip on his slider. One thing led to another, and the pitch gained devastating downward tilt to go with the high-80s velocity it already had.

Like so:

Including the postseason, opposing hitters managed just a .154 batting average against the 246 sliders that Verlander threw as an Astro.

Arrieta's slider is a different beast. Although he told Eno Sarris of FanGraphs in 2015 that he always uses the same grip, he can manipulate the spin to make it act like either a traditional slider with diving action or as a cutter with sharp glove-side run.

"I spin the ball the same almost every time," he said. "It's just grip pressure, effort on the pitch, all of that."

What's true either way, though, is that the slider doesn't loom as large in Arrieta's repertoire as it used to.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant, here's a look at how the usage and effectiveness (as measured by whiffs and "poor" contact) of Arrieta's slider has progressed over the last three seasons:

It peaked in usage in the first half of 2015 before finding a perfect equilibrium between usage and effectiveness in the second half of the year, when he went on an all-time great tear.

Ever since then, however, it's been a downhill ride for its usage and a mostly downhill ride for its effectiveness. Arrieta's overall effectiveness has paid the price.

Granted, this could be a case of the veteran trying to save his arm from the health risks associated with heavy slider usage. But since it's become slower and has, at times, also looked a lot flatter than it did at its peak, there are things Houston's toys might be able to help.

Even if all the Astros get in the end is something like the 2016 or 2017 version of Arrieta, they would still occupy the No. 3 slot in their rotation with an outstanding starter. At a time when good starters are increasingly difficult to come by, that alone would constitute a huge advantage.

And if the Astros managed to turn Arrieta back into an ace, their 2017 title likely wouldn't be their last.

                

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

The Cubs’ Path to Reuniting MLB MVPs Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant

Following a 2017 season in which much went wrong, the Chicago Cubs have a lot to figure out this winter.

It also isn't too early to hammer out a plan for reuniting Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant.

As he has been for all six of his major league seasons, Harper will be under the employ of the Washington Nationals in 2018. The Nationals locked him in for $21.65 million, a new record for an arbitration-eligible player, in May.

That deal did nothing to delay Harper's free agency, however. He's still ticketed to hit the open market after 2018, which would set off the hottest free-agent sweepstakes in Major League Baseball history.

Harper, 25, is roughly three years younger than fellow superstar right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, who's the holder of the biggest contract in sports history at 13 years and $325 million. The Washington man's career averages include a .902 OPS, 25 home runs and 4.4 wins above replacement per season. He was named MVP in 2015 and might be the favorite for another this year had he not missed 41 games with a knee injury.

All Harper must do in 2018 is stay healthy—which, given his track record, will be the hard part—and otherwise be himself. If he does, he and superagent Scott Boras will have a shot at realizing the oft-mentioned hypothetical contract worth $400 million or even $500 million.

The Cubs are a reasonable entry in a not-so-long list of possible suitors for Harper. And according to internet gossip, any interest would be mutual.

As Tony Andracki covered at NBC Sports, Harper has teased a move to Chicago by openly flaunting his appreciation for Chicago sports teams and for the home of the Cubs themselves. Notably, he has a dog named "Wrigley."

Then there's his relationship with Bryant.

The two former MVPs are just a year apart in age and, once upon a time, played as teammates and opponents during their youth baseball days in Las Vegas. They and their wives are good friends, and both parties have cranked the rumor mill with Instagram hashtags like #HarpertotheCubs and #Back2BackOneDay.

All this could be mere trolling largely perpetrated by a troll king.

"I do that to the media because they stir it more than I do," Harper said in July, per Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post. "That's why I do the things I do at times, because it's funny to me. It's like, 'All right, people want to talk about this and talk about that. Why not just throw this out there and make them think about it?'"

But even that quote might be an attempt to mislead. Legendary baseball reporter Peter Gammons has heard Harper's preference is indeed to end up in Chicago. So has FanRag Sports' Jon Heyman, who wrote on October 26: "There continue to be whispers that Bryce Harper could eventually wind up with the Cubs."

Chicago is far from finished with a contention window that, just over the past three years, has produced 292 regular-season wins, two NL Central titles and a long-awaited World Series championship in 2016. It also has pockets deep enough for two straight $170-plus million payrolls.

They are a natural fit for Harper to those extents, but they don't stack up as well in future financial flexibility. As seen here, they place toward the high end of the spectrum for 2019 payroll commitments:

This is assuming Jason Heyward declines to opt out of the five years and $106 million remaining on his deal after 2018. And not pictured are the other expenses the Cubs will have after 2018.

They are all but certain to pick up the 2019 options for Jose Quintana ($10.5 million) and Pedro Strop ($6.25 million). And with Bryant, Kyle Hendricks, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber slated for arbitration, Chicago's arbitration payouts for 2019 should eclipse even Cot's Baseball Contracts' projection of $35.5 million for 2018.

That doesn't leave much room for a $30 million to $40 million-per-year player. There would be even less if the Cubs break the bank to patch more immediate needs this winter.

They need starting pitchers to occupy the slots left open by Jake Arrieta's and John Lackey's free agency. They must also address a bullpen that was weak even with ace closer Wade Davis, who's also a free agent.

A reunion with Davis is doable, but it will cost the Cubs quite a bit more to either reunite with Arrieta or to fill his shoes will fellow free-agent ace Yu Darvish. A wiser play would be to go to the trade market. In Russell, Baez, Schwarber and Happ, the Cubs have pieces to pursue a deal for top-flight starters—such as Chris Archer or Michael Fulmer.

The Cubs could also score a relatively cheap coup by landing Japanese flamethrower/slugger Shohei Otani. But as Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported, uncertainty over MLB's posting system has created doubts as to whether Otani will be available this winter.

But if not, oh well.

Some affordable options for Chicago's rotation include Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner, Jaime Garcia, Jason Vargas and Jeremy Hellickson, each of whom is a pitch-to-contact type who could thrive in front of the excellent Cubs defense. Fits on the relief front include Brandon Morrow, Jake McGee, Pat Neshek, Anthony Swarzak, Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler.

All told, the Cubs have plenty of options to make necessary improvements for 2018 while also keeping the door open for Harper to join up for 2019 and beyond. And while they would have competition in that arena, a couple things could have the fortunate effect of lightening it.

For one, it's likely Stanton will soon be traded to a team that might otherwise have Harper in its sights. The list includes the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and Philadelphia Phillies.

For two, the long-since-cemented assumption the New York Yankees will go all out for Harper doesn't hold as much water anymore. In Aaron Judge, they have an elite right fielder who might soon be Harper's equal in MVPs and who might already be his equal in marketability.

So even if it's not quite a straight path, there is a route for Harper to join Bryant on the North Side of Chicago. If the Cubs can avoid blocking it or altering it, they would stand to eventually benefit from it.

                

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference. Payroll and contract data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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Dodgers Should Go All-In on $295M Giancarlo Stanton Trade Blockbuster

Although their latest attempt was their best yet, the Los Angeles Dodgers still haven't cracked the code for how to bring home their first World Series championship since 1988.

There's a hulking Southern California native in Miami who looks like a missing variable. All the Dodgers have to do is go get him.

His name is Giancarlo Stanton, a right fielder who spent 2017 living a double life as a slugger of 59 home runs and as a living, breathing trade rumor. The soon-to-be 28-year-old will take a break from one of these lives during the offseason, but not from the other.

According to Barry Jackson and Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald, new Miami Marlins owners Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter want to get the club's payroll down to $90 million for 2018. That's no easy task, as it's roughly $40 million lower than their current projection.

Moving Stanton and the remainder of his 13-year, $325 million contract would go a long way toward doing the trick. But merely saying as much is the easy part.

Not too much has changed since the many parameters of a potential Stanton trade back were broken down on B/R in July. He's still owed $295 million over the next 10 years. His contract still contains an opt-out after 2020. And he still holds full no-trade rights.

Year Age Salary
2018 28 $25,000,000
2019 29 $26,000,000
2020 30 $26,000,000
2021 31 $29,000,000
2022 32 $29,000,000
2023 33 $32,000,000
2024 34 $32,000,000
2025 35 $32,000,000
2026 36 $29,000,000
2027 37 $25,000,000
2028 38 $25M Option, $10M Buyout

All this amounts to one of the most immovable contracts in MLB

But thanks to none other than Stanton himself, it has become less immovable than it used to be.

Through July 4 of this year, he was sitting on an .870 OPS for the season and an .838 OPS since the start of 2016. Good numbers, to be sure—just not numbers befitting a player with the largest contract in sports history.

But then came the barrage.

In 78 games after July 5, Stanton tallied a 1.150 OPS and cranked 38 homers. This was the result of a mechanical change that allowed him to make more efficient use of his prodigious power. It may not have led to the hallowed grounds of 60 home runs, but it was nonetheless a historic season that cemented him as arguably (Aaron Judge says "hi") MLB's top slugger.

That makes the sheer size of his contract considerably less scary. Meanwhile, his no-trade clause is less a hurdle in reality than it is in theory.

Stanton has long been adamant his top priority is to play for a contender and that he has no interest in waiting for the Marlins to build one around him. As he told Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports in September: "I don't want to rebuild...I've lost for seven years."

Because MLB is a league of haves and have-nots, that narrows down the list of teams that might merit Stanton's approval. He was even willing to dish on a couple in a recent interview with Jimmy Kimmel, including his hometown team.

"I grew up a Dodgers fan, if that's where they want to go," said Stanton, who went to high school not far from Dodger Stadium at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California.

Do the Dodgers need Stanton? Well, they just won 104 regular-season games and came within one win of taking home the World Series. They are also set to return almost all the key players who made it happen. So "need" is a strong word.

But if nothing else, dealing for Stanton would allow the Dodgers to deny the enemy. It would keep him from the San Francisco Giants, whom Heyman rates as the early favorite for the slugger.

More to the point, Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi shouldn't perceive themselves to be in a position to leave good enough alone. What's there is good enough to get to the World Series. But it's evidently not good enough to win it.

If the Dodgers are going to upgrade this winter, they must prioritize their run production over their run prevention. Whereas they were first in the National League in runs allowed, they were only sixth in runs scored. Their offense couldn't measure up to the Houston Astros' offense in the World Series.

The outfield is the ideal place to target for upgrades, as it's most in danger of an offensive regression. Joc Pederson's weaknesses were exposed in 2017. Yasiel Puig outperformed his recent offensive track record. Chris Taylor drastically outperformed his entire offensive track record. Swapping out one of them for Stanton would greatly reduce the regression risk.

More so than his bat, a bigger complication is how the Dodgers might accommodate Stanton's contract.

They are no strangers to spending, having dropped over $1.2 billion on their five most recent Opening Day payrolls. But Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times reported in November 2016 that the club is under an MLB mandate to cut its debt. To do so, they are expected to reduce their payroll to $200 million in 2018. As of now, they are projected for over $200 million.

Still, the Dodgers are one of the few teams with pockets deep enough for Stanton's contract. They also have some big contracts set to expire after 2018—those of Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy—that they could push on the Marlins to help offset the cost.

Failing that, Los Angeles might decide to push its payroll-cutting goal to 2019 and explore other trades with Miami.

One would be to dangle prospects from a farm system that B/R's Joel Reuter ranked at No. 9 in MLB. Another would be to base a trade around a young, controllable player who's already established. A Puig-for-Stanton swap might work. So might a Pederson-for-Stanton swap.

Because the Dodgers don't have the biggest need for Stanton, they won't be the team to beat when the sweepstakes heats up. Teams like the Giants, Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies figure to be more aggressive suitors.

But the Dodgers are the team that others should be the most worried about. Because if they decide to go all-in for Stanton, their World Series code will be as good as cracked.

            

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Contract and payroll data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Dodgers Should Go All-In on $295M Giancarlo Stanton Trade Blockbuster

Although their latest attempt was their best yet, the Los Angeles Dodgers still haven't cracked the code for how to bring home their first World Series championship since 1988.

There's a hulking Southern California native in Miami who looks like a missing variable. All the Dodgers have to do is go get him.

His name is Giancarlo Stanton, a right fielder who spent 2017 living a double life as a slugger of 59 home runs and as a living, breathing trade rumor. The soon-to-be 28-year-old will take a break from one of these lives during the offseason, but not from the other.

According to Barry Jackson and Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald, new Miami Marlins owners Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter want to get the club's payroll down to $90 million for 2018. That's no easy task, as it's roughly $40 million lower than their current projection.

Moving Stanton and the remainder of his 13-year, $325 million contract would go a long way toward doing the trick. But merely saying as much is the easy part.

Not too much has changed since the many parameters of a potential Stanton trade back were broken down on B/R in July. He's still owed $295 million over the next 10 years. His contract still contains an opt-out after 2020. And he still holds full no-trade rights.

Year Age Salary
2018 28 $25,000,000
2019 29 $26,000,000
2020 30 $26,000,000
2021 31 $29,000,000
2022 32 $29,000,000
2023 33 $32,000,000
2024 34 $32,000,000
2025 35 $32,000,000
2026 36 $29,000,000
2027 37 $25,000,000
2028 38 $25M Option, $10M Buyout

All this amounts to one of the most immovable contracts in MLB

But thanks to none other than Stanton himself, it has become less immovable than it used to be.

Through July 4 of this year, he was sitting on an .870 OPS for the season and an .838 OPS since the start of 2016. Good numbers, to be sure—just not numbers befitting a player with the largest contract in sports history.

But then came the barrage.

In 78 games after July 5, Stanton tallied a 1.150 OPS and cranked 38 homers. This was the result of a mechanical change that allowed him to make more efficient use of his prodigious power. It may not have led to the hallowed grounds of 60 home runs, but it was nonetheless a historic season that cemented him as arguably (Aaron Judge says "hi") MLB's top slugger.

That makes the sheer size of his contract considerably less scary. Meanwhile, his no-trade clause is less a hurdle in reality than it is in theory.

Stanton has long been adamant his top priority is to play for a contender and that he has no interest in waiting for the Marlins to build one around him. As he told Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports in September: "I don't want to rebuild...I've lost for seven years."

Because MLB is a league of haves and have-nots, that narrows down the list of teams that might merit Stanton's approval. He was even willing to dish on a couple in a recent interview with Jimmy Kimmel, including his hometown team.

"I grew up a Dodgers fan, if that's where they want to go," said Stanton, who went to high school not far from Dodger Stadium at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California.

Do the Dodgers need Stanton? Well, they just won 104 regular-season games and came within one win of taking home the World Series. They are also set to return almost all the key players who made it happen. So "need" is a strong word.

But if nothing else, dealing for Stanton would allow the Dodgers to deny the enemy. It would keep him from the San Francisco Giants, whom Heyman rates as the early favorite for the slugger.

More to the point, Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi shouldn't perceive themselves to be in a position to leave good enough alone. What's there is good enough to get to the World Series. But it's evidently not good enough to win it.

If the Dodgers are going to upgrade this winter, they must prioritize their run production over their run prevention. Whereas they were first in the National League in runs allowed, they were only sixth in runs scored. Their offense couldn't measure up to the Houston Astros' offense in the World Series.

The outfield is the ideal place to target for upgrades, as it's most in danger of an offensive regression. Joc Pederson's weaknesses were exposed in 2017. Yasiel Puig outperformed his recent offensive track record. Chris Taylor drastically outperformed his entire offensive track record. Swapping out one of them for Stanton would greatly reduce the regression risk.

More so than his bat, a bigger complication is how the Dodgers might accommodate Stanton's contract.

They are no strangers to spending, having dropped over $1.2 billion on their five most recent Opening Day payrolls. But Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times reported in November 2016 that the club is under an MLB mandate to cut its debt. To do so, they are expected to reduce their payroll to $200 million in 2018. As of now, they are projected for over $200 million.

Still, the Dodgers are one of the few teams with pockets deep enough for Stanton's contract. They also have some big contracts set to expire after 2018—those of Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy—that they could push on the Marlins to help offset the cost.

Failing that, Los Angeles might decide to push its payroll-cutting goal to 2019 and explore other trades with Miami.

One would be to dangle prospects from a farm system that B/R's Joel Reuter ranked at No. 9 in MLB. Another would be to base a trade around a young, controllable player who's already established. A Puig-for-Stanton swap might work. So might a Pederson-for-Stanton swap.

Because the Dodgers don't have the biggest need for Stanton, they won't be the team to beat when the sweepstakes heats up. Teams like the Giants, Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies figure to be more aggressive suitors.

But the Dodgers are the team that others should be the most worried about. Because if they decide to go all-in for Stanton, their World Series code will be as good as cracked.

            

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Contract and payroll data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

No One’s Safe from Blame as Dodgers Blow Chance to Grab Epic World Series Title

The Los Angeles Dodgers came oh so close to winning their first World Series in 29 years. Close enough to touch it. Heck, close enough to taste it.

Instead, the only thing they're tasting is defeat.

The Houston Astros put the lid on the Dodgers coffin early in Wednesday's Game 7, jetting out to a 5-0 lead in the second inning. That turned the capacity crowd at Dodger Stadium from stoked to stunned, and then it was just a matter of pounding in the nails.

Seven innings and one Dodgers run later, the Astros did just that. They are World Series champions for the first time in their 56-year history.

If there's any comfort in defeat for the Dodgers, it's that they lost to a worthy foe.

Nobody did better than the Dodgers' 104 wins in the regular season, but the Astros came close with 101 wins of their own. Their engine was one of the greatest offenses in Major League Baseball history. Led by series MVP George Springer and his five home runs, they gave the Dodgers a healthy dose of that offense in hitting 15 of the series' record-setting 25 homers.

There's also comfort to be had in the reality that the Dodgers didn't roll over for the Astros. The series did go to a Game 7, after all. The Dodgers also scored exactly as many runs (34) as the Astros in the end.

And while the series ended in a relative dud, the whole shebang will not soon be forgotten. Using The Baseball Gauge's "Championship Win Probability Added" metric, it ranks as the fifth-most dramatic World Series of the expansion era (since 1961). As Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight noted, Games 2 and 5, in particular, rank among the best World Series games ever played.

It is with those two games, however, that the Dodgers' list of regrets begins. 

In Game 2, they turned a 3-1 lead and, according to FanGraphs, a peak win expectancy of 93 percent into a 7-6 loss in 11 innings:

Later in Game 5, the Dodgers had an early 4-0 lead an a win expectancy of 76.1 percent as late as the seventh inning. Both went down the drain in a 13-12 loss in 10 innings:

The easiest target to blame for these two losses is manager Dave Roberts, who does deserve his share.

Taking Rich Hill out after only four innings in Game 2 put a heavy burden on the club's bullpen. He also paid for asking Brandon Morrow to pitch for the third time in as many days in Game 5, as it took him only six pitches to turn an 8-7 lead into an 11-8 deficit.

And the blame on Roberts doesn't end there.

Whereas he was quick with the hook for Hill in Game 2, he was too slow with it for Yu Darvish in Game 7. Although the right-hander was clearly struggling and already in a 3-0 hole in the second inning, Roberts let him face Springer for a second time. Springer launched a two-run homer that practically put the game on ice.

But to blame Roberts exclusively for the Dodgers' failure is to forget that a manager is only as good as his players.

Above all, Darvish must not escape a scolding. The Dodgers got him in a trade-deadline blockbuster to be a finishing touch for their World Series quest. But in two chances to hold up his end of the bargain, he allowed a total of nine runs in 3.1 innings.

Fellow ace Clayton Kershaw isn't blameless in his own right. He bookended his first World Series with a dominant start in Game 1 and a clutch four-inning relief appearance in Game 7, but in between was a six-run dud in Game 5.

Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers' ace closer, has a black mark next to his name, too. He fumbled the two-run lead he was handed in Game 2 and was on the mound when the Game 5 roller coaster finally ended.

And while the Dodgers may have scored as many runs as the Astros, their runs didn't come as easily.

The list of Astros hitters who played a starring role in the World Series doesn't end with Springer. Jose Altuve, the likely American League MVP, hit two home runs. So did Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel.

For the Dodgers, only Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig went deep more than once in the series, and Puig's homers accounted for half his hits. Fellow stars Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Chris Taylor each had their moments, but none was a steady threat throughout the series.

The offense's collective struggle was crystallized in Game 7. The chances to score runs were there, as they took 13 at-bats with runners in scoring position. But Andre Ethier provided the only hit, and it wasn't the big one they were waiting for.

Looking back, it's astonishing how few Dodgers can say they had a good series with no ifs, ands, buts or strings attached. Pederson can. So can Alex Wood, who was terrific in Game 4. A few relievers—namely Kenta Maeda, Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani—made it through relatively unscathed. But that's it.

Looking ahead, it's easy enough to believe the Dodgers will be back. Their trip to the World Series is only the most recent step of a five-year run of success. Many of the players who made it possible are around for the long haul, and now they have every reason to be even hungrier.

"This team is not going to give up. We are going to bring a championship back to L.A. I promise you that," Jansen said after Game 7, per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times.

But if this sounds familiar, that's because the Dodgers have been promising a championship in one way or another since 2012. There's been bold talk, big-ticket free-agent signings, blockbuster trades and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on payroll. All for the sake of bringing home the big prize.

So far, each chance they've had has gone to waste. And while more chances do await them, none may be as ideal as the one they just blew.

              

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and The Baseball Gauge

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

No One’s Safe from Blame as Dodgers Blow Chance to Grab Epic World Series Title

The Los Angeles Dodgers came oh so close to winning their first World Series in 29 years. Close enough to touch it. Heck, close enough to taste it.

Instead, the only thing they're tasting is defeat.

The Houston Astros put the lid on the Dodgers coffin early in Wednesday's Game 7, jetting out to a 5-0 lead in the second inning. That turned the capacity crowd at Dodger Stadium from stoked to stunned, and then it was just a matter of pounding in the nails.

Seven innings and one Dodgers run later, the Astros did just that. They are World Series champions for the first time in their 56-year history.

If there's any comfort in defeat for the Dodgers, it's that they lost to a worthy foe.

Nobody did better than the Dodgers' 104 wins in the regular season, but the Astros came close with 101 wins of their own. Their engine was one of the greatest offenses in Major League Baseball history. Led by series MVP George Springer and his five home runs, they gave the Dodgers a healthy dose of that offense in hitting 15 of the series' record-setting 25 homers.

There's also comfort to be had in the reality that the Dodgers didn't roll over for the Astros. The series did go to a Game 7, after all. The Dodgers also scored exactly as many runs (34) as the Astros in the end.

And while the series ended in a relative dud, the whole shebang will not soon be forgotten. Using The Baseball Gauge's "Championship Win Probability Added" metric, it ranks as the fifth-most dramatic World Series of the expansion era (since 1961). As Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight noted, Games 2 and 5, in particular, rank among the best World Series games ever played.

It is with those two games, however, that the Dodgers' list of regrets begins. 

In Game 2, they turned a 3-1 lead and, according to FanGraphs, a peak win expectancy of 93 percent into a 7-6 loss in 11 innings:

Later in Game 5, the Dodgers had an early 4-0 lead an a win expectancy of 76.1 percent as late as the seventh inning. Both went down the drain in a 13-12 loss in 10 innings:

The easiest target to blame for these two losses is manager Dave Roberts, who does deserve his share.

Taking Rich Hill out after only four innings in Game 2 put a heavy burden on the club's bullpen. He also paid for asking Brandon Morrow to pitch for the third time in as many days in Game 5, as it took him only six pitches to turn an 8-7 lead into an 11-8 deficit.

And the blame on Roberts doesn't end there.

Whereas he was quick with the hook for Hill in Game 2, he was too slow with it for Yu Darvish in Game 7. Although the right-hander was clearly struggling and already in a 3-0 hole in the second inning, Roberts let him face Springer for a second time. Springer launched a two-run homer that practically put the game on ice.

But to blame Roberts exclusively for the Dodgers' failure is to forget that a manager is only as good as his players.

Above all, Darvish must not escape a scolding. The Dodgers got him in a trade-deadline blockbuster to be a finishing touch for their World Series quest. But in two chances to hold up his end of the bargain, he allowed a total of nine runs in 3.1 innings.

Fellow ace Clayton Kershaw isn't blameless in his own right. He bookended his first World Series with a dominant start in Game 1 and a clutch four-inning relief appearance in Game 7, but in between was a six-run dud in Game 5.

Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers' ace closer, has a black mark next to his name, too. He fumbled the two-run lead he was handed in Game 2 and was on the mound when the Game 5 roller coaster finally ended.

And while the Dodgers may have scored as many runs as the Astros, their runs didn't come as easily.

The list of Astros hitters who played a starring role in the World Series doesn't end with Springer. Jose Altuve, the likely American League MVP, hit two home runs. So did Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel.

For the Dodgers, only Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig went deep more than once in the series, and Puig's homers accounted for half his hits. Fellow stars Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Justin Turner and Chris Taylor each had their moments, but none was a steady threat throughout the series.

The offense's collective struggle was crystallized in Game 7. The chances to score runs were there, as they took 13 at-bats with runners in scoring position. But Andre Ethier provided the only hit, and it wasn't the big one they were waiting for.

Looking back, it's astonishing how few Dodgers can say they had a good series with no ifs, ands, buts or strings attached. Pederson can. So can Alex Wood, who was terrific in Game 4. A few relievers—namely Kenta Maeda, Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani—made it through relatively unscathed. But that's it.

Looking ahead, it's easy enough to believe the Dodgers will be back. Their trip to the World Series is only the most recent step of a five-year run of success. Many of the players who made it possible are around for the long haul, and now they have every reason to be even hungrier.

"This team is not going to give up. We are going to bring a championship back to L.A. I promise you that," Jansen said after Game 7, per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times.

But if this sounds familiar, that's because the Dodgers have been promising a championship in one way or another since 2012. There's been bold talk, big-ticket free-agent signings, blockbuster trades and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on payroll. All for the sake of bringing home the big prize.

So far, each chance they've had has gone to waste. And while more chances do await them, none may be as ideal as the one they just blew.

              

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and The Baseball Gauge

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

This World Series Ball Controversy Is Different, Familiar and Extraordinary

There's an old episode of The Simpsons in which Mark McGwire shows up and addresses a seemingly nefarious Major League Baseball conspiracy by asking: "Do you want to know the terrifying truth, or do you want to see me sock a few dingers?"

This scenario is now playing out in real life in the 2017 World Series.

The clash between the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers has been a wild affair. Games 2 and 5 rank, in particular, among the best World Series games ever played. And with a record 22 home runs at the center of the drama, the long ball has taken its place as the defining feature of this Fall Classic.

The catch is that the balls may not be on the level.

Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated was first to report on claims from players on both teams that the World Series baseballs are different than regular-season balls. They're allegedly slicker and harder to grip, particularly when throwing sliders.

"The World Series ball is slicker. No doubt," Astros ace Justin Verlander told Verducci.

"I had trouble with the ball throwing a slider. It was slicker," Dodgers ace Yu Darvish echoed.

The league has denied this, insisting the only difference is the color of the printing on the balls, which has gone from blue to gold.

But since all this constitutes another layer on the many suspicions and allegations that modern baseballs are juiced, what we have here is a ball controversy that's at once familiar and a horse of its own color.

    

A Brief History of Recent Postseason Ball Controversies

Whenever there's a postseason controversy surrounding the actual baseball, it typically has to do with individual pitchers going rogue and doctoring the ball for the benefit of themselves and their teams.

In the 1982 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals suspected Milwaukee Brewers lefty Mike Caldwell of throwing spitballs. In the 1986 National League Championship Series, the New York Mets accused Astros righty Mike Scott of throwing scuffed balls. In the 2006 and 2013 World Series, Detroit Tigers lefty Kenny Rogers and Boston Red Sox lefty Jon Lester were each accused of using foreign substances on the ball.

Albeit in different ways, spitballs and scuffed balls have unnatural spin and movement. Pitchers who use sticky substances (e.g., pine tar) on the ball typically do so to get better grips and perhaps gain more spin and movement than they might normally feature.

All three doctoring methods are varying degrees of frowned upon but equally against the rules. The four performances referenced above hint at why a pitcher would test these rules. If Caldwell, Scott, Rogers and Lester hadn't thrown 33.2 one-run innings between them, their performances would be lost to history.

As far as ball controversies go, juiced balls are in the same ballpark but on the other side of it. Players can't make it happen, and tangible proof that it is happening is traditionally hard to come by.

But that hasn't stopped juiced ball conspiracy theories from popping up here and there throughout history, including during the 2002 World Series between the Anaheim Angels and San Francisco Giants.

"There's a different feel," Angels closer Troy Percival told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. "You just can't squeeze the ball. When your arm's throwing a ball 95 to 100 miles an hour, you can feel the compression of the ball. But you're not. It's like throwing a smooth rock."

Of note is that the 2002 World Series' 21 combined home runs held the all-time record before the 2017 World Series came along and broke it.

    

A New Twist on a 2017 Conspiracy

Speaking of juiced ball complaints, that's what the first ball-related complaint of this World Series was about.

"Obviously, the balls are juiced," Astros ace Dallas Keuchel said after Game 2, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. "I think they're juiced 100 percent."

Keuchel wasn't the first player to openly wonder about the ball being juiced this season. The reason for that is simple: The ball has been behaving liked a juiced ball.

There were a record 6,105 home runs hit during the 2017 regular season. As this data from Baseball Reference shows, that's part a long-running upward trend yet also part of a remarkable short-term spike:

While hitters deserve their share of the credit for changing their swings and joining the so-called "Fly-Ball Revolution," the notion that they're taking aim at juiced balls has yet to fade into the background.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred would prefer that it would. He's repeatedly denied there's anything different about the balls, including in response to Keuchel's allegation after Game 2.

But Verlander had some thoughts on that, per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times:

Ben Lindbergh and Mitchel Lichtman of The Ringer, for example, found that modern baseballs have smaller circumferences, lower seams and a higher coefficient of restitution (read: "bounciness"). Combined, these things contribute to higher exit speeds and more distance for balls in play.

As far as pitchers are concerned, the difference isn't just evident at the crack of the bat. It's also evident in the mere throwing of the baseball. Most notably, there were gripes about the balls causing blisters.

Slicker versions of these balls would be the insult to go with the injury. Consider the words of Tampa Bay Rays reliever Steve Cishek:

The rub is how hard it is to back up testimonials with evidence. Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs spotted red flags relating to the movement of specific pitches in the World Series, but the big picture is clouded by a laundry list of variables: small sample size, fatigue, weather, mechanical changes and so on.

There is nonetheless enough to sustain suspicions that the World Series balls are making a difference.

    

Big Differences On and Off the Field

Neither Astros nor Dodgers pitchers have been comfortable throwing secondary pitches at their normal rates. Whereas neither team topped 60 percent fastballs in the long run-up to the World Series, both are over that mark in the World Series.

This could just be random noise. Or, it could be a defense mechanism.

Before the Fall Classic, the Dodgers (.347) and Astros (.343) allowed about the same slugging percentage on secondary pitches. In the World Series, the clubs' secondary pitches are being knocked around to the tune of a .451 slugging percentage.

In short, hitters are getting more fastballs to hit and are seeing secondary offerings that, at least per their results, aren't functioning normally.

On top of all that, the ball may also be carrying more than usual.

MLB's Statcast system assigns hit probabilities to batted balls based on their trajectories (launch angles) and speeds (exit velocities) off the bat. Balls that are most likely to be home runs are hit very hard and high but not too high. Most of the homers hit in the World Series match the description.

There have been more than a few weird ones, however.

In Game 1, Mike Petriello of MLB.com highlighted a Justin Turner homer that had just a 13 percent home run probability:

In Game 5, he highlighted a Yasiel Puig home run that had just a two percent home run probability:

Among the series' 22 homers, these examples are two of eight homers that left the bat with no better than 25 percent odds of clearing a fence. Overall, an average home run from this series has a lower home run probability than average homers from the regular season and preceding postseason games:

Split AVG HR Shape HR Probability
Regular Season 28.1º, 103.2 MPH 78%
Pre-WS Postseason 28.4º, 103.1 MPH 78%
World Series 28.1º, 101.9 MPH 71%

Naturally, there are other variables at play.

The sweltering heat of the first two games at Dodger Stadium made for good home run conditions. The next three games were played at Minute Maid Park, which has a comically short left field porch that aided Puig's home run as well as soft shots by Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.

But no matter how many other variables there are, nothing can erase the possibility that the ball has something to do with how extraordinary this World Series has become. By Mythbusters rules, this doesn't get a "Confirmed" but is worthy of a "Plausible."

If there is something going on, one can't help but feel for the guys on the mound. They already had to navigate a season in which the ball was allegedly juiced out the wazoo. Now they're on baseball's biggest stage and may be dealing with juiced balls that they can't throw normally.

As far as ball controversies go, though, at least there's an element of fairness to this one.

Doctored balls favor only one pitcher and one team. In this instance, everyone is using the same ball. And while pitchers may not like it, well, what goes around comes around. They had every advantage when homers were at a premium in recent seasons. This World Series is the final nail in that coffin.

Besides, baseball is an entertainment product. And on that front, the 2017 World Series is succeeding with flying colors.

The games have been fantastic and the series itself is attracting more and more viewers. According to the Hollywood Reporter, even Game 5's running time of five-plus hours didn't stop it from topping Sunday Night Football. At this rate, the 2017 World Series will be a worthy follow-up to a 2016 World Series that was MLB's most popular Fall Classic in years.

Thus, the answer to The Simpsons-ized Mark McGwire's question: When presented with the terrifying truth or dingers, fans will always choose dingers.

             

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Yankees Need to Win Feeding Frenzy for Japanese Megastar Shohei Otani

Even though they fell short of their 28th World Series title, the New York Yankees still cemented themselves in 2017 as a budding powerhouse that may be only a few pieces away from a potential dynasty.

With the gathering of these missing pieces set to begin in earnest this winter, here's a name for the top of their shopping list: Shohei Otani.

Or, as he's perhaps better known: Japan's Babe Ruth.

That would be hyperbolic if it wasn't so appropriate. Otani, a 23-year-old currently under the employ of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, is a right-handed pitcher and left-handed hitter who's found success doing both in Nippon Professional Baseball. He owns a career 2.52 ERA in 543 innings and an .859 OPS in 1,170 plate appearances.

"Best baseball player in the world," a Major League Baseball official declared to B/R's Scott Miller in March.

To be fair, Mike Trout might have something to say about that. But since Otani has a list of functions rivaling that of even R2-D2, he can at least be viewed as the most talented baseball player in the world.

Even after a 2017 season in which hamstring and ankle injuries (he recently had surgery for the latter) limited him to only five starts, he's seen primarily as a pitcher. He has a pitcher's build at about 6'4" and 215 pounds, per NPB.jp, and he has an easy, athletic delivery from which he hurls three outstanding pitchesa fastball that's climbed as high as 102 mph and an electric splitter and slider.

But while Otani wasn't much of an offensive star in his first three seasons with Nippon Ham, he turned into one over the last two seasons. Across 613 plate appearances, he tallied a .981 OPS and 30 homers. He has good speed, and his power is regarded as a legit plus tool.

When imagining Otani as an MLB player, it's perhaps easiest to picture him working as a pitcher or as a hitter but not as both. But just as there's no question about his ability, there's no question about his desire to do both.

"He's telling everyone he wants to hit, too. You'll have to let him or you're not going to get him," one international scouting director told MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo. "A plan will have to be devised to save his arm and use him as both a hitter and a pitcher."

Major league teams that haven't already made such plans had better do so. Because Otani is coming.

Reports from Jim Allen of the Japan Times and other Japanese media outlets in September claimed Otani will be made available this offseason. Later that month, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported Otani was shopping for a stateside agent.

Like Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka and others before him, Otani will come to MLB via the posting system. Barring any changes to the rules, any team willing to pay Nippon Ham the maximum fee of $20 million will be able to negotiate a deal with Otani himself.

Unlike Darvish and Tanaka, however, Otani isn't ticketed for a monstrous major league contract.

MLB's current collective bargaining agreement restricts international players under the age of 25 to the league's bonus pool system. Assuming Otani follows through on his plans to come to MLB this winter, he'll only be in line for a seven-figure bonus to sign a mere minor league contract. He would then be subject to service time rules that would put six cost-controlled years between him and free agency.

This is the baseball equivalent of a Lamborghini being made available to anyone and everyone for a low-low price of $5. For the Yankees, who have "only" $156.3 million projected dollars on their books for 2018, that inconveniently means they can't lure Otani with their checkbook alone.

That shouldn't stop them from pursuing him, however. Nor should it be a deal-breaker for the man himself.

With CC Sabathia heading into free agency and Tanaka potentially headed in the same direction if he uses his contract's opt-out, the Yankees will be in the market for starting pitching this winter. Otani will be the highest-upside pitcher out there, and he would fit the Yankees like a glove.

Among the many secrets to a successful 2017 season that saw the Yankees come within a win of the World Series was a pitching staff that brought the heat. According to FanGraphs, the Yankees staff's 94.5 mph average fastball is the highest ever in records that date to 2002.

Luis Severino and his MLB-best 97.6 mph fastball were a big reason for that. Add Otani and his heat, and the Yankees would have a heck of a high-octane duo. Eventually, hard-throwing prospects such as Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield could join the party and turn New York's staff into the envy of MLB.

On the other side of the ball, the Yankees have an opening at designated hitter. That's a perfect spot to give Otani regular at-bats. To boot, his offensive profile would fit perfectly next to the likes of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird.

For one thing, Otani would add even more power to an offense that led MLB with 241 homers in 2017. For another thing, his status as a lefty-hitting slugger makes him a classic match for Yankee Stadium's short right field porch. 

Via Baseball Savant, see here how it gifted about as many homers in 2017 as you'd expect:

Otani would fit right in with the Yankees' youth movement, which could all but guarantee him several shots at World Series glory. The Yankees can also offer New York and everything that comes with it, from heightened endorsement opportunities to an appropriately sized stage.

"He likes the spotlight," one scout told George A. King III of the New York Post. "I would say the Yankees have the inside track."

Only Otani knows whether that's actually true. If it isn't, that's one major selling point knocked off the Yankees' list. Since money will be no object in an extremely crowded pursuit for his services, neither the Yankees nor any other pursuer can afford to lose selling points.

Nonetheless, there may not be a better fit than a team which can mix him into stables of power arms and power bats that are already young and strong. And if said fit does come to fruition, 2017 will only be the beginning of a potential new-look Yankees dynasty.

                    

Stats courtesy of Baseball ReferenceFanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Payroll data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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Cody Bellinger Comes Alive to Give Dodgers Much-Needed Momentum in World Series

One of the cool things about the World Series is that it affords plenty of time and opportunities for storylines both large and small to be turned on their heads.

As Game 4 of the 2017 World Series just proved, even something as on the nose as an ice-cold offense getting rescued by its coldest hitter can happen.

The Los Angeles Dodgers picked up a series-tying 6-2 win over the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Saturday. While Joc Pederson knocked 'em down with a three-run homer in the ninth inning, just as encouraging was how Cody Bellinger set 'em up with not one but two clutch hits.

The first: a one-out double in the seventh inning that positioned Bellinger to score a game-tying run on Logan Forsythe's two-out single.

The second, and certainly bigger of the two: an RBI double in the ninth inning that turned a 1-1 tie into a 2-1 Dodgers lead.

With those two knocks, Bellinger erased the goose egg in his World Series hit column. Moreover, the rookie erased concerns that he was just as lost as that goose egg made him look.

Bellinger went 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts through the series' first three games, with rock bottom coming in the form of a golden sombrero in Game 3. He found himself at 0-for-13 with eight strikeouts after his first two at-bats in Game 4.

One positive was that he nearly ended Game 2 with a fly ball to the Dodger Stadium warning track in the ninth inning. However, that was a rare instance of him so much as making contact. To wit, he took 22 swings in Games 1, 2 and 3 and whiffed on 12 of them.

Even to the average viewer, it was obvious Bellinger was nowhere near as locked in as he'd been in a regular season in which he tallied a .933 OPS and National League rookie record 39 homers. Thus, it's no wonder it was also obvious to his manager.

"It's just trying to get Cody to slow down a little bit," Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts said following the club's 5-3 loss in Game 3, according to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. “I think he's been a little too quick."

Per Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal, Bellinger had an idea of how to put this into practice:

Lo and behold, it worked. Rather than try to get out in front and tap into his tremendous pull power, the 22-year-old stayed back and went the other way against two pitches on the outer half of the plate. 

"I tried to set my sights different and I saw some results," he said on MLB Network after the game. "Confidence will take you a long way in this game."

Regardless of the exact explanation for Bellinger's breakout, the Dodgers will gladly take it because they sorely needed it. 

With a team batting average of .161 through the first three games and zero runs through the first six innings of Game 4, Bellinger was merely one piece of the Dodgers' lineup-wide struggle. The problem looked that much worse in light of Houston's homer-fueled comeback in Game 2 and 12-hit outburst in Game 3. As the Dodgers' offense was cooling down, Major League Baseball's best offense was heating up.

In true World Series fashion, Game 4 flipped the script.

Although both of them cleared the fence, the Astros managed just two hits against Alex Wood (who took a no-hitter into the sixth) and three Dodgers relievers. Meanwhile, the recent October struggles of Houston's bullpen suggest it's no accident that it was the butt of the Dodgers offense's late-inning breakout.

Let it be known that said breakout is a truer reflection of Los Angeles' offense than the largely fruitless effort that had come before. It can't match the creds of Houston's offense, but the Dodgers offense ranked second in the NL in adjusted OPS in the regular season. It then made easy work of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Of course, there's no guarantee that the momentum seized by the Dodgers in Game 4 will have a long shelf life. As they say, momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher.

But if that's how it is, the Dodgers ought to be fine with that, too.

Their next day's starting pitcher is Clayton Kershaw, who has three Cy Youngs and who was last seen carving up the Astros over seven innings in Game 1. From the looks of things, he's champing at the bit to do the same to them in Game 5:

The Astros have what they need to fight back. That encompasses not just their excellent offense but also two former Cy Young winners ready to take the hill in the next two games: Dallas Keuchel in Game 5 and Justin Verlander in Game 6.

But if Kershaw does indeed hold up his end of the bargain on Sunday, the least he'll have done is deal a knockout blow to the already staggering notion that he doesn't have the fortitude to dominate in October. In all likelihood, such a performance would also send the Dodgers back home needing just one more win to clinch their first World Series title since 1988.

In all, the position the Dodgers are in now is nothing like the position they were in following their loss in Game 3. Their offense couldn't buy a hit and their ace wasn't coming to the rescue. Now their offense appears rejuvenated and their ace is coming to the rescue.

Even the World Series might have a hard time turning these storylines on their heads.

 

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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Cody Bellinger Comes Alive to Give Dodgers Much-Needed Momentum in World Series

One of the cool things about the World Series is that it affords plenty of time and opportunities for storylines both large and small to be turned on their heads.

As Game 4 of the 2017 World Series just proved, even something as on the nose as an ice-cold offense getting rescued by its coldest hitter can happen.

The Los Angeles Dodgers picked up a series-tying 6-2 win over the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Saturday. While Joc Pederson knocked 'em down with a three-run homer in the ninth inning, just as encouraging was how Cody Bellinger set 'em up with not one but two clutch hits.

The first: a one-out double in the seventh inning that positioned Bellinger to score a game-tying run on Logan Forsythe's two-out single.

The second, and certainly bigger of the two: an RBI double in the ninth inning that turned a 1-1 tie into a 2-1 Dodgers lead.

With those two knocks, Bellinger erased the goose egg in his World Series hit column. Moreover, the rookie erased concerns that he was just as lost as that goose egg made him look.

Bellinger went 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts through the series' first three games, with rock bottom coming in the form of a golden sombrero in Game 3. He found himself at 0-for-13 with eight strikeouts after his first two at-bats in Game 4.

One positive was that he nearly ended Game 2 with a fly ball to the Dodger Stadium warning track in the ninth inning. However, that was a rare instance of him so much as making contact. To wit, he took 22 swings in Games 1, 2 and 3 and whiffed on 12 of them.

Even to the average viewer, it was obvious Bellinger was nowhere near as locked in as he'd been in a regular season in which he tallied a .933 OPS and National League rookie record 39 homers. Thus, it's no wonder it was also obvious to his manager.

"It's just trying to get Cody to slow down a little bit," Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts said following the club's 5-3 loss in Game 3, according to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. “I think he's been a little too quick."

Per Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal, Bellinger had an idea of how to put this into practice:

Lo and behold, it worked. Rather than try to get out in front and tap into his tremendous pull power, the 22-year-old stayed back and went the other way against two pitches on the outer half of the plate. 

"I tried to set my sights different and I saw some results," he said on MLB Network after the game. "Confidence will take you a long way in this game."

Regardless of the exact explanation for Bellinger's breakout, the Dodgers will gladly take it because they sorely needed it. 

With a team batting average of .161 through the first three games and zero runs through the first six innings of Game 4, Bellinger was merely one piece of the Dodgers' lineup-wide struggle. The problem looked that much worse in light of Houston's homer-fueled comeback in Game 2 and 12-hit outburst in Game 3. As the Dodgers' offense was cooling down, Major League Baseball's best offense was heating up.

In true World Series fashion, Game 4 flipped the script.

Although both of them cleared the fence, the Astros managed just two hits against Alex Wood (who took a no-hitter into the sixth) and three Dodgers relievers. Meanwhile, the recent October struggles of Houston's bullpen suggest it's no accident that it was the butt of the Dodgers offense's late-inning breakout.

Let it be known that said breakout is a truer reflection of Los Angeles' offense than the largely fruitless effort that had come before. It can't match the creds of Houston's offense, but the Dodgers offense ranked second in the NL in adjusted OPS in the regular season. It then made easy work of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Of course, there's no guarantee that the momentum seized by the Dodgers in Game 4 will have a long shelf life. As they say, momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher.

But if that's how it is, the Dodgers ought to be fine with that, too.

Their next day's starting pitcher is Clayton Kershaw, who has three Cy Youngs and who was last seen carving up the Astros over seven innings in Game 1. From the looks of things, he's champing at the bit to do the same to them in Game 5:

The Astros have what they need to fight back. That encompasses not just their excellent offense but also two former Cy Young winners ready to take the hill in the next two games: Dallas Keuchel in Game 5 and Justin Verlander in Game 6.

But if Kershaw does indeed hold up his end of the bargain on Sunday, the least he'll have done is deal a knockout blow to the already staggering notion that he doesn't have the fortitude to dominate in October. In all likelihood, such a performance would also send the Dodgers back home needing just one more win to clinch their first World Series title since 1988.

In all, the position the Dodgers are in now is nothing like the position they were in following their loss in Game 3. Their offense couldn't buy a hit and their ace wasn't coming to the rescue. Now their offense appears rejuvenated and their ace is coming to the rescue.

Even the World Series might have a hard time turning these storylines on their heads.

 

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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World Series Game 2’s Endless Home Run Drama Instantly Makes It One of Best Ever

The next time anyone hears a complaint about baseball being too boring or that (gasp!) even the World Series has lost its luster, here's what to do:       

Sit the complainer down in front of the nearest screen and put on Game 2 of the 2017 World Series. Then sit back and watch them change their mind in real time.

Although the game was just played Wednesday night—and deep into the night, at that—there's no need to wait for retrospect to conclude that the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers made it one of the greatest World Series games ever.

The fact that the Astros collected a series-tying win by a 7-6 final in 11 innings says enough. To say more, one could posit that getting to that endpoint was a true roller-coaster ride.

Or, one could point to FanGraphs' win expectancy chart for the game, which looks like a blueprint for a literal roller coaster ride:

Twists? Game 2 had those.

Turns? Yup, those too.

But above all, this game will mainly be remembered for the dingers.

After winning Game 1 on the strength of two home runs, the Dodgers seemed poised to follow the same strategy to victory in Game 2. The Astros struck first on an Alex Bregman RBI single in the third inning. The Dodgers struck back with a Joc Pederson solo homer in the fifth and a Corey Seager two-run homer in the sixth.

In the eighth, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts called on Kenley Jansen to carry that momentum to the finish line. This is the same guy who went 41-for-42 in save opportunities in 2017, and who'd converted all 12 of the save chances he'd ever been handed in October.

So, of course he blew it.

Jansen's collapse started with a whimper when Carlos Correa drove in a run on a seeing-eye single up the middle in the eighth inning. Then came a bang in the ninth. Marwin Gonzalez, silent for much of the postseason, finally got off the schneid with a game-tying blast to left-center.

"I told Marwin, before his AB, 'You’re going to win this game for us,'” Astros ace Justin Verlander said afterward, according to Joe Trezza of MLB.com. "His HR didn’t win the game … but it did."

To be fair, Cody Bellinger came this close to rendering Gonzalez's home run moot with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. He went down and got under a Ken Giles fastball enough to send it deep to right field, but not quite deep enough to go over the wall. It died in Josh Reddick's glove for the third out.

As if to show Bellinger how it's done, the dynamic Houston duo of Jose Altuve and Correa led off the top of the 10th with back-to-back home runs. Like so:

What appeared to be the exclamation mark at the end of a Houston win, however, turned into a mere ellipsis.

Yasiel Puig led off the bottom of the 10th with a solo homer off Giles that cut the Astros' lead to one. Two batters later, Logan Forsythe worked Giles for a walk, moved to second on a wild pitch, and then came home with the tying run on a single by Enrique Hernandez.

That put the momentum squarely back in the Dodgers' hands, but they only got to hold on to it for, oh, maybe five minutes.

The top of the 11th began with a Cameron Maybin single off Brandon McCarthy. The next batter was George Springer, who promptly unloaded on a 2-0 breaking ball:

Yet, even this didn't quite put the proverbial nail in the coffin.

Houston skipper A.J. Hinch called on Chris Devenski, who pitched in the All-Star Game back in July, to close things out starting with Charlie Culberson, who got only 15 major league plate appearances in the regular season. Naturally, he took Devenski deep to trim the lead to a run.

But that, finally, was it for the scoring. The final pitch of the night—Devenski's 25th and the game's 332nd—was a 3-2 changeup that got Puig to strike out on a check swing.

The short version is that...Well, there really is no short version. In fact, all the above is only a fraction of the story.

What's missing are Game 2's many fascinating tidbits. Here's a selection:

  • The eight total homers are a World Series record for a single game.
  • The five extra-inning homers are a new record for any postseason game.
  • Pederson's homer broke up Verlander's no-hit bid.
  • The Astros snapped the Dodger bullpen's 28-inning scoreless streak, as well as the club's 98-0 record when leading after eight innings.
  • Hernandez's 10th-inning single was the Dodgers' first non-homer hit of the game.
  • Culberson's homer was his first in the majors since a walk-off on September 25, 2016, which clinched the NL West title and is also the final play called at Dodger Stadium by legendary broadcaster Vin Scully.

Oh yeah, there's also this: The Astros' victory is the first World Series win in franchise history.

Add it all up, and Game 2 of the 2017 World Series boasts enough excitement to match up with the Fall Classic's greatest classics. It doesn't matter whether your jam is Bill Mazeroski in 1960, Carlton Fisk in 1975, Jack Morris in 1991, Luis Gonzalez in 2001, David Freese in 2011 or Rajai Davis and Ben Zobrist in 2016. Game 2 belongs in the same discussion as all of them.

And it's not over, folks. With as many as five games still ahead, the only thing that was truly decided in Game 2 was best summed up by one of the two managers.

“These are two incredible teams that are going to fight," said Hinch, per MLB.com's Richard Justice.

May all their remaining fights become as worthy of the history books as their latest.

 

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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Clayton Kershaw Proves He’s Ready to Dominate on Baseball’s Biggest Stage

Clayton Kershaw took the mound for his first World Series start amid every conceivable type of heat.

He responded by barely breaking a sweat.

This isn't literally true, mind you. Pitching is hard work, even for three-time Cy Young winners like Kershaw, and the game-time temperature Tuesday at Dodger Stadium for Game 1 of the 2017 World Series between his Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros checked in at 103 degrees. That's a new postseason record.

Figuratively, though, Kershaw was cooler than the proverbial cucumber. The left-hander spearheaded the Dodgers' 3-1 win with 11 strikeouts scattered across seven innings.

"I'll take it," the 29-year-old said afterward, according to Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times.

A leadoff home run by Chris Taylor in the first inning and a two-run homer by Justin Turner in the sixth inning provided the offense for the Dodgers, but at no point did Kershaw have a large margin for error with which to work.

He had the difficult task of matching Dallas Keuchel, a fellow Cy Young-winning lefty, pitch for pitch. To boot, the offense taking its hacks against Kershaw ranks among the best ever.

The baseball gods themselves could not have crafted a more daunting proving ground for Kershaw's first-ever World Series assignment. And in light of his personal history in October, anyone who was feeling fatalistic about his chances can be forgiven.

Kershaw entered the 2017 playoffs with a 4.55 ERA in 18 career postseason appearances. He was the losing pitcher in three of Los Angeles' last four playoff exits.

He made some forward progress against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Division Series and against the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series, but not without stumbles. 

The good: He allowed just seven runs in three starts.

The bad: He walked five, allowed six homers and pitched into the seventh only once.

In all, he was nothing like the Kershaw who's dominated the regular season like nobody else since 2011. And certainly nothing like any of the great postseason pitching performances in recent memory—a la Madison Bumgarner in 2014.

It's hard to imagine a more potent threat to send Kershaw's modest postseason progress careening back in the other direction than the Astros offense. Among the ways it became historically great was avoiding strikeouts and crushing lefty starters better than any other team.

"It's the best lineup that we've seen all year," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, per McCullough. "They slug. They don't strike out. They're athletic. They steal bases. There's so many ways they can beat you."

In actually watching Kershaw go to work against the Astros, however, you'd never know it.

He struck out four Astros in his first trip through their lineup and ultimately whiffed 11 of the first 19 he faced. In so doing, he set a new high-water mark for strikeouts against this seemingly un-strikeout-able offense.

It's not a question of what Kershaw had working, but of what he didn't have working. He was his vintage self, throwing his fastball for strikes in all quadrants of the zone and snapping off electric sliders and knee-buckling curveballs.

Via MLB, here's a sampling:

The only time he was remotely in trouble was in the seventh. The inning itself brought nothing but trouble in past Octobers, and he seemed doomed to more of the same when he gave up a leadoff hit to Jose Altuve and then watched Corey Seager fumble a potential double play ball two batters later.

Instead, it was much ado about nothing. Kershaw escaped that jam and called it a day after 83 pitches.

Should he have gone back out for the eighth? There's an argument in favor of the affirmative, but the arguments for the negative can be summed up like so: Why risk it?

Kershaw had already pitched seven innings in extreme heat, and even going that far was no small feat relative to his recent workloads. Since he missed over a month with a back injury in July and August, the Dodgers have let him pitch into the eighth only once.

The Dodgers also have a steady bullpen for a change, and they know full well it's an excuse not to push Kershaw as far as they used to in October. To quote pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, via Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com:

"I think a lot of them you have to put the blame on the organization and us. Every time in the past, we've asked him to come back on short rest. We've asked him to pitch out of the bullpen. We've asked him to pitch an extra inning or an extra batter that, if we had more depth or better relievers, he might not have been asked to do those things.

"Most of that shouldn't be on him."

In lieu of playing with fire by sending Kershaw back out there, Roberts gave the eighth inning to Brandon Morrow and the ninth inning to Kenley Jansen. His reward was six straight outs that sealed the Dodgers' first World Series win since their Game 5 clincher in the 1988 Fall Classic.

If the Dodgers win the next three games, the end of their 29-year championship drought will be made all the more impressive by how they needed to use baseball's most decorated ace only once.

It's either that, or they'll be able to run Kershaw back out for another start in Game 5 and, if needed, an appearance out of the bullpen in a decisive Game 7.

The fact he'll be well-rested in either scenario is indisputable. After what he did in Game 1, it also seems indisputable that he'll be ready to be the postseason ace everyone's been waiting for.

 

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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MLB Position Power Rankings: B/R’s Final Top 25 Center Fielders of 2017

It's time for Bleacher Report's final positional power rankings for the 2017 Major League Baseball season to get out of the dirt and head for the outfield.

Now up are the season's top center fielders. Although there are arguably more than just 25 of them worth talking about, that's how many made the cut.

Here are the ground rules: 

  • Players must have logged the majority of their games in center field.
  • Players were ranked both on the quantity and the quality of their work.
  • Offense, defense and baserunning fall under the "quality" umbrella.
  • Center field is an important defensive position but also a home to talented hitters and speedy baserunners. As such, the best center fielders are the ones with more than just one marketable skill.

The rankings were a simple judgment call. Baseball Reference's version of wins above replacement (WAR) is useful in this respect but will be treated more as a guideline than the word of the baseball gods.

Lastly, this is neither a far-reaching retrospective nor a gaze into the future. Only what happened in 2017 counts.

Begin Slideshow

Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa Igniting Astros Offense Looms Large for ALCS Game 7

Just when they needed them to, the Houston Astros' stars aligned and saved their season.

Due to the seven shutout innings he hurled, Justin Verlander will get the lion's share of the credit for Houston's win over the New York Yankees on Friday at Minute Maid Park, which evened the American League Championship Series at three games apiece. George Springer will also get plenty of love for the stupendous catch he made in the seventh inning.

But the biggest story is right there in plain sight when looking at the 7-1 final of Game 6: The Astros offense is back just in time for Saturday's Game 7.

Those seven runs are only two fewer than they had scored through the first five games of the series. And a good chunk of them came from a likely source.

Jose Altuve, who's fresh off his third batting title and possibly on his way to his first AL MVP, provided a long-anticipated big hit with a two-run single in the fifth inning and a dagger with a solo home run in the eighth inning. 

Just like that, the All-Star second baseman upped his RBI count for the series from zero to three. He also collected his first hits since going 5-for-8 in Games 1 and 2.

Of course, Altuve didn't do it all by himself in Game 6.

Carlos Correa also had a pair of hits, one of which was a scorching 107.2 mile-per-hour double in the eighth inning. Brian McCann had two hits of his own. Alex Bregman only had one, but it was a clutch two-run double.

Short version: It was a team effort mainly headlined by the Astros' young, homegrown stars. Or, pretty much what everyone came to expect from their offense up until the ALCS.

Pick an offensive category, any offensive category, and chances are the Astros led Major League Baseball in it this season. To name just a few, they led in runs, hits, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.

If that's not enough to drive home the point that theirs was no ordinary offense, consider a stat called "Weighted Runs Created Plus." It captures total offensive value in relation to league average (100), and it puts the 2017 Astros behind only three Babe Ruth-era Yankees offenses as the greatest ever:

Rank Team wRC+
1 1927 Yankees 126
T2 1930 Yankees 124
T2 1931 Yankees 124
4 2017 Astros 121

The Astros looked the part of an all-time great offensive team in dispatching the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series, posting a .974 OPS and hitting eight homers. It seemed like a short jump from there to the franchise's second World Series appearance.

But then, the first five games of the ALCS played like the "All Good Things Must Come to an End" phrase of Houston's 2017 offense.

The Astros scored just two runs in each of the first two games and five total in three games at Yankee Stadium. In all, they went into Game 6 with a .447 OPS for the series.

"We've lost a little bit of our offensive adjustments and a little of our offensive mojo," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, according to David Adler of MLB.com. "It's rare, because of how much offense we put up through the first six months of the season and even in the Division Series. We've swung the bats very well, and I believe we're one good game from coming out of it."

The easiest and, per the eye test, most valid explanation was that Houston's superior hitting had simply run into more superior pitching. Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, CC Sabathia and Sonny Gray took turns baffling Astros hitters to start games. Then New York's star-studded bullpen finished them off.

But it was also evident that there was bad luck at play.

As Adler pointed out, the Astros had little to show for the balls they'd hit well through the first five games of the ALCS. That changed in Game 6. At least as measured by exit velocity, all seven of their hardest-hit balls found paydirt.

Houston's hitters also found an equilibrium between patience and aggression that they'd been sorely lacking at Yankee Stadium. A good example was when they chased Severino in the fifth inning, forcing him to throw 26 pitches as they worked him for three walks and two hits.

An added benefit of getting Severino out early was pushing Yankees skipper Joe Girardi to use some of his best relievers. Chad Green, David Robertson and Dellin Betances will be on zero days' rest for Game 7.

The Astros still face a tough assignment in a second go-round against Sabathia, whose contact management talents won the day in Game 3. And while Green's availability will be limited after he threw 38 pitches Friday, there won't be leashes on Robertson, Betances, Tommy Kahnle or Aroldis Chapman.

If it comes to it, the Astros don't have much hope of winning a low-scoring game. They're putting their faith in Charlie Morton, who got rocked in Game 3, and a bullpen that's been a leaky ship all postseason.

But after Game 6, it sure seems a lot less likely to come to that than it did before.

This Astros team is made to hit, and did indeed do more hitting through Games 1 and 5 than their results let on. Their outburst in Game 6 is less of a blip in the Yankees' dominance of the scoreboard and more a case of the Astros snapping out of an uncharacteristic funk.

One more game just like it, and a date with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series awaits.

 

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

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Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa Igniting Astros Offense Looms Large for ALCS Game 7

Just when they needed them to, the Houston Astros' stars aligned and saved their season.

Due to the seven shutout innings he hurled, Justin Verlander will get the lion's share of the credit for Houston's win over the New York Yankees on Friday at Minute Maid Park, which evened the American League Championship Series at three games apiece. George Springer will also get plenty of love for the stupendous catch he made in the seventh inning.

But the biggest story is right there in plain sight when looking at the 7-1 final of Game 6: The Astros offense is back just in time for Saturday's Game 7.

Those seven runs are only two fewer than they had scored through the first five games of the series. And a good chunk of them came from a likely source.

Jose Altuve, who's fresh off his third batting title and possibly on his way to his first AL MVP, provided a long-anticipated big hit with a two-run single in the fifth inning and a dagger with a solo home run in the eighth inning. 

Just like that, the All-Star second baseman upped his RBI count for the series from zero to three. He also collected his first hits since going 5-for-8 in Games 1 and 2.

Of course, Altuve didn't do it all by himself in Game 6.

Carlos Correa also had a pair of hits, one of which was a scorching 107.2 mile-per-hour double in the eighth inning. Brian McCann had two hits of his own. Alex Bregman only had one, but it was a clutch two-run double.

Short version: It was a team effort mainly headlined by the Astros' young, homegrown stars. Or, pretty much what everyone came to expect from their offense up until the ALCS.

Pick an offensive category, any offensive category, and chances are the Astros led Major League Baseball in it this season. To name just a few, they led in runs, hits, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.

If that's not enough to drive home the point that theirs was no ordinary offense, consider a stat called "Weighted Runs Created Plus." It captures total offensive value in relation to league average (100), and it puts the 2017 Astros behind only three Babe Ruth-era Yankees offenses as the greatest ever:

Rank Team wRC+
1 1927 Yankees 126
T2 1930 Yankees 124
T2 1931 Yankees 124
4 2017 Astros 121

The Astros looked the part of an all-time great offensive team in dispatching the Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series, posting a .974 OPS and hitting eight homers. It seemed like a short jump from there to the franchise's second World Series appearance.

But then, the first five games of the ALCS played like the "All Good Things Must Come to an End" phrase of Houston's 2017 offense.

The Astros scored just two runs in each of the first two games and five total in three games at Yankee Stadium. In all, they went into Game 6 with a .447 OPS for the series.

"We've lost a little bit of our offensive adjustments and a little of our offensive mojo," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, according to David Adler of MLB.com. "It's rare, because of how much offense we put up through the first six months of the season and even in the Division Series. We've swung the bats very well, and I believe we're one good game from coming out of it."

The easiest and, per the eye test, most valid explanation was that Houston's superior hitting had simply run into more superior pitching. Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, CC Sabathia and Sonny Gray took turns baffling Astros hitters to start games. Then New York's star-studded bullpen finished them off.

But it was also evident that there was bad luck at play.

As Adler pointed out, the Astros had little to show for the balls they'd hit well through the first five games of the ALCS. That changed in Game 6. At least as measured by exit velocity, all seven of their hardest-hit balls found paydirt.

Houston's hitters also found an equilibrium between patience and aggression that they'd been sorely lacking at Yankee Stadium. A good example was when they chased Severino in the fifth inning, forcing him to throw 26 pitches as they worked him for three walks and two hits.

An added benefit of getting Severino out early was pushing Yankees skipper Joe Girardi to use some of his best relievers. Chad Green, David Robertson and Dellin Betances will be on zero days' rest for Game 7.

The Astros still face a tough assignment in a second go-round against Sabathia, whose contact management talents won the day in Game 3. And while Green's availability will be limited after he threw 38 pitches Friday, there won't be leashes on Robertson, Betances, Tommy Kahnle or Aroldis Chapman.

If it comes to it, the Astros don't have much hope of winning a low-scoring game. They're putting their faith in Charlie Morton, who got rocked in Game 3, and a bullpen that's been a leaky ship all postseason.

But after Game 6, it sure seems a lot less likely to come to that than it did before.

This Astros team is made to hit, and did indeed do more hitting through Games 1 and 5 than their results let on. Their outburst in Game 6 is less of a blip in the Yankees' dominance of the scoreboard and more a case of the Astros snapping out of an uncharacteristic funk.

One more game just like it, and a date with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series awaits.

 

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

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Cubs’ Once Surefire Growing Dynasty Now Faces Significant Question Marks

After going 108 years in between World Series titles, the possibility of winning two straight probably always was too good to be true for the Chicago Cubs.

Still, the Cubs won't make good on dynasty potential until they add at least one more title to the one they earned in 2016. Now's the time to acknowledge that this falls more toward "said" than "done" on the easy spectrum.

The Cubs' pursuit of the 2017 crown came to an end Thursday in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field. The only silver lining is that the Los Angeles Dodgers didn't break any more north siders' hearts than they had to.

The 11-1 final that earned the Dodgers their first National League pennant since 1988 was the whole series in a nutshell: A rout that the Cubs never had much chance of winning.

Where do the Cubs go from here? A good start would be a self-indulgent pat on the back for another nice run.

They did play in their third straight NLCS, after all. And their regular season was a fine display of gumption if nothing else.

Their 92 wins pale in comparison to the 97 and 103 that they earned in 2015 and 2016, respectively, but it was a fine end result for a team that was just 43-35 at the All-Star break. Plus, those 92 wins were good enough for a second straight NL Central title.

Once that pat on the back is finished, the Cubs can then let out a sigh of relief as they realize that many of their dynasty cornerstones aren't going anywhere.

Above the field, the front office will be run by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer for the foreseeable future. In the dugout, Joe Maddon is signed to manage through 2019.

Meanwhile, on the field, Chicago's lineup has homegrown products Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ all controlled for the long haul, with veterans Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward around for a few more seasons on multi-year contracts. On the mound, the Cubs have Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana to build around.

"Heads up. We're going to keep getting better," Maddon said after Game 5, per Chris Emma of CBS Chicago.

But, about that mound. That's where the questions begin popping up like champagne corks in the Dodgers clubhouse.

Chicago's pitching wasn't nearly as strong in 2017 as it had been in 2016. The club's regular-season ERA rose from 3.15 to 3.95, and Thursday's 11-1 stomping froze its postseason ERA at 4.54. 

The most obvious area that needs fixing is the bullpen. It did its best to ruin the Cubs' hot second half by posting a 4.48 ERA. It then sunk even further by allowing 27 runs in 10 postseason games. All the while, free passes were a constant nuisance.

"Frankly, that's been a theme with our pen," Epstein said this week, per CBS Chicago. "I mean, the headline with our pen is 'Good regular season, real tough postseason.' But in both the regular season and the postseason, we just walked far too many guys."

This would be a tough problem to fix under any circumstances. The fact that ace closer Wade Davis is due for free agency this winter makes it even tougher.

The Cubs will also have slots to fill in their starting rotation. John Lackey is ticketed for free agency and possibly retirement. Jake Arrieta is yet another pending free agent. And with a Cy Young in his pocket and plenty of numbers in his favor, he won't be cheap to re-sign.

"He's a squirrel with a lot of nuts in the tree. He's a big-game squirrel," Scott Boras, Arrieta's agent, said, per Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune.

Re-signing Arrieta would be easily doable if the Cubs, who opened 2017 with a $172 million payroll, didn't have anything lurking beneath their $94 million in commitments for 2018. But they do.

Among those headed into arbitration for the first time next spring are Bryant, Russell and Hendricks, each of whom figures to get a hefty payday. The Cubs must also earmark money for the looming arbitration payouts of their other young stars.

All this will put limits on their budget for Arrieta and any other aces (e.g. Yu Darvish and possibly Masahiro Tanaka) on the open market. As such, the Cubs may have to turn to lesser free agents.

The trade market is typically a viable alternative for teams in their position. But for these Cubs? Less so.

Assorted blockbusters—most notably for Aroldis Chapman in 2016 and Quintana this year—over the past two seasons have sucked Chicago's farm system dry. To wit, it currently doesn't have a single prospect in MLB.com's top 100.

So, if the Cubs are going to use the trade market to replenish their pitching staff, it may mean sacrificing some pieces from their major league roster.

Moving Heyward in a bad contract swap could be Epstein's and Hoyer's preferred play, but they may have to get more serious to acquire serious help. Schwarber has been a trade-rumor favorite in the past and could be again. Baez, Almora and Happ are candidates to join him on "Expendable Young Talent" pile. 

It bears repeating that the Cubs will continue throwing their weight around like, well, actual bears in coming years no matter what happens this winter. They're simply too loaded to not be one of the National League's top contenders on an annual basis.

Yet there's no denying they took a step down from an impressive peak in 2017. Nor is there any denying that avoiding yet another step down in 2018 hinges on some creative wheeling and dealing happening over the offseason.

This is the thing about dynasties. Starting one is hard enough. Actually seeing one through to completion is harder. 

                  

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Contract and payroll info courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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