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While it is folly to make too much of performance on the sun-soaked spring fields of Arizona and Florida, there are important developments that can play out in March. The spring is a time for players to explore and experiment in a relaxed atmosphere where their play does not affect the standings or their future earning potential. The following are 10 things ESPN wants to see players show in spring training before the games count.

1. Whether Shohei Ohtani falls out of love with his fastball. The legend of Ohtani begins with the fastball. The pitch averaged 97.5 mph last year — with a max reading of 101.6 mph — in an injury-shortened season in Japan. For reference, Luis Severino, James Paxton, Nathan Eovaldi, Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard and Luis Castillo are the only starting pitchers who averaged 96.5 mph or better with their fastballs in the PITCHf/x era, which dates to 2007. Ohtani leaned on the pitch heavily in Japan, throwing it on 59.6 percent of his offerings last season, according to NPB pitch-tracking. Only two major league starters — Kevin Gausman and Ty Blach — threw four-seam fastballs at a higher rate last season, when the MLB average was 37 percent for four-seamers. Despite the radar gun readings, Ohtani should rely less on the pitch.

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Tampa Bay Rays acquire slugger Nelson Cruz in four-player trade with Minnesota Twins

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The Tampa Bay Rays acquired slugger Nelson Cruz from the Minnesota Twins on Thursday in a four-player trade.

The Twins received minor league pitchers Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman in exchange for Cruz and minor league pitcher Calvin Faucher.

The 41-year-old Cruz, a seven-time All-Star, is hitting .294 with 19 home runs and 50 RBIs this season.

The 17-year veteran has 436 home runs and 1,202 RBIs in his career. He has twice won the Edgar Martinez Award as the American League’s top designated hitter.

He is a proven playoff performer with a .288 average and 17 home runs in 46 postseason games. He was the named the MVP of the American League Championship Series in 2011 when he hit .364 with six home runs and 13 RBIs in the Texas Rangers‘ victory in six games over the Detroit Tigers.

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Chicago White Sox rookie Yermín Mercedes back with Triple-A team day after stepping away from baseball

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CHICAGO — One day after announcing he was stepping away from baseball, Yermin Mercedes was back with the Chicago White Sox‘s Triple-A affiliate.

The White Sox confirmed Thursday that Mercedes, the surprising rookie who carried the team with his booming bat early in the season and got sent to the minors following a prolonged slump, was in uniform for the Charlotte Knights‘ game against the Durham Bulls.

Mercedes also apologized Thursday in an Instagram post.

“I’m never going to give up,” he wrote. “I spent 10 years in the minor league and I have always understood that this is a big and long process but the talent that I have shown speaks for itself. With the greatest humility and speaking from the heart … my dream is to be an established player in the major leagues. I asked God to give me that opportunity and I’ve got it 3 months ago. I owe myself to my family, my organization and my fans. I asked again for forgiveness if I have failed them.

“Baseball is in my blood … and I thank God for guiding me to the right path and to make the correct decision. To those going to a similar situation, forget the criticisms and bad comments. They will always exist to trample on your personality. God bless y’all.

“I love everyone. I’m back.”

It was a turnaround from his since deleted post Wednesday night that included an image with the words “it’s over.” He wrote in the caption, “I’m stepping aside from baseball indefinitely..! God bless you. It’s over.”

Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa vowed following Wednesday’s loss to Minnesota to reach out to Mercedes and insisted the player has a “big league future.”

“I understand you’re at Triple-A, you’ve tasted the big leagues, you can get emotional,” La Russa said. “But I don’t know more than that.”

Mercedes, 28, sparked Chicago’s offense through the opening months of the season, batting .415 with five homers and 16 RBIs in 22 games in April. In May, Mercedes angered La Russa by homering on a 3-0 pitch in the ninth inning of a game the White Sox led 15-4.

Mercedes eventually cooled off, hitting .150 (16 for 107) over his final 31 games with Chicago before being demoted to Charlotte on July 2.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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MLB Power Rankings Week 15

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With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, teams will make the difficult decision between standing pat and potentially not being good enough to win a championship, or mortgaging their future for a forlorn hope. It’s not an easy position to be in, and it could affect both the standings and our rankings over the next few months.

Did the Los Angeles Dodgers do enough to hold on to the top spot they grabbed last week? Have the Chicago White Sox done enough to move into the top five? Do the New York Yankees still have a shot?

Here is what our eight-voter expert panel decided based on what they have learned in the first three-plus months of the 2021 season. We also asked ESPN baseball experts David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle, Joon Lee, Jesse Rogers and Alden Gonzalez to weigh in with one Week 15 observation based on what they have seen recently for all 30 teams.

Previous rankings: Week 14 | Week 13 | Week 12 | Week 11 | Week 10 | Week 9 | Week 8 | Week 7 | Week 6 | Week 5 | Week 4 | Week 3 | Week 2 | Week 1 | Opening Day

Record: 60-35
Previous ranking: 3

Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi has talked about the team’s desire to add starting pitching depth, but perhaps what the Giants need more than anything else is an impact arm for the back end of their bullpen. Such a need was illustrated on Tuesday night, when Tyler Rogers, the submarine throwing right-hander who has otherwise been highly productive, walked back-to-back hitters and served up a walk-off three-run homer to Dodgers catcher Will Smith. It was the Giants’ 18th blown save of the year, just five shy of the major league lead. Craig Kimbrel, anyone? — Alden Gonzalez


2. Los Angeles Dodgers

Record: 59-38
Previous ranking: 1

The Dodgers lead the majors in run-differential even though Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger — their three best players, few would argue — have performed below expectations. The Dodgers are that deep. And they can be exponentially more explosive if all three of those players are healthy and productive. But that doesn’t mean this roster is without flaw. The Dodgers, interestingly enough, have a starting pitching shortage with Trevor Bauer on administrative leave, Clayton Kershaw on the injured list and Dustin May recovering from Tommy John surgery. They’ll be among the most aggressive in pursuit of rotation reinforcements over the next week-plus. — Gonzalez


Record: 58-39
Previous ranking: 2

Houston features one of baseball’s best offenses, if not the best, with its catchers the only position rating as anything as a sore spot. And that’s fine — the Astros favor defense at that position. Center field was an area of concern entering the campaign after the loss of George Springer in free agency, but the combination of Myles Straw and Chas McCormick has held up just fine. Recent rumors have connected Houston to Miami’s Starling Marte, who is apparently headed for free agency after talks on an extension with the Marlins failed to produce any results. Marte could replicate what the Astros were accustomed to getting from Springer. Still, given the strength and depth of Dusty Baker’s lineup, GM James Click’s top deadline priority could be pitching. — Bradford Doolittle


Record: 58-38
Previous ranking: 6

With the White Sox’s playoff odds hitting the high 90’s percentage at the start of July, their approach to the trade deadline is all about setting up the roster for the postseason. Chicago could use another reliever or two. One thing to keep in mind: Because the White Sox rotation has been good, durable and consistent, and because of the way they’ve been handled by Tony La Russa, the bullpen has faced fewer batters than any club in the majors. Assuming that dynamic carries into October, GM Rick Hahn can think in terms of matching up, rather than bulk. Does he have all the arms he needs for the key situations La Russa’s firemen will see when the stakes are at their highest? One thing we know: Stuff won’t be a problem. Chicago’s bullpen has put up the highest average pitch velocity of any relief staff in the majors. — Doolittle


Record: 58-38
Previous ranking: 4

The return of Chris Sale projects as the team’s biggest potential addition ahead of the playoff crunch, especially with the rotation struggling to match its early-season performance. How Boston approaches the trade deadline will partially depend on the performance of outfielder and top prospect Jarren Duran, who could help stabilize the platoon situation with Enrique Hernandez and Marwin Gonzalez. Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers called Duran “fearless,” citing his competitive at-bats early in his major league career. — Joon Lee


Record: 57-39
Previous ranking: 7

The loss of Tyler Glasnow for a significant stretch of time puts more focus on the team’s rotation, which lost Charlie Morton and Blake Snell after last season. While the team will need strong performances from Rich Hill and Shane McClanahan, keep an eye on the return of Chris Archer from injury. Archer has missed most of the season so far and his performance could be one of the main factors separating Tampa Bay from being a legit World Series contender and being another wild card-entry to the playoffs. — Lee


Record: 56-42
Previous ranking: 5

Through their first 111 plate appearances in July, Wil Myers and Eric Hosmer — two of the biggest reasons why the offense had underperformed to this point — were batting a combined .337/.423/.589. In his last start, Chris Paddack — a primary reason, alongside Blake Snell, for why the Padres’ bullpen has absorbed a major league high in innings thus far — shut the Braves out through five innings. Those are promising signs for a Padres team that still finds itself chasing the Giants and Dodgers in the division. Just as important, perhaps, would be the acquisition of another bat before the trade deadline, specifically one that could fit in the corner outfield and first base. Joey Gallo would be ideal. — Gonzalez


Record: 56-41
Previous ranking: 8

The All-Star break didn’t slow down Milwaukee, as the Brewers are proving to be a well-rounded team more and more every day. Sweeping the Reds over the weekend was the latest example, as they did it with pitching and late-inning offense. The latter ability wasn’t in their arsenal earlier this season but as they’ve gotten healthy — and gotten the full impact of shortstop Willy Adames — the Brewers have taken off. — Jesse Rogers


Record: 55-42
Previous ranking: 9

While the Athletics have ridden the success of Matt Olson and Tony Kemp in the lineup, in addition to Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea in the rotation, they may be a few pieces away from being a strong championship contender. This team continues to be streaky, going 4-6 ahead of the All-Star break, and could use a trade addition to shore up its lack of depth in the outfield. — Lee


Record: 48-44
Previous ranking: 10

One of the team’s biggest X-factors will be the return of George Springer, who missed a significant chunk of the first half due to injury. Toronto currently finds itself in the mix for a wild card alongside the Seattle Mariners, Oakland, Tampa Bay, the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians. The team will need continued strong performances from Robbie Ray, among the leaders in baseball among starters in bWAR. — Lee


Record: 50-43
Previous ranking: 11

The Mets have already used 15 starting pitchers and will be looking to add at the trade deadline, especially with Jacob deGrom landing on the IL and Carlos Carrasco‘s rehab start in Triple-A on Tuesday not going well, as he allowed three walks and three home runs in 1⅔ innings. Edwin Diaz also needs to get back on track. He had been 19 for 20 in save chances, but has blown three opportunities in a row and allowed his first home run of the season. — David Schoenfield


Record: 50-44
Previous ranking: 13

The Yankees took two of three games from the Red Sox over the weekend. They are hitting crunch time in terms of determining their approach to the trade deadline. With hitters like Chris Gittens, Greg Allen, Ryan LaMarre and Trey Amburgey currently seeing playing time for New York, this certainly doesn’t look like the juggernaut many figured the Yankees would be before the season. New York found success against Boston by playing small ball and hitting for power. — Lee


Record: 47-47
Previous ranking: 21

After giving up four runs and two homers to a makeshift Yankees lineup on Tuesday, Aaron Nola‘s ERA is up to 4.64. Since May 9, he’s 3-5 with a 5.86 ERA and .508 slugging percentage allowed over 12 starts. The Phillies will try to add a center fielder and some bullpen depth at the deadline, but if they’re going to win the NL East they will need Nola to pitch better. — Schoenfield


Record: 51-45
Previous ranking: 16

Chris Flexen and rookie Logan Gilbert suddenly look like a pretty solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Flexen started using his changeup more and is 5-1 with a 2.15 ERA over his past nine starts. Gilbert scuffled his first few outings but has found his stride and is 4-0 with a 2.49 ERA and .185 average allowed over his past eight starts. — Schoenfield


Record: 46-48
Previous ranking: 15

Since we last wrote in this space, Ronald Acuna Jr. went down for the season with a torn ACL, the Braves acquired Joc Pederson and Stephen Vogt, Ian Anderson landed on the IL with shoulder inflammation and they lost another extra-inning game. On the bright side, Touki Toussaint‘s first start of 2021 was a success as he allowed one run and three hits in 6⅔ innings. Maybe he can finally deliver on his potential (he’s still just 25) and provide a lift to the rotation. — Schoenfield


Record: 49-47
Previous ranking: 12

A bad bullpen is dooming the Reds. What else is new? Luis Castillo has turned his season around but after pitching six scoreless innings on Saturday, he saw a 2-0 lead turn into a 7-4 Brewers win thanks to the pen. Similar later inning results occurred on Friday as well with Amir Garrett involved in blowing both leads. His 7-plus ERA should have the Reds thinking about subtracting instead of adding at the trade deadline. A weekend sweep of the Reds by the Brewers — in Cincinnati — may have sealed their fate. — Rogers


Record: 48-45
Previous ranking: 15

With the White Sox expanding their lead over Cleveland in the Central, the Indians are left in a precarious spot with the trade deadline approaching. They are still a fringe wild-card contender but currently are the least of a gaggle of teams within a few games of the second slot. A hot streak over the next 10 days would help, but Cleveland has a tough slate, with Tampa Bay, St. Louis and the White Sox lined up between now and the end of July. Worse, while Zach Plesac has returned to the struggling Cleveland rotation, neither Shane Bieber nor Aaron Civale will be back before July 30. Things just don’t appear to be lining up in a way that would pressure the Cleveland front office to proceed aggressively at the deadline. — Doolittle


Record: 46-48
Previous ranking: 17

The Angels began the second half by dropping two of three to the Mariners and losing both games to the A’s, a circumstance this team can ill-afford at the moment. There’s a desire within the organization to see what a lineup featuring Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, Jared Walsh and Justin Upton looks like when all are healthy, a combination that could help the team make a run in August and September. But that is nowhere near the case at the moment. And the trade deadline is near. First-year general manager Perry Minasian could be tempted to deal his pending free agents before then, most notably closer Raisel Iglesias. — Gonzalez


Record: 45-50
Previous ranking: 18

Juan Soto is heating up in a big way — perhaps the Home Run Derby helped get his long ball swing going again. Heading into Wednesday’s game, Soto was hitting .475/.596/1.050 with seven home runs over an 11-game span. Just like that, he leads the NL in OBP and is slugging over .500. As for trades, with Mike Rizzo saying Starlin Castro will never play again for the Nationals, look for them to possibly add a third baseman. Kris Bryant would be the big name, or perhaps Eduardo Escobar. — Schoenfield


Record: 48-48
Previous ranking: 20

The Cardinals are treading water until they get healthy on the mound but it might be too little, too late. Unlike other veteran teams who are far from first place, it’s not likely St. Louis subtracts from its roster before July 30. As legacy players go, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are tied to the Cardinals as much as any two players in any franchise. St. Louis is hoping its 13 remaining games against the Brewers will be the difference. — Rogers


Record: 47-49
Previous ranking: 19

Joc Pederson was just the first of several trades to come as the Cubs’ six-year run of playing meaningful games in September is going to end this fall. Soon enough, they will move on from possibly Kris Bryant and Zach Davies. The Cubs did win their first series after the break, beating the lowly Diamondbacks, but that won’t stop them from reshaping their team. — Rogers


Record: 46-51
Previous ranking: 23

The Tigers aren’t a playoff contender and thus aren’t likely to make a splash at the trade deadline. Subtracting from the roster by dealing prospective free agents such as Jonathan Schoop might make more sense, or seeing what kind of young talent could be acquired from a group of veteran starters that would surely draw interest, if only all of them weren’t injured. Due to injuries, and because the Tigers have become one of the nice, unsung stories of the season by just continuing to get better, the trade deadline is kind of ill-timed for Detroit. It would be nice to see the team as constructed continue its shocking climb to .500. — Doolittle


Record: 41-55
Previous ranking: 22

Everyone loved the Marlins’ draft. Shortstop Khalil Watson, fifth on Kiley McDaniel’s draft board, fell to the Marlins with the 16th pick, a pick Kiley called the steal of the draft. High school catcher Joe Mack (31st overall) is a good athlete with power potential and third-round pick Jordan McCants is a high school shortstop with solid skills and a high ceiling if his hitting develops. — Schoenfield


Record: 41-55
Previous ranking: 25

Though the Twins are one of the most intriguing teams around with the trade deadline approaching, anyone anticipating a complete dismantling will likely be disappointed. Of course Minnesota will listen to offers for pending free agents such as Nelson Cruz, Andrelton Simmons, Michael Pineda, J.A. Happ and others. It would be negligent for a team so far out of the race not to. But keep in mind that the Twins are coming off consecutive division titles. For all the team’s overall struggles, the offense ranks sixth in the majors by OPS+. Before the season, ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel ranked the Twins’ minor-league system at No. 5. Minnesota can also entertain offers on Jose Berrios and Byron Buxton. It’s been a bad season, but the Twins are positioned to reload, not rebuild. — Doolittle


Record: 42-54
Previous ranking: 24

There are still questions as to how the Rockies’ makeshift front office will approach the looming trade deadline. Someone like Jon Gray, a pending free agent who’s putting together a solid season as a starting pitcher, will undoubtedly be gone. Superstar shortstop Trevor Story seemingly will be, too (unless the Rockies ultimately believe the draft-pick compensation from a qualifying offer would be more valuable than his current return). But what about more long-term pieces such as Charlie Blackmon and German Marquez? The Rockies might have to eat some money on the former and will surely demand a high return on the latter. — Gonzalez


Record: 39-55
Previous ranking: 26

There have been a lot of disappointing aspects to the 2021 season for Kansas City, and the run-up to the trade deadline hasn’t really offered the Royals any rays of sunshine. Free-agent-to-be Danny Duffy ended up on the IL with a flexor strain, all but wiping away the chances of the Royals finding a contending club to acquire his services. Fellow pending free agent Jorge Soler has continued to flounder, though he has hit a couple of homers lately. Given his team-friendly expiring contract and the fact that he is always capable of getting hot and carrying a team for a month, he still might attract some interest from a contender looking to add power. And then there’s Whit Merrifield, who sports a combination of steady all-around play and a contract extremely friendly to the team. With Adalberto Mondesi on hand and Bobby Witt Jr. now in Triple-A, the time may have finally come for the Royals to part with Merrifield. — Doolittle


Record: 35-61
Previous ranking: 27

The Rangers will be popular over the next week, but more for what they have to offer other clubs than what they do on the field. Kyle Gibson had a bad start on Monday coming off his All-Star appearance, but that shouldn’t dissuade possible suitors. Joey Gallo’s home run pace slowed down since getting hot before the All-Star Game but his left-handed power would still look good at Yankee Stadium or in Milwaukee. Texas is playing for the future, which could be shaped, in part, between now and July 30.— Rogers


Record: 36-60
Previous ranking: 28

The Pirates played spoiler to the injury-plagued Mets over the weekend, proving at least their lineup has some pop. Jacob Stallings‘ walk-off grand slam is about as good as it gets for a season highlight in Pittsburgh. The Pirates will still be subtracting from their team over the next week. Adam Frazier may or may not go, but reliever Richard Rodriguez should have a new home by July 30. — Rogers


Record: 31-64
Previous ranking: 29

Baltimore took a bunch of flyers on veterans this offseason such as Matt Harvey, Freddy Galvis and Maikel Franco, but those additions have underperformed or been injured to create any meaningful value on the field or in the trade market. Cedric Mullins has had a breakout season, hitting .314/.378/.536 with 16 homers and 16 stolen bases, posting 3.8 bWAR, good for 10th among all position players, ahead of established stars such as Manny Machado, Juan Soto, Aaron Judge and Mookie Betts. — Lee


Record: 30-68
Previous ranking: 30

The D-backs will be active before the trade deadline, but the big question is whether they’ll be engaged to the point where they’re trading away core players such as Ketel Marte, Carson Kelly and Zac Gallen, among others. D-backs general manager Mike Hazen was asked that question by local reporters on Tuesday and said: “They’re being asked about, but I wouldn’t really classify it as very serious conversation at this point with anybody. But you never know what’s going to happen. We have to be open-minded to any and all possibilities because of where we stand right now.” — Gonzalez

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