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MESA, Ariz. — Steve Cishek took the mound for his first live batting practice session with his new team earlier this week. As the reliever stood on the mound against the Chicago Cubs‘ A-list of hitters — a former MVP (Kris Bryant), a perennial candidate for the award (Anthony Rizzo), a former All-Star starter (Addison Russell) and an emerging star (Willson Contreras) — he realized exactly what he got himself into when he signed as a free agent during the winter.

“It’s ridiculous,” the righty said later that day. “Our lineup is stacked. I know it’s only live batting practice, but game situations can’t be fun facing those guys over and over and over again. It can be intimidating. … It’s definitely the best team I’ve been a part of.”

It’s a notion newcomers to the Cubs’ spring clubhouse have repeated upon their arrival in Mesa, just days after the front office added the final piece of a busy offseason in right-hander Yu Darvish.

The Cubs are a force once again, and now they are removed from both their championship and hangover seasons. While the normal rhetoric in the spring is to tamp down expectations, the Cubs are way past that point. Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has Chicago at 7-1 to win its second World Series in three years, and raising that second trophy is at the forefront of this team’s thoughts.

“That’s one reason we all signed here, no doubt,” another newcomer, pitcher Tyler Chatwood, said. “They are built to win for a while, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

From ownership on down, the Cubs like to remind everyone that they have won the most regular-season and playoff games in baseball over the past three seasons. But even for all of that success — or perhaps because of it — 2017 almost felt like a disappointment after the Cubs got off to a slow start and bowed out of the National League Championship Series in five games.

“I feel like we’re all ahead of where we were last year, for sure,” Bryant said. “It will be our fourth year together. The same core. It’s nice to go out there with the same guys that have been with you for three, four years.”

The Cubs overhauled their pitching staff but kept their position-player base intact, bringing back the same offense that ranked second in the NL in runs scored in each of the past two seasons yet still hasn’t reached its potential. The Cubs were awful in situational hitting, so they brought in veteran coach Chili Davis to address that shortcoming. An improvement in that one area could translate to a monster season for a lineup stacked with former first-round picks.

“You sure do hope you figure out the game a little bit more each year and you can apply that,” the 26-year-old Bryant said. “I feel that. All of us here are ready to take that next step.”

It’s a group just entering its prime, with plenty of big-game experience already under its belt, but the offense might not even be the biggest reason for optimism.

The addition of Darvish has people in the game thinking about 2016 all over again. The Cubs’ rotation was so dominant that season that 15-game winner Jason Hammel couldn’t sniff the playoffs, and this year’s starting staff could be just as good. Chatwood and Darvish join holdovers Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana to form arguably the most talented fivesome in the National League.

“I don’t like to talk about other teams,” Indians manager Terry Francona said recently. “But those guys [the Cubs’ front office] always get what they need. That is a good five-man rotation. I would love to face them in the World Series again.”

Cubs ownership isn’t backing away from high expectations. They signed off on the $126 million commitment to Darvish and expect a return on the investment.

“On paper it might be the strongest rotation we’ve ever had,” usually understated owner Tom Ricketts declared as camp opened. “We have a great team.”

Ricketts stopped short of calling anything short of a World Series a failure, but he did nothing to dissuade fans from lofty aspirations.

“At this point, with this team, that’s our goal,” he said. “I don’t blame them. They should have high expectations.”

Are these Cubs a 103-win squad, as they were in 2016? Could they be even better? A lot of that will be decided by the rotation and a revamped bullpen that includes new closer Brandon Morrow. There’s an added bonus in that Morrow and Darvish were both plucked from a Los Angeles Dodgers team the Cubs faced in each of the past two NLCS.

“Both Yu and Morrow were key to our success, and we wish them well,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It’s going to be a good battle with those guys. Six times in the regular season and maybe another time in the postseason. Who knows?”

Although another playoff meeting with the Dodgers is still months from taking shape, the Cubs know what they have: a very talented group with new motivation — if perhaps not 108-year-drought motivation — and a renewed hunger.

“Nobody in this room is saying, ‘We were division winners last year,’” veteran Ben Zobrist said. “No one really cares about that at this point. We want to be World Series champions again.”

If the reaction of the newcomers is any indication, there is enough talent in the clubhouse to make it happen.

“It’s easy to say because I’m here now, but it’s the truth,” Cishek said. “Up and down our lineup, bullpen and starting staff, it’s an incredible, incredible team.”

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Given ‘his stats are beyond amazing,’ New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom becomes betting favorite to win NL MVP award

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It often takes eye-popping statistics for a pitcher to win a regular-season MVP award, something that’s happened only twice since 1992. Sportsbooks believe New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom has what it takes.

DeGrom, who is sporting a 0.56 ERA and has driven in more runs at the plate than he has allowed on the mound, has emerged as the consensus favorite to win the National League MVP at U.S. sportsbooks. After opening at 40-1, he is now the National League MVP favorite at 2-1 at Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill. He went from 9-1 to the favorite at 2-1 in a week at BetMGM sportsbooks.

DeGrom moved ahead of San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. last week, despite leaving his most recent start on Friday with flexor tendinitis. DeGrom is expected to be available for his next scheduled start on Wednesday. DeGrom’s departure caused William Hill’s Nevada sportsbooks to halt betting on the NL MVP, but the company’s New Jersey shops kept the odds on the board. A bettor with William Hill in New Jersey placed $1,000 on deGrom to win NL MVP at 6-1 odds prior to his last start.

In the past 28 seasons, only two pitchers have won regular-season MVP awards, the most recent being Clayton Kershaw in 2014. Only 25 pitchers have won the award in Major League Baseball history.

“He goes out every game and just shuts the other team down,” Adam Pullen, second director of trading for William Hill U.S., said. “It’s hard for people to get past that he’s not an everyday player, but he’s just so dominant. For a pitcher to win the MVP, you have to have dominant stats, and his stats are beyond amazing.”

DeGrom is also the favorite to win the NL Cy Young and has attracted 79.3% of the amount wagered on the odds at BetMGM sportsbooks.

The Mets have been favored in each of deGrom’s 10 starts this season, going 7-3 with him on the mound. The price to bet the Mets with deGrom on the mound, however, was so high that if a bettor backed him for $100 on each of his starts, they’d be down $55 on the season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Tatis is the second-favorite to win NL MVP at 3-1, followed by Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Atlanta Braves at 4-1.

In the American League, the Los Angeles Angels‘ two-way star, Shohei Ohtani, is the favorite to win MVP at +120. Before the season, William Hill reported taking a $30,000 bet on Ohtani to win MVP at 30-1 odds. The bet would pay $930,000.

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Kansas City Royals’ Andrew Benintendi hits IL, won’t face Boston Red Sox this weekend

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The Kansas City Royals placed outfielder Andrew Benintendi on the 10-day injured list Monday with a fractured right rib.

The move means that Benintendi won’t be able to face his former team when the Royals host the Boston Red Sox this weekend.

“He had something grab when he threw yesterday [against the Oakland Athletics] with the ball off the wall,” Royals manager Mike Matheny told reporters, according to the Kansas City Star. “He’d been feeling a little bit of something for a while. Obviously, it wasn’t affecting his swing. On the throw, it grabbed him. He was fine last night. Woke up today and it wasn’t right. He had it X-rayed.”

Benintendi, who was traded by the Red Sox to the Royals before the season, is hitting .283 with eight home runs and 31 RBIs in his first season with Kansas City.

He missed most of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season because of a strained right rib cage.

The Royals recalled outfielder Edward Olivares from Triple-A Omaha in a corresponding move.

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Day after uncharacteristic loss, Cleveland Indians ace Shane Bieber placed on 10-day injured list with right shoulder injury

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CLEVELAND — Cleveland Indians ace Shane Bieber, the reigning AL Cy Young winner, has a strained right shoulder and will not pitch for at least two weeks.

Manager Terry Francona said Bieber complained of tightness in his shoulder after pitching Sunday and underwent an MRI. The tests showed the muscle strain, and Bieber will be temporarily shut down.

The Indians placed the right-hander on the injured list and recalled reliever Kyle Nelson from Triple-A Columbus.

Bieber’s loss is a major blow to Cleveland, which has managed to stay in contention in the first 2 1/2 months of the season despite a rash of key injuries. The Indians will now have to survive without Bieber, one of baseball’s best pitchers, for at least a few weeks.

Bieber allowed a season-high 10 hits and five runs while losing to the Seattle Mariners on Sunday.

“Today, I got beat for not executing,” Bieber said after the loss. “That’s obvious. Whether it’s curveball, fastball, slider, changeup, cutter, it doesn’t really matter. I just got to be better and continue to hit spots, execute throughout the game, strike one, two and three and then continue momentum.”

His velocity was noticeably lower vs. Seattle, but Francona didn’t make much of it when asked in his postgame news conference.

Bieber is 7-4 this season in 14 starts, covering 90.2 innings. He has 130 strikeouts, opposed by just 33 walks and has maintained momentum from last season, when he led the majors in wins (8), ERA (1.63) and strikeouts (122).

Seattle has beaten Bieber twice this season, scoring eight runs on 15 hits in 10.1 innings.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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