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OK, enough with Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani and J.D. Martinez. Those guys have received enough publicity early in spring training. Let’s look at some under-the-radar players, guys who don’t get much publicity but, though they might not be big stars, help their teams win baseball games.

American League

Baltimore Orioles: Mychal Givens, RP. Hey, a relief pitcher! (It will be a theme.) The Orioles don’t really have another strong candidate, especially with Jonathan Schoop getting some love with his breakout, All-Star performance in 2017. Givens has thrown 153 1/3 innings the past two seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA, which is something. Do you ever get the feeling Buck Showalter could find eight guys at a tryout camp and turn them into a useful bullpen?

Boston Red Sox: Drew Pomeranz, SP. With all the attention given to Chris Sale’s Cy Young pursuit and David Price’s drama and Rick Porcello’s struggles, Pomeranz quietly went 17-6 with a 3.32 ERA while fanning 174 in 173 2/3 innings. He’s a free agent after 2018, and if he posts a third straight strong season, he’s going to become a very rich man.

Chicago White Sox: Nick Delmonico, LF. These are actual strikeout-to-walk ratios of some White Sox hitters in 2017: 162 to 13, 117 to 19, 111 to 33, 165 to 19. Delmonico, on the other hand, was 31 to 23 in his 166 plate appearances, which was almost Ted Williams-esque for this team. So, please, let’s hope he can actually hit.

Cleveland Indians: Dan Otero, RP. His ERAs the past five seasons: 1.38, 2.28, 6.75, 1.53, 2.85. He had 46 bad innings for the A’s in 2015, which is how the Indians were able to get him for nothing, but at some point, we have to believe he’s the real deal, even despite the middling fastball and low strikeout rate. With the departure of Bryan Shaw in free agency, Otero could see a more vital role in 2018.

Detroit Tigers: Warwick Saupold, RP. I just wanted to type “Warwick Saupold” at least once this year. It sounds like a name from some dystopian novel in which America is attacked by mutant lifeforms and only a baseball player and part-time scientist named Warwick Saupold can save the day. Except Saupold isn’t American. He’s Australian! (OK, sorry, Tigers fans. How about Shane Greene? He could be a good closer this year.)

Houston Astros: Josh Reddick, RF. He got more attention last season for celebrating the AL West title while wearing American Flag underwear than for anything he did on the field. The first year of his four-year, $52 million contract was a huge success, however, as he hit .314/.363/.484 while playing a solid right field. He has averaged 3.6 WAR per season since 2012.

Kansas City Royals: Whit Merrifield, 2B. I just realized this: Merrifield led the AL with 34 steals. OK, so it was the lowest league-leading figure in either league since Luis Aparacio led the AL with 31 in 1962. Even so, Merrifield has turned himself into a nice player, with 3.9 WAR in 2017 — not bad for a ninth-round pick who never got any attention as a prospect.

Los Angeles Angels: Martin Maldonado, C. You might be thinking, “a catcher who hit .221 and drove in 38 runs? What kind of list is this?” That’s kind of the point. Maldonado’s defense is that good. The bat is weak other than an occasional home run, but Maldonado was worthy of the Gold Glove he won, throwing out 39 percent of base stealers to go with strong framing metrics.

Minnesota Twins: Jorge Polanco, SS. Polanco’s first full season produced 2.1 WAR and more power than expected, with 46 extra-base hits. Polanco’s strikeout rate was well below the league average, and his defense graded out as average as well (minus-1 Defensive Runs Saved). He’s young enough to get better, especially if you look at his second-half numbers: .293/.359/.511, 10 home runs.

Oakland Athletics: Matt Chapman, 3B. He won’t be anonymous for long if he keeps playing defense like Nolan Arenado. His rookie season showed some promise in the power category to go with spectacular defense, and if he can clean up the offensive approach and improve the OBP (.313 last year), he’s going to make several All-Star teams in his career.

Toronto Blue Jays: J.A. Happ, SP. Over the past three seasons, he’s 41-23 with a 3.43 ERA. That’s 21st among pitchers with at least 400 innings, better than Gerrit Cole, Marcus Stroman and Chris Archer. If Happ has another solid season, he’ll pass Mark Loretta in career WAR among players from Northwestern.

Seattle Mariners: Mitch Haniger, RF. If you want a good breakout candidate for 2018, check out Haniger. He was hitting .342 in late April when he went down with a strained oblique. Later, he was hit in the face by a pitch and went on the DL. But he returned in September and hit .353 with seven home runs (though his strikeout-to-walk ratio, strong early in the season, deteriorated to 27/3). He is 27 years old and a plus defender in right and was worth 3.0 WAR last season in just 96 games.

Texas Rangers: Alex Claudio, RP. Claudio is an aberration in this day of flame-throwing relievers, a lefty sinker-baller who throws an 86 mph fastball. His ground ball rate, however, was over 60 percent the past two seasons, so he gets the job done — 2.61 ERA the past two seasons with just seven home runs allowed in 134 1/3 innings — with a strikeout rate that even a 1980s closer would blush over.

Tampa Bay Rays: Mallex Smith, CF. Think Ender Inciarte skill set. Hey, nobody thought much of Inciarte his first two seasons, either. If Smith does turn out to be that valuable — and he has 2.7 WAR in 497 career plate appearances — that will soothe the loss of Steven Souza.

New York Yankees: Jordan Montgomery, SP. A report the other day said the Yankees were still interested in Lance Lynn. I’m not sure why, as Lynn isn’t better than Montgomery, who had a completely under-the-radar rookie season, going 9-7 with a 3.88 ERA and solid peripherals. He is a big kid (6-foot-6), has a four-pitch arsenal, throws hard enough for a lefty (92-mph average fastball) and finished strong (2.49 ERA in September). There’s zero reason to displace him from the rotation.

National League

Arizona Diamondbacks: Robbie Ray, SP. Yes, another reason to mention Robbie Ray. I feel like his agent owes me a little under-the-table payment. But he’s really good! He averaged 12.1 K’s per nine innings! If the humidor that is being installed in Arizona works to suppress offense, Ray could be a Cy Young contender.

Atlanta Braves: Ender Inciarte, CF. He has won back-to-back Gold Gloves and made the All-Star team last year, so it’s not like he’s being ignored, but this is the kind of player still underrated by the masses. J.D. Martinez is getting a $100 million-plus contract, but Inciarte has outperformed him in cumulative WAR the past four seasons, 15.7 to 15.2.

Chicago Cubs: Jose Quintana, SP. Prediction: The best starting pitcher on the Cubs in 2018 will be Quintana, not Yu Darvish or Jon Lester or Kyle Hendricks.

Cincinnati Reds: Tucker Barnhart, C. The new Gold Glove voting system is a big improvement over when managers and coaches just voted for the same guys every year. Barnhart was a deserving winner in 2017. In the past, the award no doubt would have gone to Buster Posey because of his bat or Yadier Molina as a legacy choice. Plus, Barnhart isn’t an automatic out at the plate, with a .270/.347/.403 line.

Colorado Rockies: Jon Gray, SP. Clayton Kershaw might have trouble keeping his ERA under 4.00 at Coors Field in this home-run-dominated era, but that’s exactly what Gray did in 2017. Caveat: He made just 20 starts (only eight of them at Coors) after a broken foot suffered in his third start. But if he pitches like he did last year over 30 starts, we’re looking at a potential 5-WAR pitcher — with maybe even more upside, given that he has just 58 major league starts.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Ross Stripling, RP. There’s nothing too fancy about Stripling, and though the Dodgers used him almost exclusively in relief in 2017, he could start for a lot of teams. You know, maybe the World Series turns out differently if Dave Roberts doesn’t bury him at the back of the pen.

Miami Marlins: Derek Dietrich, UT. He’s been a terrific bench player the past three seasons, hitting .261/.351/.432 while playing second, third and left field. He could be the regular in left field, and if he produces, he probably gets traded.

Milwaukee Brewers: Travis Shaw, 3B. His numbers were less than stellar with the Red Sox in 2016. The Brewers picked him up for reliever Tyler Thornburg, and Shaw broke out with .273/.349/.513 season that included 31 home runs, all while caring for his daughter, who was born in June with a heart abnormality that required three life-threatening surgeries (she was released from the hospital in December). Shaw plays a solid third base, especially impressive for a guy who spent more time in the minors at first base, and he hit better on the road, so he didn’t just take advantage of Miller Park.

New York Mets: Jerry Blevins, RP. Every team needs a 6-foot-6, 190-pound LOOGY (left-handed, one-out guy). Blevins has carved out a nice career in part because he isn’t completely useless against righties, though Terry Collins limited him to just 91 innings in 148 games the past two seasons.

Philadelphia Phillies: Cesar Hernandez, 2B. Everyone kind of expected the Phillies to trade Hernandez to clear room for prospect Scott Kingery, but they didn’t and with good reason: Hernandez is good. He averaged 3.2 WAR the past two seasons, and the Phillies might end up keeping him and turning Kingery into a Ben Zobrist-type utility guy.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Josh Bell, 1B. It seems like we waited forever for Bell to arrive, and when he finally played his first full season, we kind of ignored it. There were some positive signs, with 26 home runs and solid control of the strike zone without an excessive strikeout rate. To get to the next level, Bell will need to hit fewer ground balls (51 percent ground ball rate) and take advantage of his natural power.

St. Louis Cardinals: Jose Martinez, 1B/LF. Tommy Pham? You know about Tommy Pham by now. Martinez could always hit — he hit .384 in Triple-A in 2015 — but became one of those launch-angle guys last season and began clearing the fence with regularity. He hit 14 home runs in 272 at-bats as part of a .309/.379/.518 line and at the minimum should start against lefties and serve as a strong weapon off the bench.

San Diego Padres: Dinelson Lamet, SP. Hey, they won more games than the Giants, so somebody must be doing something. Lamet struck out 139 in 114 1/3 innings as a rookie while holding batters to a .210 average, so it isn’t surprising to see that he averaged 95 mph with his fastball. He’s a fastball/slider guy with below-average control, however, so lefties also slugged .502 off him. If he can develop an off-speed pitch, watch out.

San Francisco Giants: Hunter Strickland, RP. Bryce Harper‘s favorite relief pitcher. Strickland is known largely for giving up bombs to Harper in the postseason and then instigating a brawl after throwing at Harper last May. However, he has quietly been the one consistent Giants reliever, with a 2.75 ERA the past three seasons.

Washington Nationals: Ryan Madson, RP. Maybe you could go with Anthony Rendon, who led NL position players in FanGraphs WAR, but he has two top-six MVP finishes in his career (that’s one more than Bryce Harper), so you can’t say he flies under the radar. How about Madson, who has been good for three seasons after missing three seasons after Tommy John surgery and a long path to recovery? Between the A’s and Nationals, he was quietly one of the game’s best relievers in 2017: 59 IP, 38 H, 2 HRs, 9 BB, 67 K’s.

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Everything you need to know about Olympic baseball rosters

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The Olympics have always had a love-hate relationship with baseball. In the early decades of the games, host cities organized various exhibitions, including a contest in 1956 in Melbourne that drew 114,000 spectators, but it wasn’t until 1984 in Los Angeles that we saw the first Olympic baseball tournament, although it wasn’t an official sport.

The United States, fielding a team of college players that included Mark McGwire, Barry Larkin, Will Clark, B.J. Surhoff and Bill Swift, played before sellout crowds at Dodger Stadium, but lost 6-3 to Japan in the first-place game. Baseball was again a demonstration sport at the Seoul games in 1988, with another team of U.S. collegians beating Japan 5-3 in the first-place game behind Jim Abbott’s complete game and Tino Martinez’s two home runs. Medals were awarded, but weren’t counted in each nation’s medal totals.

Baseball finally became an official Olympic sport in 1992 and was conducted in each Olympics through 2008 — Cuba won gold in 1992, 1996 and 2004, the U.S. in 2000 and South Korea in 2008 — but was then dropped (along with softball) in 2012 and 2016. The IOC’s rationale was the two sports didn’t feature enough worldwide participation and that, in baseball’s case, the best players weren’t participating. The U.S. had upgraded from college players to minor leaguers, but the IOC still axed the sport for the London and Rio games.

Baseball and softball are now back, at least for Tokyo, as two of five sports the Tokyo Organizing Committee deemed “event-based” and added to its program. After various qualifying tournaments, six countries will participate, scaled down from an eight-team tournament in 2008. Here is a rundown of what to watch for in the tournament and some key players.

Tournament format

The six teams are divided into two pools for group stage play.

Group A: Japan, Mexico, Dominican Republic
Group B: United States, South Korea, Israel

Starting July 28, each team plays games against the other teams in its group. The teams then feed into a double-elimination bracket of sorts (with the two third-place teams first facing each other in an elimination game). The gold-medal game will be played Aug. 7 at Yokohama Stadium — in front of empty stands, as will be the case for the entire Olympics after Japan announced a COVID-19 state of emergency in early July.

Rosters

For players affiliated with MLB teams, only players not on 40-man rosters were allowed to participate, so the U.S., Mexico and Dominican Republic teams are a mix of younger prospects, former major leaguers or veteran minor leaguers. The Japanese and Korean professional leagues, however, are shutting down their leagues to allow their best professionals to compete.

Players to watch

United States: Manager Mike Scioscia rolls out a team that combines big league veterans like Todd Frazier, Scott Kazmir, Edwin Jackson and David Robertson with prospects like Oakland A’s shortstop Nick Allen, Boston Red Sox first baseman Tristan Casas, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Simeon Woods Richardson, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Shane Baz and new Minnesota Twins pitcher Joe Ryan. Frazier has become the de facto team captain, and while he and Kazmir appeared in the majors this season, the younger guys are the players to watch. Baz might be the pitcher you want to start against Japan, as he has a 2.26 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A, with 82 strikeouts in 55.2 innings. Ryan, just traded from the Rays to the Twins, is also in Triple-A, where he has 3.63 ERA with 75 K’s in 57 innings. Don’t be surprised to see both in the majors later this season.

The best hitter on the team might actually be Tyler Austin, who spent parts of four seasons in the majors from 2016 to 2019. He has been one of the top sluggers in Japan’s Central League, hitting .314/.413/.603 with 19 home runs. One of the coolest stories of the Olympics is infielder Eddy Alvarez, who was one of the flag bearers for the U.S. during the opening ceremony. He won a silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics as part of the 5,000-meter short track speedskating relay team. He appeared in 12 games for the Marlins last season and will become the rare athlete to compete in both the Winter and Summer Olympics. While Japan is the favorite, the U.S. certainly has a chance. It will be interesting to see if Scioscia ends up relying more on the veteran pitchers or the prospects.

Japan: Masahiro Tanaka is the name familiar to MLB fans. Tanaka returned to Japan this season and is pitching for Rakuten, where he has posted a 2.86 ERA in 13 starts. He might not be the ace of the staff, however. Koyo Aoyagi leads the Central League with a 1.79 ERA and Masato Morishita is second at 2.29, while Yoshinobu Yamamoto (1.82) tops the Pacific League.

On the offensive side, 27-year-old outfielder Masataka Yoshida is the player to watch. He leads the Pacific League with a .343 average and .989 OPS and has 46 walks and just 19 strikeouts. Fellow outfielder Yuki Yanagita is the top slugger as he leads the Pacific League with 22 home runs while hitting .296. Japan’s pitching depth certainly makes it the gold-medal favorite, although the empty stadiums remove some of the home-field advantage it would have otherwise held.

Mexico: The big name here is five-time All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who last played in the majors in 2018. He is 39 and has been playing for Guadalajara in the Mexican League, where he’s hitting .340/.412/.531 with six home runs in 43 games. The pitching staff includes several former major leaguers, including Oliver Perez, who made five appearances earlier this season for Cleveland. Others with MLB experience include Fernando Salas, Hector Velazquez, Manny Banuelos and Sammy Solis. The familiar infielders include Danny Espinosa and Ryan Goins. Mexico qualified when it upset the U.S. in the 2019 Premier12 tournament (the U.S. subsequently qualified earlier this year in a different tournament), so don’t discount Mexico’s chance to surprise.

Dominican Republic: Most of the top Dominican talent is locked up in the U.S. major leagues or minors, but the Dominican Republic has managed to field an interesting team. The headliners are Jose Bautista, who last played in the majors in 2018, and Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez, one of the top prospects in the minors. Melky Cabrera and Emilio Bonifacio are recognizable names, but the pitching is thin, relying on former major leaguers like Jumbo Diaz, Dario Alvarez and Jairo Ascencio. With the lack of pitching depth and reliance on some past-their-prime hitters, the Dominicans are long shots.

South Korea: Drawing from its topflight professional league, South Korea is a strong medal favorite with one vital additional incentive: Military service is mandatory for all male citizens, but the government waives that requirement for gold-medal winners. South Korea is the defending Olympic champion — Hyun-Jin Ryu beat Cuba in the gold-medal game in 2008 — but its pitching staff isn’t considered as strong this time around, with several of the top Korean hurlers — like Ryu and Kwang Hyun Kim — now pitching in the major leagues.

Leading the way will be veteran catcher Eui-ji Yang, a longtime star in the KBO who is hitting .348 with 20 home runs and leads the league with a 1.111 OPS. Outfielder Hyun-Soo Kim has been a staple of Korean teams in international tournaments — you might remember him from his brief time with the Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies — although his numbers have dropped off this season (.288, 12 home runs). First baseman Baek-ho Kang turns 22 in a couple of days but is already one of the best hitters in the KBO, leading the league with a .395 average with 10 home runs. Tae-in Won, a 21-year-old right-hander who tops the KBO with a 2.54 ERA, figures to be the team’s ace, but the staff will rely heavily on its bullpen, which includes a couple of relievers who throw in the upper 90s in Sang-woo Cho and Wook-suk Ko.

Israel: Israel was the surprise winner of the 2019 Europe/Africa qualifying tournament, beating the favored Netherlands squad. The team roster consists almost entirely of U.S.-born players, including four-time All-Star Ian Kinsler, who last played in the majors in 2019. Infielders Danny Valencia and Ty Kelly also have big league experience, as does catcher Ryan Lavarnway. Among the more experienced pitchers are Jake Fishman (3.86 ERA in Triple-A for the Marlins this year), Alex Katz (6.68 ERA in the minors for the Cubs), plus former major leaguers Josh Zeid, Zack Weiss and Jeremy Bleich.

In-game rules

One of the more interesting aspects to the Olympic tournament will be the strict clock and pace-of-play guidelines. A 20-second pitch clock is utilized when no runners are on base. Pitchers get one warning and are then penalized with a ball rewarded to the batter. Batters, meanwhile, must keep one foot in the batter’s box between pitches. There is also a 30-second clock for a coach’s or manager’s visit to the pitcher’s mound, and a 90-second clock for pitching changes and between innings.

Perhaps some MLB officials should pay attention here.

Anyway, the scaled-down tournament and lack of fans will make this a lot less interesting, plus the World Baseball Classic has surpassed the Olympics as the top international tournament. Still, in baseball-mad Japan it will be a big deal with plenty of eyeballs watching on TV and there will be a lot of pressure on the home team to win gold. Anything can happen in a short tournament where it will come down to one game, but Japan feels like the easy pick here.

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Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon says star Shohei Ohtani should win the AL MVP award — ‘It’s not even close’

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Shohei Ohtani‘s 99th pitch in Monday night’s win against the Colorado Rockies was clocked at 100 mph. It ended the top of the seventh inning and registered as his 100th strikeout of 2021, a year when he has also accumulated a major league-leading 35 home runs before the end of July.

No pitcher who ever recorded triple-digit strikeouts added more than nine home runs in the same season.

It was merely the latest example of Ohtani’s unprecedented greatness — and yet another reason why Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon sees him as an easy choice for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award.

“To me, it’s not even close,” Maddon said after a 6-2 victory from Angel Stadium. “When people talk about it being close — it’s not. It’s not. What he’s doing is so unique. It’s just so different compared to anybody else right now.”

Ohtani pitched seven innings of one-run ball in the opener of a three-game series against the worst road team in the majors, even though he only recorded five strikeouts. He relied heavily on his slider as his secondary pitch but went more frequently to his devastating splitter as he navigated through the Rockies’ lineup a third time. He departed the game with a 2-1 lead — and one of the Angels’ run was manufactured by Ohtani himself, who produced a run-scoring single and then stole his 14th base in the first inning.

The list of players with at least 35 home runs and 14 stolen bases before August is short — Christian Yelich (2019), Sammy Sosa (1999), Ken Griffey Jr. (1998), Jeff Bagwell (1994 and ’99) and Ohtani. Only Ohtani, of course, has combined that with any pitching prowess. His major league-leading 6.2 FanGraphs wins above replacement make him a favorite for the AL MVP, but the Angels’ record — 50-49, five games out of the final postseason spot — might hinder him.

“I’m really happy to hear the MVP talks around me,” Ohtani said through his interpreter, “but right now I haven’t been able to finish both as a hitter and a pitcher in the same season, so that’s my main focus — staying healthy, finishing the season strong. If the award comes with it at the end, then I think that’s the best-case scenario.”

With four of six regular-season months nearly complete, Ohtani has combined a .277/.361/.679 slash line in 382 plate appearances with a 3.04 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 30.1 strikeout percentage in 80 innings. His offense has declined a bit since the All-Star break, but his pitching has significantly improved in the month of July.

Over his last three starts — since a dreadful first inning at Yankee Stadium in late June — Ohtani has allowed only three runs in 20 innings, issuing only one walk in that stretch.

“He’s so motivated, obviously,” Maddon said. “I mean nobody’s doing what he’s doing, and nobody’s done what he’s doing, if that makes any sense. He is so motivated.”

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Vlad Guerrero Jr. rocks custom-made Toronto Blue Jays Jordan 1’s

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Toronto Blue Jays third basemen, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. aka “Vlad Jr.” and “Vladdy Jr.” sported a pair of custom-made Jordan 1 sneakers during Monday’s game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.

The sneaker reads “Dominican Slugger” across the Nike check and also features a Blue Jays logo and print of a baseball on the side.

Guerrero is also the first Blue Jays player with 80 RBIs before August since Edwin Encarnción had 89 through July of 2016 and the youngest player in franchise history to do it.

The only other Blue Jays to do it before turning 25 were John Olerud in 1993 and Vernon Wells in 2003. Guerrero finished with two hits and an RBI in Monday’s game.



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