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The most exciting teams, players and themes of MLB’s 2018 season – SweetSpot

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The best part of the first week of the baseball season is flipping through games and seeing all the amazing things going on: Giancarlo Stanton being booed in the rain at Yankee Stadium, Gabe Kapler forgetting to warm up a reliever, Dodgers and Cardinals fans panicking about their bullpens, Khris Davis playing left field, the Giants scoring a run.

I kid, I kid! It has been a spectacular debut to the 2018 season, so let’s run down some of the most exciting things we’re going to witness all season.

Most exciting teams

Houston Astros. What a team. The No. 5 starter is Charlie Morton, who averaged 96.7 mph with his fastball in his season debut, tossed six scoreless innings and then said, “I don’t think I threw the ball great tonight.” The No. 4 starter is Gerrit Cole, who in his first start with the Astros merely set a career high in swing-and-misses. You know about the lineup. The biggest challenge for A.J. Hinch might simply be keeping the team focused and motivated as it runs away with the American League West.

New York Yankees. Who had Didi Gregorius as the best bet to lead the Yankees in home runs and RBIs?

Washington Nationals. Bryce Harper looks locked in so far, and love him or hate him, there’s no denying that he has a special presence that few players can own. Trea Turner reminds us of 1980s baseball with his blazing speed and stolen bases. The Nats have two must-see starters in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

Most exciting teams that probably won’t make the playoffs

Philadelphia Phillies. They’re going to be a fascinating drama to watch all season, particularly now that every move Kapler makes will be scrutinized like it’s the seventh game of the World Series. More interesting is how all the young talent matures — Rhys Hoskins, J.P. Crawford, Scott Kingery, Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams — and whether the Phillies can develop quickly enough to be surprise playoff contenders.

Atlanta Braves. Once Ronald Acuna joins the mix, they’ll have a fun foursome of Ender Inciarte, Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman and Acuna. Is this the season Freeman bashes from April through September and contends for an MVP? In 2016, he hit .327/.428/.641 from June to the end of the season. Last year, he was hitting .341/.461/.748 on May 17 when he was hit by a pitch that fractured his wrist; he batted a more pedestrian .292 when he returned.

Chicago White Sox. When was the last time the White Sox were interesting? Other than when Chris Sale was pitching or cutting up throwback jerseys? Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson are exciting, though we’re still learning if they’re any good. Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez provide hope in the rotation. Michael Kopech should get called up at some point, and maybe Eloy Jimenez as well.

Most exciting two-way newcomer

Shohei Ohtani. Don’t act like you’re not impressed.

Most exciting one-two punches

Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. In a span of five games, Stanton homered twice in his Yankees debut, then struck out five times and got booed in his Yankee Stadium debut. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a thrill ride, but I still like the possibility of 100 combined home runs.

Scherzer and Strasburg. Scherzer is the two-time defending Cy Young winner, and Strasburg is the guy who might take it away from him.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the Double-A affiliate for the Blue Jays, is the must-watch minor league team. Guerrero just turned 19 in March, but don’t rule out the possibility that he reaches the majors this season (especially if Josh Donaldson gets traded).

Most exciting outfields

Tommy Pham, Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler. Last year’s most exciting outfield of Stanton, Ozuna and Christian Yelich has been scattered to the winds, but this group could be the best in 2018, with sleeper MVP candidate Pham leading the way as he plays with a chip on his shoulder.

Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Domingo Santana and Ryan Braun. Yelich could be poised for a huge season. He always hit better on the road while with the Marlins — .838 OPS versus .765 at home — and now he’s in a great hitters’ park. If he finds a way to add even a little more launch angle to his swing, he could hit .300 with 25 to 30 home runs.

Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi. They were worth a combined 12.0 WAR last season. That total will go up.

Most exciting old guys who are still playing

Ichiro Suzuki. He’s 44 and can still do this:

This is Ichiro’s 27th season of professional baseball; he was 18 when he started his career for Orix in the Japanese Pacific League. One of his teammates that season was Carmelo Martinez, who was once a teammate of Fergie Jenkins. Jenkins played with Robin Roberts on the 1966 Cubs. Roberts played with Schoolboy Rowe, who pitched against Babe Ruth. In Ruth’s first major league game, he pitched against Nap Lajoie, who was born in 1874, two years before the National League was founded.

Bartolo Colon. He’s with the Rangers, the 11th team he has started for. The 44-year-old needs to start for one more team to tie Mike Morgan’s record.

Adrian Beltre. He’s just a kid compared to these two, but at age 38, he’s the seventh-oldest player in the majors. When he came up as a teenager, he was the youngest player in the majors. He could easily outlast the rest of those older than him: Suzuki and Colon plus Fernando Rodney, Peter Moylan, Chase Utley and Victor Martinez. I wonder if anyone has been both the youngest AND oldest player in his career.

Most exciting walk years to watch

Harper. Duh.

Manny Machado: You can sub in Donaldson here as well, but he’s more likely to remain all season with the Blue Jays than Machado is with the Orioles. If the Orioles fall out of the race, the front office will have to decide whether to extract some value by dealing Machado to a contender.

Clayton Kershaw. Just a gentle reminder that he has an opt-out clause.

Most exciting defenders not named Khris Davis

Byron Buxton/Kevin Kiermaier/Andrelton Simmons/Nolan Arenado/Betts (tie). No, I’m not going to choose. If you’re looking for a defensive breakout for 2018, here are three names: A’s third baseman Matt Chapman, who was great last year; Mariners center fielder Dee Gordon, who already has looked comfortable out there and has a plus arm to go with his blazing speed; and Marlins center fielder Lewis Brinson, who is silky smooth out there.

Most exciting bullpen problems that aren’t exciting but might be alarming

Cardinals. Greg Holland will eventually take over as closer, and he should be fine, but he also walked 4.1 batters per nine innings last season, and you have to worry about a little about his durability.

Dodgers. Kenley Jansen should be fine, but the velocity is significantly down, and he has to mentally rebound from a couple of tough outings in the World Series. Behind him, there are questions as well. I still say the Dodgers are the most vulnerable of the Super Seven teams.

Phillies. Kapler went to his bullpen 18 times in the first three games and then admitted that maybe he needs to use those guys for longer outings. Yeah, bullpenning is hard.

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New York Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu on verge of winning AL batting title

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NEW YORK — DJ LeMahieu is on the verge of a first in more than a century of Major League Baseball: the first player to win undisputed batting titles in both the American and National Leagues.

Luke Voit is about to become a more common name atop the leaderboards but part of an illustrious list, joining Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Alex Rodriguez as New York Yankees to top the majors in home runs.

“I’ve always admired the Babe,” Voit said after the Yankees woke up from their latest slump to beat the Miami Marlins 11-4 on Saturday and kept their hold on the AL’s No. 5 postseason seed going into the final day. “It’s just awesome company. That guy hit 700 home runs (714 to be exact). That means I got to start hitting like 150 a year to catch up to him. So that’s never going to happen.”

Voit hit his major league-leading 22nd homer. Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox is second with 19.

LeMahieu had his fourth four-hit game and three RBIs while raising his average to .359. He passed Washington’s Juan Soto (.346) for the big league lead and opened a large margin over defending AL batting champion Tim Anderson of the White Sox, second in the AL at .337.

“This game’s been around for a long time, and I think anyone who’s watched knows just how special a player DJ LeMahieu’s been for us in these two years,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.

LeMahieu won the 2016 NL batting title with a .348 average for Colorado. Ed Delahanty hit .410 for the Philadelphia Phillies to win the NL championship in 1899; he is credited by some researchers with the 1902 AL championship at .376, while others accept Nap Lajoie as winning that title at .378 despite lacking the plate appearances required in more modern times.

“Guys don’t win batting titles in both leagues, because you win it in one league, they probably keep you,” said Marlins manager Don Mattingly, the 1984 AL batting champion with the Yankees. “It’s a different game nowadays.”

A 32-year-old infielder in his second season with the Yankees, LeMahieu will become New York’s first batting champion since Bernie Williams in 1998.

Voit hit a three-run drive against Nick Vincent in a seven-run sixth for a 10-3 lead. He has made 38 consecutive starts, including 19 straight at first base, despite an injured foot.

“I’ve been trying to transform myself into a better power hitter and this year was another steppingstone for me,” Voit said. “I’ve always been a guy, high school, college, minors. I play through stuff. I’m a grinder. I want to be out there. I want to help a team, especially when we were hurting earlier in the year and I had to do whatever it took to be out there. So I was making sure I was getting plenty of treatment from all of our trainers and trying to stay on top of it so I could play through it and not be like killing me.”

Yankees rookie Deivi Garcia (3-2) allowed four runs and seven hits in 6⅔ innings with seven strikeouts and a walk. Boone has not announced whether Garcia or left-hander J.A. Happ will follow Gerrit Cole and Masahiro Tanaka as his playoff starters.

Preparing for a first-round playoff series on the road, likely at Cleveland or Tampa Bay, the Yankees (33-26) are trying to hold off third-place Toronto (32-27) and keep the No. 5 seed. New York’s season has flowed and drifted like the tide: a 16-6 start, following by a 5-15 slide, a 10-game winning streak and five losses in a six-game span coming in.

New York trailed 3-0 before Tyler Wade‘s two-run homer in the fifth against Ryne Stanek, and Aaron Hicks had a two-run homer in the sixth against former Yankee Stephen Tarpley (2-2) for a 5-3 lead.

Wade’s homer off the second deck in right ended the Yankees’ first five-game homerless streak since April 1-5, 2014. They have scored nearly half their runs via the long ball, 156 of 315, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“Any spark to get us going, especially with the last game coming up tomorrow and going to the playoffs,” Wade said after his third homer this season.

Giancarlo Stanton was in a 1-for-21 slide with 12 strikeouts before his 113-mph RBI double to the left-center gap in the fifth that drove in Aaron Judge with the tying run.

“I feel like we’re always one swing away,” Voit said. “We just need to get that one to get us going.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Los Angeles’ Angels Mike Trout — ‘We gotta get to the playoffs’

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The Los Angeles Angels were mathematically eliminated from postseason contention at Dodger Stadium on Friday night, which means that in nine full seasons in the major leagues, Mike Trout — considered by many the game’s greatest player for most, if not all, of those seasons — has made the playoffs only once.

“The biggest thing is getting to the playoffs,” Trout said Saturday, moments before the second of a three-game series against the cross-town Los Angeles Dodgers. “You guys all see it. I see it. It sucks being out of it. It’s time. We gotta get to the playoffs.”

Trout made the playoffs in 2014, when the Angels suffered a first-round sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals. The 2020 season will now mark the fifth consecutive time his Angels have finished with a losing record, even though the offseason additions of manager Joe Maddon and third baseman Anthony Rendon had many believing the team might contend for a championship.

The Angels lost 25 of their first 37 games but have since won 14 of 21. The 60-game season didn’t provide enough time to make up ground.

“It could be a different story if we played a full season,” Trout said. “We got hot just a little late and fell short.”

The end result, a postseason absence even though Major League Baseball expanded the field to 16 teams, could lead to the firing of general manager Billy Eppler, who’s winding down his fifth season with the team and hasn’t been extended beyond 2020.

Eppler played a lead role in recruiting Shohei Ohtani, was a big reason Trout basically decided to spend his entire career with the Angels and took steps to rebuild the farm system, adding high-ceiling talent such as Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh. But Eppler consistently came up short addressing the pitching staff; the manager he appointed in 2019, Brad Ausmus, lasted only one season. Decorated executive Dave Dombrowski has been rumored inside and outside of baseball to be his successor.

“Billy was a big reason why I signed back here,” Trout said. “We’ve built a friendship over the years. He’s put a lot of great teams together, and it just didn’t work out these last few years. The relationship and the friendship I’ve built with Billy — it obviously goes beyond baseball now. I’ve had a couple GMs come in here; I’ve never had the GM relationship I’ve had with him with anybody else.”

Trout, who became a father eight weeks ago, was batting .281/.390/.603 with 17 home runs in 241 plate appearances heading into Saturday’s game. He ranked seventh among major league position players in FanGraphs wins above replacement, and though he continually called this season “a grind,” Trout will undoubtedly finish within the top five in American League Most Valuable Player voting for the ninth consecutive year. But he’ll be 30 next year — and is still chasing October.

“I don’t like losing,” Trout said. “I wanna get to the playoffs. Every time we get into spring, our main goal is to get to the playoffs and bring a championship back to Anaheim. That’s just the mindset. When you’re that close and you come up short, it sucks.”

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Chicago White Sox’s Jimmy Cordero suspended 3 games for hitting Willson Contreras

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Chicago White Sox pitcher Jimmy Cordero was suspended three games for intentionally hitting Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, while manager Rick Renteria got a one-game ban, Major League Baseball announced Saturday.

Cordero hit Contreras during Friday’s blowout loss to the Cubs, several innings after Contreras threw his bat high into the air to celebrate a three-run homer.

“I knew it was coming,” Contreras said after the game. “I have no regrets, zero regrets. Once they hit me, I don’t think that’s the smartest thing to do. He got thrown out. And who knows if he’s going to get suspended?”

Renteria will serve his suspension during Saturday’s game against the Cubs. He and pitching coach Don Cooper also were fined an undisclosed amount.

It is unknown at this time if Cordero will appeal the suspension.

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