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Brewers face key test — Keeping playoff hopes alive without Yelich

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Terrible news from Miami, where the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Miami Marlins 4-3, but announced after the game that Christian Yelich will miss the rest of the season after breaking a kneecap on a foul ball in the first inning. The freak injury came on a 1-1 slider from Elieser Hernandez that Yelich fouled off the top of his right knee. He crumpled to the ground and lay there for a couple minutes before walking off under his own power, but grimacing in pain as he retreated into the clubhouse.

It’s a devastating injury for the Brewers, who lose not just their best player, but a player who had a chance to win his second consecutive National League MVP award, as Yelich’s season ends with him batting .329/.429/.671 with 44 home runs and 30 stolen bases. His combination of hitting with power, hitting for average and thievery on the bases has made him one of the most exciting players in the sport the past two seasons, an obvious fan favorite in Milwaukee but also one of the faces of the game as a superstar slugger.

The Brewers began the night two games back of the Chicago Cubs for the second wild-card berth and pushed across the winning run in the top of the ninth. Trent Grisham, Yelich’s replacement in the lineup, contributed a key double. With closer Josh Hader unavailable, Drew Pomeranz worked around two hits in the bottom of the ninth for his first save.

General manager David Stearns commented after the game on the crushing loss:

Lorenzo Cain also commented on losing his outfield mate:

The Brewers are already playing with an injury-riddled lineup. Standout rookie second baseman Keston Hiura, second on the team in OPS, has been out since Aug. 30 with a hamstring strain. Mike Moustakas, who pinch-hit on Tuesday, has had just seven plate appearances since Aug. 26 due to a wrist injury. Cain (knee) and Ryan Braun (back) have been playing through injuries.

Somehow, the Brewers have nevertheless won five in a row — including the final three games of a four-game series against the Cubs — and eight of their past 10. There’s not much solace here, but Yelich has missed time this year with recurring back problems and the Brewers are 10-7 when he doesn’t start (11-7 if you count Tuesday’s win). The Brewers also have the easiest remaining schedule of the NL playoff contenders as they have only one series remaining against a playoff contender (this weekend at St. Louis). They have two more games in Miami and, after the Cardinals series, finish up with the Padres, Pirates, Reds and Rockies.

Still, a makeshift lineup will now be even more makeshift. Travis Shaw started at third base on Tuesday and he’s hitting .151. Cory Spangenberg started at second and he has a .273 OBP. Hernan Perez played shortstop and he has a .276 OBP. Cain is hitting just .253/.321/.353. Without their MVP candidate, and minus Hiura and Moustakas, you have to wonder where the runs will come from. At least the Brewers have some depth in the outfield with Grisham — who has hit .263/.324/.455 in 33 games — and Ben Gamel, but they’re not going to come close to Yelich’s production.

This Brewers team has found a way to overcome adversity, however. Last year, they won their final seven games and nine of their final 10 to force a tie with the Cubs for the NL Central title and then beat the Cubs in the tiebreaker game. This year, they’ve had to overcome the struggles and injuries in the rotation. Jhoulys Chacin, who started that tiebreaker game a year ago, went from staff ace to getting released in late August with a 5.79 ERA. Brandon Woodruff, their best starter this season, has been out since July 21 with an oblique injury. Corbin Burnes was supposed to be a key part of the rotation, but he’s 1-5 with a 9.00 ERA. Then there’s reliever Jeremy Jeffress, an All-Star last season who was recently cut loose as well.

Somehow the Brewers have fought through all of this and remained in the playoff race. They’re going to need Grisham or Braun or Eric Thames to get on a roll. They need Moustakas back ASAP. Manager Craig Counsell showed restraint in not using Hader on Tuesday after he had pitched Saturday and Sunday against the Cubs, but he’s probably going to have ride the dominant lefty a little harder these final two-plus weeks.

On paper, the Brewers have little chance. They’ve been outscored on the season, their best player is down, they have ground to make up and precious little time left. But don’t count them out:

As they say, in baseball, anything can happen.



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Cubs, Giants to raise minor league pay early

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The Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants are pushing ahead with pay raises for minor league players this season, days after Major League Baseball mandated salary bumps beginning in 2021.

Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer and Giants baseball executive Farhan Zaidi confirmed the wage hikes Tuesday.

MLB informed teams on Friday that it would be raising minimum salaries for minor leaguers in 2021, according to a memo obtained by The Associated Press. Those increases, ranging from 38% to 72% depending on the level, mean players will earn between $4,800 in rookie ball to $14,000 at Triple-A.

Hoyer said the Cubs’ pay bumps will take effect this season and will mirror those made by the Blue Jays in 2019, when Toronto became the first club to boost pay by giving all minor leaguers 50% raises. Hoyer said the idea was pushed by the Ricketts family, which owns the franchise.

“They obviously had read about all the teams talking about changing it,” Hoyer said. “They read about the Blue Jays and they’re like, ‘We need to do this.’ We put a tremendous emphasis on player development. We put a tremendous emphasis on our minor league talent, and the Ricketts family were pretty adamant that we treat them as well as anybody.

“So that’s the move we’re going to make, and we’re proud to do it. I’m really happy and proud that they wanted to do it and they just sort of took it on as kind of an ownership project, which is great.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Giants’ pay bumps will be slightly more aggressive than the MLB-mandated minimums, with Triple-A players earning $15,000 for the five-month season. By comparison, the major league minimum is $563,500 this year, and the top players make over $30 million annually.

A group of minor leaguers filed a lawsuit against major league teams in February 2014 claiming their meager salaries violated minimum wage laws. While the case has not yet gone to trial, Congress passed legislation in 2018 stripping minor league players from protection under federal minimum wage laws.

San Francisco, which already had a reputation among minor leaguers as being relatively player-friendly after eliminating clubhouse dues and providing nutritious food, is also giving players a hand with housing. Rookie-ball, short-season and low-Class A players will be provided free housing. Class A Advanced players will be placed with host families, and Double-A and Triple-A players will be given $500 housing allowances each month.

Zaidi, entering his second season as president of baseball operations with the Giants, said the club would take feedback from players and could make further adjustments in 2021.

“There was really some momentum behind it before I came into the organization, but just from a personal standpoint, I’m excited that we were able to do it,” he said. “I think that it does a lot of good for the organization. I think it’s the right thing to do, and we’re kind of looking forward to having it in place.

“It’s a quality of life issue,” he added. “It’s a convenience issue. It’s a time issue, and just getting a better sense of all that, something we’ll continue to evaluate.”

MLB’s mandated raises come as the league is negotiating with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body of the minors, to replace the Professional Baseball Agreement that expires after the 2020 seasons. MLB proposed cutting 42 of the 160 required affiliated teams during those negotiations, a plan criticized by small-town fans and politicians at the local and national level.

MLB also has sought assistance from minor league teams in paying salaries and for facility upgrades in those negotiations.

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Rockies GM Jeff Bridich says he’s yet to sit down with Nolan Arenado

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Colorado Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich says he doesn’t feel an urgency to clear the air with third baseman Nolan Arenado.

Bridich displayed no worries about his relationship with his best player Tuesday night when he spoke at the Cactus League media day.

The executive says he’ll have a conversation at some point with Arenado, who recently said he felt “disrespect” from Bridich and disappointment in the Rockies’ direction.

“Today was Day Two, (and) yesterday was Day One with him in camp,” Bridich said. “We’ve seen each other. We haven’t sat yet, but I trust that we will. He’s just like all the other players. We’ll find time to sit down and interact, both with myself and others, so I trust we’ll find the right time for that.”

Arenado and the Rockies are one week shy of the anniversary of the five-time All-Star’s agreement on an eight-year, $260 million contract extension with his only big league club. The three-time NL homers leader’s relationship with the Rockies has undeniably deteriorated in the ensuing months, with Arenado being frustrated by hearing his name in trade rumors and by Colorado’s relatively inactive winter.

Bridich publicly believes he can smooth over any differences with his most important player and asset.

“I think it’s a natural part of being a team and competing as a group from year to year,” Bridich said. “You try to be on the same page as much as you can, and that takes a conversation. It takes time, and sometimes there are natural disagreements or there is miscommunication over time, and so you continue to work to right the ship.”

Bridich didn’t acknowledge he’s got to do any repair work with Arenado, and the GM remains confident in Arenado’s professionalism. He doesn’t expect any on-field reflection of the slugger’s dissatisfaction.

“You think back to less than a year ago when you were on the dais and you’re talking about (Arenado’s) extension,” Bridich said. “All those things we said publicly in terms of the elite level of talent, the elite level of production, the elite level of work ethic, the elite level of his own expectation to play well and to be one of the best players in the game, all of that still rings true right now. I mean, there’s absolutely no wavering in the confidence in him.”

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Slumping Chris Davis considered retirement after 2019 season

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SARASOTA, Fla. — Chris Davis was so despondent last September about his prolonged woes, the slumping slugger considered drastic action: He thought about walking away from the Baltimore Orioles, the game of baseball and a rich contract.

A two-time major league home run champion with a seven-year, $161 million deal, Davis has struggled mightily the past two seasons.

In 2018, he hit just .168 — the lowest among all qualified major league batters — with 16 home runs and 49 RBIs, along with 192 strikeouts in 128 games.

Last year wasn’t much better. Davis hit only .179 with 12 homers and 36 RBIs in 105 games. He also began the season hitless in his first 33 at-bats, extending an overall hitless streak that reached 54 at-bats.

Those sad stats were a long way from the 53 home runs he hit in 2013 and the 47 more he launched in 2015. That last bunch of long balls persuaded the Orioles to hand him the biggest contract in team history, a seven-year pact worth $23 million per season.

His overall totals in the first four years of the contract: a .192 batting average with only 92 homers, 230 RBIs and a .679 OPS. Plus a whopping 745 strikeouts, more than one-third of his plate appearances.

After his numbers fell so dramatically, Davis acknowledged he had contemplated retirement.

“I’d be lying if I told you that wasn’t at least talked about towards the end of the season last year and this offseason,” Davis said. “I know what I’m capable of. I know what I expect of myself and I don’t want to continue to just struggle and be a below-average, well-below-average producer at the plate.”

Davis, who will be 34 on March 17, decided to return to the Orioles. He’s added 25 pounds of muscle with hope that it will help bring back his lost power.

“I was really, really thin at the end of the season,” Davis said. “I think it was a combination of just physical and mental stress, and I just got back to kind of some of the basics. I wanted to get my weight back up, get my strength back up, and not focus so much this offseason on trying to stay lean but really trying to get as strong as I could. Feel a little bit more physical, physically strong, physically fit. And felt like I did what I wanted to do.”

But there’s pressure on Davis. Including deferred money, Baltimore still owes him $93 million, and he says he wants to earn that money.

“I don’t think that’s fair to these guys,” Davis said. “And I don’t think, honestly, it’s fair to our fans, or to anybody that’s associated with Baltimore. But I still think that there is something left in the tank and I think that that’s really a conversation that we’re going to have to have at the end of this season.”

“I have three years left after really two just grinding years, but I still think that there’s some time to kind of right the ship. So that’s a conversation I’ll have to have again at the end of the season.”

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde says he likes what he’s seen from Davis so far.

“The ball really came off his bat,” Hyde said after Davis’ first batting practice on Monday. “I talked to him quite a bit in the offseason. He worked really hard in the gym and in the weight room.”

Davis conferred with his wife, Jill, and he’s ready for another attempt to equal those eye-popping numbers of the past.

“The only reason I would walk away, or would have walked away at the end of the season last year, is if I physically felt like I couldn’t do it anymore, and that’s not the case,” Davis said.

NOTES:

RHP Hunter Harvey and INF/OF Trey Mancini, who had been sidelined by illness, were cleared to return to the field, Hyde said.

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