Baseball says goodbye to Mr. Cub

January, 31, 2015
Jan 31
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
CHICAGO -- It was never going to be a somber occasion. How could it be? The baseball world gathered to remember one of the most positive, happy and kind-hearted players ever to don a Chicago Cubs uniform. The memorial for Ernie Banks on Saturday morning in Chicago was most definitely a celebration of his life and friendly attitude.

“Ernie has been the cornerstone not only of the Chicago Cubs, but the city of Chicago,” former teammate Billy Williams said. “And those that have met Ernie still remember the joyous smile he had.”

[+] EnlargeErnie Banks
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe memorial for Ernie Banks on Saturday in Chicago was a celebration of his life and friendly attitude.
Speaker after speaker reminded the crowd of baseball and political dignitaries, along with hundreds of fans in attendance and many more watching on television, that Banks was always what he appeared to be: happy-go-lucky with an ever positive attitude about life and the Cubs.

Almost every remembrance came with one of his famous sayings, most notably, "Let's play two."

When Williams spoke, he immediately lightened the mood with personal memories of Banks as a roommate for two-and-a-half months -- "I had to get out of there" -- to the final words of his speech, which he knew Ernie would appreciate.

“The Cubs will win as a team ... in 2015,” Williams said in a Banks-esque tone.

That drew loud applause in the previously quiet church. By the time Reverend Jesse Jackson asked the audience to rise and clap for Banks, on what would have been his 84th birthday, any semblance of a somber tone was dismissed.

“Ernie walked up to you as if he knew you for years,” Williams said.

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts added: “Never in time have numbers fallen so short in describing the true greatness of a baseball player. Ernie Banks was known as much for his off-the-field demeanor as his on-the-field performance.”

Listening and watching from the front of Fourth Presbyterian Church were many baseball greats, including Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson and Lou Brock. Other current and former Cubs and team employees attending included Kerry Wood, Jim Hendry, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, John McDonough, Glenn Beckert and Randy Hundley. All got an opportunity to remember Mr. Cub for the player and person he was.

“Ernie Banks was living proof that you don’t have to wear a championship ring on your finger in order to be a pillar of baseball and a champion in life,” Joe Torre said in representing Major League Baseball at the ceremony. “He made the confines of Wrigley Field friendly, he made the Cubs lovable, and he was one of the pivotal people during a vital time in our history who made a great game worthy of being our national pastime.”

[+] EnlargeErnie Banks
AP Photo/Jim PrischingCubs owner Tom Ricketts said, "Ernie Banks is not Mr. Cub because we loved him. Ernie Banks is Mr. Cub because he loved us back."
Banks still holds the major league record for the most regular-season games played (2,528) without a postseason appearance. That says much more about the Cubs than it does about Banks. Despite the team's futility, he became known as Mr. Cub.

In 1969, the Cubs had a very good team but famously faded down the stretch. Even then, Banks kept his positive attitude.

“He would say, ‘It’s a good day for two,’” Williams recalled with a smile. “We could hardly get through one, we were so tired.”

The stories continued, alternating between Banks' abilities on the field and his friendly demeanor off it.

“In 1957, there were four pitchers that had the courage to knock him down,” Torre recalled. “Each and every one of those times, he got up and the next pitch, hit a home run.”

“When we played the Cardinals, Bob Gibson was pitching that day," Williams said. “And Bob came out of the clubhouse -- he’s mean already. And Ernie would be around the batting cage and say, ‘Billy is going to hit a home run off of you today.’ I would say, ‘Ernie, don’t make him meaner.’”

His proudest moment mIGHT have come in 2013, when President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In return, Banks gave Obama a very symbolic gift.

(Read full post)

Cubs legend Banks remembered

January, 31, 2015
Jan 31
[+] EnlargeErnie Banks
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe casket for Hall of Fame slugger Ernie Banks is brought out of the memorial service in Chicago.

CHICAGO -- Fans and friends paid tribute to legendary Chicago Cubs slugger Ernie Banks on Saturday, recalling how he helped break baseball's color barrier during a Hall of Fame career in which he won over his teammates and an entire city with the unwavering optimism he brought to the game and life.

At a memorial service in a Chicago church, the buoyant man known as "Mr. Cub" was remembered for his character as much as his accomplishments on the ball field, including his 512 career home runs. Speaker after speaker recalled Banks' unflagging optimism and good cheer -- he enthusiastically predicted each spring that his team would win the pennant -- as well as his humility and care for others.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Banks "disarmed adversaries with optimism" and "branded goodwill." Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Banks was a "humble hero" who taught younger generations "how to play the game of life." Fellow Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins said the unassuming, joyful Banks strove to be a good teammate, not a star.

Billy Williams, another Hall of Famer, recalled animated conversations that he and Banks would have while driving to Wrigley Field on game days.

"I never did see him read a book, but he knew about everything," Williams marveled.

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Hall-of-fame outfielder Andre Dawson talks about his relationship with friend and former Cubs great, Ernie Banks.

Billy Williams recalls Ernie Banks

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30

CHICAGO -- As he approached the casket to pay his respects to Ernie Banks, a steady flow of memories came rushing back to Billy Williams.

There were so many from their Hall of Fame careers with the Chicago Cubs and their decades of friendship. And there was plenty of reminiscing during Friday's visitation.

"People not only here in Chicago but people around the world recognize the type of individual he was," Williams said. "It's beginning to sink in now -- I've lost a great friend, you've lost a great friend."

Banks hit 512 home runs and won two National League MVP awards. But he's remembered as much for his boundless enthusiasm -- despite playing on mostly losing teams -- and his desire to connect with everyone he met.

Fans have been placing flowers outside Wrigley Field and stopping in Daley Plaza to take photos of his statue, which normally stands outside the ballpark. The city and the Cubs took the unprecedented step of taking the statue out of storage -- where it had been kept while the ballpark is renovated -- and putting it on public display away from its usual home.

On Friday, dignitaries and fans, some pausing to snap a picture, streamed past his casket draped with a giant "Banks 14" jersey and a large photo of him in a Cubs cap smiling right behind it.

A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, on what would have been his 84th birthday. After that, he will take one final trip to Wrigley. The procession will go by the statue before heading north past the ballpark's famed marquee at the corner of Clark and Addison.

Chairman Tom Ricketts said the Cubs will do "everything we can" to honor Banks and "dedicate the season to him," although he did not have any details. He said they are still finalizing plans.

"Baseball's lost a great icon," Hall of Fame teammate Fergie Jenkins said.

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Fowler, and a little Banks inspiration, could do wonders for Cubs

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
Dexter Fowler and Ernie Banks USA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoA leadoff threat in Dexter Fowler and playing for Ernie Banks could boost the Cubs' 2015 chances.

CHICAGO -- OK, Anthony Rizzo, you have my attention. Same with you, Sporting News.

Well, sort of.

The aforementioned publication picked the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series in 2015. Some would say that’s bold. I’d call it stupid. Then again, selling papers -- or earning web clicks -- isn't always about what’s smart.

The online magazine made that prediction before the Cubs picked up leadoff man Dexter Fowler. Similarly, Cubs first baseman Rizzo declared his team the one to beat in the National League Central Division just days before Fowler was acquired from the Houston Astros for Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily.

Before Fowler, the Cubs had no chance at a world championship. Wait. This is baseball -- anything can happen. Let's rephrase that: They had little chance. Very little. Now? It’s a few percentage points better.

Maybe more.

The Cubs now have a better offense with Fowler, and (sadly) maybe a little more motivation in that they can dedicate their season to Mr. Cub, the late Ernie Banks. It might be cheesy, but perhaps the best way to honor Banks is to do the one thing he wanted more than anything else: see the Cubs win. But motivation won't be enough.

If you can't tell by now, I think Fowler is a huge acquisition. The Cubs are starving for players to get on base at the top of their lineup. Fowler, over six full big league seasons, has done that nearly 37 percent of the time from the leadoff spot. Lest you forget, on-base percentage correlates to runs scored more than any other statistic. Last season, for just one example, six of the top seven teams in on-base percentage were also six of the top seven run-scoring teams.

You would think home runs would correlate some, right? After all, a home run is one run scored, plus any men who might be on base. The Cubs were second in the National League in homers in 2014 -- behind only the Colorado Rockies -- but they were 12th in scoring. In 2013, the Cubs were also second in home runs but 14th in scoring. Those home runs are virtually wasted if men aren't getting on base. These kinds of correlations go back years in baseball. It's why "Moneyball" was born and why, to this day, despite all the new ways to measure offense, getting on base is still No. 1.

[+] EnlargeDexter Fowler
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIDexter Fowler is the kind of on-base threat the Cubs sorely need in the early part of the lineup.
So Fowler helps big time, whether he's leading off or a little deeper in the lineup. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 28-year-old had just 148 plate appearances batting first last season for the Astros; 45 players had at least that many. Fowler ranked 11th among leadoff men with a .345 on-base percentage; he was eighth in walk percentage and saw an average of four pitches per plate appearance, good for 13th. He's not a perfect hitter -- his line-drive percentage (17 percent) was second lowest among leadoff men -- and he strikes out a lot, but he doesn't chase pitches. We can break it down a million ways, but the bottom line is that Fowler gets on. That's what the Cubs need.

But there's more. Adding a veteran and subtracting a rookie from the starting lineup is addition by addition -- and maybe addition by subtraction as well, if that makes sense. Fowler pushes Arismendy Alcantara into a new role, perhaps fighting with Javier Baez for playing time at second base. The Cubs would have had no chance this season starting four rookies in Jorge Soler, Alcantara, Baez and Kris Bryant (when he gets here). Now, they'll really be relying on only two: Soler and Bryant -- the best two to rely upon. Alcantara and Baez might feel the pressure to produce to stay in the lineup, but the offense won't be as reliant on them, and maybe the competition will bring out the best in them. Whoever shows more plate discipline than last season might simply be the starter at the end of the day. New manager Joe Maddon can play the matchup game if one starts to excel against certain pitching. He can rest one and not lose a ton of talent. We don't even know if either will be the starter come Opening Day. On-base guy Tommy La Stella is waiting in the wings for a chance as well.

"We added to our depth," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said after acquiring Fowler. "We are a deeper lineup than we were. We are still very reliant on young players. With that, there comes some volatility."

And remember, Hoyer said that after the trade. Just think of the potential volatility before it. It's why I couldn't predict more than a .500 season for the Cubs. Baseball Prospectus released its PECOTA predictions -- based on a sabremetric performance forecast -- and has the Cubs at 82-80, just missing the playoffs but finishing behind the St. Louis Cardinals in second place. I'd use that as evidence for my own predictions, but PECOTA has been wrong about predicting things, like the rest of us. It predicted Jeff Samardzija would have an awful year last season, and he had anything but. Sure, it had the Cubs' win total nearly right -- the formula predicted 71 while they won 73 -- but how hard was that? PECOTA is wrong as much as it is right.

So we have one publication saying the Cubs will win it all, another source indicating a .500 season. If things come together, particularly with the addition of Fowler, maybe Rizzo will be closer to being right than anyone. He "only" predicted the playoffs. The Cubs could play meaningful games come August and September; I'll go that far. But that's where I'll agree with PECOTA: They'll come up short.

Then again, maybe Mr. Cub will provide some magic from beyond. A little inspiration and a new leadoff man can go a long way. He's not a big name among casual fans, but Fowler, playing in a contract season, can make a big difference.

"Fowler fits that role for us," Hoyer said. "He controls the strike zone really well."

That’s needed above all else.

Chicago Cubs: Top 10 prospects 

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30
Law By Keith Law
ESPN Insider

Organization Ranking: 1

I've ranked every farm system, as well as the top 100 MLB prospects for 2015. Below, I've ranked at least the top 10 Cubs prospects, plus an overview of the system and any other names of note beyond the top 10. I also discuss any prospects who might help the big league club in 2015, one or two prospects whose stock has taken a big hit in the past year, and a sleeper prospect who I think can jump into the main top-100 list for 2016

Banks memorial to include Williams, Jenkins, Torre, others

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
CHICAGO -- Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Lou Brock and Joe Torre are scheduled to be among 11 speakers at the memorial for Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks on Saturday, the team announced Thursday.

Banks, 83, passed away from a heart attack on Jan. 23. He was a two-time MVP for the Cubs, in 1958 and '59, and was the club's first African-American player.

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts will be the first to speak Saturday, followed by Torre, Williams, Jenkins, Brock, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Banks' twin sons and a personal Banks friend will also pay tribute.

Following the memorial service, which will start at 10 a.m. CT at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, the funeral procession will pass Ernie Banks' statue in Daley Plaza before moving past Wrigley Field.

The full route will take the procession from the church, located at 126 East Chestnut Street, south on Michigan Avenue, west on Randolph Street, south on Clark Street and east on Washington Street, past Daley Plaza. The procession will then head to Lake Shore Drive, driving north to the Belmont Avenue exit. It will head west on Belmont Avenue, northwest on Clark Street, north on Sheffield Avenue and west on Addison Street to Clark Street, where it will pass the Wrigley Field marquee.

Banks, known affectionately as "Mr. Cub," hit 512 home runs in his 19-year career, all spent with the franchise. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977. His positive attitude and charismatic personality were popular staples at Wrigley Field long after he retired. Known for many sayings, he might be best remembered for declaring, "It's a beautiful day, let's play two!" -- exemplifying his love of the game.

No surprise: Bryant ranked No.1 among prospects

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
CHICAGO -- Adding to an already impressive amateur and minor league resume, Kris Bryant was ranked No. 1 in’s annual preseason prospect player rankings released on Thursday.

[+] EnlargeKris Bryant
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsKris Bryant claimed the top spot in ESPN's 2015 prospect rankings after coming in at No. 15 the year before.
Bryant moved up from No. 15 in 2014 after taking home minor league player of the year honors with a combined slash line of .325/.438/.661/1.098 split between Double-A and Triple-A last season. He hit 43 home runs and drove in 110, vaulting him to the top spot. He and the Cubs are committed to him playing third base right now, despite a 6-5 frame that might be best suited for the outfield.

“I think he’ll be able to play third,” prospect expert Keith Law said. “He’s a better athlete than people give him credit for. He was an adequate high school shortstop. He can handle third. He’s never going to be Adrian Beltre but you never need him to be.”

Law released his Top 100 player rankings one day after declaring the Cubs have the best farm system in the game, in part, because of Bryant. Other top 100 prospects employed by the Cubs include Addison Russell who ranks No. 4 on the list, while outfielder Jorge Soler comes in at No. 14. First round pick of 2014, Kyle Schwarber, ranks No. 90 in his first appearance on the list. Law isn’t convinced Schwarber will be a major league catcher, though he agrees with the strategy of trying him there.

“If I was them I would have done the exact same thing, but I think there’s a 10 percent chance he catches in the majors,” Law said.

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Cubs farm ranked best by ESPN

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
CHICAGO -- Despite several prospects finally reaching the major leagues last season, the Chicago Cubs still have the top-ranked farm system in baseball, according to’s prospect guru Keith Law.

Law released his yearly preseason team rankings and the Cubs are No.1 thanks to the “strongest collection of top-shelf hitting prospects I can remember since I started working in baseball,” Law writes.

Led by Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler, Law indicates the Cubs have at least one hitting prospect at every position on the diamond, save catcher, as he doesn’t believe 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber will remain at that position.

“I say there’s a 10 percent chance he catches in the long run,” Law said by phone on Wednesday. “They (scouts) all say he can hit but they don’t all say he can catch.”

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Cubs fans pay tribute to Ernie Banks

January, 28, 2015
Jan 28

CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs fans got their first chance to pay their respects to Ernie Banks after the statue of the beloved Hall of Fame player was placed in a downtown plaza Wednesday.

One after another, fans stopped in Daley Plaza to take photos of the statue that normally stands at Wrigley Field. The city and the Cubs took the unprecedented step of taking the statue out of storage -- where it was being held while the ballpark is renovated -- and putting it on public display away from its usual home.

The 83-year-old Banks died Friday of a heart attack. A visitation will be held this coming Friday, followed by a memorial service Saturday.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, accompanied by Banks' widow, placed a wreath at the statue on Wednesday, saying that while Banks has long been known as Mr. Cub, he "always will be and always has been Mr. Chicago."

By 7:30 a.m., the plaza was growing crowded with fans admiring the statue of Banks, frozen in the batting stance that kids in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s grew up imitating. They told stories about their own connections to Banks, whether it was watching him play or meeting him.

"My family and my brothers were always watching him on TV and there was nobody like Ernie Banks," said McKenzie Holmes, 51, his postal worker uniform topped off with a Cubs hat. "My brother just passed and I was thinking he's up there playing catch with Ernie now."

Trudi Burns took pictures for her son. Though he's 23 and has seen Banks in action only in clips of games played long before he was born, Burns said he insisted that she take a photo.

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Twitter mailbag: Who's up first?

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
Rogers: Fun question. Will be examining that in the coming weeks. The obvious answer at the top is Dexter Fowler. I think that’s a big pick-up. If he can be consistent with a .350-ish OBP, that will help the offense. I think No. 2 comes down to two people: Starlin Castro and Jorge Soler. My guess is it will be Castro, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change. He did well driving in runs in the cleanup role last year, so if they drop him to five or six, that might work too. Soler’s plate discipline might max out in the No. 2 hole. Then you have the big boppers after him. Not that he can’t play long ball from there as well, but I would still suspect Castro starts out there and Soler lower.

Rogers: I suppose there is a scenario where the Cubs will look really, really bad by sending him down if he’s just crushing it, but it probably won’t get to that. They can limit his at-bats or send him to minor league camp at any time. Unless the Cubs change their mind, his spring results aren’t really going to matter. Of course, if he struggles, that makes it a tad easier of a sales job to the public, but I honestly don’t believe the Cubs are rooting for that. By May we will have forgotten about all this. His time is coming.

Rogers: He’s the incumbent starter in left field, at least on Day 1 of spring training. Anything can happen after that, but if he shows the ability to get on base as he did in getting hot last year, then I think he sticks, at least in a platoon role from the left side. Long term, we can’t predict Coghlan’s role. If Bryant is better suited for left field, then he’ll be there. Unless Coghlan establishes himself as a core guy, he’s just a nice piece for right now. We need to see if he can follow up his half-year of production.

Rogers: The easy answer is "sure," but you can make a case that a bad team needs chemistry even more. The bottom line is every team needs it, considering they practically live together for seven and a half months. But sure, a team that wants to get off to a good start and shed some losing vibes can certainly use that extra little spark, and that does start in spring training. Plenty of new faces, hopefully they bond quickly.

Rogers: I can’t see that happening considering they are pretty well positioned throughout the diamond with a mix of veterans and young players. There will be some spring invites and things like that, but I don’t see a major addition at this point. Haven’t they done enough? Was one heck of an offseason.

Rogers: It’s a good question. The obvious answer would be Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara. But this spring it won’t be about fawning over the long home runs, it will be about them working the count and seeing what’s changed since last year. We can never make full assessments on spring games, but we can certainly get an idea if they “look” different. Also, after watching Carlos Marmol and Jose Veras completely blow up these past two springs, I won’t ignore a particular pitcher that struggles in a similar manner. It’s not just the struggles, but how they struggle. It was obvious to me that neither of those pitchers was ready for prime time come April. If someone else has that feel to his performances, then it’s worth noting.

Rogers: Not as many as you might think! What I found funny was the headlines about Bryant that the Luis Valbuena trade generated. Like he was the reason Bryant was stuck in the minors. I think people get it. And I think most people aren’t blaming the Cubs. The system says two weeks in the minors saves the Cubs a whole year.

Rogers: You are correct. If they wait until the Super 2 date, then they might have a mutiny on their hands.

Rogers: That’s like asking why they don’t just sign every great free agent player available? Why stop at Jon Lester and Shields? Why not Scherzer and David Robertson and the top position players as well? Every team has a budget and a long-term plan, and I can understand not committing to two pitchers in the same offseason, especially when you’re still a year or so away. Plus, Shields isn’t worth it, in my opinion.

Rogers: I’d love to be out in front of a Neil Ramirez All-Star bid. They take middle guys nowadays, and he’s pretty darn good. If he picks up where he left off after his breakout year, then why not? I also would not put anything past Kris Bryant if he comes up early enough. I’m not going to predict it, but it wouldn’t shock me. If/when he struggles, I just think his adjustment period will be a lot shorter than most. So there’s a couple options, but neither is a favorite to be there.

Visitation, memorial set for Ernie Banks

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
CHICAGO -- The public visitation and memorial service for Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks will be held Friday and Saturday in Chicago, the team announced late Monday.

The visitation will go from noon until 8 p.m. Friday at Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut Street. The memorial service will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday at the church, according to a Cubs release. There will be limited public seating for the memorial Saturday.

Banks was 83 when he died of a heart attack Friday night. Known as Mr. Cub, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977 after playing 19 seasons for the Cubs. He was league MVP in 1958 and 1959 and amassed 512 home runs in his career.

Keith Law says the Cubs and Twins are among the most stacked farm systems, but finds the Tigers' cupboard barren after a year of trades to help the big club.

Keith Law breaks down the three best prospects from his list of the top 100 major league prospects.

Ernie Banks suffered heart attack

January, 25, 2015
Jan 25

Ernie Banks' family has announced that the Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer died after suffering a heart attack.

Banks, a two-time National League MVP who spent his entire major league career with the Cubs, died Friday at age 83.

The cause of his death was not announced until Sunday, when family attorney Mark Bogen revealed at a news conference that Banks died from the heart attack just seven days before his 84th birthday.

Banks' wife, Liz Banks, also was in attendance.

"It is certainly a sad day for us," she said. "I'd like to thank everyone for being here. ... He was very beloved and he is going to be dearly missed by family, friends and all of his fans."

The Cubs and the city announced later Sunday that a statue of Banks will be temporarily moved from outside Wrigley Field to downtown. It will be on display in Daley Plaza from Wednesday through Saturday.

A public visitation and then memorial service for Banks will be held this Friday and Saturday in Chicago, the team announced late on Monday.

The visitation will go from noon until 8 pm on Friday, Jan. 30 at Fourth Presbyterian Church at 126 E Chestnut St. while the memorial service will take place the next day at 10 am, according to a Cubs release. There will be limited public seating for the memorial on Saturday.

Banks hit 512 home runs during his 19-year career and was fond of saying, "It's a great day for baseball. Let's play two!'' That finish to his famous catchphrase adorns his statue outside Wrigley Field.

Although he played in 14 All-Star Games from 1953 to 1971, Banks never reached the postseason, and the Cubs finished below .500 in all but six of his seasons. Still, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977, the first year he was eligible, and selected to baseball's all-century team in 1999.

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Starlin Castro
.292 14 65 58
HRA. Rizzo 32
RBIA. Rizzo 78
RA. Rizzo 89
OPSA. Rizzo .913
WJ. Arrieta 10
ERAT. Wood 5.03
SOJ. Arrieta 167