SweetSpot: Miami Marlins

Nationals' multiple mistakes prove costly

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
12:53
AM ET
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The Marlins’ comeback to walk off against the Nationals on Monday was one of those happy reminders that you really do have to play the games. With a Miami win expectation that FanGraphs pegged at one or two percent with the Nats up 6-0 after six innings, this is a game the Nationals have to deliver on if they’re ever going to put the Braves away in the NL East race. Instead, sometimes the “better” team winds up demonstrating it really isn’t that much better than everyone else. In football, they’ll talk about the notion of what can happen any given Sunday, but in baseball every day is gameday, and everything -- every move and every outcome -- matters.

Let’s start with Jayson Werth getting thrown out needlessly challenging Giancarlo Stanton’s arm on a leadoff single in the seventh -- again, with his team up 6-0 -- and getting injured on the play. Not too many months ago, Nationals manager Matt Williams was being hailed for old-school wisdom for pulling Bryce Harper out of a game for not hustling. Whatever you make of that, if the side benefit of old-school virtue is having a notoriously fragile regular like Werth hurt himself, maybe the Nats need less, not more of it -- especially if it helps keep their already injury-hampered lineup strong for the stretch.

OK, so maybe Werth’s injury doesn’t have to be the end of the world, because it’s 6-0. Well, sure, except that right field probably isn’t Nate McLouth’s best position, not that he’s much of a center fielder these days, either; his six starts in right for Washington this year are more than he’s made in the previous five seasons combined. But he is the Nationals’ notional fourth outfielder, so in he went. We can probably really only blame him for Garrett Jones’ seventh-inning triple with two outs -- McLouth dove and didn’t even get a glove on the ball. But hey, they were up 6-0, and he hustled, right? Except that scored the Marlins’ first run from first base, then created a second two-out run when Marcell Ozuna’s infield dribbler clanged off Ian Desmond’s glove.
[+] EnlargeRafael Soriano
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyIt wasn't Rafael Soriano's night, but he wasn't the only National with a game to forget.

So let’s go to the ninth inning: Nats still up by three, save situation, closer in -- all very playbook, all very much as it should be. Rafael Soriano had pitched Sunday, but it wasn’t like he’s been terribly overworked of late. But he simply didn’t have it Monday night, generating just one swing-and-miss strike in 26 pitches, and creating trouble at the outset by walking Casey McGehee on four pitches. Wrapped around a lone out, Jones pulls Sori for a double to right, Ozuna plates a run on an opposite-field hit (to right), Jarrod Saltalamacchia pulls a fly ball for a sac fly (to right), and Adeiny Hechavarria triples to right to tie the game. It’s enough to give some of you former Little League right fielders flashbacks to your worst day ever.

Anyway, after a hit batsman, that’s it for Soriano. First and third, lefty Chris Yelich at bat, Williams sensibly brings in lefty Jerry Blevins to get the matchup, and wins it with a strikeout. And then skips the last page of the La Russa playbook by leaving Blevins in to face Jeff Baker. And if you love Jeff Baker for what he is, this is it, this is all he’s for: to face a lefty now and again, and play five or six positions on demand. He has an .858 career OPS versus lefties, .645 against righties. The Marlins had no lefty bat left on the bench; the righty-batting Stanton and McGehee were on deck. This isn’t particle physics, certainly not if you or I get it. This is where you’re supposed to bore the excited few in Marlins Stadium, pause the action (again) and bring in a righty to keep the game alive. Craig Stammen hasn’t pitched in almost a week; what’s the point of carrying seven relievers if you don’t use them?

Williams lets it ride with Blevins, giving Baker his best possible chance to be a hero. Baker executes. Game over, win. Or for the Nats, loss.

Now, sure, we may caution ourselves not to read too much into any one outcome, but sometimes a game in detail can make you wonder, not because it’s “just” one loss. Monday’s loss for the Nationals in one of those games that should have been won. They were supposed to win because they had six runs on the board and Jordan Zimmermann was awesome, because he’s pretty reliable that way -- giving up just two runs on five baserunners in seven innings.

But maybe a night like this goes some way toward explaining why the Nationals aren’t performing as well as their expected record, which is four wins better than their current 57, and five wins ahead of the Braves’ expected record. There were things they had in their control that they failed to do. If the devil’s in the details, it’s interesting to mull these things, especially now when the Nats can’t afford any mistakes heading into what looks like a dogfight with the Braves all the way through the next two months. If they aren’t using their full roster to their best advantage, they need to start. Maybe they do need to be held accountable for doing dumb things on the bases, but perhaps not the same things Williams has voiced his disapproval about publicly. And perhaps they shouldn’t have given a 30-something like McLouth almost $11 million guaranteed for two years after his first good year in five.

It’s certainly more interesting to ponder than the pre-fabricated Nats narratives to explain their failures, like noting Ryan Zimmerman is hurt (again), that Harper hasn’t hit 60 home runs yet/ever/yesterday, or that Stephen Strasburg hasn’t already put Nolan Ryan in the shade. But if the Nationals fall short of making it into October’s action, or have to settle for the one-game play-in, you can bet they’ll have more people to hold accountable than just those usual suspects. And they’ll need to remember games like this one.
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

McGehee's change at the plate working

July, 20, 2014
Jul 20
7:30
PM ET


When Tim Lincecum hung a slider in the zone like it was a piñata, Miami Marlins third baseman Casey McGehee didn’t just call it candy, he took it yard … for his second home run of the season, breaking a 58-game homerless streak. It’s an amusing data point in what has been a fascinating season for the 31-year-old veteran.

Keep in mind, before this year many thought McGehee was done. After putting up an .859 OPS as a rookie followed by an .801 OPS with 62 extra-base hits for the division-winning 2011 Milwaukee Brewers, he struggled to a .632 OPS across the next two seasons, playing his way out of Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and New York. It earned him a trip to the Japanese leagues with the Rakuten Eagles last year. There, he cranked out 28 homers while hitting .292/.376/.515, or more closely resembling the guy who’d been a contending team’s power source.

[+] EnlargeMcGhee
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeNow that he's hitting above .320, this isn't the Casey McGehee you thought you knew.
Getting a second chance stateside with the Marlins, McGehee is hitting .322/.387/.399 as the team's cleanup hitter, which is … let’s say "unusual," because it’s so very different from everything he has done at the major league level or in Japan. His power has evaporated with his slugging almost halved: His previous career Isolated Power rate (slugging minus batting average) was .157, but this year it’s at .077. Despite that his walk rate is up (more than 10 percent for the first time in his career). And he’s batting more than 60 points above his pre-2014 career average of .257. And he’s striking out less than ever before, just 13 percent of the time when big league pitchers used to whiff him 18 percent of the time.

Almost by reflex, McGehee’s unusual breakout season has led to observations that he can’t keep doing this. Equally confident have been the assertions that his BABIP (at .369 before Sunday’s action) has to go down. It’s an entirely safe assertion; regressing toward the average is normal when you look at all players on the macro level, while a massive change in an individual player’s performance level most definitely is not.

Except that it’s adding up to enough time that you have to give the guy his due. He’s hitting .390 in July, which means if regression is supposed to be a law like gravity, McGehee can fly.

Dive a little deeper into McGehee’s numbers, and you’ll see he’s doing more things differently at the plate than just hitting singles and drawing walks instead of homers and whiffs. He isn’t making mistakes when he offers on pitches: Whereas he used to be closer to the MLB average of missing on 15 percent of his swings, this year he’s below 10 percent, ranking in the top 10 in the National League. His rate of striking out looking is at a career-high (and NL high) 56.4 percent, almost 10 percent higher than the guy ranked second (Troy Tulowitzki) … and that isn’t really the sort of thing you associate with a hitter getting plinky and just trying to poke singles, is it? Between that seeming passivity and the increased walk rate, you’ve got two things going on in McGehee’s at-bats that you might more associate with Adam Dunn, not a guy with an outside shot at a batting title.

You don’t have to be a Marlins fan or even a Casey McGehee fan to enjoy this, although as someone who was in the press box the day McGehee ripped three home runs in one game off Edwin Jackson back in August 2011, it’s particularly fun to consider. If anything, McGehee’s transformation into a very different kind of player at the major league level reminds me of Carney Lansford becoming more of a singles hitter late in his career, in his age-31 season. Lansford shed much of his power, seeing his ISO halved from .166 in the pumped-up ’87 season to just .081 while hitting .331 in the first half of the 1988 season (earning his first and only All-Star appearance), that before slumping terribly in the second half to appease the BABIP fairy. Then he hit .336 in 1989 to show that he really could do this late-career reincarnation as a singles hitter. Lansford had hit lots of singles before (hitting .336 in the strike-shortened ’81 season), but seeing him deliver at that level more consistently while his power went away that dramatically was odd then.

Almost as odd as McGehee’s power outage has been this season while hitting lots more singles. But unlike McGehee, Lansford's walk rate dropped, which you would have expected since he was seeing less than three pitches per plate appearance back in 1988. What McGehee is doing is thus different, because it's a battle in the batter's box that he's waging differently, watching more pitches, drawing more walks, but making contact when he chooses to.

Which, when you get right down to it, is more than a little fun to see happen. Here’s hoping that McGehee keeps it up, whether in a Marlins uni or wherever he might get sent if they ever do deal him down the stretch, because if he does hit all year long, it'll force us to think about how much we know about what players can do when they set their minds to it.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
OK, we're already a couple of days into the second half of the season, which actually begins well past the actual halfway point of the season, but here are the key players to watch for each National League team.

Atlanta Braves: Mike Minor
Well, we know it's not Dan Uggla. Minor began the season on the DL after a sore shoulder in spring training, and he hasn't been the same pitcher he was last season. The differences are small, but his stuff and command just haven't played up as well -- his swing-and-miss rate is down more than three percent and his overall strike rate is down 2 percent, and as a result his batting average allowed has increased from .232 to .295. The Braves are hoping that's simply tied to a high BABIP -- .348, seventh-worst among 124 pitchers with at least 75 innings -- but he's allowed 14 home runs in 83.1 innings.

Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper
He's hit .150 since coming off the DL and had two home runs in 123 at-bats at the All-Star break. Is the thumb healed? Is he still too young to be The Man in the Nationals' lineup? It will be intriguing to see what happens here.

New York Mets: Travis d'Arnaud
The Mets are counting on the rookie catcher as a big foundation piece for their future. He had trouble staying healthy in his minor league career and struggled at the plate early on, although hit well in his final 16 games before the All-Star break (.295/.338/.525), following a stint in Triple-A. He's proven he can hit in Las Vegas, but everyone can hit in Vegas. The question is if he can hit at the major league level.

Miami Marlins: Giancarlo Stanton
Must-see TV. The Marlins aren't going anywhere, so all eyes will be focused on Stanton. Could he win an MVP award if the Marlins don't even finish .500? Probably not. But I'm still watching.

Philadelphia Phillies: Domonic Brown
The focus on the Phillies will be on their veteran assets and whether general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will (or can) trade the likes of Marlon Byrd and others. But this might also be the most important two months of Brown's career. A year ago, Brown was an All-Star after hitting 23 home runs in the first half. In 2014, he was one of the worst players of the first half, with six home runs, a .279 OBP and poor defense -- a combination worth -1.4 WAR. Ouch. Can Brown salvage his season and give hope that he's part of the Phillies' future?

Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun
After dominating the NL Central for most of the first half, the Brewers left the All-Star break with a slim, one-game lead over the Cardinals. They've been all over the place with hot months and cold months and have probably settled near their true talent. In going through their roster, there aren't any obvious "over his head" candidates or "should play better" candidates. The one guy who has the capability of ripping it up for the next 60 games, however, is Braun. He had a good first half but not near his 41-homer level of 2012. Yes, you can assume and conclude whatever you want, but Braun could easily go out and hit 20 home runs the second half and carry the Brewers to a division title.

St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Holliday
Two numbers tell the tale of the Cardinals -- or rather, two sets of numbers:

2013 runs per game: 4.83 (first in NL)
2014 runs per game at the break: 3.75 (14th in NL)

2013 average with RISP: .330
2014 average with RISP: .248

The point: David Price would certainly be nice, but the Cardinals are more likely to rely on improvement from within. Holliday, who homered Friday, is one guy who could improve his offense after hitting .265 with six home runs in the first half. Cardinals fans will remember that Holliday had a monster second half last year -- .348/.442/.552.

Cincinnati Reds: Jay Bruce
Joey Votto's injury issues have left him less than 100 percent and a question mark as he sits on the DL. That leaves Bruce as the guy who needs to power a Reds lineup that is also missing Brandon Phillips as the second half kicks off. At 27, Bruce is at the age that many players have their peak season; instead, after hitting 30-plus homers the past three seasons, he's struggling through his worst year, hitting .229 with 10 home runs at the break. Bruce's main problem is simple: He hasn't been getting the ball in the air. His fly ball rate is down 15 percent from his average since 2009. More grounders equals fewer homers and, against shift, not enough base hits to compensate.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Francisco Liriano
This one's easy. A year ago, Liriano went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and then won the wild-card game. This year, he's 1-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 16 starts after allowing an unearned run in five innings on Friday. The difference in performance is clear when looking at his year-by-year walks per nine innings:

2014: 5.1
2013: 3.5
2012: 5.0
2011: 5.0

Yes, wins are team dependent to some degree, but the Pirates need Liriano to pitch closer to the ace he was a year ago.

Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant
Maybe it says something about the Cubs that the guy we care most about right now is in Triple-A. Then again, he entered the weekend hitting .350 with 32 home runs in the minors. Will we see him in September? He needs a higher league to give him a more difficult test.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Matt Kemp
Kemp began the second half with his agent Dave Stewart proclaiming that Kemp just wants to play every day and "his hope at some point is to get back to center." That's not going to happen, as the Dodgers finally realized Kemp's bad routes lead to too many bad plays in the outfield (he had the worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in the first half at any position). So that means Kemp will have to hit -- and play left field. He had a solid June, hitting .317/.375/.525. The Dodgers will happily take that at this point.

San Francisco Giants: Matt Cain
The fact that Cain is starting the Giants' fifth game after the break tells where he now sits in the San Francisco rotation. He has to do better than a 2-7 record and 4.15 ERA if the Giants are going to catch the Dodgers.

San Diego Padres: Andrew Cashner
Cashner is important because the Padres need him healthy for 2015. He's currently on the DL with a sore shoulder and is supposed to start playing catch again. It's not so much what he does the rest of the season, but that he returns at some point and proves the shoulder is sound.

Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki
Another lost season for the Rockies has turned ugly, as owner Dick Monfort told a disgruntled fan that "if it is that upsetting, don't come to the games," and then, when asked who was responsible for the Rockies' poor first half, said, "You would have to say it’s [assistant general manager] Bill Geivett. He’s responsible for the major league team." In the midst of this mess is Tulo, who is having an MVP-caliber season for a lousy team.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Ender Inciarte
Just kidding! But I'm struggling to come up with a good name here. Maybe Mark Trumbo, returning from his foot fracture? Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, to see if they bring anything in trade? Tuffy Gosewisch?

Braves end their infield Uggla-ness

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
4:15
PM ET


A few quick takeaways from the Atlanta Braves' accepting the inevitable and finally cutting Dan Uggla loose, because releasing the veteran second baseman not only means the Braves eat the money they owe him, it also means admitting that they effectively lost the trade for him in the first place.

Uggla is no loss, even with the kind of money the Braves will have to eat by cutting him, since he's owed $13 million this season and next. The job at second base already belongs to Tommy La Stella, and there’s not much use for a second-base-only reserve who can’t hit or field. At least they get the roster spot back to use on a pinch-hitter or yet another pitcher or even just to keep Christian Bethancourt around for a while after they reactivate Evan Gattis from the DL. Anything to spare us from another eight-man bullpen.

[+] EnlargeDan Uggla
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesDan Uggla long since hadn't shown much at the plate, so you can accept the Braves' willingness to cut him loose after he showed up late.
Even if you’re optimistic enough to think that Uggla might have something left despite a sub-.500 OPS this year after last year’s epic .179/.309/.362 season, there’s also the question of why you’d invest the time to find out. After he earned a one-game suspension for showing up late to a game at Wrigley Field last week, he was the veteran ballplayer in the clubhouse who wasn’t winning friends and influencing people as a reserve. The only guys older than Uggla on the Braves are journeymen Aaron Harang and Gerald Laird. Can you blame the Braves for deciding that enough was enough when they’re contending with the youngest lineup in the NL at 27 years old on average?

And don’t the Marlins look that even smarter still now? When the Fish dealt Uggla to the Braves before the 2011 season, they had one year of contractual control left before he hit free agency. By almost anybody’s standard, they made a tremendous offer to keep Uggla around: four years, $48 million. Even after four straight 30-homer seasons in Florida, he wasn’t an ideal choice to give a huge multiyear deal: He’d already turned 30 and was a slow slugger with a questionable defensive future. But he’d served the Marlins in good stead after they fished him out of the D-backs’ farm system via the Rule 5 draft. Uggla said no thanks, and the Fish decided -- as they had with so many other guys awaiting expanding paydays via arbitration and free agency -- to convert him into what value they could get, which was Mike Dunn and Omar Infante.

At the time, there was a ton of the usual shrieking about how this was yet another indication that the Marlins weren’t a serious operation, as Jeffrey Loria and his minions nickel-and-dimed their way to cheap, pointless self-perpetuation. But now that we’re four years beyond the trade, we have a better perspective on how it worked out.

The Braves granted Uggla a five-year, $62 million deal (avoiding arbitration), but he hasn’t really been a good player since 2011 (his last 30-homer season) -- the last year the Marlins could have controlled him. His power slipped in 2012, when his walk, strikeout and swinging-strike rates all started spiking, then he stopped making good contact last year as his strikeouts climbed even higher. And now he’s truly got bubkes to offer. The Braves are still on the hook for another $13 million next year, when he’ll still be done.

So who won the trade? Well, one way of looking at it is that Uggla did, because he and his agent successfully leveraged his situation into a trade that generated $16 million more than the Marlins were willing to pay him, while putting him on a contender. And another napkin-level guesstimate way of looking at it is via WAR, because against the 2.5 WAR Uggla generated for the Braves in his three and a half years, the Marlins have gotten 1.9 WAR out of Dunn (and counting) and another 4.2 out of Infante in less than two seasons before they dealt him to the Tigers for Jacob Turner, Rob Brantly and Brian Flynn. And they don’t owe Uggla a red cent.

And the Braves? They would have been better off trying to keep Infante for a lot less than they had to pay Uggla, and used that money on something else. Which is easy enough to say in retrospect, but even after trading for Uggla, they didn’t have to give him the kind of money he was asking for, and that would have worked out better for them.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Best outfield D? Don't forget the Marlins

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
1:40
PM ET
Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Giancarlo StantonAP Images, Getty ImagesThe Marlins outfield has done a nice job at tracking down balls this season.


Earlier this week a New York sports-talk radio host convinced himself that the New York Yankees' outfield combination of Ichiro Suzuki, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner was the best in the majors.

That's a hard sell, at least so far this season. Gardner's strong performance in left field has been canceled out a bit by Ellsbury's surprising average play (per advanced stats) and Suzuki is a couple years past his prime. The reputation of all three is very good. But in 2014 the reputation doesn't match the numbers.

The discussion got me to thinking about outfield trios that rate best. In polling some colleagues (Alex Cora, Manny Acta and Chris Singleton) one of the common teams mentioned was the Kansas City Royals, with Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain, and that trio bears out well as the best in the game via Ultimate Zone Rating.

But I wanted to give another team its due, one that didn’t get mentioned by any of the aforementioned "Baseball Tonight" analysts. The Miami Marlins' trio of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich has played very well.

Marlins outfielders lead the majors in the other primary advanced defense stat -- Defensive Runs Saved -- and as opposed to the Royals, who had a struggling Norichika Aoki in their outfield for a while, the Marlins group has been consistently solid all season.

Let's take a look at what makes each of them valuable.

Giancarlo Stanton
Stanton has not only had a great offensive season. Stanton's defensive numbers have fluctuated considerably from season to season, but the Marlins may have unlocked a key to his success, as our ESPN The Magazine colleague Sam Miller noted in an article for Baseball Prospectus earlier this season.

The Marlins have played Stanton closer to the right-center gap in bigger parks, like AT&T Park in San Francisco. That's enabled him to get to some balls that other outfielders aren't reaching.

Stanton ranks second in the majors in a stat findable at FanGraphs.com, "Out of Zone catches (OOZ)." An out-of-zone catch is one in which the fielder makes the play in an area in which less than half of batted balls are turned into outs. Stanton's 68 are one fewer than he had last season and are surpassed only by Jason Heyward's 80 (Heyward leads the majors in Runs Saved).

Stanton is a bit of a high-risk, high-reward outfielder in that he's among the major-league leaders at his position in both Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays & Errors (based on a video review system that classifies about 30 categories of good plays and 60 categories of miscues). But the good has offset the bad, enough for him to rack up some good overall numbers.

Marcell Ozuna
The exclamation point on Ozuna's season will be the two plays he made against the New York Mets on June 20, throwing out the tying run at the plate in the eighth inning and the ninth inning, the latter ending a one-run win. Those came in a cameo appearance in left field. He's been pretty good in center this season too.

Ozuna is one of three outfielders to have two assists in a game without the help of a relay man this season (the others are Brandon Barnes and Yoenis Cespedes).

Ozuna's arm has been worth a couple of Defensive Runs Saved, but he too has done a nice job of picking off balls in the deeper parts of the ballpark, whether at home or on the road. He is well above average with regards to the range component of Runs Saved and improved from a 2013 season in which he had -2 Runs Saved in 33 games in center field..

Christian Yelich
Yelich is another outfielder whose Runs Saved total can be attributed to catching balls hit to the deepest parts of the ballpark. His 44 Out of Zone plays rank third-best in the majors among left fielders, trailing only Alex Gordon and Dustin Ackley.

Yelich entered Thursday ranked second among left fielders in converting plays with an expected play rate of less than 50 percent -- he'd converted 18 of 44, or 41 percent, trailing only Alex Gordon of the Royals (42 percent).

Yelich has a weakness. His outfield arm rating has actually cost him four runs, bringing his numbers down a bit, but they're still pretty good overall, as noted in the chart on the right. They're much better than 2013, when he had -2 Runs Saved in 59 games.

In combination
One of the great things about this outfield is that it is young -- all three of these players are 24 or younger -- and nimble: By our batted-ball calculations, the Marlins are allowing the third-lowest batting average on balls in play on line drives hit to the outfield (an estimated distance of 200 feet or more).

Being young, they may not have the track record of the likes of Gardner, Ellsbury and Suzuki. So it's hard to make the jump to saying that they're the best one in baseball, especially considering that there is some disagreement between Defensive Runs Saved and UZR on their performance (another discussion for another time).

But I'll say this: I think I'd take this outfield before I'd take the Yankees' one. At least for the moment.
An early theme of the 2014 season was parity: Through the first two months, just about every team could still sell themselves on a potential playoff chase. But the last month changed all that, especially in the National League, which has sorted itself into contenders and bad teams. A lot of bad teams.

The two groups:

Contenders: Brewers, Dodgers, Nationals, Braves, Giants, Cardinals, Reds, Pirates.

The bad teams: Diamondbacks, Rockies, Cubs, Phillies, Padres, Mets.

That leaves only the Marlins in the mediocrity of the middle.

Some of those bad teams are likely to get worse. The Cubs just traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Diamondbacks lost Bronson Arroyo and traded Brandon McCarthy. The Rockies' pitching staff has been decimated with injuries. The Phillies are some form of unwatchable wretchedness right now.

All this means the remaining schedule for the playoff contenders could play a vital role in who wins the divisions and who wins the wild cards. So let's see how many games each of the contenders has remaining against our six bad teams.

Nationals (33) -- Mets (13), Phillies (13), Rockies (3), Padres (4).
Braves (27) -- Mets (8), Phillies (9), Cubs (3), Padres (7). They also have three against AL weakling Texas.

Brewers (19) -- Mets (4), Phillies (2), Cubs (10), Padres (3).
Cardinals (26) -- Phillies (3), Cubs (10), Padres (7), Rockies (3), Diamondbacks (3).
Reds (18) -- Mets (3), Cubs (8), Rockies (4), Diamondbacks (3).
Pirates (23) -- Phillies (4), Cubs (6), Padres (3), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (4).

Dodgers (31) -- Cubs (7), Padres (13), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (5).
Giants (37) -- Mets (4), Phillies (7), Cubs (3), Padres (7), Rockies (7), Diamondbacks (9).

Strength of schedule can be overrated, but you can clearly see the potential ramifications here. With four good teams, the NL Central teams have much tougher remaining schedules than the Nationals/Braves and Dodgers/Giants. The NL Central teams may beat up on each other, opening the door for the two wild cards to come from the NL East and NL West.

Digging deeper into the NL Central, here's how many games each has remaining against the other three contenders:

Brewers (28) -- Cardinals (13), Reds (9), Pirates (6).
Cardinals (31) -- Brewers (13), Reds (10), Pirates (8).
Reds (28) -- Brewers (9), Cardinals (10), Pirates (9).
Pirates (23) -- Brewers (6), Cardinals (8), Reds (9).

Something tells me those 13 remaining Brewers-Cardinals games will go a long ways towards deciding the division title.
Random thoughts for a Monday morning ...

1. As Buster Olney wrote the other day, the Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade just ramped up the cost for David Price. If the Cardinals want him, they better start with Oscar Taveras. If the Dodgers want him, they’re going to have to start with Joc Pederon or Corey Seager.

2. Joey Votto has basically been playing on one leg, so it’s no surprise that it appears he’s heading to the DL. I’ve been saying I still expect a four-team race in the NL Central, but with Votto struggling and Jay Bruce still yet to get untracked (he just snapped an 0-for-26 skid), the Reds are looking like the fourth-best team in that division.

3. Always love the All-Star controversies this time of year. Many deserving players got left off the AL roster -- Chris Sale, part of the final player vote, is one of the top five or six starters in the game. I can’t believe the players actually think Mark Buehrle and Scott Kazmir are better pitchers and have to think they failed to vote for Sale only because of his time on the DL.

4. If Giancarlo Stanton ends up starting at DH for the NL, the backup outfield pool will be pretty weak -- Hunter Pence, Charlie Blackmon and utility man Josh Harrison could end up deciding home-field advantage for the World Series. Of course, Mike Matheny could just play Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig and Carlos Gomez the entire game.

5. That’s one of the incongruous things about Matheny selecting Harrison, Tony Watson and Pat Neshek: He clearly selected them for late-game matchup and versatility, to give the NL a better chance of winning. I certain understand that reasoning. But if winning is so important, then play some of your best players the entire game. Why bench Troy Tulowitzki just to get Starlin Castro a couple of at-bats if you're trying to win the game?

6. While Sale is the guy I’d give my final player vote to in the AL, I hope Garrett Richards eventually finds his way on to the team. He had another great outing on Sunday against the Astros with 11 strikeouts while averaging a career-high 97.3 mph with his fastball. He’s 6-0 with a 1.45 ERA since June 1. That sounds like an All-Star to me.

7. Of course, he faced the strikeout-prone Astros. Rookies George Springer and Jonathan Singleton went a combined 0-for-8 with seven K’s. Singleton is hitting .168 with 46 strikeouts in his first 32 games. Springer’s contact issues have been well documented. Domingo Santana was sent down after whiffing 11 times in his first 13 at-bats. As promising as those three guys are, and while strikeouts aren’t necessarily a bad thing for hitters, you do wonder if you can have too many strikeout-prone hitters in the lineup. We’ll see how these guys develop and whether it becomes a long-term issue for Houston.

8. Underrated: Kole Calhoun.

9. Love the idea of Justin Morneau returning to Minnesota, but Anthony Rendon or Anthony Rizzo are clearly better players and more deserving of final player honors in the NL.

10. Now trending on Twitter: “LeBron James,” “Cleveland” and “Cavs.” How awesome would that be? But it’s not really going to happen, is it?

11. Andrew McCutchen: Making another run at MVP honors. Since June 1, he’s hit .364 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs.

12. Fun to watch play defense: Adam Eaton. Still can’t believe the Diamondbacks traded him and now they’re playing somebody named Ender Inciarte in center field.

13. Fun to watch hit: Jose Abreu. Loved the Abreu-King Felix showdown on Saturday. King Felix won as Abreu went 0-for-4 with a strikeout.

14. It’s starting to look like CC Sabathia will miss the rest of the season. Joe Girardi is usually an optimistic guy so if he’s saying Sabathia is done he’s probably done. So here’s a question: What if Sabathia is also finished as a quality pitcher? Hall of Famer? He’s 208-119 in his career with a 3.63 ERA and 54.1 WAR. He can stick around and add some wins and a little bit of WAR, but his winning percentage likely goes down and his ERA likely goes up. He’s close now and while improving his win total with otherwise mediocre pitching shouldn’t be the difference in making him a Hall of Famer at this point, he probably needs to get another 25-30 wins for serious consideration.

15. The Yankees also designated Alfonso Soriano for assignment, no surprise considering his struggles. I’m guessing somebody will give him a chance but with 71 strikeouts and just six walks his free-swinging approach finally got the best of him. Hell of a career though: 412 home runs, 289 stolen bases, seven-time All-Star. He was far from the perfect player but he delivered for a lot of years.

16. Underrated: Kyle Seager.

17. Edwin Encarnacion’s injury should open a spot for Seager or Ian Kinsler to make the All-Star Game.

18. Better than I thought he’d be: Scooter Gennett.

19. Just release Dan Uggla already.

20. Mike Trout needs to be in the Home Run Derby.

21. The Nationals have outscored their opponents by 59 runs. The Padres have been outscored by 51 runs. Both teams have one All-Star.

22. That was a terrific Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, right up there with the famous Federer-Rafael Nadal final. Federer won his first grand slam tournament in 2003 and is still competing for titles 11 years later. Amazing athlete.

23. Among qualified starters, toughest fastball to hit this year: Johnny Cueto, .164 average, .439 OPS.

24. Easiest fastball to hit: Ricky Nolasco has allowed a .364/.422/.618 line against his fastball. No surprise to Twins fans.

25. Easier fastball to hit than you would think: Batters are hitting .337/.381/.516 against Stephen Strasburg’s fastball.

26. Best curveball so far: Corey Kluber has held opponents to an .080 average and .219 OPS. (For comparison, batters have hit .156 against Adam Wainwright’s curve and .173 against Clayton Kershaw’s curve.)

27. Underrated: Corey Kluber.

28. Toughest slider so far: Johnny Cueto, again. Batters are hitting .176 with a .509 OPS against it.

29. Toughest changeup: In 178 plate appearances ending with a changeup, opponents are hitting .110/.136/.151 against Felix Hernandez.

30. I’m not counting the Rays out just yet.

31. Cool All-Star factoid: For the first time in American League history, the eight starting position players will come from eight different teams. Of course, Nelson Cruz is starting at DH, so there will be two Orioles in the starting nine.

32. For all the David Price to the Cardinals rumors, they need to start scoring runs and that’s going to have to happen from within as there just aren’t big impact bats out there (Marlon Byrd?). The Cardinals are 13th in the NL in runs and last in home runs. Trouble is, where’s the power going to come from? Matt Holliday has only five home runs, so he’s the logical answer, but there’s no reason to expect Matt Adams (nine) or Allen Craig (seven) to suddenly start blasting more home runs.

33. I like what I’ve seen from this Eugenio Suarez kid at shortstop for the Tigers. Not sure about his defensive chops yet but he’s been a positive at the plate.

34. The Blue Jays just got their butts kicked in Oakland and you have to wonder if this team already peaked. They were six games up on June 6 and now trail the Orioles by two games, having gone 9-19 in 28 games since that high-water mark. And don’t blame the pitching: The offense, which scored four runs in the four-game sweep to the A’s, has hit .235/.302/.366 since June 6.

35. Better than I thought he'd be: Dallas Keuchel.

36. Fun to watch: The Mariners bullpen has been lights out for two months. It has the best bullpen ERA in the majors, a 2.02 ERA since May 1 and 1.52 since June 1. Brandon Maurer, the failed starter, is the latest weapon down there, throwing smoke 97-mph smoke since he's been moved to relief.

37. Fun to listen to: My pals Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft on the Fantasy Focus podcast. Here's today’s show, including ramifications of the Samardzija trade, the Votto and Encarnacion injuries and the Brandon McCarthy trade to the Yankees.

38. Hard to say if Tim Lincecum has improved or just benefited from facing some weak lineups of late. He does have a 1.75 ERA over his past five starts but two of those starts came against the Padres and one against the Cardinals. He has 25 strikeouts in 35 innings, so he hasn’t ramped up the K rate or anything. I’m not convinced he’s turned the corner just yet.

39. Not getting any recognition for a solid season: Justin Upton.

40. Underrated: Jose Quintana.

41. Pat Neshek is a great story, a minor league invite to spring training for the Cardinals and now an All-Star. I got into a debate on Twitter last night about All-Star relievers -- people were asking why guys like Jake McGee, Fernando Rodney, Wade Davis, Koji Uehara and others didn't make it despite great numbers. I pointed out that lots of relievers are having great seasons. It's just not that special to have 35 great innings out of the bullpen. As a point of reference, just look at some of last year's All-Star relievers: Steve Delabar, Brett Cecil, Edward Mujica, Sergio Romo, Jason Grilli, Jesse Crain. That said, if you're going to pick relievers, Neshek has been as good as any in the game so far.

42. Unique: Henderson Alvarez. He doesn't rack up strikeouts (70 in 115 innings) but that hard sinking fastball is hard to get into the air (five home runs allowed) and he's walked just 22 batters. I believe he's the real deal, which only reinforces the huge blow to the Marlins when Jose Fernandez went down.

43. Bryce Harper is 4-for-21 with nine strikeouts and two walks since coming off the DL. One Nationals fan tweeted me that he doesn't look completely healthy and has had some awkward swings. I don't the think the Nationals would have activated him if he wasn't healthy, but there's no doubt that Harper put added pressure on himself with his comments about how the Nationals' lineup should look. It's OK to say that if you're producing but not if you're striking out twice a game.

44. Remember that season of parity we were having? Things are starting to sort themselves out a bit. In fact, we suddenly have a fair share of bad teams instead of mediocre teams -- Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rangers, Astros, Twins, maybe even the Red Sox. The Cubs will probably fade even more after Samardzija-Hammel trade. The Mets may or may not be bad instead of mediocre.

45. Which leads to: Tanking! That should be fun in the second half. Remember, it pays to finish with one of the worst 10 records.

46. Large person, large fastball: Dellin Betances.

47. Loving Gregory Polanco. I was admittedly a little skeptical, in part because I didn't want to fall prey to prospect hype. I've been most impressed with his approach at the plate -- 15 walks and 20 strikeouts in 25 games, nice to see after walking just 25 times in 62 games in Triple-A. If that kind of discipline continues, I like his ability to hit for a decent average and get on base. Then maybe next year comes the power.

48. Things I didn’t see coming: Jeff Locke. Now 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA in seven starts and he’s pitched seven-plus innings in five of those games.

49. Must-see TV on Friday: Jeff Samardzija versus Felix Hernandez.

50. Germany over Brazil. Argentina over the Netherlands.

We've reached the most fun part of the All-Star Game: Arguing about the final rosters.

The starters and reserves were named on Sunday and it was interesting to note the different philosophies of managers John Farrell and Mike Matheny in filling out their rosters. As expected, some worthy American League players were excluded and there were a couple surprising choices in the National League.

Some quick thoughts:

Worst American League starter: Derek Jeter, Yankees. While I actually don't have that big of an issue with Jeter starting -- there is no Troy Tulowitzki in the AL that he's keeping out of the lineup -- he's probably the worst starter we've had in a long time, hitting an empty .273 with mediocre defense and no power, worth 0.5 WAR so far. Matt Wieters was inexplicably voted in by the fans at catcher, but since he's out for the season, Salvador Perez will rightfully start in his place.

Worst National League starter: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers. Cincinnati's Todd Frazier is clearly the deserving starter at third base based on 2014 numbers while Ramirez is hitting .287 with 11 home runs. Considering Frazier, Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals and Anthony Rendon of the Nationals are better all-around players than Ramirez, his selection cost somebody an All-Star spot (Rendon is on the final player ballot).

Best ballot stuffing: Orioles and Brewers fans. Who says you need to play for the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers to have an edge in fan balloting? Adam Jones was never in the top three among outfielders until passing Yoenis Cespedes at the wire. He's a fine selection, however, and has come on strong after a slow April. Orioles fans also voted in Wieters and Nelson Cruz in that crowded DH slot that included Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Moss and David Ortiz. Likewise, Carlos Gomez passed Giancarlo Stanton for the third outfield spot in the NL behind Yasiel Puig and Andrew McCutchen. Stanton clearly should be starting but Gomez is arguably one of the top three outfielders in the NL. Brewers fans, however, couldn't get Jonathan Lucroy voted in over Yadier Molina, so Lucroy will be the backup.

National League DH should be: Stanton. Pretty each choice here for Matheny. Heck, start him and let him play the entire game. A nation that never watches Marlins games should see this guy get four at-bats.

Jeff Samardzija, almost an All-Star. The players had actually voted for Samardzija as one of the five best starters in the NL, along with Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Samardzija had a 1.68 ERA through May, so you can see why he fared well in the balloting. His ERA had since climbed to 2.83 with some bad outings and he was replaced by Julio Teheran of the Braves.

Worst player selection: Charlie Blackmon, Rockies. The players actually did a much better job than they usually do and Blackmon's selection was the only dubious choice, a guy who had a monster April but is down to .295/.341/.463, mediocre numbers for a guy who plays in Colorado. To be fair, the NL lacked obvious choices for the fifth and sixth outfielders, but they somehow came up with a player ranked 21st among NL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR. Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Billy Hamilton or even Rockies teammate Corey Dickerson (hitting .340) would have been better selections.

The AL crunch: Farrell had some tough choices in filling out his squad. His manager selections were Jon Lester (deserving and the only Red Sox rep), David Price (deserving and the only Rays rep), Glen Perkins of the Twins, Max Scherzer of the Tigers, Kurt Suzuki of the Twins (a third catcher), Encarnacion and Moss. I guess you have to carry three catchers and I don't have a problem with the Scherzer selection. Encarnacion was a lock with his big numbers so the final choice probably came down to Moss or another player.

Biggest snubs: Ian Kinsler, Tigers; Kyle Seager, Mariners. And that led to Kinser and Seager being this year's biggest snubs. Entering Sunday, Kinsler ranked third among AL position players in fWAR and Seager seventh. In Baseball-Reference WAR, they ranked third and sixth, so by either measure two of the AL's top 10 players didn't make it. It's not that an undeserving player made it -- the players voted in Jose Altuve and Adrian Beltre as the backups at second and third -- just that there were too many good players and not enough spots (unless you want to knock out a third catcher). You can debate the Moss selection, but I can see the desire to have the left-handed power off the bench if needed late in the game. (Remember, it counts!)

Matt Carpenter and Pat Neshek are good selections: Matheny picked two of his own players -- third baseman Carpenter and righty reliever Neshek. I'm sure both picks will be criticized but when you dig into the numbers, both are worthy choices. Carpenter isn't having as good a season as last year, but he's still 10th among NL position players in fWAR and 15th in bWAR. Please, I don't want to hear that Casey McGehee is more deserving.

As for Neshek, his numbers are outstanding: 0.78 ERA, 35 strikeouts, four walks and a .134 average allowed. He has been as dominant as any reliever in the game, even if he's not a closer. He's also a great story, once one of the game's top set-up guys with the Twins in 2007 but suffering years of injuries since. On the day the A's clinched the AL West on the final day of the 2012 season, his infant son died after just 23 hours. The Cardinals signed him in February to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, so Neshek certainly qualifies as this year's most improbable All-Star (along with Dellin Betances of the Yankees).

I suspect Matheny also picked Neshek for late-game strategic purposes -- his sidearm delivery is killer on right-handed batters (although he has been just as effective against lefties this year), so you can see him matching up against Encarnacion or Jose Abreu if there's a big moment late in the game. Similarly, Matheny picked Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson, a good strategic move since he had only three other lefties on the team.

Strangest selection: That picking reserves for strategic reasons also led to the selection of Pirates utility man Josh Harrison. I get it: He's having a nice season and can play multiple positions, but it's a little odd to pick a guy who doesn't even start regularly for his own team (reminiscent of the Omar Infante choice a few years ago). Rendon -- who has played second and third -- is the better player and Matheny already had versatility with Carpenter and Dee Gordon.

Best AL final man: Chris Sale, White Sox. Farrell went with five pitchers -- Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, Garrett Richards and Rick Porcello. I wrote the other day that four of these guys would be battling for a spot or two (along with Scott Kazmir, who got voted on by the players). All are worthy but the best choice is pretty easy since Sale is one of the top starters in the game and would have otherwise already made the team if not missing some time with an injury.

Best NL final man: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs. Torn here between Rizzo and Rendon, but since Matheny has already loaded up with third basemen and second basemen, let's go with Rizzo in case you need to swing for the fences late in the game.

Suggested AL lineup: Jeter better hit ninth. Mike Trout, CF; Robinson Cano, 2B; Jose Bautista, RF; Miguel Cabrera, 1B; Nelson Cruz, DH; Adam Jones, LF; Josh Donaldson, 3B; Salvador Perez, C; Derek Jeter, SS. With Felix Hernandez on the mound.

Suggested NL lineup. Yasiel Puig, RF; Andrew McCutchen, CF; Troy Tulowitzki, SS; Giancarlo Stanton, DH; Paul Goldschmidt, 1B; Carlos Gomez, LF; Aramis Ramirez, 3B; Chase Utley, 2B; Yadier Molina, C. With Clayton Kershaw on the bump.


Jim Bowden, Jerry Crasnick, Buster Olney, Jayson Stark and myself presented our 34-man All-Star rosters today. Here are our National League selections and here are our American League selections. Of course, our choices aren't affected by fan balloting or the players choosing the wrong backup (although we did stick to the rule of requiring one rep from each team), so the real rosters will likely include some names that none of us included.

I thought I'd explain my selections in a little more detail.

National League

I thought the NL selections were much easier than the AL. In fact, I struggled to find obvious candidates for the final couple of spots.

Starters
C -- Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
1B -- Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
2B -- Chase Utley, Phillies
3B -- Todd Frazier, Reds
SS -- Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
LF -- Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
CF -- Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
RF -- Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
DH -- Freddie Freeman, Braves
SP -- Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

I thought this was pretty straightforward, with the only debate being Puig or Carlos Gomez for the third outfield spot. I settled it this way: Who would I rather see? And that tiebreaker goes to Puig. I could have made Gomez the DH, but the NL was lacking in other outfield candidates, so I cleared some of the logjam at first base by making Freeman the DH and bringing Gomez off the bench. Sorry, Carlos.

Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright certainly have strong arguments to start and if you want to disagree with Kershaw, I won't put up much of a fight. Yes, he missed a month, but he's back, he's dominating and he's the best pitcher in the game.

Reserves
C -- Yadier Molina, Cardinals
C -- Devin Mesoraco, Reds
C -- Buster Posey, Giants
1B -- Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
2B -- Daniel Murphy, Mets
2B -- Dee Gordon, Dodgers
3B -- Anthony Rendon, Nationals
3B -- Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
SS -- Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
OF -- Carlos Gomez, Brewers
OF -- Ryan Braun, Brewers
OF -- Justin Upton, Braves

I went three catchers because all are deserving. Molina and Posey maybe aren't having their typical seasons but they're two of the biggest stars in the game and Mesoraco makes it over the injured Evan Gattis for his monster first half. Rizzo was an easy call over Adam LaRoche and Justin Morneau, as nice a story as it would be to see Morneau go back to Minnesota (I have a feeling that he'll somehow make the real All-Star team). Murphy makes it as my lone Mets' rep and I took Hanley over Starlin Castro and Jhonny Peralta, although any of three are justifiable. Rendon is a rising star and second among NL third basemen in WAR. Carpenter isn't having the year he had last year but still has a .378 OBP and 53 runs scored. He's a better player than Aramis Ramirez or Casey McGehee, plus he can play second if needed (the game counts after all!)

After Gomez, the outfield choices were more difficult. In the end, I went with Braun and Upton over Hunter Pence, Jason Heyward's defense and rookie speedster Billy Hamilton. I was the only one to pick Braun, but he's hitting .293/.342/.515 and, like him or not, it's called the All-STAR Game and Braun is a star. My final choice was one of tactics: It came down to Gordon or Hamilton over Pence, to have a pinch-running option late in a close game if needed. Gordon has the better success rate (and has been a little better at the plate), so he gets the nod.

Pitching staff
SP -- Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
SP -- Johnny Cueto, Reds
SP -- Julio Teheran, Braves
SP -- Zack Greinke, Dodgers
SP -- Madison Bumgarner, Giants
SP -- Tim Hudson, Giants
SP -- Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
SP -- Jake Arrieta, Cubs
RP -- Craig Kimbrel, Braves
RP -- Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers
RP -- Huston Street, Padres
RP -- Aroldis Chapman, Reds

We had to pick four relievers and these four were pretty clear. Street gives me a Padres rep and Chapman, while missing time after his spring training line drive to the head, is one of the game's star relievers and has struck out 46 batters in 23.2 innings. For the starters, the first six listed above were pretty clear selections. I went with Zimmermann over teammate Stephen Strasburg and then Arrieta for the final spot. Maybe that's dubious choice since he's really had just the one dominant month, but he is 5-1 with a 1.81 ERA and has terrific periphals. If you want to go with Strasburg or his Cubs teammate Jason Hammel instead, that's fine with me.

The one concern here is that with Kershaw starting, there are only two lefties in the pen in Bumgarner and Chapman. For that reason, I did consider Cole Hamels, who has been great even if his 2-5 record isn't. The actual roster will likely include a couple replacements like it always does, so I could see a lefty setup guy like Tony Watson (0.93 ERA) of the Pirates eventually making it.

Just missed: Hamilton, Pence, Strasburg, Hammel, Henderson Alvarez.

American League

C -- Salvador Perez, Royals
1B -- Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2B -- Robinson Cano, Mariners
3B -- Josh Donaldson, A's
SS -- Derek Jeter, Yankees
LF -- Michael Brantley, Indians
CF -- Mike Trout, Angels
RF -- Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
DH -- Victor Martienez, Tigers
SP -- Felix Hernandez, Mariners

Derek Jeter? OK, Derek Jeter. Of course he doesn't deserve to make the team on his 2014 merit, but in lieu of a Tulowitzki or even half of a Tulowitzki in the AL, he's the guy I want to see start. At third, you could go Donaldson, Adrian Beltre or Kyle Seager. Donaldson holds a slight edge over Seager in FanGraphs WAR and a bigger one on Baseball-Reference, with Beltre well behind on both, so Donaldson gets my nod. Left field could be Brantley or Alex Gordon or Yoenis Cespedes or Nelson Cruz, who is listed on the ballot as a DH although has started 38 games in left. I went with Brantley but, really, any of the four are reasonable selections. DH was just as tough with Martinez, Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion. Again, any of three work. Maybe we can just play Encarnacion at shortstop and hope nobody hits the ball to him.

OK, King Felix versus Masahiro Tanaka. Tough call since their numbers are about identical. Flip a coin. Yes, I'm a Mariners fan, but the difference for me was Hernandez has allowed four home runs and Tanaka 13. I know Tanaka is a great story but Hernandez has been one of the best pitchers for many years now and has never started the All-Star Game. Hey, there's also the chance that Tanaka could turn into a Jack Armstrong pumpkin (just kidding, Yankees fans).

Reserves
C -- Derek Norris, A's
1B -- Jose Abreu, White Sox
1B/DH -- Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
2B -- Jose Altuve, Astros
2B -- Ian Kinsler, Tigers
3B -- Adrian Beltre, Rangers
3B -- Kyle Seager, Mariners
SS -- Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
OF -- Alex Gordon, Royals
OF -- Adam Jones, Orioles
OF/DH -- Nelson Cruz, Orioles
OF/1B -- Brandon Moss, A's

It will be interesting to see how the real AL roster shakes out. I assume since Cruz and Moss were listed as DHs on the ballot that they weren't considered outfielders for the player vote. So, assuming Cespedes holds on to the fan lead for the third spot, your minimum of three backup outfielders will come from the Brantley/Gordon/Jones group -- except Jones got off to a terrible start and Brantley isn't a big name, so the players may instead vote in guys like Jacoby Ellsbury and Melky Cabrera (who got off to a strong start). If Brantley then makes it as the Indians rep and David Ortiz fares well in the player vote, it's possible that Martinez and Encarnacion both get squeezed off the roster (Cruz is leading the fan voting at DH).

As for the other backup, I actually cheated by including just one backup catcher when we told to include two. (Sorry, boss.) So three catchers from a weak AL group would further squeeze a deserving player off the team. I would have loved to have found room for hometown Twins second baseman Brian Dozier to make it, but I can't justify his selection over Altuve or Kinsler. The second shortstop could be Ramirez, Erick Aybar or Alcides Escobar; I don't really care which one. My final spot came down to Moss or teammate Cespedes. In part, this is a strategic move: Having that big lefty bat off the bench could be important (not that managers actually manage strategically in the game).

Pitching staff
SP -- Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
SP -- Yu Darvish, Rangers
SP -- David Price, Rays
SP -- Jon Lester, Red Sox
SP -- Chris Sale, White Sox
SP -- Max Scherzer, Tigers
SP -- Garrett Richards, Angels
SP -- Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays
RP -- Greg Holland, Royals
RP -- Glen Perkins, Twins
RP -- Koji Uehara, Red Sox
RP -- Sean Doolittle, A's

Love this staff. Great righty/lefty balance. My automatic selections were Tanaka, Darvish, Price, Lester and Sale, with Scherzer next in line even if his ERA is a little high. Richards and Buehrle got the edge over a strong pool of candidates that included Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir, Rick Porcello, Dallas Keuchel, Anibal Sanchez and even Phil Hughes. Like I said, a lot more difficult calls in the AL.

For the bullpen, Perkins makes it on merit, not just as the Twins rep. He does have a 3.41 ERA but has a 46/7 strikeout/walk ratio and just two home runs allowed and has been very good for four years now. Doolittle is a second lefty and you know his crazy numbers: 57 strikeouts and two walks. Apologies here to Yankees setup man Dellin Betances and his dominant strikeout rate. I'm guessing he finds his way on to the actual roster.

Just missed: Cespedes, Dozier, Kluber, Keuchel, Betances.
We're going division by division to look at what each team needs to do at the trade deadline and what may actually happen. As always, you can keep up with the latest trade talk at Rumor Central.


Atlanta Braves

Status: Adding role players, bench and bullpen.

Biggest needs: The Braves' biggest need is to get rid of Dan Uggla's salary (due $13 million next year), but that's not happening. Atlanta is set in the starting lineup and rotation, but will look to add another setup man in the bullpen for Craig Kimbrel. The Braves also will look to improve what has been a weak bench (.193 pinch-hitting average).

Possible trade targets: David Price and Jeff Samardzija are most likely out of the Braves' prospect price range. Atlanta's system doesn't have enough depth to pull off a major trade, while still leaving some top guys for the home team. Look for small trades with minor prospects involved.

The prospect everyone will want but the Braves won't trade: Jose Peraza is hitting .341/.369/.454, and is 40-for-49 in stolen base attempts. He was just promoted to Double-A, and hasn't slowed down at the plate or on the bases. For a team like the Braves that needs a leadoff man with speed, they won't be trading the best one who has come through their system in more than a decade.

Likely scenario: The Braves will add a reliever and a pinch hitter. To make room on the bench they will finally release Uggla and eat the rest of his salary.

--Martin Gandy, Chop County


Miami Marlins

Status: Sitting tight, mostly. At 41-43, the Marlins aren't out of the playoff race but seem unlikely to make a run.

Biggest needs: If they do hang in there, they'll need to upgrade a rotation still suffering from the loss of Jose Fernandez. They've given a combined 22 starts to the likes of Jacob Turner, Anthony DeSclafani, Randy Wolf, Brad Hand and Kevin Slowey, all of whom have ERAs over 5.00. Top prospect Andrew Heaney may help, although he has a 5.17 ERA through his first three major league starts. They're fine at the back end of the bullpen with Steve Cishek, but could add some depth there.

If they fall back over the next month, they could try to cash in on Casey McGehee, who has a .312 average and 49 RBIs but just one home run. He'd make a nice bench player for a contending team. Cishek is a remote possibility to be traded as he has entered his arbitration years and will start to get expensive next year (he's making $3.8 million this year). With teams such as the Tigers and Giants possibly seeking a closer, he could bring a nice return, but the Marlins would likely wait until the offseason.

Possible trade targets/chips: The back of the rotation has been so bad that even a mediocre back-end starter would be an upgrade. For example, a pitcher such as Philadelphia's Roberto Hernandez, who is making just $4.5 million and signed through this year, making him a perfect Marlins rental. Seattle needs a right-handed bat and could use McGehee to play first base or DH. Nick Franklin has worn out his welcome in Seattle; the Mariners probably wouldn't do that straight up but the Marlins could toss in a minor leaguer.

Likely scenario: Probably not much happens here. They won't be close enough to make a significant deal and won't be far enough behind to start selling. McGehee could be an August deal.

--David Schoenfield


New York Mets

Team status: Aiming towards the cellar.
Fans status: Bye-ers.

Biggest needs: Cash. Shake Shack restaurant patrons. A young, promising shortstop might be nice. Minor league hitting prospects, at any position.

Possibly coveted goods: AARP card-carrying members Bartolo Colon and Bobby Abreu are two veterans having steady years who could be of value to a pennant-contending team. But what can they fetch in return? A Class A reliever? Projectable 20-year-old outfielder? The Mets would love to have someone take Chris Young off their hands, but he's below the Mendoza Line and has a $7.25 million salary. Jonathon Niese and Daniel Murphy are two players in the midst of perhaps their best seasons, but may be worth more to the Mets than other teams. Murphy is due a raise in the winter and could be on the block, at the risk of a fan revolt.

Likely scenario: Mets stand pat. After talking in March about a 90-win season, the Mets can't be sellers. But at 11 games below .500, they can't be buyers, either. They're paralyzed by enormous debt, dwindling attendance, and placating an impatient New York fan base. In the Catch-22 position of needing fans for revenue and not having enough money to take on more payroll, any trade they make will be driven by either cutting salary or making a big, newsy splash to remain relevant in minds of fans looking forward to preseason football. Bet on inertia.

--Joe Janish, MetsToday.com, @metstoday on Twitter


Philadelphia Phillies

Status: Should be selling, but the front office hasn't yet admitted that a complete overhaul needs to begin.

Biggest needs: Young talent. Prospects. Pitching. Outfielders. Middle infielders under 35. A catcher and first baseman.

Possible trade chips: If this is going to be an interesting trade deadline season, a lot will revolve around what the Phillies decide to do. Of course, keep in mind that if they had a lot of great players they wouldn't be 12 games under .500, so the trade value of players other than Cole Hamels (not going anywhere) and Cliff Lee (maybe, once he comes of the DL and proves he's healthy) is pretty minimal.

Chase Utley is signed through next season with vesting options that run through 2019. Teams will ask about him but Utley has indicated he will not waive his 10-and-5 rights to approve a trade. So he's not going anywhere.

Jimmy Rollins will likely meet his 2015 vesting option, which means he'll earn $11 million next year. He had a .288 OBP in June and probably wouldn't bring much in return anyway. Besides, which contenders even need a shortstop? Eugenio Suarez has played well since his call-up for the Tigers, Brad Miller has been hitting for the Mariners after a terrible first two months and the Yankees aren't going to displace Derek Jeter. Would the Dodgers want Rollins and slide Hanley Ramirez over to third? Not likely.

The two Phillies most likely to be traded are right fielder Marlon Byrd (.267/.320/.491 and signed through 2015 with a 2016 vesting option for $8 million) and Roberto Hernandez. Byrd is a perfect fit for Seattle, which needs a right-handed corner outfielder. Hernandez isn't great but would be a cheap option for a team that may eventually need a fifth starter (Oakland, Seattle, Baltimore, Miami, Cleveland). A.J. Burnett could be flipped -- back to Pittsburgh? -- but has been inconsistent so probably wouldn't bring more than a couple of Class A prospects.

Likely scenario: Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't know what to do and holds on to everything, save Hernandez. He'll want too much for Lee and won't find a taker for Rollins. He should try to deal Byrd and Burnett and at least start the restocking of the farm system, but the Phillies have made it clear that they fear losing fans if they start selling. But they're already losing fans: Attendance is down 14,000 per game from just two years ago.

-- David Schoenfield


Washington Nationals

Status: Holding.

Biggest needs: With the return of Bryce Harper, the Nationals are finally fielding their projected starting lineup for the first time since Opening Day, when catcher Wilson Ramos broke his hand. The Nationals are fifth in the majors in rotation ERA (but have a 2.60 ERA since June 1), second in bullpen ERA and the lineup is healthy. There isn't much for them to do. They may look to add a bench player/pinch-hitter type as neither Nate McLouth nor Kevin Frandsen have produced much, but that's a minor priority. The bullpen has been terrific, although lefty Jerry Blevins hasn't been effective (16 walks in 29 2/3 innings).

Likely scenario: Unless a starting pitcher gets hurt, don't expect the Nationals to do much except maybe look for a lefty reliever.

--David Schoenfield
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield took your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

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Heading into Wednesday's game, Troy Tulowitzki leads all qualified hitters in batting average (.354), on-base percentage (.447) and slugging percentage (.634). We can call that the triple-slash Triple Crown. And if you're doing that, you're the best hitter in the game. (Jerry Crasnick has a story here on the game's best pure hitters worth checking out.)

Except ... of course, Coors Field. But we can adjust for the advantage that Tulo and all Rockies hitters possess, by park-adjusting their stats. FanGraphs has a rate stat called wRC+, which adjusts for home-park environment. Tulo is first in the majors, just ahead of Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton and Andrew McCutchen.

And yet, I'm still bothered by these facts:

--Tulowitzki is 92nd in the majors in road batting average (.252).
--He's 39th in road OBP (.355).
--He's 44th in road slugging (.465), behind Luis Valbuena. Behind Lucas Duda. What if Duda played his home games in Coors Field?

What Tulowitzki has done is destroy pitchers at home: .457/.539/.803, with 11 of his 18 home runs and 22 of his 34 extra-base hits, in the same number of plate appearances. That said, Tulo does appear to be an improved hitter this season; he's always struck out more than he walked, except in his shortened 47-game 2012 season, but this year he has 42 walks and 43 strikeouts. Back in May, Richard Bergstrom of the RockiesZingers site pointed out that Tulowitzki has changed his stance a bit this year. His BABIP (average on balls in play) is .365, well above his career mark of .320, and according to Baseball-Reference.com, his line-drive rate the past two years has increased dramatically over his career norms (30 percent last year and 28 percent this year, compared to 21 percent over his career).

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Still, those road numbers don't scream "best hitter in baseball." There are various factors in play there, however. The Rockies do play in a division with three pitcher's parks in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, so that's going to hurt his road stats. There appears to be a Coors Field side effect that hurts Rockies hitters when they go on the road. All of that makes it difficult to evaluate Rockies hitters. In other words, what would Tulowitzki do on another team? That's the unknown.

One thing I've wondered: Are good hitters able to take a bigger advantage of Coors Field than their less talented teammates? When adjusting for Coors, a generic park effect is established, based on the results of all Rockies hitters.

As a team, the Rockies are hitting .328/.377/.529 at home and .237/.290/.387 on the road. Using another advanced metric called weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), the Rockies have a .384 wOBA at home and .291 on the road, a difference of 93 points. Tulo's spread is 203 points, so he's been much better at home even compared to his teammates.

What about recent years? Between 2009 and 2013, the Rockies had a .356 wOBA at home and .295 on the road, a difference of 61 points. Over those seasons, Tulowitzki had a .412 wOBA at home and .368 on the road, a difference of 44 points. So before this year, he didn't improve at Coors as much as his teammates.

So far, however, in 2014 Coors has been a better run-scoring environment than its recent past. That could change as the season evolves. Different sites will come up with different park factors but most use a multi-season park factor. FanGraphs appears to use a five-year factor, so the fact that Coors has been even more extreme than normal in 2014 won't "penalize" Tulowitzki as much.

Back to the question at hand: Is Tulowitzki the best hitter in the game? I'm still skeptical, even if an altered stance (and good health) has led to better numbers. Even his home numbers are skewed by his hot start: He hit .608 in his first 15 home games but .355 since. I guess I'd like to see what kind of numbers Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout would put up in Colorado before declaring Tulo the best in the game. Or Giancarlo Stanton. How many more home runs would he hit if he got to play there?

What do you think? Who is the game's best hitter right now?


Oklahoma has sent some physically imposing pitchers to professional ball over the past couple of decades. Jamey Wright and Brad Penny certainly fit the profile. So do Josh Johnson, who was born in Minnesota before moving to the Sooner state, and Tommy Hanson, a native Oklahoman who left for California. And Arizona’s Archie Bradley, the pride of Broken Arrow, has all the makings of a classic front-of-the-rotation “hoss” at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds.


Judged against that stereotype, Miami Marlins lefty Andrew Heaney is vertically challenged and middle of the road in the velocity department. He’s got plenty of fastball at 90-94 mph, but at 6-2, 183 pounds, he’s more content to mix three pitches and keep hitters off balance. His most prominent comparison, for scouts and others who like to play that game, is Tom Glavine.


But Heaney has poise, pitching acumen and a repeatable delivery. And a mere two years after throwing his final collegiate pitch as an Oklahoma State Cowboy, he’s getting a chance to put his mature demeanor to the test.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Heaney
Rob Foldy/Getty ImagesAndrew Heaney was outdueled in his debut, but he doesn't have to hang his head.


Billed as the top left-handed pitcher in the minors, Heaney made his big league debut Thursday night against the New York Mets at Marlins Park. He lived up to expectations with six innings of three-hit, one-run ball, only to be outdone by Zack Wheeler’s complete-game three-hitter in Miami’s 1-0 loss to New York.


The move had potentially big ramifications moving forward -- for Heaney, the Miami organization, fantasy baseball aficionados and, quite possibly, the 2014 National League East race. But for those who are tempted to view Heaney as the organization’s new “savior” now that Jose Fernandez is out for the rest of the season with Tommy John surgery, general manager Dan Jennings has some words of caution.


Don’t even go down that road. Please.


“You don’t replace Jose Fernandez,” Jennings said by phone Thursday. “No one can replace him. Some people were saying he might be the best pitcher in baseball. We tried to bridge the gap, and now we think Heaney’s ready. Like we say around here, it’s like an apple on the tree. It has to get fully ripe before you pick it.”


Although the Marlins have built a strong reputation for drafting and developing pitching under Stan Meek (another Oklahoma guy), Heaney became only the fifth first-round pick in the franchise’s 22-year history to start a game in the majors. He joined Marc Valdes, Josh Beckett, Chris Volstad and Fernandez, Florida’s top pick in 2011, in that small fraternity. The Marlins are hoping that Heaney can give them their first impact, homegrown lefty since Dontrelle Willis was doing the “D-Train” thing almost 10 years ago.


Heaney went 7-2 with a 2.47 ERA for Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A New Orleans before getting the call last weekend, and Jennings said the biggest item on his agenda near the end of his minor-league apprenticeship was making more liberal use of his changeup to complement his fastball and slider. According to Brooks Baseball, Heaney threw 14 changeups among his 91 pitches against the Mets, so he appears to be a good listener.


Heaney gave up a long home run to David Wright to dead center field before getting into a rhythm that lasted for six innings. He struck out three and walked one, induced nine swings and misses and finished with a respectable “game score” of 62 (with 50 being average). He just happened to pick a night when Wheeler checked in with an 88.


All things considered, it was a promising debut and the culmination of a heartwarming week in the life of a prospect. On Sunday, Heaney sent out the following Father’s Day tweet in honor of his dad, Mark:


At 11:45 p.m. on Sunday night, Heaney called home to Oklahoma with an even bigger present: To tell his dad he had just been promoted to the majors. During an in-game interview Thursday, Mark Heaney said he was so groggy he thought the phone was ringing on the TV in his bedroom, and he wondered why no one was answering it.


Andrew Heaney arrives when the Marlins are starting to look a little frayed around the edges. Giancarlo Stanton is playing like an MVP candidate and manager Mike Redmond has the Marlins playing with a lot of energy, but the Fish are going to need some stability in the rotation if they want to keep hanging around in the NL East.

Henderson Alvarez, acquired from Toronto in the big Mark Buehrle-Jose Reyes trade in 2012, has been solid at the top of the rotation but he hasn’t gotten much help of late. Randy Wolf has come and gone, Jacob Turner has been relegated to the bullpen, and Nathan Eovaldi and Tom Koehler have a combined ERA of 5.49 in June. Things are shaky enough that the Marlins just signed old friend Brad Penny to a minor league deal and sent him to Jupiter, Florida, to knock off the rust. Penny last pitched for the Marlins in 2004, before they shipped him to the Dodgers with Hee Seop-Choi as part of a six-player trade that brought Juan Encarnacion and Paul Lo Duca to Miami.


This is the way it has gone of late in a chaotic NL East. The Nationals have the best rotation on paper, but they’re muddling along at 37-34. Atlanta overcame potentially devastating spring training elbow injuries to Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to get off to a great start. But the Braves can’t seem to get much traction at 37-35, and they lost Gavin Floyd to an elbow injury Thursday night.


The Marlins, next in line at 36-36, and the Mets, last in the division behind the Phillies at 33-40, should be better a year from now when their aces return. Fernandez and Matt Harvey are both recovering from elbow reconstructions, and they had time to chat before the series opener in Miami. Even if they didn’t compare Tommy John surgery scars, they have a lot in common as rotation anchors on the rehab trail.


In their absence, Zack Wheeler and Andrew Heaney acquitted themselves quite nicely in an entertaining “young guns” showdown. But it will take time, experience and some setbacks before they chart their long-term courses in the big leagues. In the world of pitching prospects, some apples take a little longer to ripen than others.

The best player in baseball

June, 17, 2014
Jun 17
11:52
PM ET


Sorry, Miggy. Your hitting feats are legendary. You'll be in the Hall of Fame some day, on the short list of best right-handed batsmen the game has ever seen. You know you're an all-timer when you're hitting .319 and on pace for 135 RBIs and nobody is even talking much about how great you've been. You've been so good for so long that sometimes we do take you for granted and shame on all of us for that.

Sorry, Giancarlo. Your feats of strength seem impossible. Your home run on Monday was impossible. You've become must-see TV because any swing can result in something we've never seen before. How many players can we say that about? Watching you hit -- I hate to say it because it sounds crazy -- but watching you hit in some ways must have been like when Babe Ruth started swatting home runs for the Yankees in the old Polo Grounds. What was that? When Yankee Stadium was built they called it the House That Ruth Built. Maybe someday that park in Miami will be called Stanton's Playground. You've matured as an all-around hitter and even your defense has improved.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
AP Photo/Mark DuncanFew players can or should set their personal goals as high as Mike Trout might for himself.
Sorry, Tulo. You might be in the midst of a season for the ages, in the running to win that MVP award all of us have predicted for you at one time or another, and the reason you may not win it is because your team hasn't been so terrific. You were born to play shortstop, gliding effortlessly to make plays, that strong arm of yours allowing you to make plays other shortstops can't. You've managed to stay on the field, and we know that has been an issue in the past.

Sorry, Cutch. You were the MVP last year. You have no weakness in your game and pack surprising power into your small frame. You're one of the class acts in the game, exciting at the plate and in the field, and you've lifted a sorry franchise into a team worth paying attention to.

But Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. I should say: Still the best player in baseball. He was the game's best all-around player the past two seasons. That isn't really up for debate; I mean, you can argue if you want, but you're going to lose. Ask any general manager who has been the best player in the game past two years and I would predict 29 will say "Trout." Maybe 30 if promised anonymity.

In Tuesday's 9-3 win over the Indians, Trout went 3-for-5 with two home runs and four RBIs. His first homer was a three-run shot off Josh Tomlin in the fifth inning that gave the Angels a 5-2 lead, off a 2-2 89-mph fastball that Trout lined over just over the fence in right field after fouling off three two-strike pitches. His second homer in the seventh off Mark Lowe came off an 0-1 fastball that Trout crushed several rows deep into the left-center bleachers.

Trout is now hitting .311/.397/.611 with 16 home runs, 54 RBIs and nine steals. He lead the American League in slugging percentage and OPS while tied for third in RBIs (impressive for a No. 2 hitter). What's remarkable about those numbers is that it was just a few weeks ago when the big story line was, "What's wrong with Mike Trout?"

After a big opening month, he suddenly slumped in early May. On May 19, he went 1-for-4 in a loss to the Astros and his average dropped to .263. As far as crisis, it wasn't quite Babe Ruth overdoing it on the hot dogs, but Trout had struck out 56 times in 44 games, the most whiffs in the American League. What was going on?

On May 20, Trout started and left in the fifth inning with what was reported at the time as tightness in his leg. He sat out the next day. On June 3, he left a game after one at-bat and the club reported he'd been dealing with a lingering back issue, or "mid-back discomfort." An MRI showed no major problems, just inflammation. He sat out the game on June 4 but has been back in the lineup since. And he has been raking. He's Mike Trout.

In fact, since falling to .263 on May 19, he's hitting .410/.475/.819 with eight home runs, eight doubles and a triple in 22 games. Remember when he was striking out twice as often as he was walking after being close to a 1-to-1 ratio last year? In those 22 games, he has 14 walks and 14 strikeouts.

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Both of his home runs on Tuesday came on low pitches. That's danger zone against Trout. He whips that bat through the zone so quickly on those pitches with great extension. The swing is different, of course, but in some ways it reminds me of Ken Griffey Jr.; his beautiful lefty swing with that big arc was tailor-made for low pitches. Fifteen of Trout's 16 home runs have come on pitches in the lower half of the strike zone. His one home run in the upper half of the zone was a middle-of-the-plate slider. Eight of his home runs have come on low fastballs. Basically, the worst pitch you can throw Trout is a low fastball.

The Indians threw two low fastballs and paid the price.

Power, speed, defense, walks. We know Trout does all of those things. Maybe pitchers will eventually learn to expose that top part of the strike zone more often (Trout is hitting .119 against pitches in the upper half of the zone or above), but pitchers are not trained to pitch up in the zone these days; it's down, down, down, so many just aren't comfortable throwing high fastballs.

Even then, I suspect Trout will eventually learn to adjust. He is, after all, still just 22 years old.

Best player in the game? Here's my top 10 right now, June 17, 2014:

1. Mike Trout
2. Troy Tulowitzki
3. Giancarlo Stanton
4. Andrew McCutchen
5. Jose Bautista
6. Yasiel Puig
7. Carlos Gomez
8. Miguel Cabrera
9. Jonathan Lucroy
10. Paul Goldschmidt, Josh Donaldson (tie)

I reserve the right to change this list on June 18.

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