SweetSpot: Mark Teixeira

Best deadline deal ever: Angels

July, 25, 2013
Throughout July we're presenting 30 deals in 30 days: the best trade-deadline deal ever made by each team. We've covered the AL East, NL East, AL Central and NL Central, and now wrap up the AL West.

THE TEAM: Los Angeles Angels

THE YEAR: 2008

THE SITUATION: The Angels had the best record in baseball (65-40) by a 3.5-game margin and held an 11.5-game lead over the Texas Rangers in the AL West. Casey Kotchman was doing a decent job at first base, providing excellent defense and triple-slashing .287/.327/.448. Everything was good, but it would get even better.

The Braves found themselves 7.5 games behind the Mets for the NL East lead, and the Phillies and Marlins were significantly ahead of the Braves as well. They would look to extract as much value from their tradable assets as possible.

THE TRADE: Atlanta sent first baseman Mark Teixeira to the Angels for Kotchman and Double-A reliever Stephen Marek. Teixeira would be a free agent at the end of the year, while Kotchman would have two more seasons under team control.

THE AFTERMATH: Teixeira exploded, having perhaps the best two-month stretch of his career. He was .358/.449/.632 and smoked 13 homers for the Angels in a 54-game stretch.

They cruised to a 100-62 finish, easily giving them the best record in baseball. They'd run into the Boston Red Sox in the division series and lose in four games, but the aftermath of the Teixeira trade wouldn't be realized until much later.

Before Teixeira took funny money from the Yankees, the Angels offered him arbitration, meaning they would receive the Yankees' first-round pick in the following year's amateur draft. With that pick, the Angels took a New Jersey high school outfielder named Mike Trout.

Trout, obviously, has become a superstar. Marek bounced around the upper minors, but has yet to ascend to The Show. Kotchman struggled in the second half of 2008, but has posted a few decent seasons since the trade, although the Braves sent him to the Red Sox at the 2009 deadline for Adam LaRoche.

--Hudson Belinsky, Halos Daily
Throughout July we're presenting 30 deals in 30 days: the best trade-deadline deal ever made by each team. We've covered the AL East, NL East, AL Central and NL Central so far, and are now on the AL West.

THE TEAM: Texas Rangers

THE YEAR: 2007

THE SITUATION: The Rangers were in the midst of another losing season, their seventh in eight seasons. Second-year general manager Jon Daniels had a rather unique idea to inject more talent into the organization: Trade first baseman Mark Teixeira, even though he wasn't set to be a free agent until after the 2008 season. Since Teixeira was a Scott Boras client, the Rangers knew he'd test free agency and, in the wake of the Alex Rodriguez contract, they weren't keen on giving out another mega-contract. Why not trade him now and extract more value than they'd be able to get in a year?

THE TRADE: The Rangers' recent run of success has been built on several excellent deadline deals -- Michael Young from the Blue Jays in 2000 for Esteban Loaiza; Nelson Cruz and Carlos Lee from the Brewers in 2006 for Francisco Cordero; David Murphy from the Red Sox in 2007 for Eric Gagne; and Cliff Lee from the Mariners in 2010. But this deal rates as the best one: On July 31, 2007, the Rangers acquired minor leaguers Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz plus catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia for Teixeira. The prospects were certainly a risk; Andrus was hitting .244 in Class A, Feliz was pitching in the Appalachian League and Harrison had mediocre numbers in Double-A. If anything, Saltalamacchia, who had already reached the majors with the Braves, was the top guy in the deal, Baseball America's No. 36 prospect before the season.

THE AFTERMATH: Teixeira posted a 1.020 OPS with the Braves, but they missed the playoffs anyway. The next year, they'd trade him to the Angels at the deadline, acquiring Casey Kotchman. Andrus, Feliz and Harrison have all been All-Stars with the Rangers and compiled 29.9 cumulative WAR -- although have been of little value in 2013, with Feliz injured, Harrison making just two starts so far and Andrus having a terrible year at the plate. Saltalamacchia didn't pan out in Texas and was later traded to the Red Sox.
Mark Teixeira Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesMark Teixeira's OPS has dropped each season he's been with the Yankees.
From Tuesday's chat:

Alex (New York): Simply put, is Mark Teixeira DONE?

Teixeira is facing season-ending surgery on his wrist, but I assumed Alex was asking if Teixeira is done not just for 2013 but for beyond. In other words: Are his days as a productive player numbered?

Teixeira still has three years left at $22.5 million per season on his contract, meaning the Yankees will be paying $47.5 million next year just for Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. No wonder Mariano Rivera wants to retire. Even before this year's wrist injuries, Teixeira had already been in decline, his OPS dropping each year he's been with the Yankees. He's 33 and would turn 34 next April, after missing nearly an entire season.

It certainly wouldn't be unusual for a first baseman to decline even more suddenly at Teixeira's age. Mo Vaughn leaps to mind. He missed all of his age-33 season with the Angels after surgery to repair his biceps tendon in his left arm. Traded to the Mets, he was worth -0.5 WAR in 2003 and then injured his knee the next year and retired. Of course, Vaughn wasn't exactly a workout warrior, so maybe a comparison to the more athletic Teixeira isn't fair.

How about Keith Hernandez? Like Teixeira, he was a gifted defensive first baseman (although he was a different hitter than Teixeira with a higher average but less power). He had an .813 OPS at 33, .750 at 34 and .649 at 35. Back, knee and hamstring issues contributed to his decline, but that's the point: Teixeira had wrist and calf injuries last year. Once one of the most durable players in the game, this is two straight years of issues.

Frank Thomas also missed nearly all of his age-33 season with an injury. He battled injuries on and off thereafter and did have a couple of big home run seasons, but while he was a .321 hitter before age 33, he hit .260 from ages 33 to 36.

Willie McCovey had 54.0 WAR through age 32, 10.4 WAR thereafter. John Olerud was a 5-WAR player in 2001 and 2002 at ages 32 and 33, 2.7 at age 34, 1.1 at 35 and 0.7 at 36.

Now, I'm picking and choosing with those examples. Fred McGriff and Carlos Delgado are two recent examples of elite first basemen who continued to hit well through their mid-30s (Delgado averaged .265/.349/.505 with 33 home runs for the Mets from ages 34 to 36).

Is Mark Teixeira finished? Probably not. Still, he's not going to be a 5-win player like he was his first year with the Yankees in 2009. They're going to be paying a lot of money the next three years for what will likely be a middle-of-the-pack first baseman.

Yankees fans must learn meaning of hope

March, 28, 2013
New York Yankees fans don't often use the word "hope." It's not that we have an issue with undue optimism; it's just that in the last 18 seasons there's rarely been a need to rely on hope as our sustenance. When your team finishes in first year after year, you stop hoping and you start expecting. Anything less than a World Series championship is a failed season. Fail to make the playoffs, and the year becomes an utter abomination. How lucky have we been over this time? In the only season in which the Yankees did not play October baseball (2008), the team still finished with 89 wins, which would have been enough to secure a postseason berth in other divisions.

Every year we hear it -- the team is old, the players are in decline, the other teams in the division are younger and therefore better -- and every year the Yankees stave off the worst consequences. This season, though, confidence does not run as high. It's not just that Derek Jeter's ankle is bothering him or that Mark Teixeira has a wrist injury or that Alex Rodriguez won't play at least until the All-Star break or that Curtis Granderson will miss at least a month or that the team replaced Nick Swisher with the much-maligned Vernon Wells. It's that all of these things have happened together, leaving the Yankees with an Opening Day lineup that includes just one of their star infielders (Robinson Cano).

A feeling of frustration predominates. If the team, despite its best efforts, just wasn't good enough because it was too young or was too hampered by being a small-market team with a limited payroll, that would be one thing, but that's not the feeling here. The Yankees aren't a small-market team and they aren't inexperienced. If the Yankees struggle, it's because the wounds are self-inflicted.

Most teams might be able to get under a $189 million payroll without making any tremendous sacrifice, but the Yankees can't suddenly pretend that the contracts of Rodriguez and Teixeira (among others) don't exist. The front office built a team that offered little roster flexibility and would be dependent on the successes of their big-money acquisitions. It worked in 2009, but that's now four years ago, and happened in that time.

Four years ago, Jesus Montero was the poster child for a revamped farm system. Now Montero is playing for the Mariners -- part of a trade from which the Yankees have yet to benefit. Four years ago the idea that Francisco Cervelli would be an Opening Day catcher would have been laughable. Today it's a reality. The frustration isn't so much that Montero isn't a Yankee -- at the time the trade was made, the Yankees were in desperate need of pitching help -- but that the team could have re-signed Russell Martin for $9-10 million, or less than they'll be paying Wells this season.

So there's a very real possibility that we Yankees fans, especially those born in the mid-'80s or later, will have to learn what it's like to rely on hope instead of expectations. The best part of baseball, of course, is that no matter what's predicted on paper, the games still have to be played, and a lot can happen over the course of a season six months long. Who knows, maybe Wells will turn into a more than adequate replacement for Swisher. Stranger things have happened.

Rebecca Glass writes for the You Can't Predict Baseball blog, with nightly roundups during the season. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccapbp.
I've been meaning to run the final poll results from all the offseason report cards we published before and early in spring training. Here are the American League tallies. Keep in mind that the polls were conducted before some recent developments took place -- in the case of the Yankees, for example, before Mark Teixeira's injury or before we knew Derek Jeter will likely be unavailable on Opening Day.

It's probably not too surprising that in all cases except one, voters from the team's home state were more optimistic than the national average on the team's high win total. That team: The Red Sox; 20 percent nationally picked the Red Sox to 90+ games, but just 16 percent of the voters in Massachusetts predicted so.

Most optimistic: Royals fans; 29 percent nationally picked the Royals to win 85+, but 45 percent of voters from Missouri did so.

Baltimore Orioles
90+: 21%
85-89: 38%
80-84: 29%
Fewer than 80: 12%

In Maryland: 37, 38, 20, 6

Boston Red Sox
90+: 20%
85-89: 40%
80-84: 31%
Fewer than 80: 10%

In Massaschusetts: 16, 52, 27, 6

New York Yankees
95+: 14%
90-94: 41%
85-89: 32%
80-84: 13%

In New York: 17, 52, 24, 7

Tampa Bay Rays
95+: 19%
90-94: 54%
85-89: 24%
Fewer than 85: 3%

In Florida: 33, 54, 12, 1

Toronto Blue Jays
95+: 33%
90-94: 49%
85-89: 15%
Fewer than 85: 3%

International: 40, 49, 9, 2

Chicago White Sox
90+: 15%
85-89: 35%
80-84: 35%
Fewer than 80: 16%

In Illinois: 23, 42, 25, 10

Cleveland Indians
80+: 44%
75-79: 29%
70-74: 21%
Fewer than 70: 6%

In Ohio: 59, 24, 13, 4

Detroit Tigers
95+: 40%
90-94: 51%
85-89: 8%
Fewer than 85: 2%

In Michigan: 47, 50, 3, 0

Kansas City Royals
85+: 29%
80-84: 40%
75-79: 23%
Fewer than 75: 7%

In Missouri: 45, 43, 10, 3

Minnesota Twins
80+: 12%
75-79: 13%
70-74: 33%
Fewer than 70: 42%

In Minnesota: 16, 15, 31, 38

Houston Astros
70+: 7%
60-69: 17%
53-59: 36%
Fewer than 53: 41%

In Texas: 13, 26, 32, 29

Los Angeles Angels
95+: 38%
90-94: 45%
85-89: 13%
Fewer than 85: 3%

In California: 47, 43, 8, 2

Oakland A's
95+: 21%
90-94: 46%
85-89: 26%
Fewer than 85: 7%

In California: 27, 51, 19, 4

Seattle Mariners
85+: 29%
80-84: 45%
75-79: 20%
Fewer than 75: 6%

In Washington: 36, 49, 12, 3

Texas Rangers
95+: 9%
90-94: 47%
85-89: 39%
Fewer than 84: 6%

In Texas: 17, 54, 25, 0
Confession: I spent all offseason believing the Yankees would still rank among the American League's elite teams in 2013. After all, despite the woeful hitting in the postseason, this was still a team that won 95 games and had the second-best run differential in the majors. It was still a team with a deep arsenal of starting pitching, and good starting pitching can take you a long way.

So while most were jumping off the Yankees bandwagon, I remained on.

No longer. As the injuries continue to mount during spring training -- Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter's slow recovery from his broken foot -- it seems like it's finally going to happen. The collapse is coming and it's going to happen in 2013. I hate to join the legions predicting the demise of this long-running Yankees dynasty -- because if there's anything I've learned over the past 15 years it's to never count out the Yankees -- but here are 27 reasons the collapse will occur.

1. From 2002 to 2011 (10 seasons), 77 teams won at least 90 games. Seventeen of those won at least 15 fewer games the following season -- 22 percent. Six teams dropped 20 or more wins the next season. (Only 11 of the 77 won more games the following year.) Collapses can happen overnight.

2. From 1949 to 1964, the Yankees won 14 American League pennants in 16 years. In 1964, they won 99 games. In 1965, they won 77. It's happened to the Yankees before.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
John Munson/USA TODAY SportsCC Sabathia anchors a Yankees rotation made up of aging veterans and unreliable youngsters.
3. The Yankees 52-33 in the first half last year, but just 43-34 in the second half. The decline was already under way.

4. The Blue Jays and Red Sox should be much improved. The Yankees went 24-12 against those two clubs in 2012. That could be six or seven fewer wins right there.

5. The rotation is counting on 41-year-old Andy Pettitte, 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda and 32-year-old CC Sabathia, who is coming off some minor elbow issues from last season. Those three went a combined 36-21 last year, worth about 10.5 wins above replacement (WAR). The group could produce more value -- Pettitte made just 12 starts -- but I would bet under 10.5 WAR.

6. Phil Hughes is hoping to recover in time from two bulging disks to be ready for Opening Day. Remember, Hughes pitched just 74 innings in 2011 due to arm fatigue and shoulder inflammation, so this is a guy with injury history.

7. Jeter without a broken ankle: 39 years old, coming off his best year since 2009, likely to regress anyway. Derek Jeter coming off a broken ankle: 39 years old, coming off his best year since 2009, maybe not ready for the start of the season, his range in the field undoubtedly a bigger issue than ever.

8. Eduardo Nunez, aka "hands of stone" and "arm of the wilderness," is the backup. This could be fun.

9. The catchers are Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli, the definition of replacement-level. Russell Martin wasn't great last year (.211/.311/.403), but still popped 21 home runs and was worth 1-2 WAR. Cervelli did show on-base skills when he played regularly for the Yankees in 2010, but he had a .316 slugging percentage last year at Scranton.

10. Granderson will miss April with a fractured right forearm, an injury that also forced the Yankees to scrap plans to move Granderson to left and Brett Gardner to center. Missing Granderson for a month is ultimately a minor loss, but what will he be when he returns? In 2011, he hit .262/.364/.552 and led the AL in runs and RBIs. In the first half of 2012, he hit .248/.352/.502; in the second half he hit .212/.278/.480, with his walk rate plummeting and his strikeout rate increasing. He still hit 20 home runs but he'd turned into a one-dimensional slugger: home run or nothing. Overall, he was worth 2.7 WAR, down from 5.3 in 2011. At 32, I don't see him improving.

11. Brennan Boesch will apparently fill in while Granderson is out. Boesch was one of the worst players in the majors last year with the Tigers, statuesque in the outfield and he didn't hit (.286 OBP). Basically, the Yankees hope he can produce like Raul Ibanez did last year, but what is that worth? Baseball-Reference valued Ibanez at 0.3 WAR.

12. Teixeira may miss the entire season. For now, the club is hoping his wrist can heal and that he'll return in eight to 10 weeks, but there is a chance the partially torn tendon sheath will eventually require season-ending surgery. The backup first basemen? Juan Rivera and Dan Johnson. Rinse, repeat: Juan Rivera and Dan Johnson. Teixeira was worth 3.6 WAR last year. And if he does return healthy, he's been a player in offensive decline anyway.

[+] EnlargeKevin Youkilis
Larry Goren/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesKevin Youkilis hasn't played more than 122 games since 2009.
13. Kevin Youkilis. He was great as recently as 2010 when he hit .307/.411/564, but has played 102, 120 and 122 games the past three seasons, is 34 years old, and coming off a .235/.336/.409 season, most of that in the AL Central with the White Sox. He's going to be facing tougher pitching in the AL East. Best-case scenario is probably similar to what A-Rod did last year: .272/.353/.430. The worst-case scenario: The new swing doesn't work and he retires in June.

14. Ichiro Suzuki. He showed a little spark of life after joining the Yankees, but he's 39 years old and has hit .277 with a .308 OBP over the past two seasons. Yankees fan will be pining for Nick Swisher.

15. Mariano Rivera is back ... but Rafael Soriano is gone. As good as Soriano was last year, even if Mo is still Mo, this is a wash.

16. Travis Hafner. He hasn't slugged .500 since 2006. He's averaged 86 games over the past five seasons. He can still hit some home runs (especially in Yankee Stadium) and draw walks, but I wouldn't expect him to be a major contributor. A 4-for-31 spring isn't inspiring confidence.

17. Ivan Nova. He didn't strike anybody out in 2011 and was good (16-4, 3.70). He struck more people out in 2012 but was much worse (12-8, 5.02). No idea what to expect in 2013, but I don't see him developing into anything more than a solid No. 4.

18. Home runs. The Yankees finished second in the AL runs last season, in large part because of a league-leading 245 home runs. But Swisher (24 home runs) is gone, replaced by Ichiro. Granderson (43) is out for a month. Teixeira (24) may be out all season. Martin (21) is gone and replaced by two guys who may not hit more than five. Part-timer Eric Chavez (16) is gone. Ibanez (19) is gone with Gardner (7 in 2011) back. Robinson Cano is coming off a career-best 33 home runs. Even if you're optimistic, you'll have a hard time coming up with 200 home runs. Which means they're not going to score 804 runs again.

19. Defense. Jeter at short. Granderson in center. No Teixeira at first. The Yankees were 22nd in the majors in defense runs saved in 2012 at -22, and that's with Teixeira (+17) and Cano (+15) ranking among the best in baseball. The return of Gardner will help the outfield, but this doesn't appear to be a strong defensive team.

20. The Yankees are 10-16 in spring training. That indicates maybe 1 percent of something, but it could be an important 1 percent.

21. Self-imposed payroll constraints mean the Yankees aren't going to make any big midseason acquisitions. Not that they'll still be in it at midseason.

22. Cano's free agency is looming over the organization like a funnel cloud. And while his steady demeanor means most believe his play won't be affected, you never know. But if they don't sign him and the team gets off to a bad start, the trade rumors are going to start thundering.

23. The New York media is ready to pounce.

24. No George. How will the brothers Steinbrenner react if the Yankees are in last place in late April?

25. Joe Girardi's little black book doesn't have formulas for magical potions -- like turning back the clock five years for everyone on the roster.

26. The baseball gods. Even they're tired of seeing the Yankees in October.

27. Alex Rodriguez to the rescue. Exactly.

Prediction: 75-87. If the Phillies can drop 20 wins from 2011 to 2012, so can the Yankees. For the first time since 1992, the Yankees will finish under .500.

OK, there's no Mike Trout or Buster Posey or Justin Verlander or Andrew McCutchen, but Team USA's provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic looks pretty strong. How about this lineup:

RF Ben Zobrist
C Joe Mauer
LF Ryan Braun
DH Giancarlo Stanton
3B David Wright
1B Mark Teixeira
CF Adam Jones
SS Jimmy Rollins
2B Brandon Phillips
P R.A. Dickey

You have on-base ability at the top of the lineup in Zobrist and Mauer, follow that up with two of the best power hitters in the game, have another good OBP guy in Wright hitting fifth, switch-hitting Teixeira in the 6-hole, a 30-homer guy batting seventh, and then speed and more power at the bottom of the lineup. On paper, it's a lineup that should score plenty of runs.

It seems a little better than the 2009 lineup that lost twice to Venezuela and once to Puerto Rico in pool play and then to Japan in the semifinals. Pitching and defense were the big culprits in the U.S. struggles. Puerto Rico beat up Jake Peavy in an 11-1 loss. In a 10-6 loss to Venezuela, Jeremy Guthrie allowed six runs in the second inning, with Adam Dunn -- playing first base -- making a crucial throwing error that led to four unearned runs. Still, Guthrie got knocked around by a Venezuelan team that included, yes, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez, but also Endy Chavez hitting leadoff, Cesar Izturis hitting second and Jose Lopez hitting third. In the semifinal loss to Japan, the lineup included Dunn in right field, Mark DeRosa at first base and Rollins hitting third (although he did go 4-for-4), but Roy Oswalt got knocked out in the fourth inning after giving up six runs, with Wright, Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts all making errors.

So that puts the pressure on the four U.S. starters named to the provisional roster: Dickey, Kris Medlen, Ryan Vogelsong and Derek Holland. Clearly, Dickey and Medlen line up as the top two guys, but the U.S. used four starters last tournament, so all four probably will get at least one game.

Starters are held to strict pitch counts in the tournament, so the pitching staff will include these nine relievers: Jeremy Affeldt, Mitchell Boggs, Steve Cishek, Tim Collins, Luke Gregerson, Craig Kimbrel, Chris Perez, Glen Perkins and Vinnie Pestano. That's a pretty strong group, with three lefties and some power arms at the back in Boggs and Pestano and with the game's best closer in Kimbrel ready to shut down any lead.

The bench includes Jonathan Lucroy, J.P. Arencibia, Shane Victorino and Willie Bloomquist.

What's interesting is that Team USA, to be managed by Joe Torre, announced just 27 players. Considering final rosters will include 28 players, it appears as if Torre and USA Baseball had trouble convincing enough players to join the fun. Or maybe they're leaving that final spot open ... you know, just in case, somebody wants to change his mind.

On paper, the U.S. should rate as the favorite with its power and a nice one-two punch in Dickey and Medlen. (Rosters for other countries will be announced at 4 p.m. ET.) But Japan won the first two World Baseball Classics, and the U.S. didn't even make the semifinals in the 2006 tournament, losing twice in Round 2. In fact, the U.S. history is pretty dismal. Look at its record:

Teams beaten: Mexico, South Africa, Japan, Canada, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico
Teams lost to: Canada, South Korea, Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Japan

That's a 7-7 record, with three of the wins against noted baseball powers South Africa, Canada and the Netherlands.

The World Baseball Classic is a big deal everywhere but in the U.S., it seems. I like it, even if it is a little bit of a gimmick.

Gimmick or not, however, it's time for the U.S. team to do better.
It began when Josh Hamilton dropped that routine fly ball in the final game of the regular season and has carried over into the postseason: We haven't exactly seen a lot of elegant baseball so far.

Consider some of what we've seen:
  • The Braves making three throwing errors in their loss to the Cardinals.
  • The controversial infield pop fly in the same game.
  • Coco Crisp dropping a routine fly ball in Sunday's game that allowed two runs to score.
  • The A's and Tigers both wild pitching in runs in the same game.
  • Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma's error leading to the winning two (unearned) runs for the Nationals).
  • Gio Gonzalez walking seven batters in that game.
  • The Cardinals getting a bases-loaded, no-out situation. Two pitches later, the Nationals had escaped the inning.
  • The Nationals winning despite two errors.
  • Orioles closer Jim Johnson entering in a tie game and surrendering five runs.
  • Even Derek Jeter booted a fairly routine grounder, although it didn't hurt the Yankees.

To be fair, we have seen some good defense as well. The Reds made several outstanding plays in their Game 1 victory over the Giants. Tigers right fielder Avisail Garcia made a nice throw to gun down Crisp at home plate on Sunday. Orioles right fielder Chris Davis made a nice throw to nail Mark Teixeira at second base and later a nice catch on a foul fly in the corner. Often in October, bad weather can have an affect on the fielders, but that hasn't been a viable excuse so far. I suspect we'll see better baseball moving forward.

Some links to check out:

Winners and losers of the weekend

September, 9, 2012
Somehow, it seems the American League playoff race got even crazier over the weekend. Let's recap with winners and losers.

Winner: Tampa Bay Rays' pitching staff
The Rays completed a vital six-game homestand against the Yankees and Rangers by taking two of three from each team. Against the Rangers, the Rays held the majors' highest-scoring offense to five runs in 30 innings and a .141 average over three games. James Shields threw the two-hit shutout gem in Sunday's 6-0 victory, walking nobody and striking out eight. When Shields is on, he can be as tough as any pitcher in the game. His outing works out to a Game Score of 91, just the 16th start of 2012 of 90-plus, and Shields owns two of those 16 starts.

"Obviously, September baseball is huge, and getting any kind of win is big," Shields told MLB.com. "But against that lineup, as far as I'm concerned, that's the best hitting lineup in the big leagues, one through nine. Not to mention they have a lot of guys on the bench who can swing it, too. That's a good hitting team over there. They can do some damage any time."

Winner: B.J. Upton
[+] EnlargeJames Shields
Kim Klement/US PresswireJames Shields and the Tampa Bay Rays are now just two games back from the AL East lead.
After hitting .194 with one home in June, Upton has been a key to the Rays' second-half playoff surge and delivered the third three-homer game in Rays history on Sunday, hitting solo shots off Roy Oswalt in the first inning and Martin Perez in the fourth and sixth innings. Since the All-Star break, he's hitting .266 with 14 home runs, 12 doubles, 14 steals and 37 RBIs in 53 games. While Joe Maddon would undoubtedly like to see Upton's on-base percentage to be higher than .308, he and Desmond Jennings (who had the day off on Sunday) are starting to click a little better as a 1-2 punch at the top of the order, combining for 70 runs in the second half.

The Rays did receive a scare when David Price missed Saturday’s start because of shoulder stiffness, but he’s expected to throw a bullpen session on Tuesday and start Friday or Saturday against the Yankees. Rookie Chris Archer replaced Price and looked awesome, striking out 11 and allowing two runs in seven innings, flashing a 97-mph fastball and deadly slider. He had some command issues at times at Triple-A, but in three major league starts he has 25 strikeouts and four walks.

"We're just trying to keep that momentum going, trying to feed off of each other," Shields said. "It was nice to give that bullpen a little breather today after a couple of extra-inning games. This is what we're here to do -- pitch well and win ballgames."

The Rays remain one game behind Baltimore and Oakland in the wild-card race and two games behind the Yankees in the AL East. All games are big this time of year, but the Rays have six huge ones this week: three at Baltimore and three at New York.

Winner: Los Angeles Angels
We'd been waiting all season for the Angels to kick it into an extra gear, but other than an eight-game winning streak in late May, the Angels had mostly plodded along at .500. But a perfect 6-0 week against the A's and Tigers (making the Angels 11-1 over the past 12) propelled the Angels right back into the wild-card race, where they are tied with the Rays, one game out.

The Angels haven't allowed more than three runs in a game since in their past 11 games, posting a 1.65 ERA and allowing just 71 hits in 98 innings. The weekend's big win came in Saturday's 6-1 over Justin Verlander -- Mike Trout homered to lead off the bottom of the first -- and Zack Greinke delivered his fourth straight strong start in Sunday's 3-2 victory. Trout homered again in the first. Did we mention that he also robbed Prince Fielder of a home run to end Saturday's game, his fourth robbery of the season?

Loser: Detroit Tigers
Getting swept by the Angels essentially wipes out Detroit from the wild-card race. The Tigers are only 4.5 out, but four teams are ahead of them, meaning they'd have to pass three, an unlikely scenario. It's looking like the AL Central title will be Detroit's only path to the postseason.

Loser: Chicago White Sox
A 3-3 week at home against the Twins and Royals is not the way to go about winning a division title. The White Sox are 4-9 over their past 13 games but still hold a 2-game lead over Detroit. It's still Chicago's division to lose, but maybe not for long: They host the Tigers for four games beginning Monday. Pay attention to Thursday's marquee matchup: Verlander versus Chris Sale. The Sox appear to be straggling to the finish line, but if they can win three out of four, they may be able to put away the Tigers.

Winner: Oakland A's rookie pitchers
[+] EnlargeBrett Anderson
David Richard/US PresswireBrett Anderson has been a boost to Oakland's rotation after coming off the disabled list.
After getting swept by the Angels earlier in the week (and outscored 21 to 5), you heard the whispers: This is the beginning of the end for the miracle A's. Instead, the A's went into Seattle and swept the Mariners. Rookie A.J. Griffin beat Felix Hernandez on Friday and rookie Tommy Milone won on Sunday. In between, Brett Anderson pitched his fourth straight gem since coming off the disabled list. He has allowed three runs in four starts and while the A's have relied on rookies all season, Anderson is stepping up as an ace, a late-season addition better than any trade acquisition. Don't give up on the A's but they have another test against the Angels: Four games in Anaheim, with rookies Jarrod Parker, Dan Straily and Griffin starting the first three games.

Loser: Jerry Meals
With runners at first and third and the Orioles leading the Yankees 5-4 on Saturday, Mark Teixeira grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, although replays showed he beat the throw with a head-first slide. Meals -- you may remember him from last year's Braves-Pirates game -- called him out. "It was not a bang-bang play. He was safe. He was clearly safe," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "You hate to lose a game that way, but he missed it." Catcher Russell Martin added, "I didn't really feel like we lost the game. I feel like we got cheated out of it."

To make matters worse, it was Teixeira's first game back since injuring his calf on Aug. 27 and he reinjured it on the play and sat out Sunday's game.

Loser: Nick Swisher
While the Yankees did pound the Orioles 13-3 on Sunday to salvage a split of the four-game series and maintain their one-game lead over Baltimore, Swisher went 0-for-4 and is in a 2-for-43 slump. The good news for the Yankees: Curtis Granderson, mired in his own 5-for-43 slump, came off the bench on Sunday and hit a pinch-hit home run followed by a two-run single and two-run double.

Loser: Orioles depth
Baltimore suffered a huge blow when right fielder and Nick Markakis broke his thumb when hit by CC Sabathia pitch on Saturday. He'll have surgery on Tuesday and may miss the rest of the regular season. Markakis had hit .335 with a .390 OBP since moved into the leadoff spot after the All-Star break. "September is not an option [for Markakis], so we've got to hopefully play good baseball and make October an option," O's skipper Buck Showalter said.

Winner: Baseball fans
With so many teams in it, nearly every game in the American League has playoff implications. Best yet: There remains hope for a seven-way tie with the Yankees, Orioles, Rays, White Sox, Tigers, A's and Angels. OK, so maybe the two AL Central teams are falling a bit of the pace, but that still leaves the other five teams separated by two games, with three playoff spots on the line.

Yes, it's getting good.
Curtis Granderson's statistical line has become so unusual that Eric Karabell and I discussed it briefly on Thursday's Baseball Today show. Granderson is hitting .244 with 30 home runs and slugging .498. He's on pace for 44 home runs, leading Eric to ask: Has any player ever hit 40 home runs while slugging under .500?

To do so, you don't just have hit for a low average, but also register few extra-base hits beyond home runs. Indeed, Granderson has just 12 doubles and three triples.

Anyway, Eric predicted it's been done -- probably several times, citing the fact that Mark Teixeira nearly did it last season when he hit 39 home runs and slugged .494. I predicted it had never been "accomplished."

The answer: It's happened once. Adam Dunn in 2006 hit 40 home runs and slugged .490, thanks to a .234 batting average and just 24 doubles. Should have figured on Dunn.

Besides Teixeira, two others hit 39 home runs while slugging under .500 -- Cecil Fielder in 1996 and Mark McGwire in 1990. Three others hit 38 -- Jeromy Burnitz, Rafael Palmeiro and Gorman Thomas. My favorite high home run/low slugging year, however, belongs to the immortal Dave Kingman, who hit 37 home runs for the Mets in 1982 ... and slugged .432. How is that even possible? He actually led the National League with those 37 home runs but hit just NINE doubles while hitting .204. He ranked 24th in the league in slugging percentage.

Man, and I thought Granderson was an extreme case.

July's best defenders: Barney, Tex, Reddick

August, 2, 2012

U.S. Presswire/Jerry LaiDarwin Barney's defense has been one of the best things to come out of the Cubs 2012 season.

Who was the best defensive player of the month for July?

For the first time, our panel of voters didn’t have a consensus choice. The margin was narrow, but Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney edged out Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira and Athletics right fielder Josh Reddick.

Because the voting was so close, it seemed only fair to salute all three in this space. Let’s take a closer look at their performances.

Darwin Barney, Cubs 2B
When Baseball Info Solutions made adjustments to its defensive metrics a few weeks ago, we thought that Barney would be among those to take a big hit.

But Barney’s numbers turned out to be legit all along. The Cubs second baseman ended the month as the game’s most valuable defender, with 27 Defensive Runs Saved for the season, eight coming in July.

Cubs manager Dale Sveum has prioritized defensive positioning, and that seems to have benefited Barney, who has a high rating on both balls hit to the right of where a second baseman makes most plays (10 plays better than average, and to the left (12 plays better than average).

The Cubs have given up a lot of hits this season, but it's not the fault of their middle infield. The average team allows a runner to reach on about 43 percent of balls hit over the second base bag, or a few degrees to the right or left. The Cubs have allowed only 39 percent.

But Barney passes the eye test, too. He had 16 of what the BIS video-trackers call "Good Fielding Plays" in July, and only five Defensive Misplays & Errors. He excelled in turning the double play, with four of his Good Plays related to that skill, one shy of the best by a second baseman this month (Dan Uggla’s five).

Barney’s 3-to-1 Good Play/Misplay ratio has held up all season and is more than twice the ratio that Barney posted as a rookie in 2011, when his Good Play/Misplay & Error rate was 47 to 42.

Mark Teixeira, Yankees 1B
"Baseball Tonight" analyst Rick Sutcliffe has said just how much he values the defense of a player like Teixeira.

"A good defensive first baseman can make an entire infield" he’s said on a number of occasions.

Teixeira had the best defensive month of any first baseman, with 19 Good Fielding Plays and only three Defensive Misplays & Errors. That’s right on par with his season ratio of 60 GFP/10 DM&E. He was one of two first basemen this month (Mark Reynolds being the other) with multiple Web Gems.

But where Teixeira really stood out was in his Defensive Runs Saved total. First basemen don’t typically accumulate a lot of Runs Saved, but Teixeira nearly matched his total of eight from April to June by netting seven Runs Saved in July.

Why was his rating so high?

It probably had something to do with these three plays, the best examples of his athleticism and range.

Those types of plays show that Teixeira is able to get to more balls to his right than the typical first baseman, and he reaps the statistical rewards in his Runs Saved total as a result.

Josh Reddick, Athletics RF
Reddick’s name came to our attention when Ichiro Suzuki was traded to the Yankees a couple of weeks ago. We weren’t surprised to see Ichiro at the top of the Defensive Runs Saved leaderboard, but were a little surprised to see Reddick right alongside.

The transition from Boston’s tricky triangle and right-field corner to Oakland’s cavernous outfield has been a smooth one for Reddick, who had eight Defensive Runs Saved, and a Good Play/Misplay & Error rate of 9 to 5 for the month.

The skill set that earned Reddick recognition in July was one that nearly injured him -- his ability to go back and get balls. Twice during Oakland’s sizzling July, Reddick made a wall-crashing, game-ending catch, the second one knocking him woozy (he was back for Oakland’s next series).

He also made like Spiderman, hanging on to the right-field wall at the Rogers Centre to make a twisting grab that might have been among the fanciest-looking plays of the month. It earned him his third No. 1 Web Gem of the season (his second of the month), one shy of Alexei Ramirez for the major-league lead.

Reddick’s range rating (known to the BIS folks as plus-minus) ended July the same as his season rating in Boston in 2011 (he’s saved 15 bases more than the average defender).

But he’s solidified himself as one of the game’s best with his throwing arm. He’s cut back on the rate of runners advancing on balls he’s fielded from 63 percent in 2011 to 45 percent in 2012.

It’s not that runners aren’t trying to take bases on him. It’s that Reddick is gunning them down.

He’s thrown out nine attempting to advance, including three in the past month. He finished July with 11 assists for the season, one shy of Jeff Francoeur for the major league lead.
First base: Now that's a bad week. Closer John Axford was an important cog in Milwaukee's trek to the NLCS a year ago. After blowing two save chances in early April, he converted his final 43 opportunities. It's been a different story in 2012. On Tuesday, he gave up back-to-back homers to Colby Rasmus and Jose Bautista as the Blue Jays rallied for a 10-9 victory in a good old-fashioned slugfest. By old-fashioned, we mean 2002. (Sometimes we miss those high-scoring games.) Anyway, Axford blew saves last Wednesday and Thursday in 4-3 losses to the Royals, giving him three blown saves in a seven-day span. He's allowed runs in five of his past eight appearances. Big win for the Blue Jays, who slammed six home runs (two each from Rasmus and Bautista) as Brewers rookie Tyler Thornburg surrendered four bombs in his major league debut.

Second base: Streak over. The Braves ended the Yankees' win streak at 10 games, preventing the Yanks' first 11-game streak since 1985. Three keys plays: After two errors got Tim Hudson into a jam in the fourth inning, he struck out Curtis Granderson with two outs on the bases loaded on a nifty 77-mph changeup; the go-ahead run came in the sixth on Jason Heyward's two-out smash off Mark Teixeira's heel -- a tough play but one the Gold Glove first baseman usually makes; Chipper Jones, who made an ugly error in that fourth inning, atoned when he backhanded Teixeira's grounder in the seventh and threw out Granderson at home plate.

Third base: Umm, about that greatest relief season ever ... Speaking of relievers, Aroldis Chapman gave up a two-run bomb to Asdrubal Cabrera in the bottom of the 10th inning as the Reds lost 3-2 to the Indians. Chapman has now picked up losses in three of his past six appearances and been scored upon in four of those appearances. That's two straight one-run wins for the Indians in the battle of Ohio. Maybe the best sign for the Reds was Mike Leake throwing seven strong innings; he's now gone at least seven in four of his past six starts and is perhaps finally settling into a little run of consistency.

Home plate: Tweet of the day. Rays reliever Joel Peralta was ejected for having a foreign substance on his glove. Apparently, as manager Joe Maddon tweeted, the Nationals violated some sort of baseball code.

Best defensive SS? How about M's Ryan?

June, 1, 2012
US Presswire/Steven BisigBrendan Ryan was baseball's standard-setter on the defensive side for the month of May.

Seattle Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan had to think when we asked him if he had a favorite play in May.

"There weren’t any between-the-legs, bare-hand, behind-the-neck crazy plays for me," Ryan said with a laugh.

That might be true, but the sum of Ryan’s work this month was statistically impressive. He was the winner of our voting for Defensive Player of the Month for May. Dodgers utility man Jerry Hairston Jr. won the award for April.

Ryan had 13 Defensive Runs Saved for the month, second-most in the majors to Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie.

He had 17 Good Fielding Plays and only four Defensive Misplays & Errors (see explanation in the accompanying chart). His 4-to-1 Good Play/Misplay ratio is far above average for a shortstop.

Lawrie benefited from turning outs in unusual spots on the field due to the Blue Jays' frequent extreme defensive shifts. Ryan’s tally is almost entirely non-shift-based.

He was given 10 "Good Play" credits by Baseball Info Solutions' video-tracking team for recording an unlikely ground-ball out, five for his work starting or serving as relay man on a double play, one for an assist on an attempted baserunner advance, and one for a pop-up catch.

"His anticipation of plays, and his reactions, make the tough plays, really tough plays, almost seem simple," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "He slows the game down and can make reads that most players won't even come close to. And the thing that I think separates him is his uncanny ability to always know where he is on the field. He can field a ball in center field, turn on a dime, and know exactly where he is to make an accurate throw to first base. You can't teach that stuff."

So what did Ryan do right this month? As he noted, he’s not making the super-flashy play, though he did net a pair of Web Gems.

In the past couple weeks, Ryan twice made the play for which he has become most identified, going deep into the shortstop-third base hole, almost into left field, to thwart Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler.

"There are a lot of guys defensively who are underrated, and he’s one of them," Kinsler said afterwards.

These are the plays that tend to add to a shortstop’s Runs Saved because so few shortstops make them (the recently published book "Fielding Bible III" goes into this in great depth).

Ryan talked about his defense at length in a recent interview on FanGraphs. We asked him to elaborate further on the thought process that goes into this type of play.

"You rely a lot on feel and projecting where the ball is going to go, and trust that the ball will be hit that way," he said. "You don’t want to move too early. It’s like you want to get a cheater’s head start in a sprint. You want your feet off the ground when the ball crosses the plate, so your feet are on the ground when the ball is hit, and you can explode to whichever side you need."

Ryan said knowing the hitter helps.

"Ian Kinsler likes to get the bat head out. His home runs are typically to left-center. His swing path is such that he’s not going to get a ton of ground balls up the middle. With his swing, if he hits a ground ball, he’s going to top a lot of them into the six-hole. So I’m going to shade him to the right. Though if it’s a fastball from Jason Vargas, I might shade him up the middle. If it’s a cutter in, it’s probably going to be hit to my backhand side."

There is a mental aspect to defense that Ryan has put a lot of time into mastering. This dates back to his time in the St. Louis Cardinals organization a few years ago.

"I made an error in Double-A that ended a game," Ryan said. "I was (with) Springfield and we were in Wichita. Right before the play, I was thinking, 'If a ball is hit to me and I make an error here, we lose,' and then it happened. It was a horrible feeling, because I knew if I backhanded the ball, we’d be going extra innings."

"I said to myself after that play that I would never think that way again. You know you can play defense. Why would you think that way?"

It has been a while since Ryan thought that way. Wedge said that Ryan’s abilities have progressed to being "beyond any defensive statistic."

That led to us asking Ryan how we could best evaluate defensive play. He came up with an idea that we found intriguing.

"The Olympics are coming up ... you know how they have the guy on the bobsled," Ryan said. "He sets the mark, and then when you see other people competing, you see the lead racer as like a ghost figure (compared to where the current racer is). It would be cool to be able to do that, and to see which players could get to the ball from where. It would be really cool to watch a game on TV and see that."

Remember one week ago? I know many of you wanted to kill off the Yankees and Red Sox. Both teams were 0-3 and in such dire straits that Bill Simmons had a special podcast with his buddy JackO -- a Yankees fan -- to commiserate in their pain.

Well, it's not so easy to get rid of the wicked witches of the East. The Red Sox pummeled the Rays over the weekend, scoring 31 runs in a three-game sweep in games started by David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore.

The Yankees, meanwhile, took two of three from the Angels to climb above .500, although they did miss Jered Weaver and Dan Haren while getting shut down by C.J. Wilson. (Hey, we don't want Yankees fans to get too comfortable.)

OK, in all seriousness, it's a reminder of the hysteria that's easy to ensue when a team with high expectations doesn't go 7-3 out of the gate. A similar sense of panic exists in Philadelphia, where the Phillies are 4-5 and scoring barely three runs a game. It's early, folks.

Before the Yankees and Red Sox meet this weekend, the Yankees will have an excellent opportunity to pad their win total with a four-game series against the hapless Twins, looking like a good bet early on to challenge the Astros as baseball's worst team. Don't expect much run support for Carl Pavano, who faces Freddy Garcia on Monday night on ESPN and ESPN3 (7 ET): The Twins have scored three runs or fewer in seven of their nine games.

Outside of Derek Jeter (.366, four doubles, two home runs) and Nick Swisher, most of the Yankees hitters are off to lukewarm starts. Robinson Cano has one RBI, Alex Rodriguez is hitting .222 with one home run and Mark Teixeira (a career .235 hitter in April) is off to his usual slow start with a .222 average and zero home runs.

But with four games against the Twins, look for Cano and Teixeira to enter their showdown with Boston with at least one home run on their ledger.

Series of the week

Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals, Tuesday through Thursday

Johnny Cueto (1-0, 2.25) vs. Kyle Lohse (2-0, 1.35)
Mat Latos (0-1, 5.59) vs. Jaime Garcia (1-0, 4.22)
Bronson Arroyo (0-0, 2.63) vs. Adam Wainwright (0-2, 11.42)

In some regard, the Cardinals were baseball's most impressive team through the first 10 games of the schedule. They methodically took two of three from the Brewers, Reds and Cubs, as well as beating the Marlins on Opening Day. Their plus-23 run differential is the best in the majors, as is their 57 runs scored. So far, the Cardinals' bench is shaping up as a possible strength. Matt Carpenter stepped in for the injured Lance Berkman (who should return Tuesday) and has driven in 10 runs in just 22 at-bats. Tyler Greene and Daniel Descalso provide flexibility in the infield. And so far, Yadier Molina (.353/.421/.735, three home runs) is showing his offensive growth in 2011 was for real.

The Reds have scored just 31 runs in 10 games. Outside of Joey Votto and Zack Cozart, the offense hasn't done much. I was worried about Scott Rolen's ability to produce heading into the season and Dusty Baker's cleanup man is off to a .121 start (4-for-33, no home runs, one walk). Baker has also given rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco just 12 at-bats, and Drew Stubbs is still having big issues making contact. Yes, Brandon Phillips missed some games, but there appear to be some red flags about the Reds' offense. The Reds can hardly afford to let the Cardinals put six games between them this early in the season, but that's what they're facing if St. Louis sweeps the series.

Three pitching matchups to watch

1. Monday: Roy Halladay (2-0, 0.60) vs. Tim Lincecum (0-1, 12.91, Phillies at Giants (10:15 p.m. ET)

Halladay has been terrific while Lincecum has been terrible and is coming off the shortest outing of his career on Wednesday, when he couldn't escape the third inning in Colorado. Lincecum is 4-1 with a 2.61 ERA in nine career starts against the Phillies -- teams that had better offenses than this Phillies team, of course. Wednesday's Cliff Lee-Matt Cain matchup ain't exactly chopped liver, either. Yes, I just used that phrase.

2. Wednesday: David Price (1-1, 4.82) vs. Brandon Morrow (0-0, 2.57), Rays at Blue Jays (7:07 p.m. ET)

Tampa Bay's brutal April schedule continues with a Monday morning Patriots Day affair in Boston, three in Toronto and then a bit of a reprieve with three at home against the Twins. Price is coming off a poor stint against the Red Sox in which he had issues locating his fastball and threw 83 pitches in three innings. Morrow has gone seven innings in each of first two starts, a good early sign for somebody looking to prove he can pitch 200 innings for the first time.

3. Saturday: Neftali Feliz (1-0, 2.25) vs. Justin Verlander (0-1, 2.25), Rangers at Tigers (1:05 ET)

Yes, please. The Tigers will prove to be a sterner test for Feliz than the Twins and Mariners. Feliz used his changeup successfully in seven shutout innings against the Mariners in his first start, less so on Sunday against the Twins. He's still a work in progress as a starter, and while nobody doubts his fastball, we'll see if his secondary stuff can catch up. Many still consider moving him to the rotation a bit of a risk, considering his strikeout rate as a closer in 2011 didn't exactly reflect domination (54 strikeouts in 62.1 innings). So far he has seven K's in 12 innings.

Player on the hot seat: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers

After hitting .306/.361/.510 with 26 home runs for the Cubs, the Brewers signed Ramirez to help replace Prince Fielder. So far he's hitting .114 without a big one.

Player to watch: Chad Billingsley, Dodgers

Billingsley has made two strong starts -- one run with a 15-1 strikeout-walk ratio -- raising hopes that the Dodgers will have a strong No. 2 starter behind Clayton Kershaw. Billingsley suffered through the worst season of his career in 2011 as he walked 84 batters, but made some mechanical adjustments this spring. "Success breeds confidence," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt told ESPNLA's Tony Jackson. "They go hand in hand. Right now, you're seeing him totally in control. He isn't right on target with every ball he throws, but we're not seeing that wildness. I like to call them well-thrown balls, and we are seeing a lot of well-thrown balls coming out of his hand. Those are quality pitches. He just needs to do that consistently."

Heat map of the week

Courtesy of Mark Simon and Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats and Information, we have to do a Matt Kemp heat map. Baseball's hottest hitter is just the fourth player since 1920 hitting .450 with at least six home runs and 16 RBIs through his team's first 10 games. The typical major leaguer hits a home run on every nine to 10 of the fly balls he hits, but Kemp's first nine fly balls have resulted in six home runs. He's hit the ball to the opposite field six times, resulting in five hits and four home runs. And in at-bats ending in curveballs, he's 5-for-5 with three singles, a double and a home run.

Kemp Heat MapESPN Stats & InformationFour of Matt Kemp's six home runs so far have gone to right field.
Denard SpanBrace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireElvis Andrus chases his man, but Denard Span says, Catch me if you can.
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