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Inbox: Who will the Tigers draft No. 1 overall?

MLB.com @JonathanMayo

Weather has not been baseball's friend for much of the month of April, with rain and snow (snow!) wiping out games at just about every level imaginable (high school baseball here in Pittsburgh is threatening to become a gym sport). But there have been some outstanding performances across the country by prospects, from the big leagues all the way down to this year's Draft class. This week's Inbox tries to reflect that.

We're less than seven weeks away from the 2018 Draft, and Jim Callis and I are working feverishly on a new Draft Top 100, which is coming soon. That will also mark the start of mock draft season (several of you have asked on Twitter). So I decided to kick off this week's Inbox with a question about the amateur set.

Weather has not been baseball's friend for much of the month of April, with rain and snow (snow!) wiping out games at just about every level imaginable (high school baseball here in Pittsburgh is threatening to become a gym sport). But there have been some outstanding performances across the country by prospects, from the big leagues all the way down to this year's Draft class. This week's Inbox tries to reflect that.

We're less than seven weeks away from the 2018 Draft, and Jim Callis and I are working feverishly on a new Draft Top 100, which is coming soon. That will also mark the start of mock draft season (several of you have asked on Twitter). So I decided to kick off this week's Inbox with a question about the amateur set.

Tweet from @jaymarkle_BP: Mize has seen most of the attention this spring, but there are also rumors that Kelenic is under serious consideration for the top spot. Is he an overdraft? What's your take?

There is no question Casey Mize has separated himself, but in no way have the Tigers decided who they will take with the No. 1 overall pick. It's always fun to see the rumors that make the rounds at this time. Check out the video above for my response to this one.

Tweet from @jmb9299: Hey Jonathan is Joe Dunand keeps this up can he be a top 100 prospect in the near future???? What���s your take? Also, can Edward Cabrera be a top 100 prospect as always appreciate your work thank you

Giving Marlins prospects some love is a relatively new thing, isn't it? And what I liked about this question the most is that while much of the attention has come because of the trades bringing in prospects, this is about two guys drafted and/or signed by the Marlins.

We can start with Dunand, No. 18 on the Marlins' Top 30. The club's second-round pick in 2017, Dunand has mostly been known to date as Alex Rodriguez's nephew, though now he can put Prospect Team of the Week on his resume. He certainly has started his first full season of pro ball well, with a .370/.407/.609 slash line across his first 46 at-bats, while getting pushed to the Class A Advanced Florida State League (not an easy place to hit). All of that is encouraging and yes, if he keeps that up, he'd have to eventually be considered for the Top 100. But the emphasis is on eventually. It's just 11 games and he's No. 18 on the team list, so he has a ways to go before he's Top 100-worthy, to answer the "near future" part of your question.

Cabrera, the No. 12 prospect, really intrigues me, and he was our choice for the Marlins' breakout prospect. He's really young (just turned 20), has a great pitcher's body, electric stuff and a good feel for pitching. Only two starts in, obviously, but he is tough to hit. If the command comes, I could see him as a Top 100-type pitching prospect eventually. I'm encouraged by his start in his move to full-season ball, though.

Tweet from @AlexBurkeC: Jack Flaherty or Mike Soroka long term?

Wow, this is a really tough call. It just so happens that I do the Top 30s for both the Cardinals and the Braves, so I know both of these talented right-handers quite well. My first gut reaction was to call this a dead heat, but let's try to take a closer look.

Video: Top Prospects: Jack Flaherty, RHP, Cardinals

Based on where we have them on the Top 100 (Jack Flaherty is No. 38; Mike Soroka is No. 31), there isn't a ton separating them. There isn't much differentiation grades-wise, either:

Flaherty: Fastball: 55 | Slider: 55 | Curveball: 50 | Changeup: 55 | Control: 60 | Overall: 55
Soroka: Fastball: 60 | Slider: 55 | Changeup: 55 | Control: 60 | Overall: 55

Before you say Flaherty should have the edge because he has a fourth pitch, it should be noted that Soroka adds and subtracts from his slider to give it more of a curve shape at times. Both command their stuff extremely well. Soroka has a very slight edge on the fastball, but Flaherty throws plenty of 60-grade fastballs. Flaherty has obviously pitched in the big leagues already; Soroka is knocking on the door and is two years younger. Flaherty has the higher strikeout rate; Soroka's walk rate has been lower. Yes, I'm stalling here. I'm leaning slightly in Soroka's direction.

Video: Top Prospects: Mike Soroka, RHP, Braves

I decided to send the question to a couple of folks in the scouting and player development world. It wasn't even close to exhaustive, but those I heard back almost entirely sided with the Braves righty. But I really think an argument could be made for either one.

Tweet from @fantasy_jester: Will we see Keller this year before September

Tweet from @DPosey39: Should I pick up Pirates pitcher Keller? How would you rate him

Finishing off with a bit of a "homer" question (I live in Pittsburgh, for those who don't know). And I love Mitch Keller. In fact, I drafted him in our first Pipeline Prospect Fantasy Draft and he's rewarded me with two very solid starts to begin the year in Double-A.

We have two different questions about him here, though I think both have to do with potential fantasy value. If you're asking if you should pick him up in a keeper league, the answer is an unequivocal yes. If you're talking about this year, which speaks to the question about whether he'll be up before September, I'd lean toward no.

Video: Top Prospects: Mitch Keller, RHP, Pirates

It's not that I don't think the 22-year-old can compete in the big leagues. His combination of stuff and feel for pitching is as good as just about any pitching prospect (I'd take him over either Flaherty or Soroka, for whatever that's worth). But the Pirates tend to be methodical in terms of pitching development and Keller has just eight Double-A starts (not counting the playoffs) to his credit. Maybe his Arizona Fall League stint helps a littlte, but there's also some pitching depth ahead of him in Triple-A, so I don't see a severe need to get Keller to Pittsburgh this year. I'm all in for 2019, though.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB Pipeline. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.

How Sparky Lyle launched the tradition of closer entrance music

MLB.com @JPosnanski

Marty Appel wanted a rock song first. He was a rock and roll guy. But here's the thing: He couldn't think of a good one. This was eight years before "Hells Bells" came out, and almost 20 years before "Enter Sandman." He played in his mind the rock and roll songs that were available to him -- none quite fit.

None of those songs quite captured the majestic entrance of Sparky Lyle.

Marty Appel wanted a rock song first. He was a rock and roll guy. But here's the thing: He couldn't think of a good one. This was eight years before "Hells Bells" came out, and almost 20 years before "Enter Sandman." He played in his mind the rock and roll songs that were available to him -- none quite fit.

None of those songs quite captured the majestic entrance of Sparky Lyle.

The Yankees had nothing going in 1972. The team was blah and had been blah, more or less, for a half-dozen years. They were playing in a dilapidated Yankee Stadium that would have to be renovated (forcing the team to share Shea Stadium with the Mets for two seasons). The team was boring and the fans were bored. That was the only Yankees season when they failed to draw even a million people. There was nothing happening in pinstripes.

Appel was a brand-new assistant publicist for the team, and he was dying for something to publicize; anything to get the fans going even a little bit. And he noticed: It was kind of fun when Sparky Lyle came into the game. Lyle had been a good but fairly nondescript relief pitcher for the Red Sox when Yankees general manager Lee McPhail decided to trade for him. McPhail sent first baseman Danny Cater to the Red Sox for Lyle, and immediately New York manager Ralph Houk announced, "Lyle's my lock-up man."

And he was. In the fifth game of the season, Houk brought in Lyle to get the final out when Milwaukee had come within a run. That was the first of 141 saves he recorded with the Yankees.

Video: Sparky Lyle joins Brian Kenny on MLB Now

In May, Houk brought Lyle into save situations nine times, and Lyle got the save every time. Lyle's emerging brilliance as a pitcher was fine, but what grabbed Appel was how theatrical his entrance was. A driver would pick him up from the bullpen in a pinstriped Datsun and drive him around to the Yankees' bullpen. Then he would get out of the car, toss away his warm-up jacket, spit tobacco juice, pound his glove and stomp his way to the mound.

This was a big entrance, Appel thought. Here was Sparky Lyle arriving -- by automobile no less -- to save the moment, to save the day, a gunslinger coming to clean up the town, a pro wrestler coming to clear out the ring, a cavalryman coming to take the hill, a rock and roll band taking the stage.

This, Appel decided, needed music.

* * *

It is widely known, and entirely without dispute, that the four greatest reliever entrance songs ever are (in no particular order):

• "Enter Sandman" for Mariano Rivera (the great Billy Wagner also used Enter Sandman as his entrance song but sadly will be remembered as second-best much the way Tom Hanks will always be the second-best movie version of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee after Jason Robards).

Video: SF@NYY: Metallica performs 'Enter Sandman' at Stadium

• "Hells Bells" for new Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman.

• "Welcome to the Jungle" for Eric Gagne. This is now the entrance song for the unhittable Craig Kimbrel, and it works. But hat tip to the original.

• "Wild Thing" for Ricky Vaughn from "Major League."

There have been others who tried and came close to this stratosphere -- Washington's Sean Doolittle chose the supreme "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which was inspired, but he kind of moved away from it, going instead with other Metallica songs. I'd be all for him bringing it back, especially because in his first nine appearances this year with the Nationals he is averaging two strikeouts per inning. (Jonathan Papelbon went with this song during his time with the Phillies, but I suspect most people in Philadelphia would prefer to forget that time).

Brian Wilson used to come in to House Of Pain's "Jump Around," which was perfect for him because Wilson was going for that whole San Francisco party atmosphere rather than the typical intimidating, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here," Dante Inferno closer vibe.

Dennis Eckersley rather famously used "Bad to the Bone" for his entrance music. It's a good closer song, for sure (Goose Gossage also used it for a time), but I never thought it fit Eck. He was and is a free-spirit, Bay Area dude who kicked his leg high and threw strikes and became a Hall of Famer pretty much by accident. He was a goofball, is what I'm saying (in the most endearing way). While I get that "Bad to the Bone" is an ironic song, I don't know -- it never quite fit the Eck for me.

John Smoltz was one of several relievers who have tried AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," which is a good but somewhat pedestrian choice. Do you really want to come in to AC/DC's second-best closer song? What fascinates me more is that for a time he entered to ABBA's "Dancing Queen," which is so ridiculous that it's inspired.

You can dance
You can jive
Having the time of your life
Ooh see that girl
Watch that scene
Diggin' the dancing queen

Try to get a hit off the pitcher with the guts to come in with that song.

* * *

Appel did not invent the closer entrance song -- organists had played music when relief pitchers came into games. The corniest of these: In 1963, the Twins purchased 28-year-old pitcher Bill Dailey, who had been kicking around baseball for a decade, mostly in the Minors. Dailey was a fatalist. He told friends this was his last shot and he was going to throw every pitch he could with everything he had until his arm blew out. Then he would work in construction.

Well, he got off to a kind of rough start, but the Twins stuck with him in the bullpen. And something kicked in. For two months, from May 6 to July 7 -- he pitched 48 innings and allowed three runs, for an 0.56 ERA. The league hit .171 against him. Dailey was a bonafide phenom and Twins manager Sam Mele just kept putting Dailey into games when the Twins needed him.

And when he entered the organist began playing -- it hurts even now to write this -- "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey."

(To finish the story: Dailey had a fantastic 1963 season with six wins, 21 saves and a 1.99 ERA. He even got an MVP vote. But he was right about blowing out his arm; he pitched just 15 innings the next year, couldn't get anybody out and got that job in construction).

Still, what Appel saw was an opportunity to make the closer music something more than just a quirky or funny aside. He approached Yankees organist Toby Wright and said that he wanted a special song for when Lyle came into games. The two did a little brainstorming. In those days, you probably know, there were no "closers." Instead, end-of-game relief pitchers were called "firemen"; you know, because they were supposed to put out fires. Appel and Wright tried to come up with a "fire" song.

They immediately thought of The Doors' "Light My Fire." But it wasn't right. Lyle wasn't trying to light fires. Wright threw out "My Old Flame" as a possibility and also the old Ink Spots song "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire." But they both realized: There aren't many songs about extinguishing fires. Think about fire and rock and roll. Try to set the night on fire … let me stand next to you fire … the flames grow higher and it burns, burns, burns … cause when we kiss, ooh, fire … goodness, gracious great balls of fire.

Appel and Wright decided go with something less literal.

"We thought, 'You know what might work?'" Appel says now. "'Pomp and Circumstance.' You know, the graduation song."

It made no sense at all. Why the graduation song for a reliever? But they tried it in an empty Yankee Stadium -- Wright played it on the organ -- and, you know what? It sounded good.

(Legend has it that it was first played on April 19, 1972, which is 46 years ago today, but Appel remembers it being a little later in the season.)

So they tried it the next time that Lyle came into the game. Appel spied the bullpen with binoculars. As soon as he realized that Lyle was coming into the game, he picked up the phone connected to Wright. "It's Sparky," he said.

And Wright began playing the "Pomp and Circumstance" march as Lyle made his way to the mound. A sensation was born.

* * *

The game-changing part of "Pomp and Circumstance," I think, was the Appel decision to go away from something literal and just choosing music that sounds good. Above, I list the undeniable four best entry songs/closer combinations, but I did not put them in order. That was wrong -- there is a very clear No. 1 choice and that is "Hells Bells" and Hoffman. It is the best closer song. This is not up for debate.

Video: Hoffman on his famous entrance music, 'Hells Bells'

"Hells Bells" obviously was not intended to signify the wrath of the relief pitcher about to enter the game. It's a tribute to Bon Scott, the original lead singer of AC/DC, who died of acute alcohol poisoning (or, perhaps, from a heroin overdose; it is disputed). The bell that rings at the start of the song rings for Scott, and the lyrics are meant to evoke Scott's wild and short life (and perhaps the hell he was raising in the afterlife).

But the song's meaning is not the point. "Hells Bells" sounds perfect. When that first bell chimed, and everyone started going crazy because they knew Hoffman was coming into the game, oh man, goosebumps. A young Padres salesman named Chip Bowers came up with the song for Hoffman a quarter-century after Lyle first entered to "Pomp and Circumstance." He was feeding off the inspiration of Appel. Hoffman first entered to "Hells Bells" when he was attempting to tie Rod Beck's then-record of 41 consecutive saves. From the first bell, it was clear that this was magic.

Trevor Hoffman saved 93 percent of his opportunities when "Hells Bells" played.

If "Hells Bells" had been around in '72, Appel probably would have chosen it.

Video: Hoffman comments on his 500th save uniform

"I really did want an edgy song," Appel said. "I was part of the younger generation, I had a rock and roll mindset. We looked really hard for an appropriate rock and roll song, but we just couldn't find one."

Well, that's OK because it's unlikely the Yankees would have let Appel play "Hells Bells" or anything edgy anyway. Baseball was square in '72, and the Yankees were the squarest. "Pomp and Circumstance" was about as avant-garde as they were likely to be.

But it worked anyway -- because of the sound. Fans caught on so quickly that it even shocked Appel. After only a couple of times, the few fans began anticipating the moment; the first note of "Pomp and Circumstance" would play and the small crowd started going crazy. And the longer it went on, the crazier they went.

"One thing that was different back then," Appel said, "is that they didn't always go to a commercial break when a reliever came in. They weren't sold out end-to-end like they are now. So a lot of times when Sparky came in, the people watching on television would hear 'Pomp and Circumstance' playing. You had people at home experiencing it. So when they came to the park, they automatically knew the drill."

It was a hit. Soon after, the crosstown Mets started playing a goofy little Irish jig when Tug McGraw came into games (and then McGraw would thrill fans by stomping on the foul line as he came in because he didn't believe in superstitions).

A wonderful baseball character named Al Hrabosky -- the Mad Hungarian -- invented an entire reliever act. He would turn his back to the plate, work himself to a frenzy, throw the ball hard into his glove and then quickly turn and glare down the batter. It was a pretty glorious routine, and as a prelude the team would play "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2," which was perfect for him.

And it kept building and building until "Hells Bells" and "Enter Sandman" and relief pitcher music perfection.

* * *

Every closer has a song now. Kenley Jansen has been struggling lately -- weird to see -- especially since he still comes in to 2Pac's "California Love." Fans have grown used to games being over when that song begins. The Mets' Jeurys Familia comes into the upbeat "Danza Kuduro," which sort of suggests, "Hey, Familia's in the game, get the party started." Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman now comes in to that threatening opening to Rage Against the Machine's "Wake Up."

Like I said, everyone has one now.

All of which leads to the final part of the Lyle story: He despised it. All of it. He didn't like the song, didn't like the expectation that came with it, didn't like any part of "Pomp and Circumstance." He pitched great. In '72, he finished third in the American League MVP vote, and, oddly, seventh in the AL Cy Young vote (voters have never known what to do with relief pitchers). Then in '73, he was an All-Star for the first time. He was beloved in the Bronx. "Pomp and Circumstance" was every Yankee fan's favorite song.

But he apparently pleaded with management to stop playing that song. Then early in '74, Lyle began the year struggling. And he asked again: Stop playing that song. On April 24, 1974, a Royals-Yankees game, they stopped.

"I asked the team management two years ago not to play the music," Lyle told reporters after the game. "They did it all next year and started again this year. … I just thought it was stupid and I finally got them to cut it out. What if I got the hell hit out of me? What would they play, 'The Old Rugged Cross?'"

It was strange -- Lyle was a free spirit, a practical joker, he did not seem the type to get freaked out by the song.

"He said, 'I'm already put in enough pressure situations, I don't need this huge weight on my shoulders,'" Appel says. "I was surprised, really. Sparky was flamboyant. He didn't worry about pressure."

As far as Appel remembers, they never did play "Pomp and Circumstance" for Lyle after that. But here's the funny part: For many years, at least once or twice a season, a reporter would write, "And Sparky Lyle came out of the bullpen to the sounds of "Pomp and Circumstance." The song had become so much a part of his persona that people heard it even when it wasn't there.

Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.

New York Yankees

Reds dismiss Price, Riggleman named interim

Darwin, Kelly join coaching staff as team focuses on basics after poor start
MLB.com @m_sheldon

Off to a disappointing 3-15 start, the Reds on Thursday decided change was needed to try to save the season. Therefore, Bryan Price is out as Cincinnati's manager, along with pitching coach Mack Jenkins.

Bench coach Jim Riggleman will be the Reds' interim manager, with Double-A Pensacola pitching coach Danny Darwin joining the coaching staff. Pat Kelly, who was manager of Triple-A Louisville, will be the bench coach. Both Darwin and Kelly were named on an interim basis.

Off to a disappointing 3-15 start, the Reds on Thursday decided change was needed to try to save the season. Therefore, Bryan Price is out as Cincinnati's manager, along with pitching coach Mack Jenkins.

Bench coach Jim Riggleman will be the Reds' interim manager, with Double-A Pensacola pitching coach Danny Darwin joining the coaching staff. Pat Kelly, who was manager of Triple-A Louisville, will be the bench coach. Both Darwin and Kelly were named on an interim basis.

The dismissals of Price and Jenkins follow an offseason in which the club had expections of taking a step away from rebuilding and toward contending. Cincinnati dropped 10 of its past 11 games, culminating in its worst start since a 2-16 record in the 1931 season. There have been shortcomings in all facets of the game -- pitching, hitting and defense. The first goal is to address the basics, general manager Dick Williams said.

"I think we're going to hit the ground running tomorrow with Jim in place and a couple new members of the staff, and we're very focused on creating a sense of urgency for these guys to perform now," Williams said. "We talk about rebuilding and there are things going on away from the field and in the farm system and investments in the franchise that are part of that rebuilding process. But when guys show up for work every day, they need to have a sense of urgency to win that day. They need to take care of the details on the field.

"They need to play hard. They need to play the game smart. They need to play it right. That, we can control. And we need to get this team playing that way because we know they have the ability to do it. So that is the short-term immediate focus."

Video: Williams on replacing Price, Riggleman on taking over

Price, 55, joined the Reds as pitching coach before the 2010 season and was promoted to manager in '14 to replace Dusty Baker. Price had a 279-387 (.419) record, with much of that tenure spent while the club has been in a rebuilding process since the second half of the '15 season.

Along with former GM and current special advisor to the CEO Walt Jocketty, Williams informed Price and Jenkins of the change after the team arrived in St. Louis from Milwaukee after Wednesday's 2-0 loss.

"These are really good people, good baseball guys," Williams said. "Both handled it like professionals, the way you'd expect. They were good."

The club will conduct a search for a permanent manager later in the season.

"This is an organizational disappointment and we certainly -- nobody here feels that Bryan or Mack is a scapegoat for what happened," Williams said. "It's just that's the first step in the process of making this right and trying our best to fix things."

Video: Rosenthal on Reds' future after firing Bryan Price

Catcher Tucker Barnhart believed blame for the bad start is shared by everybody. For a team loaded with young players, what can they do now to bring the necessary change?

"Everybody in the clubhouse needs to get better and do more," Barnhart said. "Even though we're off to a bad start, there needs to be a feel that we need to prepare and we need to expect to win every single day. It's no longer good enough to just get to the field and get ready to play. I think we need to get to the field, get ready to play and get ready to win. That's the first step in continued development."

The front office did not make any major offseason additions to address a rotation that recorded the fewest innings pitched in the Major Leagues and the highest ERA in the National League. Instead, the promising young pitchers already in the organization who received big league exposure for the first time last season were counted upon -- along with returning injured veterans like Homer Bailey and Anthony DeSclafani.

While Bailey has performed well (3.42 ERA) despite an 0-3 record, DeSclafani has been out since suffering an oblique strain in Spring Training. Young pitchers such as Sal Romano (0-2, 5.75) and Tyler Mahle (1-3, 5.14) have yet to put together consistent outings. Luis Castillo (1-2, 6.75), widely discussed as a potential emerging ace after a breakout late last season, has not developed as expected.

Although the pitching staff has performed well in recent games, it is last in the NL with a 5.42 ERA and has allowed a league-worst 28 homers. There have been some bright spots. Raisel Iglesias (1.23 ERA, two saves) and left-hander Amir Garrett (9 1/3 innings, seven hits, one walk, 11 Ks, no runs) have been stellar out of the bullpen.

No one expected the massive offensive struggles from a lineup that produced last season and came into 2018 largely intact. But the Reds are hitting .220 as a team, having scored the second-fewest runs (54) in the NL. After hitting 219 home runs last season (sixth in the NL), they have hit the second-fewest home runs (11) in the league so far.

Injuries haven't helped, as third baseman Eugenio Suarez and outfielder Scott Schebler are on the disabled list, and Jesse Winker also missed some time. But key hitters such as Joey Votto, Adam Duvall and Billy Hamilton also are off to slow starts.

Cincinnati, which has been shut out four times already this season, is currently mired in a 19-inning scoreless streak. The Reds also lost by a 2-0 score to the Brewers on Tuesday.

Defensively, the team has been prone to lapses such as missed cutoff throws, poor routes and lack of execution. Even during the previous lean years, strong defense had been a constant.

Add it all up and Cincinnati was ranked last in the Majors with a minus-46 run differential.

Video: Reds replace Price, name Riggleman interim manager

"We felt like we had to act now and we couldn't afford to wait," Williams said. "I know it seems early in the year to some people and certainly it is early in the regular season. But we've been thinking about the 2018 season since the day the 2017 season ended and we had all offseason together to prepare. We were out in Arizona for six weeks [of Spring Training].

"We feel like we're well into the 2018 season and we've had a lot of chances to observe this group together and to see them get off to the kind of start that we had hoped, and it's not there."

Barnhart said he believes there is enough time to turn around the season and that the players won't give up on 2018.

"We've played 18 games. It's been a long 18 games, obviously. No one would tell you differently," Barnhart said. "But those are 18 games out of 162; we've got a long way to go."

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast.

Cincinnati Reds

Rolling Red Sox emulating last year's champs

Boston's offense has MLB's highest slugging, lowest strikeout rate
MLB.com @mike_petriello

Last year's Red Sox lineup was one of baseball's weakest in the power department, finishing last in the American League in home runs and next to last in slugging percentage. You knew that, because it was talked about endlessly all offseason, particularly regarding their months-long pursuit of slugger J.D. Martinez.

Despite the lack of power, it was always clear this lineup was going to be better. Way back in February, we noted that Boston projected to be baseball's third-best offense, and it wasn't just about Martinez. It was because it was all but a guarantee that Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts would improve from down years after playing through hand injuries, and because new manager Alex Cora's insistence that he wanted the lineup to be more aggressive seemed like a step in the right direction.

Last year's Red Sox lineup was one of baseball's weakest in the power department, finishing last in the American League in home runs and next to last in slugging percentage. You knew that, because it was talked about endlessly all offseason, particularly regarding their months-long pursuit of slugger J.D. Martinez.

Despite the lack of power, it was always clear this lineup was going to be better. Way back in February, we noted that Boston projected to be baseball's third-best offense, and it wasn't just about Martinez. It was because it was all but a guarantee that Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts would improve from down years after playing through hand injuries, and because new manager Alex Cora's insistence that he wanted the lineup to be more aggressive seemed like a step in the right direction.

Well, the Red Sox have been better, but at least early on, we may have undersold them by suggesting they could be the "third-best" offense. They're the best, by a lot, and a big part of that is because they're pulling off a trick that last year's World Series champions in Houston managed to do.

Boston has baseball's highest slugging percentage, at .485. It has baseball's lowest strikeout percentage, at 16.6 percent. The Red Sox are hitting the ball a lot, and destroying the balls they connect with. It's how you end up with baseball's highest runs-per-game, at 6.4. It's the perfect combination.

That's impressive on a team basis, but also look at what's happened on an individual basis. Ten batters have taken at least 30 plate appearances for Boston in both 2017 and '18. Every single one has had at least a small decrease in strikeout rate.

Now, let's be clear about one thing: While contact is good, simply making contact does not by itself make you a good offense. Last year, two of the five best contact teams were the punchless Royals and Giants, who were below-average offenses. When the 2015 Royals famously rode a contact-heavy approach to a title, the next two best contact teams were the A's and the Braves, who lost 94 and 95 games, respectively. It's good, but there has to be more.

Aside from the fact that it's still early in the season, how exactly have the Red Sox pulled this off? Let's check out three possibilities.

New faces
Because of the extended courtship of Martinez, and because he out-slugged everyone in baseball last season -- even Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton -- it's tempting to simply point to the fact that there's a new elite bat in the lineup. Martinez is fantastic, and he's hitting .313/.343/.578, while Boston is no longer giving time to Chris Young (.235/.322/.387 last year) or Pablo Sandoval (.212/.269/.354), so there's some truth to that. Martinez is wonderful. He'd help any lineup.

That said, Martinez has hit only 70 times so far. Pretty much everyone else is the same, other than the fact last year's rookie sensation at third base, Rafael Devers, is around from day one this year. They've helped, but it's not just about new talent.

Video: BOS@LAA: Martinez notches four hits, RBI in 9-0 win

Better health
Since much of the improvement is simply about existing guys performing better, this is a natural place to look, and there's some pretty obvious stories here.

We knew that Bogaerts' second-half slide was in some way related to being hit by a pitch on July 6, as he hit .308/.363/.455 before that and just .232/.321/.340 after, and he admitted as much during Spring Training.

"To a point, I do regret [playing through pain], but it's over with," Bogaerts told MLB.com in February. "We were in the heat of things, we were pushing for the playoffs. You don't want to be the guy on the bench not being able to help your team to win. You learn, and I definitely did."

Bogaerts was off to a smoking start (.368/.400/.711) this season before injuring his ankle.

We knew, also, that Betts playing through a thumb injury hampered his performance last season. He went from .280/.356/.490 through the end of June, and just .248/.332/.427 after that. 

"It's been going on for a couple months, but I was able to just kind of play through it," Betts said when he was forced to come out of a game against the Rays in September due to a thumb contusion. So far in 2018, he's been baseball's best hitter.

Finally, Hanley Ramirez, who struggled through most of 2017, underwent left shoulder surgery in October. After hitting .242/.320/.429 last year, he's slugging .322/.369/.542 so far.

Video: BAL@BOS: Ramirez cranks a two-run homer to left field

A new approach
This is the one that got the most press, simply due to Cora talking about being more aggressive. There's something to this, though this is hardly the whole story.

Last year, Boston hitters went after 57 percent of pitches in the zone or on the edges. That was 30th in baseball. This year, that number is up to 63 percent. That's the most in baseball. As you'd imagine, that's the largest jump in baseball.

So yes, there's something to be said for "swinging at strikes," which the Red Sox now are -- especially because they have a .318 average and a .550 slugging on those pitches, each the best in baseball. It's not just about swinging either, it's about swinging earlier. For the past decade, Boston was always in the bottom three in baseball in swinging at in-zone strikes early in the count (0-0, 0-1, 1-0). This year, the Red Sox have done that the second most. As a result, they've found themselves in the fourth-fewest two-strike counts in the game. It's hard to strike out when you never see two strikes.

But there's more to it than just that. Betts, for example, has done more than just be aggressive, he's changed the way he's hitting entirely. After spending the past three years hitting grounders between 38 percent and 41 percent of the time, that's dropped all the way to 26 percent -- while his pull percentage has jumped from his career mark of 41 percent to 57 percent.

You can see it in the outcomes, too. Only two teams have a higher hard-hit percentage than Boston's 42.1 percent. Only four teams have a lower ground-ball percentage than the Red Sox's 41.7 percent. No one, as we said, strikes out less. This is essentially what the perfect offense is supposed to look like.

Now, Betts won't hit like this all year, most likely. Bogaerts can't slug .711 all season. Then again, Jackie Bradley Jr. hasn't done much yet (.228/.313/.351). Dustin Pedroia hasn't stepped on the field yet. Only two teams in baseball have gotten less offense from their catchers. As some fall back, others may step up.

We saw the Astros doing this last year, paired with a very good pitching staff. The Red Sox are doing it this year, paired with a very good pitching staff. You don't get off to a 15-2 start by accident.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

Boston Red Sox, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez

Freeman cleared after MRI on left wrist

MLB.com @mlbbowman

ATLANTA -- Freddie Freeman received the result he was seeking and immediately began lobbying to be in the Braves' lineup for Thursday night's series opener against the Mets at SunTrust Park.

A MRI exam performed on Thursday revealed Freeman did not incur any structural damage when his left wrist was hit by a Hoby Milner pitch during the eighth inning of Wednesday night's win over the Phillies. The Braves first baseman missed seven weeks when he was hit around the same spot with a pitch last year.

ATLANTA -- Freddie Freeman received the result he was seeking and immediately began lobbying to be in the Braves' lineup for Thursday night's series opener against the Mets at SunTrust Park.

A MRI exam performed on Thursday revealed Freeman did not incur any structural damage when his left wrist was hit by a Hoby Milner pitch during the eighth inning of Wednesday night's win over the Phillies. The Braves first baseman missed seven weeks when he was hit around the same spot with a pitch last year.

Freeman was initially worried as he walked from the batter's box toward the clubhouse, but his concern began to evaporate once X-rays taken on Wednesday night did not reveal a fracture. The MRI exam was scheduled to provide a clearer picture once the swelling reduced.

The Braves have not yet decided whether Freeman will be in Thursday's lineup.

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001. Listen to his podcast.

Atlanta Braves

Still going: Check out Ichiro's career timeline

While Ichiro Suzuki's return to Seattle was undeniably one of the coolest moments of the offseason, his fit on the Mariners' roster was never entirely crystal clear. With fellow outfielder Ben Gamel returning from the disabled list this week, Ichiro's playing time is likely to decrease, and his spot on the roster may be at risk. We know about Ichiro's desire to play until he's 50, but it is only going to become more difficult for the veteran to find a spot on a big league roster.

With that in mind, there is never a wrong time to take a moment to appreciate the absurdly amazing career that Ichiro has put together, regardless of how much longer it continues. 

AL East: Checking in on the new guys

MLB.com @IanMBrowne

In April, everything is magnified. The numbers that are on the scoreboard and in box scores represent a small sample size, but they are still the numbers fans fixate on, because there is nothing else to go off yet. This is particularly true for the key newcomers for each team.

Here is a look at how it is going for five newbies in the American League East.

In April, everything is magnified. The numbers that are on the scoreboard and in box scores represent a small sample size, but they are still the numbers fans fixate on, because there is nothing else to go off yet. This is particularly true for the key newcomers for each team.

Here is a look at how it is going for five newbies in the American League East.

Blue Jays
Who's the new guy?
Right fielder Randal Grichuk

How's it going so far? Grichuk had just three hits in his first 42 at-bats before he homered and hit a key double against the Royals in Game 1 of Tuesday's doubleheader. Grichuk entered play on Thursday with 19 strikeouts over 61 plate appearances, and he has yet to live up to the hype as Jose Bautista's replacement in right field.

Video: KC@TOR: Grichuk rips a 114.1-mph three-run homer

What's on deck? Grichuk has a pair a 20-plus homer seasons on his resume, so there's a reasonable expectation that he should be able to turn things around. It needs to happen soon, because Teoscar Hernandez will push him for playing time in right.

Number to know: The offensive production hasn't been there, but Grichuk was credited with two defensive runs saved in his first 14 starts in right field this season.

Orioles
Who's the new guy?
Starting pitcher Andrew Cashner

How's it going so far? After a rocky debut, Cashner has had three consecutive quality starts. Cashner credits fellow newcomer Alex Cobb for helping him with his breaking ball. After giving up three homers in his first start, Cashner has allowed a total of two in his past three starts. To this point, he looks to be the solid No. 2 starter the Orioles thought they were getting.

Video: BAL@DET: Cashner fans Goodrum for his fifth K

What's on deck? Cashner faces a tough test on Sunday in the Indians, who have won the AL Central title the past two years. Though Cleveland got off to a slow start at the plate, manager Terry Francona's team has plenty of firepower in the lineup.

Number to know: While he's not a big power pitcher, Cashner has 21 strikeouts in his first 24 innings.

Rays
Who's the new guy?
Right-hander Yonny Chirinos

How's it going so far? Chirinos became the first Rays pitcher to begin his career without allowing a run in the first two starts. Thus far, he has only started games that were designated as "bullpen days" under the Rays' new pitching plan.

Video: TEX@TB: Chirinos fans Guzman to end the frame

What's on deck? Chirinos' performance to date has fueled speculation that the Rays will slide him into the rotation in the near future.

Number to know: 14 1/3. That's the number of scoreless innings Chirinos logged to start the season.

Red Sox
Who's the new guy?
Designated hitter/outfielder J.D. Martinez

How's it going so far? The slugger is off to a modest start, but that shouldn't be a surprise. Martinez's career homer total in March/April is by far his lowest of any month. He has made some contributions, most notably a grand slam against the Yankees on April 11. Martinez has come through in many of the RBI opportunities he's had, and he has fit in well with his teammates. There's no reason to think the Red Sox didn't get the right guy when they signed Martinez.

Video: BOS@LAA: Martinez notches four hits, RBI in 9-0 win

What's on deck? More home runs, and soon. It should only be a matter of time before Martinez starts clearing the fences on a regular basis. Away from the chilly conditions of Boston for the next week -- the Red Sox play at Anaheim, Oakland and Toronto (where the roof is likely to be closed) -- Martinez has a good chance to get hot.

Number to know: .992. That is Martinez's OPS in his first nine home games for the Red Sox, which is a sign of how quickly he has gained comfort at Fenway. As Martinez promised, he has not shifted away from his all-fields approach.

Yankees
Who's the new guy?
Outfielder Giancarlo Stanton

How's it going so far? Not exactly how Stanton or the Yankees would have anticipated after his terrific debut, slugging two homers on Opening Day at Toronto. Stanton has heard frequent boos at Yankee Stadium, though he said that he understands why he is being singled out by his new fan base, given the expectations that accompanied his arrival.

Video: Must C Classic: Stanton hits two HRs in Yanks debut

What's on deck? Manager Aaron Boone has batted Stanton third in each of the Yankees' 16 games to this point, and said on Tuesday that he is considering lowering the slugger in the lineup -- "but not too far." Boone believes that Stanton's track record is too solid for this to continue forever, and when he does play to his career norms, opponents will pay for these early struggles.

Number to know: .086. Stanton's batting average through eight games at Yankee Stadium, where he is 3-for-35 with 20 strikeouts. Stanton is hitting .323 (10-for-31) in eight road games.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.

New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, Andrew Cashner, Yonny Chirinos, Randal Grichuk, J.D. Martinez, Giancarlo Stanton

Highly ranked prospect O'Neill joins Cardinals

MLB.com @JoeTrezz

CHICAGO -- Tyler O'Neill's scorching-hot start lifted him all the way to the Majors.

The Cardinals promoted O'Neill, one of the hottest hitters in the Minor Leagues and the Cards' No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline, prior to Thursday's makeup game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

CHICAGO -- Tyler O'Neill's scorching-hot start lifted him all the way to the Majors.

The Cardinals promoted O'Neill, one of the hottest hitters in the Minor Leagues and the Cards' No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline, prior to Thursday's makeup game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

"Everything I worked for my whole life came down to that one moment," O'Neill said of getting the news. "I'm going to try to make the most of every chance I get and leave nothing out on the field."

The club originally planned to promote O'Neill for Wednesday's game, before it became the second postponement in three days due to inclement weather at Wrigley Field. That gave St. Louis another day to officially recall the slugger from Triple-A Memphis and make a corresponding move, which was the optioning of right-hander John Brebbia to Memphis.

5 cool things about O'Neill

O'Neill could provide insurance for center fielder Tommy Pham, who suffered a minor right groin injury in Tuesday night's 5-3 win.

Pham underwent a variety of tests on his right groin on Wednesday, and he was held out of Thursday's lineup as a precaution.

Video: Tyler O'Neill talks about coming from the farm

The 22-year-old O'Neill brings immense raw power, sneaky speed and an ability to play all three outfield positions. If Pham is fine, O'Neill will give the Cardinals a fifth bench player for the first time this season. The team had been carrying eight relievers, but saw no need for an additional arm during the upcoming schedule. The Cards have three off-days in the next 13 days.

Manager Mike Matheny has rarely used his eighth reliever in the early going, while routinely running out of bench players late in game. Matheny couldn't replace Pham in the ninth inning on Tuesday after Pham's groin tightened in the cold weather, because the skipper had already exhausted his reserve options. Twice over the season's first two weeks, Matheny used starting pitcher Luke Weaver as a pinch-runner.

O'Neill was summoned to Chicago on Wednesday, as Pham underwent testing on his groin. Neither were in the starting lineup for Thursday's series finale.

Pham isn't expected to miss much time, meaning most of O'Neill's playing time would likely come as a pinch-hitter or late-game replacement.

"On all the off-days we have, we always talk about having the extra pitchers, and I love the arms," Matheny said. "We were thinking about this before, but as soon as Tommy went down, I had the trainers starting making calls. Let's have another position player here."

In O'Neill, St. Louis plucked the most locked-in hitter from a Memphis team sizzling at the plate in the early going. The right-handed-hitting O'Neill is tied for the Minor League lead in home runs with six, and he was hitting .388/.385/.837 with 18 RBIs across 12 games.

"For me, it was a couple of different things that all clicked at the same time," O'Neill said.

Acquired from Seattle last summer for left-hander Marco Gonzales, O'Neill entered his first Spring Training with the organization as a candidate to make the club. He hit .246/.321/.499 with 31 home runs in his first season at Triple-A in 2017, including 12 home runs in 37 games for Memphis. Club officials expressed disappointment after oblique and hamstring injuries limited O'Neill to just 12 at bats in Grapefruit League play this spring.

"I'm not really looking back to spring. That's over and done with. I went to Memphis with a positive mindset and did my thing," said O'Neill. "Everything was really clicking for me. Now we're going to see if I can do it here."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Tyler O'Neill

PR's 1995 Dream Team has lasting legacy

Alomar, Delgado, Gonzalez, Williams, Baerga came together for Caribbean Series
MLB.com @jonmorosi

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Tuesday night at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the generational nature of Puerto Rican baseball was on vivid display.

In a stirring pregame ceremony to honor heroes of the Hurricane Maria recovery efforts, the island's baseball icons -- Roberto Alomar, Bernie Williams, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Baerga and Juan Gonzalez among them -- walked alongside fellow Puerto Ricans amid appreciative applause.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Tuesday night at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the generational nature of Puerto Rican baseball was on vivid display.

In a stirring pregame ceremony to honor heroes of the Hurricane Maria recovery efforts, the island's baseball icons -- Roberto Alomar, Bernie Williams, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Baerga and Juan Gonzalez among them -- walked alongside fellow Puerto Ricans amid appreciative applause.

When those luminaries are in the company of one another, especially at the venerable Bithorn, the conversation invariably returns to one of the proudest periods in the lineage of Puerto Rican baseball: the 1995 Caribbean Series, and the Dream Team assembled for it.

:: Puerto Rico Series coverage ::

Three historical factors created a team for the ages: a collection of Puerto Rican stars dotted Major League rosters in the early-to-mid 1990s; an increased percentage of Major Leaguers played in the 1994-95 winter season because of the players' strike; and Puerto Rico was determined to field its best team with the '95 Caribbean Series held at Hiram Bithorn.

The result? Once the Senadores de San Juan won the Puerto Rican Winter League title and added reinforcements before the Caribbean Series -- a practice still allowed under tournament rules -- their everyday lineup looked like this: Delgado behind the plate; an infield of Alomar, Baerga, Carmelo Martinez and Rey Sanchez; Williams, Gonzalez and Ruben Sierra in the outfield; and Edgar Martinez at designated hitter.

"We just wanted to play together," Alomar said before Tuesday's Puerto Rico Series opener between the Indians and Twins. "At that time, we didn't have baseball going on in the States. We wanted to do something special for the fans here."

Video: CLE@MIN: Robbie and Sandy Alomar Jr. join the booth

These days, MLB-affiliated players on winter ball rosters typically are those only beginning their careers. The Dream Team was different. By the winter of 1994-95, Alomar had made five consecutive All-Star appearances and won four Gold Glove Awards. Gonzalez would win two American League MVP Awards over the next four Major League seasons. Martinez hit the double that won the 1995 AL Division Series against the Yankees and is credited with saving baseball in Seattle.

"At that time, I was a rookie," Delgado said. "I was the youngest guy on that team. For me, it was like being a kid in a candy store. I'd walk into the clubhouse and see Juan Gonzalez, Ruben Sierra, Carlos Baerga, Roberto Alomar, Carmelo Martinez, Rey Sanchez. ... It was a dream come true."

Amid extraordinarily high expectations, the Senadores delivered. They finished the tournament 6-0, including victories over the Dominican Republic in games started by Pedro Martinez and Jose Rijo.

"Everybody decided, 'There's going to be the Caribbean World Series in Puerto Rico, let's play together,' but we never thought it was going to be so huge," Baerga said this week. "This ballpark was packed. I remember it to this day. We were facing Pedro Martinez. We were facing Jose Rijo, too. It was unbelievable. I'm never going to forget it."

Video: CLE@MIN: Williams, Guzman perform the anthem of PR

Baerga confirmed one detail of the story, as first reported by ESPN: The veteran Major Leaguers on the team did not accept paychecks from the Senadores.

"We just played for the fun of it, and to be ready for the big league season," Baerga said. "When you play winter ball, it's a different atmosphere. I work for the Indians now. I say, 'Bring these guys to play winter ball, because they're going to feel like they're playing in the playoffs. They're going to feel like they're playing in the World Series.'"

In sports, we love to compare generations. Well, Puerto Rico has its own version of the Jordan-vs.-LeBron debate: Who would win in a seven-game series between the '95 Dream Team and the 2017 World Baseball Classic team, which featured Yadier Molina, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa and went undefeated until the gold medal game?

When asked to cast his vote before Tuesday's game, two-time All-Star outfielder Alex Rios said, "I'm going vintage. I'm going with the '95 team. We have a lot of talent in Puerto Rico now. In the long run, those players on the WBC team might be even better. But I've got to go vintage."

Delgado, who was on Puerto Rico's coaching staff in the 2017 Classic, agreed that the Dream Team would win, adding, "The 2017 team might be more exciting. You see the up-and-coming prospects. Lindor, Correa -- those guys are really, really good, and they're only three years into the league. The '95 team was a different story. It's hard to compare. I don't want to be unfair. But I think in a seven-game series, it's hard to beat that '95 team."

Video: Carlos Delgado discusses Puerto Rico Series

Even Red Sox manager Alex Cora -- who built the 2017 roster as general manager of the national team -- declined to put his team of young stars ahead of the legends.

"That's a tough one," Cora said recently, before listing the Dream Team's lineup by memory in a matter of seconds. "You had all those guys. That's pretty impressive. The pitching was OK, but that [everyday] team was amazing.

"Last year was great, but that '95 team in the Caribbean Series ... that was awesome."

Alomar sees one legacy of the 1995 Caribbean Series in the Majors now: Today's emerging Puerto Rican stars are old enough -- barely -- to have been inspired by players on the '95 team, at least later in their careers.

Video: Must C Classic: Lindor homers in native Puerto Rico

Alomar said before Tuesday's game that he's "honored" by Lindor's choice to wear the number (12) he once donned for the Indians. Later that night, Lindor struck an indelible home run before an exuberant crowd that recalled all those roars heard at Hiram Bithorn more than two decades ago.

"Twenty-three years later, we still remember," Delgado said. "They made a promotional picture, just of the nine hitters. It's very well-liked and well-preserved. You can walk into a little bar somewhere in the mountains, in Utuado, and there's that picture. It's great. People recognize that team. We greatly appreciate that. We feel fortunate we were part of that team, in that tournament. Once again, it's baseball and sports bringing together our country."

Jon Paul Morosi is a reporter for MLB.com and MLB Network.

Look back at Jose Bautista's third-base chops

They say time moves in one direction. They say you can never go home again. They say that once you are moved from third base to the outfield and become a perennial All-Star home run-basher, you can never play third again. (It's a less popular phrase.) 

Turns out they were wrong, as the Braves inked Jose Bautista to a Minor League deal on Wednesday. Only caveat: They're moving him back to third base. 

Price's removal exemplifies modern managing

Skippers now expected to do no harm, as front offices have the real power
MLB.com @williamfleitch

The Cincinnati Reds were in the playoffs more recently than you probably realized. The last time the Reds made the postseason was 2013 -- more recently than, say, the Brewers or the Phillies -- but it went by so quickly that hardly anyone noticed. The story of the Reds' 2013 postseason was their status as supporting players, as extras, in the great unveiling of the Pirates' Wild Card PNC Park Terrordome, a building that roared so loud and rowdy that Johnny Cueto is still a bit shook nearly five years later.

The Cincinnati Reds were in the playoffs more recently than you probably realized. The last time the Reds made the postseason was 2013 -- more recently than, say, the Brewers or the Phillies -- but it went by so quickly that hardly anyone noticed. The story of the Reds' 2013 postseason was their status as supporting players, as extras, in the great unveiling of the Pirates' Wild Card PNC Park Terrordome, a building that roared so loud and rowdy that Johnny Cueto is still a bit shook nearly five years later.

Video: NL WC: Pirates fans cause Cueto to drop the ball

That loss was the Reds' sixth in a row, and that mattered because three days after that game, Cincinnati fired Dusty Baker, who had begun to be booed at Great American Ball Park. Walt Jocketty, then the Reds' general manager, admitted that the collapse down the stretch was what did Baker in.

"Just the way we played lately was a factor," Jocketty said at the time. "But I think the way the season ended was kind of the final decision. The last six games certainly played a big part in this."

Baker had taken over a team that hadn't put together a winning season in nearly a decade and took them to the playoffs three times in four seasons. This did not stop the Reds from firing him with a season left on his contract.

On Thursday morning, the Reds fired Bryan Price, the man who took over for Baker, after four-plus seasons with decidedly less fanfare than Baker's teams provided. Price, who had established himself as one of the most respected pitching coaches in the game before becoming manager, guided Cincinnati to 76 wins in his first season at the helm and never won more than 68 after that, and this year, the Reds were off to a particularly rough 3-15 start. All told, Price was sort of fortunate to survive this long; the Yankees and Nationals won a combined 188 games last year and still canned their managers in the offseason. The average baseball fan probably hasn't thought of Price once since his notorious 2015 outburst at a then-Cincinnati Enquirer reporter. Everything else about Price's managerial career since then has been epilogue. Those days of Dusty must seem awfully pleasant Cincinnati fans now, considering what has happened since.

It is difficult to make much of a case for Price's tenure in Cincinnati. Sure, few managers could have survived the pitching the Reds had to deal with while he was in charge; they have the worst ERA in the National League this year, just like they did last year, and they were second worst in 2016 and third worst in '15. But, well, Price was the pitching coach in Cincinnati before he was the manager, so surely he has to answer somewhat for the Reds' staff somehow getting progressively worse every year. And the guy did have Joey Votto the entire time he was in charge, and Votto, unlike Cincinnati's pitching staff, got better every year of Price's tenure. You can't win with just one superstar. But Votto is a nice place to start. He has instead been putting together one brilliant season after another without anyone noticing, because his team has not been a contender.

Video: CIN@MIL: Price discusses Romano, 2-0 loss to Brewers

But then again: There's only so much a manager can do anymore. When you look around baseball, and particularly the sorts of managers the new breed of management is hiring, it becomes more apparent that a manager like Price -- a fiery "leader" who made his bones as a specialist in one specific aspect of the game -- is not the direction baseball is going.

As usual, the Yankees are the barometer here: They preferred a telegenic, likable guy like Aaron Boone, who can handle the public-relations aspect of the job over the occasionally cantankerous, relentlessly organized, certain-of-his-own-power Joe Girardi. Managers are becoming much more like their real-world namesakes: They manage, but they're not in charge.

Front offices spend millions on the analytics and research, and they invest in brainpower. They last thing they need is some salty grizzled Baseball Guy thinking he knows better than they do and, in addition, causing huge dustups in the media and being 30 years older than almost all his players. The job of a manager isn't necessarily to lead anymore; it's to do no harm. Front offices are the ones in charge, and a manager is becoming more and more a position for those who can interpret and execute their fundamental principles. Managers are now … middle-managers.

Like middle-managers in the real world too, they are convenient vessels for taking blame when the upper management makes its own mistakes. Middle-managers make terrific fall guys. It is absolutely not Price's fault that the Reds haven't developed any young pitching, or that their farm system has been mostly middling and unable to convert its talent players into MLB stars. It's not Price's fault that Cincinnati gave Homer Bailey a six-year contract and he's been hurt or ineffective for most of it. It's not Price's fault that even Votto is off to a terrible start in 2018, with only one extra-base hit in 73 plate appearance. But he is the guy who has to take the hit when all that happens. Particularly when Price has already exhausted all the goodwill he had when he took over for Baker in the first place.

In this way, it's best to think of managers not as Leaders Of Men, but as a renewing resource of narrative convenience. When a manager is hired, he has a reservoir of faith from the fan base simply by virtue of not being the supposed idiot who ruined everything before him. (The exception that proves the rule is Gabe Kapler, or, more accurately, the city of Philadelphia.) That, by nature of the game itself being so difficult, slowly erodes away as the years go along, before the fans start to see the manager not as the solution to the team's problems, but the cause of them. By the time the goodwill is entirely spent, fans start missing the guy they fired to get this one in the first place. So he gets fired, and we start the cycle over again.

Video: Williams on replacing Price, Riggleman on taking over

Upper management appears to have realized this, decades after Sparky Anderson ("A baseball manager is a necessary evil") and Casey Stengel ("Managing is getting paid for home runs that someone else hits."), and is beginning to try to make the position as efficient as it tries to make everything else. Bryan Price's initial usefulness was that he was not Dusty Baker. The next manager's usefulness is that he is not Bryan Price. And on and on it goes.

Of the past 12 managers to win the World Series, only four are still employed by their current teams … the most recent four. One (Tony LaRussa) retired. Every other one was fired. If those guys couldn't make it, Bryan Price, with his .419 winning percentage, never stood a chance.

Many Reds fans are cheering Price's dismissal, and it has been a while since they've had the opportunity to cheer. Whether or not that's directly Price's fault doesn't matter; that his firing would inspire cheers is probably the best reason to do it. Price might not have been a great manager, but that's not why he was fired. He was fired because at the end of every manager's tenure with a team, he is worth more as a sacrificial lamb than as manager. That is part of the job description. It is increasingly becoming the most important part.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.

Cincinnati Reds

Trea Turner shoots up new speed leaderboard

Updated Sprint Speed leaders have Nats' speedy shortstop at No. 3 in MLB
MLB.com @mike_petriello

When we first introduced "Sprint Speed" last year, it was the first time directly measured data on the top speed of runners was available, and most of the results reflected exactly what your eyes told you. Byron Buxton and Billy Hamilton were at the top, around 30 feet per second at their fastest -- well ahead of the league average of 27 feet per second. The bottom of the list was comprised almost entirely of catchers and designated hitters, getting only to around 23 feet per second. No shock there, either.

The main surprise was that Trea Turner wasn't at the top with Buxton and Hamilton, since he's considered to have elite speed. He was extremely good, of course; at 29.3 feet per second, he ranked 11th of more than 460 qualified players and in the 97th percentile. That's fantastic, and yet it still wasn't as satisfying as many would have liked.

When we first introduced "Sprint Speed" last year, it was the first time directly measured data on the top speed of runners was available, and most of the results reflected exactly what your eyes told you. Byron Buxton and Billy Hamilton were at the top, around 30 feet per second at their fastest -- well ahead of the league average of 27 feet per second. The bottom of the list was comprised almost entirely of catchers and designated hitters, getting only to around 23 feet per second. No shock there, either.

The main surprise was that Trea Turner wasn't at the top with Buxton and Hamilton, since he's considered to have elite speed. He was extremely good, of course; at 29.3 feet per second, he ranked 11th of more than 460 qualified players and in the 97th percentile. That's fantastic, and yet it still wasn't as satisfying as many would have liked.

As we roll out 2018's leaderboards, you'll notice that Buxton is again at the top. Chicago's Adam Engel is second, and that makes sense, too. In the Minors, he had four seasons with at least 30 steals, topping out at 65 in 2015. But you'll also notice that Turner has now jumped into the top three, tied with Hamilton. That's a lot closer to where everyone expected he'd be, based on his reputation.

2018 Sprint Speed leaders
30.5 feet per second -- Buxton, Twins
30.0 feet per second -- Engel, White Sox
29.9 feet per second -- Turner, Nationals
29.9 feet per second -- Hamilton, Reds
29.8 feet per second -- Dee Gordon, Mariners
29.8 feet per second -- Trevor Story, Rockies
29.7 feet per second -- Derek Fisher, Astros
29.4 feet per second -- Scott Kingery, Phillies
29.3 feet per second -- Tim Anderson, White Sox
29.3 feet per second -- Mallex Smith, Rays
Major League average -- 27 feet per second

The initial reaction is going to be that Turner "got faster," but we'd actually caution you against that. We improved the Sprint Speed metric, based on what we learned in its first year -- in order to make it more useful, more quickly.

Video: NYM@WSH: Turner bunt singles, swipes second

Measuring speed isn't hard, but measuring speed when it matters is actually quite difficult, because how fast a guy jogs on a lazy fly ball doesn't really tell you much. Last season, in order to get to plays where a runner was very likely to have been trying hard, we looked simply at non-homer plays where a player ran at least two bases (excluding being on second for an extra-base hit, since those are easy to jog home on). Sprint Speed looks at feet per second in a player's fastest one-second window, and those plays are very likely to have a runner "trying" for at least one second.

We took the top 50 percent of those "qualified runs," and we averaged them to get our seasonal average Sprint Speed. It was relatively simple, and it worked well for an initial rollout.

This season, we wanted to include more types of plays, both to get more useful information about players, and to allow more players to qualify for the leaderboards more quickly. So for 2018, a player's seasonal Sprint Speed now includes home-to-first times, drawn only from balls defined as "topped" or "weakly hit," because those are the types of plays likely to require serious effort from the runner. For those, based on the story the data told, we're taking the average of the top 70 percent. (There's also a minor regression built in, explained in more detail here.)

The upshot of all this is that on our two types of qualified runs (two-base runs and home-to-first on weakly hit or grounded balls), we're using approximately two-thirds of them to include in the seasonal average. The second effect is that because this change goes back to previous seasons, numbers since 2015 will change slightly. For an overwhelming majority of players -- 94 percent of 2017's qualifiers -- the change is minor, on the order of fractions of a foot per second.

Video: WSH@MIL: Turner burns up basepaths vs. Brewers

For a small handful, the change is a foot per second or more. That includes Turner, whose 2017 Sprint Speed number jumped from a very good 29.3 feet per second to a truly elite 30.3 feet per second -- good enough to move him into the top 5 of last year's rankings.

Why? Because looking specifically at speed on home-to-first plays (again, just the weakly hit and pounded into the ground balls), Turner was Buxton-esque last year.

2017 Sprint Speed leaders, home-to-first (on topped/weak only)
31.2 feet per second -- Buxton, Twins
31.2 feet per second -- Turner, Nationals
31.0 feet per second -- Engel, White Sox
30.8 feet per second -- Delino DeShields, Rangers
30.8 feet per second -- Magneuris Sierra, Cardinals
30.6 feet per second -- Hamilton, Reds
30.6 feet per second -- Smith, Rays

While Turner was outstanding on two-base runs last year, with that 29.2 feet per second average, he was elite trying to beat out infield hits (31.2 feet per second), and second behind Buxton in 2016, as well. Including that separate skill helps his speed overall, and it's another step on the path to understanding that there are a few different ways to be fast.

You can see that illustrated if we compare Turner to a relatively average runner like Eric Hosmer. The point in the image below isn't to show that Turner is faster than Hosmer, because we know that he is. It's to show that regardless of whether Hosmer is running two or more bases (orange), or to first on weakly hit or topped balls (blue), he basically is what he is. There's not a lot of distinction in the way he runs.

For Turner, however, he's shown himself to be much faster trying to get down the line to first (blue) than he is when he's running multiple bases (orange), and that might be because he knows he's got elite speed, so he tries harder to get to it than an average runner does. We're learning that different players run their best at different points.

It's a small but important step toward getting where we want to go, which is to be able to express all of the different parts of a runner's game, including burst and explosiveness. 

Elsewhere on the top of the leaderboard, you'll see names you expect -- Gordon, Hamilton, Starling Marte and others -- and the bottom again is comprised entirely of catchers, first basemen and designated hitters. (You can find Shohei Ohtani at 27.9 feet per second, above the league average, and the best of any designated hitter, which is how he's classified.)

If there's a surprising name on the top 10 list, it might actually be Kingery, the rookie slugging sensation for the Phillies. Then again, Kingery did steal 30 bases in the Minors in 2016, and he was given a 70 "run" grade (on the 20-80 scouting scale) by FanGraphs, so perhaps that's not so unexpected. Already impressing in Philadelphia, Kingery may show he possesses yet another plus tool.

Video: MIA@PHI: Kingery gets first career stolen base in 3rd

You might be similarly surprised to see Story, currently appearing fifth on the list, ahead of even Gordon. Story also gets a bit of a boost from the new method, adding 0.5 feet per second in 2017, and he's probably faster than you think. He had five double-digit steal seasons in the Minors, and going back to 2016, he's hit .342 on grounders. That's tied with Buxton, and it's top five in the Majors. Story's wheels are for real.

It's still early, of course. It's early enough that Ryan Flaherty is leading the National League in batting average, and that Shin-Soo Choo has hit a ball further than Aaron Judge has. There's so much time for things to change. But in the same way that you don't need to see very many fastballs from Noah Syndergaard to know that he throws hard, you don't need to see all that many runs to know if a player is fast. Buxton has elite speed. So does Turner. But you already knew that.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

Washington Nationals, Trea Turner