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Sale takes prospect Groome under his wing

MLB.com @IanMBrowne

MANSHANTUCKET, Conn. -- Red Sox ace Chris Sale's leadership has extended this offseason to one of the most important arms in the organization.

Left-hander Jay Groome is ranked the No. 1 Red Sox prospect by MLB Pipeline, and Sale wants to make sure the ultratalented 19-year-old gets the most out of his considerable ability.

MANSHANTUCKET, Conn. -- Red Sox ace Chris Sale's leadership has extended this offseason to one of the most important arms in the organization.

Left-hander Jay Groome is ranked the No. 1 Red Sox prospect by MLB Pipeline, and Sale wants to make sure the ultratalented 19-year-old gets the most out of his considerable ability.

The unique partnership between the ace of the Major League staff and the top arm in the farm system started when Sale heard from mental skills coach Laz Gutierrez that Groome was relocating to Fort Myers, Fla., for the offseason.

Sale lives in Southwest Florida, not far from Boston's Spring Training base.

"I figured hey, you know, young guy in our organization, all the talent in the world," Sale said at Red Sox Winter Weekend on Saturday. "I mean, the kid's been throwing 98 [mph] since he was 14. He's got all the tools. I'm not reconstructing this guy. I'm just working out with him and picking his brain a little bit, just trying to maximize his potential."

Sale's intense offseason workouts are legendary. For Groome to tag along at this stage of his development can only be a good thing.

Video: Sale discusses preparing for the 2018 season

"It's been fun," said Sale. "He's done a really good job. It's fun to see. He's young and this is his first go at it. I'm just trying to get him prepared and show him, 'Hey, this is what it takes to get through a big league season.' He's got all the tools you can possibly ask for. That guy is an animal. Just trying to give him some ins and outs and try to get him here sooner rather than later."

The Red Sox took Groome with the 12th overall pick in the 2016 Draft. That is one selection earlier than when Sale was taken by the White Sox in the '10 Draft.

Sale thinks Groome's raw stuff is better than his own.

"Obviously we have similarities, being pitchers and being left-handed," Sale said. "But he's got me by a pretty good amount. Like I said, he's young and it's great just being able to show him on this platform what it takes and the work that goes in. You can't just roll out of bed and expect to go out and be effective. Just being able to talk to him, tell him what to expect and what to be ready for. He's been getting after it. He's a good kid."

The work Sale is doing with Groome isn't sporadic. It is regular. And right-hander Rick Porcello also has been a participant.

"We work out Monday nights," said Sale. "And then me, Rick and Jay, we do Pilates on Wednesdays. And then me and Jay work out Thursday and Friday. So about four times a week."

Groome's 2017 season was limited to 14 starts due to a left lat injury that occurred in his first start. The injury kept him off the mound for more two months. There were struggles once he got back out there, and Groome finished the year 3-9 with a 5.69 ERA while making four starts for Class A Short-Season Lowell and 10 starts for Class A Greenville.

Video: Top Prospects: Jay Groome, LHP, Red Sox

But such early lumps aren't uncommon for a pitcher who was drafted out of high school.

"Well, he's in a unique situation," said Sale. "I was in college and I had teammates in college and coaches in college pushing me in the right direction."

What Sale has conveyed to Groome this offseason is that he is a fully available resource to tap into.

"Sometimes you learn more from your teammates and your peers than you do from coaches," Sale said. "I've done this for a while. So I'd like to think I know a little bit of something about it and can share it with him. And, you know, the sooner he can realize what he can be, the better off we're going to be in the long run. You know, I look forward to the day that me and him are pitching in the same rotation."

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

 

Boston Red Sox, Chris Sale

Applying Rock Hall standards to Baseball Hall

What if Cooperstown inductees were decided in a similar manner?
MLB.com @castrovince

The Baseball Writers' Association of America will announce the 2018 Hall of Fame class at 6 p.m. ET on Wednesday on MLB Network, and this is shaping up to be an inordinately large class.

Chipper Jones is a no-doubt selection, Jim Thome is likely to join him as a first-ballot entrant, and Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman need only a modest bump from their 2017 vote totals to get in this time. There also appears to be a swell of support for Edgar Martinez in his penultimate year on the ballot. And of course, Jack Morris and Alan Trammell are already going in via the vote of the Modern Era Committee.

The Baseball Writers' Association of America will announce the 2018 Hall of Fame class at 6 p.m. ET on Wednesday on MLB Network, and this is shaping up to be an inordinately large class.

Chipper Jones is a no-doubt selection, Jim Thome is likely to join him as a first-ballot entrant, and Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman need only a modest bump from their 2017 vote totals to get in this time. There also appears to be a swell of support for Edgar Martinez in his penultimate year on the ballot. And of course, Jack Morris and Alan Trammell are already going in via the vote of the Modern Era Committee.

Some people get antsy about large Hall classes. There are those who fear the Hall is becoming too watered down, despite ample evidence that Baseball Hall standards have, in fact, gotten stricter in recent decades.

Tweet from @JamesSmyth621: Updated @DCameronFG's Hall of Famers by birth decade chart from a few years ago. The HOF standards have been getting stricter. pic.twitter.com/5qjtD3VU1a

So if you're still concerned about the growing size and scope of the Baseball Hall, let this native Clevelander assure you: It could be a heck of a lot worse.

Here in my hometown, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame operates in a manner that, if applied to the national pastime, would give the purists heart palpitations.

Just for fun, here are some examples of how the Baseball Hall would be drastically different if it followed the patterns of the Rock Hall.

It would pay homage to one-hit wonders
The Rock Hall has honored acts that demonstrated little, if any, staying power. For example, if you can name a Percy Sledge song other than "When a Man Loves a Woman," you are very clearly related to Sledge (or you just think that "he can do no wrong").

Aside from "Runaway," Del Shannon's signature contribution to rock and roll was being referenced by Tom Petty in "Runnin' Down a Dream" (for singing "Runaway," of course).

Imagine inducting Mark Fidrych for going 19-9 in 1976. Or "Super" Joe Charboneau for his unrepeatable rookie year in '80 (his plaque could depict him opening a beer bottle with his eye socket). Bob Hamelin could get in not just for his out-of-nowhere '94, but for being the subject of the best/worst baseball card in history. Scooter Gennett could get in for a single game -- that outrageous evening of June 6, 2017. And in the spirit of brilliant-but-brief band outputs, we could even celebrate teams that achieved unexpected greatness, only to immediately disband (I'm looking at you, 1997 Florida Marlins).

Actually, I suppose you could argue Bill Mazeroski is already sort of a one-hit wonder, at least by Baseball Hall standards.

Video: Must C Classic: Mazeroski hits walk-off, wins title

It would induct people who didn't technically play baseball
From the beginning, the process of inducting people into the Rock Hall met the unavoidable issue presented by the phrase "rock and roll," which can be as narrow or as wide a label as you'd like it to be. Clearly, the Rock Hall went on the wide side, inducing soul stars like Sam Cooke, pop icons like the Supremes (Motown already had its own museum), blues acts like B.B. King and country crossovers like the Everly Brothers.

Nobody paid much mind to any of that, but things began to get really complicated when 1970s and '80s pop, disco and rap acts like the Bee Gees, Madonna and Run D.M.C. got in. Now, we're at a point where nobody really knows what the Rock Hall is or seeks to represent, other than, simply, "musicians we really like."

Imagine baseball going with a similarly loose definition of itself.

You could technically get Michael Jordan in there for his short Minor League stint, because, after all, he was, without question, one of the greatest athletes to play baseball. You could induct great cricketers like Sir Don Bradman and Imran Khan, because cricket is in the same genus of bat-and-ball sports. Jennie Finch and other superior softball players would also have a place in the Hall.

It wouldn't be so USA-centric
Let's be clear that the Rock Hall is definitely guilty of leaning more toward American acts, as the snubbed likes of Kate Bush, Thin Lizzy or The Smiths can attest. But unlike the Baseball Hall, it doesn't ignore activity that takes place off American (and yes, Toronto and Montreal) soil. Ichiro has had a clear Hall of Fame career since coming to the Major Leagues, but it would be really interesting to see what the vote totals would look like for Hideki Matsui if his 332 home runs in Nippon Professional Baseball were taken into account in his Hall case.

Then again, it is explicitly named the National Baseball Hall of Fame, so Cooperstown is off the hook here.

Video: Hot Stove: Evaluating Matsui's candidacy for HOF

It would celebrate sidemen
As a Bruce Springsteen apologist, I understand his decision not to exploit his sway and demand the E Street Band go into the Rock Hall with him in 1999. But it's still disheartening to know Clarence Clemons did not live to see the band's 2014 induction.

Anyway, at least there was an avenue for entry for the E Streeters. No such luck this year for Lou Whitaker, whose absence at a time when Trammell is entering the Hall just feels odd. Omar Vizquel might have a complicated Hall case on his own, but his double-play partnership with Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar for three years in Cleveland was one of the best we've ever seen, so that would earn him extra credit. Furthermore, David Ortiz is not allowed in without Manny Ramirez, Edgar would already be in alongside Ken Griffey Jr., etc.

(By the way, this is an even more fun conversation in the NBA, where the rule would be that any player inducted from the 1990s would have to go in with his NBA Jam partner, where applicable.)

It would salute scouts
The Rock Hall honors people like Ralph Bass, who played a major role in bringing black music into the mainstream, and John Hammond, who launched Bob Dylan, Springsteen and many others.

The Baseball Hall would do right to give some of the great talent evaluators their long-overdue Cooperstown call. The likes of George Genovese, Moose Stubing, Mike Arbuckle, Mel Didier and a host of similarly effective evaluators deserve ceremony rather than anonymity.

It would honor equipment makers
Pretty simple. If we apply the principles that put Leo Fender, sire of the Stratocaster, in the Rock Hall, then Bud Hillerich, creator of the Louisville Slugger, goes in the Baseball Hall. Wood you believe that?

It would feature more Starr-gazing
You can be inducted into the Rock Hall multiple times, which is kind of cool. Eric Clapton is in the Rock Hall three times -- with the Yardbirds, with Cream and as a solo act -- and I would say each of those is justified.

But Ringo Starr -- in addition to being in the Hall of Fame as a Beatle, of course -- is also in the Hall of Fame as … Ringo Starr. As a matter of fact, Starr is the only person in a Hall of Fame band who has been inducted via the Rock Hall's Award for Musical Excellence, which seeks to honor "musicians, producers and others who have spent their careers out of the spotlight working with major artists on various parts of their recording and live careers." (It's not terribly dissimilar from the Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.)

At the time of Starr's 2015 induction, it had been 41 years since he had put out a record that reached certified gold status, but this was the Hall's way of sneaking him in so that each member of the Fab Four also had his post-Beatles portfolio saluted.

(Contrary to what your signature song says, perhaps it does come easy for you, Ringo.)

The most obvious means by which this could apply to baseball is with Hall of Fame players who go on to have managerial careers. There's not a great deal of success to speak of in this area. Frank Robinson has the historical significance of being the game's first black manager, which ought to count for something, and Paul Molitor took the Twins to the American League Wild Card Game last year, which is a start.

It would give fans their say
Whereas the Baseball Hall's foremost guardians are the 400-some writers who have maintained membership in the BBWAA for at least 10 years, the Rock Hall involves more than 900 historians, music-industry members and artists, including every living inductee. And since 2012, the Rock Hall has also given a modicum of power to the fans, with the top five vote-getters in a public poll forming one ballot weighted the same as the rest of the submitted ballots.

This year, Bon Jovi ran away with the fan vote, demonstrating the drawbacks of democracy. But look, a Hall of Fame is about "fame," right? And fame is defined as "the condition of being known or talked about by many people." So why shouldn't the public have some say in the matter? If nothing else, it would be interesting to see how the fan vote on controversial figures like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens compares to the baseball writer vote.

But hopefully Bon Jovi wouldn't get any Baseball Hall votes here just because the band did the 2009 postseason ad.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcasts and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

 

Brewers reportedly make offer to Darvish

MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers reportedly have jumped into the fray for top free-agent starter Yu Darvish, who made sure his nearly two million Twitter followers knew all about it.

With a single emoji -- the thinking face -- Darvish shared via tweet a Japanese-language news report that the Brewers had submitted a formal offer for the 31-year-old right-hander. The original report cited "multiple insider sources," according to a translation, and said Milwaukee was one of six teams engaged.

MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers reportedly have jumped into the fray for top free-agent starter Yu Darvish, who made sure his nearly two million Twitter followers knew all about it.

With a single emoji -- the thinking face -- Darvish shared via tweet a Japanese-language news report that the Brewers had submitted a formal offer for the 31-year-old right-hander. The original report cited "multiple insider sources," according to a translation, and said Milwaukee was one of six teams engaged.

Hot Stove Tracker

MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal subsequently confirmed with his own source that the Brewers had submitted an offer, the terms of which are not yet known.

The Brewers did not comment on the reports. General manager David Stearns, whose policy is to never comment on in-progress trade talks or free-agent negotiations, did not respond Sunday night when made aware of Darvish's tweet.

Tweet from @faridyu: 🤔 https://t.co/OG6biIPZMI

It was not the first time Darvish has made playful use of Twitter to tease fans about his hunt for a new team, but it was the first time the Brewers were involved. On paper, the sides are a fit, even though Milwaukee is the smallest market of Darvish's potential suitors. Stearns made clear from the start of the offseason that starting pitching was his top priority, and that the Brewers have payroll flexibility even after adding Jhoulys Chacin on a two-year deal and Yovani Gallardo on an incentive-rich one-year flier via free agency.

The Brewers also have some need, with top starter Jimmy Nelson at the very beginning of a throwing program following surgery in September for a right shoulder injury. At the moment, Chase Anderson, Zach Davies and Chacin appear good bets for the Opening Day rotation, with left-hander Brent Suter and right-handers Gallardo, Junior Guerra, Brandon Woodruff and Aaron Wilkerson among the other candidates while Nelson finishes his comeback.

Tweet from @Ken_Rosenthal: Source confirms: #Brewers have made offer to Darvish. First reported: Yahoo Japan.

Darvish has a 3.42 ERA in 131 Major League starts over five seasons, and is coming off a 3.86 ERA in 31 regular-season starts for the Rangers and Dodgers in 2017. After solid starts in each of the first two rounds of the postseason for the Dodgers, Darvish struggled through two abbreviated starts in the World Series and was charged with nine runs (eight earned) on nine hits and two walks in 3 1/3 innings.

Among the theories to emerge in the wake of those outings was that Darvish may have been tipping pitches, as reported by MLB Network insider Tom Verducci.

Video: Free-agent aces Darvish, Arrieta still available

The Brewers have also been linked to the other top starting pitchers on this year's free-agent market, including Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn. All remained unsigned as of Sunday night.

Darvish's tweet came about two hours after ESPN's Jerry Crasnick reported "some buzz" about the Brewers nearing a trade, but there was no indication from the club on Sunday night that anything was imminent on that front.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.

 

Milwaukee Brewers, Yu Darvish

'Patient' Lewis wise beyond his years

Twins' top prospect slashed .279/.381/.407 in Minors as 18-year-old
MLB.com @RhettBollinger

MINNEAPOLIS -- As a general rule, the Twins haven't brought in Draft picks from the previous year to TwinsFest because it can be a lot for a young player to handle, but they didn't hesitate to invite last year's No. 1 overall pick, Royce Lewis, to this weekend's annual event.

Lewis, the club's No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, handles himself like a veteran and fit right in with his older teammates while embracing his opportunity to meet Twins fans at Target Field. But when asked at what level he'd like to open the season, he gave a reminder of just how young he still is.

MINNEAPOLIS -- As a general rule, the Twins haven't brought in Draft picks from the previous year to TwinsFest because it can be a lot for a young player to handle, but they didn't hesitate to invite last year's No. 1 overall pick, Royce Lewis, to this weekend's annual event.

Lewis, the club's No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, handles himself like a veteran and fit right in with his older teammates while embracing his opportunity to meet Twins fans at Target Field. But when asked at what level he'd like to open the season, he gave a reminder of just how young he still is.

"I'm patient," Lewis said with a smile. "I'm still only 18 and don't turn 19 until June."

Video: Royce Lewis reflects on first professional season

Lewis, though, impressively reached Class A Cedar Rapids in his first professional season and more than held his own. Lewis excelled in the Gulf Coast League, hitting .271/.390/.414 with 15 stolen bases in 36 games before a late promotion to Cedar Rapids, where he hit .296/.363/.394 in 18 games despite being three years younger than his average competition.

Lewis figures to open 2018 at Cedar Rapids but could find himself at Class A Advanced Fort Myers by the end of the season. His goal this offseason was to put on weight and he's done just that, adding 13 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame, as he now weighs 200 pounds and would like to get to 205.

Video: Top Prospects: Royce Lewis, SS, Twins

"I've been doing a lot of workouts and putting down any food I can, whether it's Chick-fil-A or a great homecooked meal by the family," Lewis said.

As for goals during the season, Lewis said he simply wants to get better at all facets of the game, but defense is one specific area where he'd like to improve. The Twins believe Lewis can stick at shortstop long term, but it's up to him to prove it, as it's still a new position for him because he was a third baseman until moving to shortstop as a senior in high school.

"They told me to play at short until I prove I can't," Lewis said. "I know I can always transition to center field and play at a high level."

Video: Royce Lewis' dad knew his son was big-league material

Center field remains the fallback option for Lewis, who has the elite speed to play the position. But it's clear he sees himself as a shortstop and models himself after a certain future Hall of Famer, both on and off the field.

"I'd love to be like Derek Jeter one day -- except I just want to be Royce Lewis," Lewis said. "I'm trying to change the game and set the standard someday."

Rhett Bollinger has covered the Twins for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger and Facebook.

 

Minnesota Twins

Yordano left indelible mark on Kansas City

Late righty helped revive city, Royals in pennant-winning seasons
MLB.com @JPosnanski

As the years go on, and memory grows faint, it will be difficult to explain just what sort of impact Yordano Ventura made on baseball ... and an entire region of America. His back-of-the-baseball-card numbers -- 38-31 record, 3.89 ERA, 470 strikeouts, 211 walks, no All-Star appearances or American League Cy Young Award votes or seasons with even 200 innings pitched -- will not hint at it.

As we move farther and farther away from the Kansas City Royals' remarkable back-to-back pennants in 2014 and '15, those will lose much of their power. Already, everyone has moved on. In the intervening years, the Cubs won their first World Series in more than a century. The Astros won their first World Series ever. Time moves on. The Royals had their moment. And their moment is gone.

As the years go on, and memory grows faint, it will be difficult to explain just what sort of impact Yordano Ventura made on baseball ... and an entire region of America. His back-of-the-baseball-card numbers -- 38-31 record, 3.89 ERA, 470 strikeouts, 211 walks, no All-Star appearances or American League Cy Young Award votes or seasons with even 200 innings pitched -- will not hint at it.

As we move farther and farther away from the Kansas City Royals' remarkable back-to-back pennants in 2014 and '15, those will lose much of their power. Already, everyone has moved on. In the intervening years, the Cubs won their first World Series in more than a century. The Astros won their first World Series ever. Time moves on. The Royals had their moment. And their moment is gone.

But for a big chunk of the American heartland, in the cities and towns and farms across Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska that endure the scorch of summer and the chill of winter, Ventura meant much more than the numbers and baseball achievements, and a couple of dusty pennants he helped win. Ventura was a symbol of what was possible.

Royals mark anniversary of Ventura's death

The Royals signed Ventura for $28,000. He was 5-foot-6 and weighed 135 pounds … not coincidentally, the Royals at the time were also roughly 5-foot-6 and weighed 135 pounds. Kansas City signed him in 2007, the same year that it lost 93 games -- a quantum leap forward considering the club had lost 100 games each of the previous three seasons.

Hopeless? Yeah, it was hopeless in Kansas City.

Royals scout Rene Francisco liked the way that Ventura's arm worked. This is scout-speak for that difficult-to-find pitching rhythm that some gifted pitchers simply have. The ball seemed to jump out of Ventura's hand. Francisco recalls Ventura breaking 90 mph with the fastball even then, though others doubt that he was throwing that hard. Either way, he was a Royals kind of player -- too small, too scrawny, too many things had to go right for other teams to have much interest.

They signed him for peanuts and, strangely for the Royals, things started going right. Ventura grew. He gained weight. And his fastball took off. After just a couple of years, he had the club's attention.

"We've got a kid down in the Minors," I remember Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo telling me in 2011, "and he's just 20, so we don't know what he can be yet. But he's throwing 100 mph. He looks like a young Pedro Martinez."

It was easy to be skeptical throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The Royals had a lot of future Pedro Martinezes ... and George Bretts ... and Greg Madduxes … and Frank Thomases. Somehow, they never turned out quite that way. But Ventura kept getting better and better. Before the 2014 season, he was one of the better pitching prospects in the game.

Ventura showed up for Spring Training and he changed the complexion of the Kansas City Royals. They called him "Ace" after the Ace Ventura movies, but the name fit better than they expected because Ventura absolutely saw himself as the ace. He was bold and cocky and, as the club's coaches and management said time and again, utterly fearless. His calculation seemed simple: "I have a 100-mph fastball. Who the heck is going to hit me?"

The analysts, the computer simulations, the projection systems predicted another lost season for the Royals. But they won anyway. Ventura was very good in 2014. He won 14 games with a 123 ERA+, had a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.3 to 1) and he allowed only 14 homers all season. But as mentioned, numbers do not explain him or what that Royals team meant to so many. They made Kansas City and towns 100 miles or more in every direction fall in love with baseball again.

Video: AL WC: Royals advance to ALDS on Perez's walk-off hit

That team was young and energetic and unflappable. They didn't mind people doubting them; they loved it. They put the ball in play, were aggressive on the bases, played otherworldly defense and closed the door in the late innings. And, they never really stopped believing they would win. When they were down, 7-3, in the 2014 AL Wild Card Game against the A's -- a game in which Ventura surprisingly had been brought in for relief and gave up a three-run homer -- Royals manager Ned Yost said, "I wasn't worried. I knew they'd find a way. I know people say that kind of thing all the time, but I'm serious. That group, I just knew they'd find a way."

They found a way. They made it to the World Series and all the way to Game 7, when a superhuman pitcher named Madison Bumgarner beat them almost singlehandedly. Then came 2015, and the Royals from Opening Day knew they were destined to win it all.

Video: Royals beat Mets in five games to win World Series

The team had leaders in every direction -- Mike Moustakas led with unfailing optimism, Alex Gordon led silently, Eric Hosmer led by just having more fun than anyone else, Lorenzo Cain led by running down fly balls no one else could reach.

Ventura was the fury. Away from the field, he was the nicest kid in the world, but on the mound, he was dangerous, and he wanted to be sure everyone knew that. "Fear and arrogance," Crash Davis said was the secret in the movie "Bull Durham." Ventura walked that tightrope. Some days he was unhittable. Other days, he got beat up. He was involved in bench-clearing incidents in three consecutive starts in 2015. He never doubted.

A championship team, especially a surprising one like the Royals, needs to have everything in balance. For two years they did, and Ventura was a big part of that. He made some mistakes, sure, and he had some great moments, sure, but more than that, he left his imprint. When he died a year ago, the Royals and baseball surely lost a good young pitcher, a 25-year-old young man with a 102-mph fastball and a bright future.

Video: CLE@KC: Royals' organization pays tribute to Ventura

But more than that, Kansas City lost a part of itself. Yordano Ventura's Royals took the region on the ride of a lifetime. Suddenly, everyone wore Royals hats. Suddenly, there were blue Royals flags waving on every street. Suddenly, the talk of just about every office building was, "Did you see what Yordano did in the game last night?"

The ride ended when Ventura died in a one-car crash in the Dominican Republic. People still love the Royals as much as ever, and they will stick with the team through its seemingly inevitable rebuilding process, and they will hope for success on the other side. But it will never be the same again, never like it was when everyone was young, and Hosmer and Moose and the rest were clowning around in the clubhouse, when Wade Davis was a late-inning terminator, when Yordano Ventura took the mound and threw harder than seemed reasonable, and Kansas City was on top of the baseball world.

Joe Posnanski is a national columnist for MLB.com.

 

Trout sports dog mask to support Eagles

It's no secret that Mike Trout's love for the Eagles mirrors his adoration for the game of baseball … and the weather. When he shows up to cheer on his favorite football team, he is sometimes gifted with the game ball -- compliments of tight end Zach Ertz. And on Sunday, Trout drew inspiration from another Eagles player. Prior to the Eagles-Vikings NFC Championship game on Sunday evening, Trout was at Lincoln Financial Field … wearing a dog mask:

NL West could get more wild in 2018

Division with '17's best winning percentage improved in offseason
MLB.com @TracyRingolsby

The National League West is MLB's sleeping giant.

It's not just about the Dodgers and the Giants anymore. From top to bottom, the division is starting to flex its muscles.

The National League West is MLB's sleeping giant.

It's not just about the Dodgers and the Giants anymore. From top to bottom, the division is starting to flex its muscles.

Yes, the Astros -- from the American League West -- are the defending World Series champions, thanks to knocking off the Dodgers in the full seven games.

However, the NL West had the best overall winning percentage (.517) of the six divisions last year, with the Dodgers, D-backs and Rockies compiling three of the five best NL records. The NL West claimed both NL Wild Card slots as the D-backs and Rockies joined the division-champion Dodgers in the postseason.

And the division has been aggressive this offseason, maintaining at the top and improving at the bottom, showing no signs of taking a backseat in 2018.

Consider:

• The Dodgers will be favored to repeat as division champions in their quest to win their first World Series championship since 1988. Given the fact they have a young nucleus -- six position players 27 or younger, one starting pitcher going into the spring older than 30 and a bullpen led by 30-year-old Kenley Jansen -- the Dodgers haven't felt pressured to make major offseason additions.

• The D-backs won more games (93) in 2017 than any NL teams other than the Dodgers and Nationals. Former first-round Draft pick Archie Bradley moved from the rotation to the bullpen a year ago, and he created confidence he can handle a late-innings role. The D-backs added insurance by acquiring Brad Boxberger, who had 41 saves as a closer with the Rays in 2015 before being limited in availability the last two years.

Video: Analyzing the D-backs' closer situation for 2018

• The Rockies benefited from pitching depth in the farm system, and featured as many as four rookies in the rotation for more than two months. The four rookies -- German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Jeff Hoffman -- were a combined 38-28 and the Rockies won 53 of their 93 starts. They are the focal point of a rotation that opens the spring with seven candidates, all in their 20s, and only one of whom has three years in the Majors -- Chad Bettis. The Rox also bolstered the bullpen, acquiring Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw.

• The Giants suffered a wakeup call, losing an NL-most 98 games last year on the heels of a seven-year stretch in which they not only made the postseason four times, but won three World Series championships. Left-hander Madison Bumgarner was injured in a dirt bike accident during an April off-day in Colorado and was limited to 17 starts and four victories. And Mark Melancon, signed as a free agent last offseason to handle the ninth inning, was bothered by a right forearm problem that limited him to 32 appearances and 11 saves in 16 opportunities before undergoing surgery in September. The Giants added Sam Dyson from the Rangers last July, and he converted 14 of 17 save opportunities to give them support for Melancon in the late-inning role. Then they made bold moves this offseason to reinforce the offense, swinging a deal with the Rays for third baseman Evan Longoria and acquiring outfielder Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates, giving them reason to believe they will be a factor again in 2018.

Video: Longoria excited to join Giants' winning tradition

• The Padres have made bold bids to shake up their roster, but they have come up short in efforts that included the pursuit of Shohei Ohtani, the two-way player from Japan who wound up with the Angels. Their major offseason addition was the return of third baseman Chase Headley from the Yankees with the hope he can provide a veteran influence on a lineup that does not have a projected starter who is 30.

Tracy Rinbolsby is a columnist for MLB.com.

 

J.D.'s potential uncovered during Astros tenure

Free agent showed glimpses of hitter he would become
MLB.com @alysonfooter

HOUSTON -- The odd offseason is moving quickly in one respect -- Spring Training is fast approaching. Still, some of the most attractive free agents remain unsigned.

Presumably, J.D. Martinez will be playing baseball somewhere this year. Even if he ends up signing for fewer years than he desires, Martinez undoubtedly will be among the top earners of his current free-agent class.

HOUSTON -- The odd offseason is moving quickly in one respect -- Spring Training is fast approaching. Still, some of the most attractive free agents remain unsigned.

Presumably, J.D. Martinez will be playing baseball somewhere this year. Even if he ends up signing for fewer years than he desires, Martinez undoubtedly will be among the top earners of his current free-agent class.

Hot Stove Tracker

Martinez is a compelling story, considering four years ago he was released by the Astros during Spring Training, and since then he has gone on to earn elite status as one of the game's best sluggers.

When he does sign his contract with the Red Sox or any number of mystery teams who have shown interest, it's highly likely what Martinez did with the Tigers and D-backs will lead the conversations, while his Astros years, though purposeful, are more likely to be viewed as an afterthought.

Video: Footer weighs in on J.D. Martinez's free agency

But for a couple of coaches tasked with shaping Martinez during his tenure with the Astros, those years were hardly a waste. It took Martinez a while to come into his own, but positive signs were there from the start.

"His balance, his body control, how he moved the bat through -- he was able to get those things first," said Brad Mills, Martinez's manager in Houston from 2011 until August '12. "He had a good foundation and a basis for hitting. That's huge."

Mills, currently the Indians' bench coach, admitted he couldn't have predicted that Martinez would hit 45 homers and drive in 104 runs in just 119 games last year. But he knew Martinez, at the very least, had the potential to be a great hitter soon after Martinez debuted in 2011. In his first month in the big leagues, Martinez drove in 28 runs, a rookie record.

Still, Martinez's numbers when he was with Detroit and Arizona from 2014-17 are gaudy compared to his slash lines during his three-year Houston tenure.

With Houston, Martinez slugged .387 and had an OPS of .687. In slightly less than four full seasons with Detroit, Martinez slugged .551 to complement a .912 OPS. He bested his on-base percentage, jumping from .300 with Houston to .361 with the Tigers.

Aside from the very small number of super-elite players -- think Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, et al -- it's difficult to truly predict how long it will take a young hitter to reach his full potential. Former Astros hitting coach Mike Barnett had little doubt where Martinez was headed soon after the two met when Martinez was playing in the very lowest levels of the Astros' Minor League system and Barnett was the Minor League hitting coordinator.

One of the few conversations the two had regarding mechanics took place within the first couple days of their meeting for the first time.

"I said, 'You're a front-foot-down-early guy,'" Barnett recalled.

Martinez asked what that meant, and Barnett explained that Martinez puts his stride foot down right at the time of release, rather than a more conventional stride, where hitters stride as the ball is released and set their foot down when they're ready to "fire their hands."

Barnett assured Martinez his way was fine but "not everybody's wired that way" -- only about 30 or 35 percent do it Martinez's way.

"He didn't really know there was a difference," Barnett said.

Video: HOU@DET: Martinez connects on a three-run home run

Following his record-setting debut month, Martinez spent the bulk of two seasons producing mixed results. In 2013, months after Mills and Barnett had left the Astros, Martinez poured his time while on the disabled list into trying to figure out how to improve his swing.

Martinez studied several hitters who were having good years, ranging from teammate Jason Castro to superstars such as Cabrera, who would later become his teammate in Detroit. Frame-by-frame, Martinez watched each hitter's mechanics and noticed one consistency -- their bats were spending a lot more time in the zone than his ever were.

Martinez, as he would explain to Tigers fans two offseasons ago, decided to try to elevate the ball more -- "If I hit the ball in the air, it always has a chance to go," he said at that time. Eventually, it clicked, and following his release from the Astros, he soon cemented a permanent spot in the middle of the Tigers' lineup.

A side-by-side view of Martinez's swings from his Houston days and today don't look that much different. Elevating the ball doesn't necessarily mean suddenly adopting an elaborate uppercut swing. Barnett, now the video coordinator for the Indians, doesn't see an uppercut swing from Martinez as much as he notices he is simply staying behind the ball better, which allows him to catch more balls out in front of the plate.

That also dovetails with Martinez seemingly adopting the more conventional stride he didn't have when he first started out.

Then there are the far less scientific facts: players generally perform better as they gain experience; good hitters find ways to adjust after pitchers figure them out; and Martinez hit the lineup jackpot when he joined a very scary Tigers offense that starred Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Being nestled among those two is never a hindrance.

It was a perfect formula for a conscientious, studious hitter determined to figure out how to be better.

"That's always how he was -- very inquisitive," Barnett said of his former pupil. "He wanted to be the absolute best he could be. I'm happy as can be for him. No one worked as hard at his craft as he did."

The reward, however delayed, is likely coming soon.

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.

 

Houston Astros, J.D. Martinez

5 teams that could surprise us in 2018

MLB.com @RichardJustice

At least 25 of 30 Major League teams will see a reasonable path to the postseason by the time Opening Day rolls around. So offseason optimism isn't just for the Astros and Yankees.

This is the best example of baseball's new landscape, one in which 21 of 30 teams have played at least one postseason series the past five seasons and only five clubs made the playoffs in both 2016 and '17.

At least 25 of 30 Major League teams will see a reasonable path to the postseason by the time Opening Day rolls around. So offseason optimism isn't just for the Astros and Yankees.

This is the best example of baseball's new landscape, one in which 21 of 30 teams have played at least one postseason series the past five seasons and only five clubs made the playoffs in both 2016 and '17.

What's intriguing about 2018 is the large number of teams that have re-tooled their rosters around young players. Young players do not come with timetables (or guarantees), so these clubs can improve rapidly.

Hot Stove Tracker

We saw that in a dramatic way in 2017 as the Twins improved by 26 games, the D-backs by 24 and the Rockies by 12 on their big jumps back into the postseason.

Figuring out who the surprise teams of 2018 will be is the difficult part. But there are plenty of serious candidates.

Here's a look at five who appear to have a legitimate chance to jump into contention. To be helpful -- because what are we at MLB.com if not helpful -- I'm including a modest proposal for an additional upgrade. In addition to having a promising core of young talent, none of these clubs currently have any onerous long-term salary commitments, which could allow them to make some sneaky upgrades in this slow-moving free-agent market.

Braves
72-90 in 2017

There's so much talent on the Major League roster and in the Minor League pipeline that a huge turnaround is inevitable. Whether that happens in 2018 or '19 is the question. Progress this season could depend on three factors: the timetable for 20-year-old outfielder Ronald Acuna, a franchise-changing player; the development of infielders Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies; and the emergence of all that young pitching in the Minors. Hiring Alex Anthopoulos to run baseball operations was a brilliant move. In short, this is a great time to be a Braves fan.

Video: Anthopoulos on Acuna possibly playing in 2018

Modest proposal: Sign free-agent third baseman Todd Frazier. He would bring production at the position and he would also provide a role model for the young guys as they try to figure things out. And if they want to make a bit more of a splash, Mike Moustakas is still out there to fill their void at third.

Phillies
66-96 in 2017

There could still be growing pains, but the pieces are in place: Not just Odubel Herrera in center and newly signed Carlos Santana at first, but also Rhys Hoskins in left, Nick Williams in right, Jorge Alfaro behind the plate and J.P. Crawford and Cesar Hernandez in the middle infield. Also intriguing is a rotation in which eight young arms -- six of them 25 or under -- will compete for five spots.

Video: Cesar Hernandez the No. 10 second baseman right now

Modest proposal: The Santana deal showed that this team could be players in free agency both this offseason and beyond, as Santana and Herrera are the only two players signed to long-term deals. With that in mind, this team should go sign a veteran starter. If Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb, Jake Arrieta and Lance Lynn aren't in their price range, there are still options out there. For instance, Chris Tillman almost surely would take a one-year deal for a chance to reprove himself.

Athletics
75-87 in 2017

Now it's about starting pitching and how quickly prospects like lefty A.J. Puk get to the Majors, and if lefty Sean Manaea and righty Kendall Graveman take the next step forward. Offensively, once third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson joined Khris Davis in the lineup, the A's took off, tying for the Major League lead in home runs (109) after the All-Star break. Stephen Piscotty -- the only player on this roster locked up beyond 2020 -- will start in right field with a chance to jump-start his career.

Video: A's possible starting rotation heading into 2018

Modest proposal: Potentially affordable options to upgrade the rotation are still available, including Andrew Cashner, Tillman, Jason Vargas and Jaime Garcia. Any of them -- or some combination -- would provide some rotation certainty.

White Sox
67-95 in 2017

No team is more interesting than this one thanks to GM Rick Hahn's organizational rebuild around kids. With kids come uncertainty. But kids also bring hope. The White Sox could have two 24-year-olds (Carson Fulmer and Reynaldo Lopez) and a 23-year-old (Lucas Giolito) in their rotation, with flamethrower Michael Kopech -- the third-ranked right-handed pitching prospect in baseball, per MLB Pipeline, waiting in the wings. And then there is Yoan Moncada at second (age 22), Tim Anderson at short (age 24), and prospects like Eloy Jimenez on the verge. The young guys got valuable experience last season, and that learning process will continue in 2018. How quickly they settle in and show off their talent is the unknown. But it'll happen at some point.

Video: Kopech seems poised to make big league impact in 2018

Modest proposal: Welington Castillo is the only player with a guaranteed deal beyond this year, so this is a club that could dip into the free-agent pool at any time. For now, they could sign lefty reliever Tony Watson to improve the bullpen and give manager Rick Renteria a quality option late in games.

Padres
71-91 in 2017

This is the summer the young players who were thrown into the mix could take a nice step forward. That list includes center field Manuel Margot (age 23), catcher Austin Hedges (age 25), right fielder Hunter Renfroe (age 26) and righties Dinelson Lamet (age 25) and Luis Perdomo (age 24). GM A.J. Preller has added veteran arms Chris Young and Tyson Ross to compete for jobs in the rotation. Some of the talented starters at Double-A should push for jobs by midseason, and at that point, improvement could come quickly.

Video: Green, Richard, Jankowski ready to start 2018 season

Modest proposal: They have been linked to Eric Hosmer all offseason, but there are plenty of other smaller moves they could make to upgrade this roster. For example, they can go for another veteran starting pitcher hoping for a bounce-back type of season. Tillman, Francisco Liriano and Trevor Cahill would all make sense.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

 

Vlad left Hall-worthy mark in 1 year with Texas

Guerrero helped Rangers reach their first World Series in 2010
MLB.com @Sullivan_Ranger

ARLINGTON -- Former manager Ron Washington went right to the point in explaining what Vladimir Guerrero meant to the Rangers in 2010.

"He gave us an opportunity to experience the World Series and understand what that is," Washington said. "We already had players, but we needed a guy like Vladimir Guerrero who could make a difference. That's why he is going into the Hall of Fame, because he was a difference-maker."

ARLINGTON -- Former manager Ron Washington went right to the point in explaining what Vladimir Guerrero meant to the Rangers in 2010.

"He gave us an opportunity to experience the World Series and understand what that is," Washington said. "We already had players, but we needed a guy like Vladimir Guerrero who could make a difference. That's why he is going into the Hall of Fame, because he was a difference-maker."

Guerrero will find out on Wednesday if he has been elected to the Hall of Fame in his second year of eligibility when the announcement is made on MLB Network. All signs point to that being the case, as Guerrero has received more than 90 percent of the votes publicly revealed and tracked by Ryan Thibodaux.

A candidate needs to be on at least 75 percent of the ballots cast. Guerrero received 71.7 percent in his first year of eligibility in 2017.

"To me, he is a Hall of Famer," Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus said. "I am a little sad he hasn't made it already. ... I believe he'll make it this year."

Guerrero would be the seventh Hall of Famer to have played for the Rangers, along with catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who was inducted last year, and pitchers Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, Ferguson Jenkins, Gaylord Perry and Rich Gossage.

Guerrero played only one season for the Rangers, but it was a special one for a team that went to the World Series for the first time. He was signed to a one-year contract to be their designated hitter and finished hitting .300 with 29 home runs, 115 RBIs and a .496 slugging percentage.

"Vladdy was one of the best of our generation," former teammate Michael Young said. "He absolutely torched us when he was in Anaheim. I still believe that he set the World Series wheels in motion in 2010. That legitimized us. A Hall of Fame player from a division rival chose us. We loved him. You hear 'great player, better person' all the time. But it was absolutely the case with Vladdy."

Video: Vlad's 2010 helped put Rangers back in postseason

The Rangers went into the season knowing they were close. They had finished 87-75 in 2009 for just their second winning season in nine years.

Their strength was a talented young lineup that included Young, Andrus, Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Chris Davis and David Murphy. But Washington and the Rangers wanted a veteran presence in the middle of the order, somebody who could get big hits and relax everybody else.

Guerrero was a free agent and was coming off a disappointing year with the Angels. He was on the disabled list twice and his 15 home runs and 50 RBIs were career lows for a full season.

But Washington -- a good judge of talent and character -- saw Guerrero as the perfect addition. The Rangers signed him on Jan. 9.

"If you look at where we had been in 2008 and 2009, the caliber of player he was, with all that playoff experience with the Angels and being an MVP, one of the pieces we needed to get to the World Series," Murphy said. "He was the perfect example and the perfect model of the way the game should be played."

The Rangers played him in right field on occasion, mainly in Interleague Play on the road. The rest of the time was spent at designated hitter and in the cleanup spot.

"Tremendous run producer," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who was the Rangers' hitting coach that year. "Smart at the plate. Knew how to hunt pitches and set pitchers up. His baseball IQ was extremely high. His hitter's IQ was off the charts. He was a professional."

Guerrero was also a quiet leader with a commanding presence. On the road, young players would gather in his hotel room and talk baseball. If there were issues in the dugout during the game, Guerrero would give a player "the stare" and order was quickly restored.

"Everybody respected him and what he brought, so they followed his lead," Washington said.

Guerrero started the season going 2-for-3 on Opening Day and had nine hits in his first 15 at-bats. He never really slowed, and the Rangers advanced to the World Series before losing to the Giants.

Guerrero went on to spend 2011 with the Orioles and then retire with Hall of Fame credentials. That should be confirmed later this week. His short but pronounced legacy with the Rangers has already been confirmed.

"Vladdy was awesome," pitcher Colby Lewis said. "He was an exceptional teammate and a great leader on the team. Huge asset and pickup that year. He made our clubhouse."

T.R. Sullivan has covered the Rangers since 1989, and for MLB.com since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger and listen to his podcast.

 

Texas Rangers

Phils' Kingery leads Top 10 2B Prospects

Padres' Urias vaults up six spots from last year's rankings
MLB.com

MLB Pipeline will unveil its 2018 Top 100 Prospects list on Saturday with a one-hour show on MLB Network at 8 p.m. ET. Leading up to the release, we look at baseball's top 10 prospects at each position.

MLB Pipeline ended last week with a look at our top 10 first-base prospects for 2018, a group that features four former first-round Draft picks. The top 10 second baseman list, on the other hand, has just one former first-rounder, 2017 No. 9 overall pick Keston Hiura, and exactly half the group was drafted in either the second or third round.

MLB Pipeline will unveil its 2018 Top 100 Prospects list on Saturday with a one-hour show on MLB Network at 8 p.m. ET. Leading up to the release, we look at baseball's top 10 prospects at each position.

MLB Pipeline ended last week with a look at our top 10 first-base prospects for 2018, a group that features four former first-round Draft picks. The top 10 second baseman list, on the other hand, has just one former first-rounder, 2017 No. 9 overall pick Keston Hiura, and exactly half the group was drafted in either the second or third round.

:: Top 10 Prospects by Position ::

Upper-level experience is also a defining trait of prospects on this list. Seven of the 10 players enter the 2018 season with experience at or above the Double-A level, a group that includes Scott Kingery and Luis Urias, the top-ranked players on this list. The Brewers, meanwhile, are the only team to have multiple players on the list in Hiura and slugger Isan Diaz.

1. Scott Kingery, Phillies More »
2. Luis Urias, Padres More »
3. Keston Hiura, Brewers More »
4. Isan Diaz, Brewers More »
5. Nick Solak, Yankees More »
6. Shed Long, Reds More »
7. Garrett Hampson, Rockies More »
8. Max Schrock, Cardinals More »
9. Brandon Lowe, Rays More »
10. Kevin Kramer, Pirates More »

Top tools

Hit: 70 -- Urias
Urias has done nothing but hit since signing with the Padres in December 2013, posting a .310 average over his first four Minor League seasons, the latest of which he spent in Double-A at age 20. His bat-to-ball skills are outstanding, as is his feel for using the entire field, and together they point to a future batting champion. What's more, Urias has accrued more walks (153) than strikeouts (135) in his career thanks to an approach and strike-zone discipline that are among the best in the Minors.

Video: Top Prospects: Luis Urias, 2B, Padres

Power: 55 -- Diaz
A left-handed hitter with an explosive upper-cut swing, Diaz has power that has translated at every level. He popped 13 home runs during his MVP campaign in the Rookie-level Pioneer League in 2015 and then hit 20 more the following year in his full-season debut (and age-20 season) to lead the Class A Midwest League. Diaz continued to showcase plus raw power in 2017 with a move up to the Class A Advanced Carolina League, connecting on 13 homers in 110 games, albeit with a lower average and an elevated strikeout rate.

Video: Top Prospects: Isan Diaz, 2B, Brewers

Run: 65 -- Kingery, Hampson
Kingery is nearly a plus-plus runner who gets out of the box well and knows how to apply his speed on the basepaths. After swiping 30 bags in his first full season, he nearly matched that total across two levels in 2017, finishing with 29 steals to improve his career rate to 84.3 percent (70 for 83). Hampson also knows how to impact games with his wheels. In his first full pro season, he led the Minors with 113 runs while ranking fourth with 51 steals and tied for fifth with 12 triples.

Video: Top Prospects: Garrett Hampson, 2B, Rockies

Arm: 55 -- Urias, Diaz
It shouldn't come as a surprise that both Urias and Diaz sit atop this category, as they've both seen considerable time at shortstop during their respective careers. In total, seven of the 10 players on this list possess at least average arm strength.

Field: 60 -- Kingery, Urias, Hampson
Urias opened eyes with his ability to play shortstop in 2017 before finishing the season back at second base, where he profiles as a plus defender with good instincts, athletic actions and a strong arm. Kingery also has impressive defensive chops at the keystone, while Hampson committed just four errors in 71 games (333 total chances).

Highest ceiling: Kingery
With five tools that grade as average or better, including the best speed and defensive grades on this list, Kingery offers value in every facet of the game. However, it's his power-speed combination that produced 26 homers and 29 steals in 2017 that gives Kingery 20/20 potential in the big leagues.

Highest floor: Urias
With such an advanced approach at the plate, pure hitting ability and the combination of low strikeout and high walk rates, Urias is a safe bet to hit his way up to the Major Leagues. He's shown sneaky pop at times, but how it translates at higher levels will ultimately determine his ceiling.

Rookie of the Year candidate: Kingery
Kingery is the most big league-ready among players on this list after he appeared in the 2017 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game and then finished the season in the Triple-A International League, where he posted a .294/.337/.449 slash line in 63 games with Lehigh Valley. Combined, the 23-year-old batted .304/.359/.530 in 132 games between Double- and Triple-A last year.

Video: Top Prospects: Scott Kingery, 2B, Phillies

Highest riser: Kingery
Kingery put himself on the map last season with his power outburst in the upper Minors, totaling 26 home runs in 132 games after he had hit just eight across his previous 197 career games. It led to him finishing the season as MLB Pipeline's top-ranked second-base prospect, a title he'll carry into 2018.

Humblest beginnings: Schrock
A 13th-round pick of the Nationals in 2015, Schrock has since been traded twice, going to the A's in August 2016 and then from Oakland to St. Louis following the 2017 season. Those moves haven't hurt Schrock's performance, as he batted .331 across three levels in 2016, when he also paced the Minors in hits (177), and then posted a .321 clip last season in the Double-A Texas League.

Video: Top Prospects: Max Schrock, 2B, Cardinals

Most to prove: Diaz
Diaz became overly pull happy in 2017 and too often sold out for his power. It led to a .222 average, down from .264 the previous year, and an elevated strikeout rate (26.6 percent), though he still produced 13 homers, 20 doubles and a career-best walk rate (13.6 percent) before undergoing season-ending surgery for a broken hamate bone in his right hand in late August.

Keep an eye on: Esteury Ruiz, Padres
Acquired from the Royals as part of the deal for Trevor Cahill, Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter in July, Ruiz endeared himself to evaluators in his first stateside campaign as he paced the Rookie-level Arizona League in average (.350), hits (72), doubles (20), triples (10) and total bases (124) in his age-18 season. He also ranked among the circuit leaders with his 39 RBIs (second), 26 steals (third) and 45 runs scored (third).

Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB Pipeline. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero.

 

Duensing, Cubs complete two-year deal

Veteran left-hander worked in 68 games for Chicago last season
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

CHICAGO -- The Cubs welcomed Brian Duensing back on Monday, signing the left-handed reliever to a two-year, $7 million deal.

Duensing, who turns 35 next month, ranked second among Cubs relievers last season in innings pitched (62 1/3) in his first season with the team. He posted a 2.74 ERA in 68 appearances, striking out 61. He became a free agent after the season. The agreement on a deal was first reported last week.

CHICAGO -- The Cubs welcomed Brian Duensing back on Monday, signing the left-handed reliever to a two-year, $7 million deal.

Duensing, who turns 35 next month, ranked second among Cubs relievers last season in innings pitched (62 1/3) in his first season with the team. He posted a 2.74 ERA in 68 appearances, striking out 61. He became a free agent after the season. The agreement on a deal was first reported last week.

His return gives the Cubs at least three lefties in the bullpen, joining Mike Montgomery and Justin Wilson. However, Montgomery may be in the rotation if the Cubs don't add another starter this offseason. The Cubs have been linked to free-agent starters Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb, all of whom remain unsigned.

So far this offseason, the Cubs have focused on pitching, signing relievers Dario Alvarez, Brandon Morrow, and Steve Cishek and adding starters Tyler Chatwood and Drew Smyly, although Smyly is coming back from elbow surgery and is not expected to contribute in 2018.

Duensing reportedly had other offers but wanted to remain with Chicago. He began last season on the disabled list with a back problem and gave up six runs in his first five appearances, but pitched to a 2.05 ERA in his final 63 outings, limiting opponents to a .232 batting average and .299 on-base percentage while recording a 1.18 WHIP.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

 

Chicago Cubs, Brian Duensing

Cutch pens heartfelt letter to Pirates fans

'I don't think I'll ever not be Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirate'
MLB.com @adamdberry

PITTSBURGH -- A trade moved Andrew McCutchen's career out of Pittsburgh, but the former face of the franchise made it clear Monday that the move didn't take Pittsburgh out of his heart and mind.

McCutchen's love and appreciation for Pittsburgh was the subject of a lengthy piece published under his name on The Players' Tribune. McCutchen began the article by reflecting on his last home game as a member of the Pirates, during which he received a lengthy standing ovation, and ended it by looking forward to his next game at PNC Park.

PITTSBURGH -- A trade moved Andrew McCutchen's career out of Pittsburgh, but the former face of the franchise made it clear Monday that the move didn't take Pittsburgh out of his heart and mind.

McCutchen's love and appreciation for Pittsburgh was the subject of a lengthy piece published under his name on The Players' Tribune. McCutchen began the article by reflecting on his last home game as a member of the Pirates, during which he received a lengthy standing ovation, and ended it by looking forward to his next game at PNC Park.

Read McCutchen's full letter

On May 11, McCutchen will step into the batter's box in Pittsburgh in a Giants uniform -- as he wrote, "With San Francisco on his shirt. And Pittsburgh in his heart."

Tweet from @TheCUTCH22: Pittsburgh.My Home.My Fans.My City. The placed that raised me and helped mold me into the man I am today. You will 4ever be in my heart.A tip of the cap to all who have been on this journey with me. With Love and respect,Cutch pic.twitter.com/QB0n9vuBuZ

McCutchen shared his perspective on the Jan. 15 trade that sent him to San Francisco for reliever Kyle Crick and outfield prospect Bryan Reynolds. He and his wife, Maria, had just put their baby, Steel, down for a nap when his phone lit up with text messages and a news alert about the reported trade, which GM Neal Huntington quickly explained was not yet official.

"Neal, you know, he was all class," McCutchen said. "And he made me feel like I was still a guy the Pirates cared about, even as they were giving me up."

About an hour later, McCutchen said, Huntington called back with the news. He was a Giant, no longer a Pirate.

"It's like, one minute I was just hanging out … and my biggest worry was if my son would fall asleep for his afternoon nap," McCutchen wrote. "And then the next, it was like, my life as I knew it wouldn't ever be the same."

Video: McCutchen on joining Giants, looking forward to 2018

McCutchen said the news still "stings a little" because he hoped to be a member of the Pirates for life. He had only known one organization since the Bucs drafted him 11th overall in 2005, when he was 18 years old. In his letter, McCutchen wrote about Cal Ripken Jr. and the Orioles and Derek Jeter with the Yankees, players who spent their entire careers with one team.

"Those guys earned the right, earned that honor, of being synonymous with their cities -- because those cities were the only places they ever called home," McCutchen wrote. "And I always wanted to be that guy for Pittsburgh."

With that no longer a possibility, McCutchen reflected on his time with the Pirates and the relationships that began in Pittsburgh. Then, McCutchen, wrote, he thought about his identity: "Who am I now?"

Video: McCutchen's powerful legacy in Pittsburgh

"Because in my mind, for the rest of my life, I don't think I'll ever not be Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirate," he wrote. "For me, that's been more than just a job title. That's been a part -- a core part -- of my identity, for so long. … Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirate has just been who I am."

At the same time, McCutchen said he is excited about joining the Giants, "an organization that is all about winning talent, and all about winning culture." And it's not as if he's leaving Pittsburgh. He and Maria still own a home in the city's northern suburbs, and McCutchen said they intend to live there.

Video: PIT@WSH: Cutch doubles for his final hit as a Pirate

"I might be closing the door on this stage of my life … but it's a glass door, I promise. I'm going to look back through it, fondly and often," he wrote. "And I'm going to walk back through it, when the time is right. This team will always mean a lot to me.

"And this city will always mean everything."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates, Andrew McCutchen
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