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How MLB old school beat new: Inside the Astros’ big inning that won Game 6



A few months before Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash was born, his 2020 ALCS counterpart, Dusty Baker, supposedly co-invented the high five with his late Dodgers teammate, Glenn Burke. Cash was born on Dec. 6, 1977, and Baker had been a major leaguer for a nearly a decade. The momentous hand-slap happened in the 1977 NLCS, after Baker hit a grand slam.

Baker had broken into Major League Baseball as a teammate of Hank Aaron with the Braves in the last season before divisional play, in 1968, back when you had to finish with the best record in your league to make the MLB playoffs which, at the time, was simply known as the World Series. A few years later, he was waiting on deck when Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s hallowed record.

A few months before Kevin Cash became old enough to get his driver’s license, Baker had finished his first season as a big-league manager. He led the 1993 San Francisco Giants to 103 wins, still the most of any team he’s managed over 23 seasons in the dugout. Those Giants did not make the playoffs. They’d finished a game behind Baker’s old team, the Braves, and it was the last season before baseball expanded its playoff format again.

When Baker and Cash ended up against each other in this year’s ALCS, it was an unlikely pairing of managers in many ways. Baker, 71, seemed to be done with the annoyances of skippering, until the Astros ran smack into scandal and they needed someone of his integrity to help restore faith in the franchise. Cash, 42, had guided the Rays’ to the AL’s best record and after six years in the Tampa Bay dugout, had fashioned a reputation as perhaps the best of baseball’s new generation of analytics-minded managers.

The other thing that made the meeting so unlikely is that 2020 is the only one in all of baseball history in which it could have happened. The Rays’ league-best record (40-20, .667) would have staked a playoff slot in any format in place through the annals of the American League. The Astros’ 29-31 mark required this year’s expansion to a 16-team format to allow the club to play on. Thus Baker has managed a 103-win team that did not make the playoffs, and a team that was on a 78-win pace (over 162 games) that did.

Perhaps it’s overstating it, but all of that incongruous history seemed to collide in one dramatic inning during Game 6 of the ALCS. And because things fell Baker’s way, he and Cash together joined an exclusive managerial club: Only four managers have ever reached a Game 7 in a series in which one team lost the first three games of the set. Only the 2004 Red Sox had ever forced a seventh game after falling into a 3-0 hole, doing so in the ALCS that year against the New York Yankees.

The inning in question was the top of the fifth, which Tampa Bay entered with a 1-0 lead. If the Astros go on to finish their epic comeback on Saturday, and we don’t know what dramatics lie in store for us then, fans of both teams might point to this inning for when things finally tilted towards Houston.

When the inning began, Blake Snell had put up all zeros but — as has been his Achilles heel all season — he had not done so efficiently, walking three Houston batters and burning through 71 pitches. Snell, the AL Cy Young winner in 2018, had not completed six innings in any of his 14 previous starts this season, including the playoffs. He threw 105 pitches over five innings but earned the win in Game 1 of the ALCS. On the other side, precocious Houston lefty Framber Valdez was dealing despite allowing an early run.

Let’s go at-bat by at-bat from here:

1. Yuli Gurriel (Leverage index: 1.27; Plate appearance LI rank: 12th)

Snell’s control issues continued. He started Gurriel with a strike on a changeup, but missed with three subsequent changeups. He tried to recover with a fastball and missed. None of the pitches were close enough for him to grouse about. The five-pitch walk pushed Snell’s pitch count to 76. His season average was 82 pitches.

2. Aledmys Diaz (LI: 2.08; PA rank: 3rd)

With the leadoff man on base representing the tying run, the leverage index shot up over 2.0, which made this the statistical definition of a high-leverage at-bat. Cash would have known this, and he does a better job of matching the right pitcher with the right hitter with the right leverage moment than any manager in the sport.

Diego Castillo was getting loose in the Rays bullpen. He and fellow righty Nick Anderson had the highest average leverage index upon entering games among the relievers on the Rays’ ALCS roster. Both have closed games at times, but in 2020, no one bats an eye when Castillo is up in the fifth inning of a 1-0 game.

But Diaz, despite hitting from the right side, has a career OPS against lefties (.692) considerably lower than his mark against righties (.821). Against “soft” pitches like the curveball and changeup that Snell excels at, Diaz’s career OPS is .787, but just .610 on soft pitches from southpaws. Cash stuck with his ace.

It took six pitches — none of them fastballs — but Snell finally left a slider up and Diaz bounced it through the 5-6 hole on the left side for a single. At 95.5 mph in exit velocity, it was a hard-hit single against a shifted defense. Against a traditional alignment, it probably would have been a tough backhand play for Rays shortstop Willy Adames, but since he was shaded towards second base in the shifted alignment we’ll never know.

So now the leverage index ratchets up even more, with two on, nobody out, and the Rays clinging to that one-run edge. Castillo is getting hot in a hurry in the bullpen. Snell hasn’t allowed a run but he’s in a jam and his pitch count is up to 82, his season average. Next up is light-hitting Houston catcher Martin Maldonado, a clear double-play candidate.

“It was fairly clear,” Cash said afterwards. “I thought the way that Valdez was throwing, there wasn’t going to be a ton of scoring opportunities for us, and wanted to get the ball in to Diego’s hand.”

Cash came out to get Snell, of course. And it’s the kind of thing where you really would like to know what was going through Baker’s mind at that moment. Over a 52-year career, how many times had he seen a manager (or been a manager) pull his ace during the fifth inning of a key game with a shutout working?

We don’t know what was going through Baker’s mind, but we have a pretty good what was going through Snell’s noggin. Skilled lip readers would have noticed he was less than pleased as he stomped off the mound.

“I was just frustrated,” Snell said, before adding, “Most of the time I am aware of it and I understand that Cash is really good at his job and is good at what he does. I’m gonna disagree with him, it’s going to happen. Especially because I am a guy that wants to be out there and go deep as possible.”

3. Martin Maldonado (LI: 2.7; PA rank: first)

By leverage index, this was the most intense moment of the game. Castillo has a vicious sinker/slider combo that allowed him to strike out 28 percent of the righties he faced this season. Maldonado struck out 33 percent of the time against righties.

For nearly all of baseball history and certainly for most of Baker’s long career in baseball, this is a classic bunt situation. Maybe not for the Rays, as Cash’s players didn’t attempt a single sacrifice during the regular season. When Manny Margot laid one down in Game 3 of the ALCS, the postgame reaction in the Zoom sessions was like someone had reinvented the sport.

And indeed, Maldonado squared around to bunt. He’s laid down 26 over them successfully during his regular-season career and executed about 65 percent of his attempts, per baseball-reference.com. That’s about nine percent better than the average bunt attempt in a typical season. Maldonado took a slider, then on another slider, he dropped a textbook bunt up the third base line. The Rays had pulled their corners in but it the bunt was too precise, and Tampa Bay catcher Mike Zunino pounced on it and threw out Maldonado as the runners advanced.

“Actually I was lucky enough to get two sliders to bunt,” Maldonado said postgame. “(Last year) I tried to bunt with Diaz on second base and I bunt it back to (Castillo against) 98 (mph). So I go in there, ‘Oh God, now I got to bunt in there against this guy’ so I was lucky I got two sliders to bunt.”

This all seems like the straightforward brand of baseball we’ve been watching all of our lives. But what if the respective managers were in opposite dugouts? Would Baker have pulled Snell? Would Cash have called for a bunt?

Anyway, according to FanGraphs.com, after the bunt, the Astros’ win probability dropped from 49.2 percent to 48.5. So if you think that it was obvious that Cash would have made the same call as Baker, it’s not. Maybe, maybe not. The numbers did not like the bunt.

4. George Springer (LI: 2.19, PA rank: second)

Our third straight high-leverage at-bat. Springer had struck out in both of his at-bats against Snell. For his career, he has a .760 OPS against him over 19 plate appearances but since 2018, when Snell ascended to ace status, Springer was 3-for-14, postseason included.

Meanwhile, Springer’s OPS against Castillo (including the postseason) is a robust 1.125, though it’s over just eight plate appearances. Given that Cash had to anticipate Baker’s decision to call for a bunt to Maldonado, this was the matchup he’d chosen: Castillo versus Springer, rather than Snell versus Springer.

The thing is: Those individual matchup numbers that you just read likely did not enter into Cash’s thinking at all. And they shouldn’t. Managers used to make the mistake of reading too much into small matchup samples far more often than they do now. But become less common as knowledge has increased, and it’s not something that Cash is going to be guilty of very often.

What he is aware of, and has been more a practitioner of, is limiting how often opposing hitters see any one of his pitchers within a game. It didn’t matter that Snell had struck out Springer twice, or that Springer has better numbers against Castillo than Snell. It only mattered that Snell’s control was wavering at a pitch count that has been his typical threshold, and that Springer had seen him twice.

Even more interesting than the matchup was Cash’s defensive alignment. As we know, the Rays are hyper-aggressive at shifting their defense. In this instance, Cash didn’t just put his infield into a pull-side shift against Springer, but he pulled his infield in to try to cut down the tying run at the plate. Three infielders were playing on the grass between second and third base, while first baseman Yandy Diaz was also on the edge of green, halfway between first and second.

Castillo started with an inside slider that handcuffed Zunino and kicked away from him, but he ran it down with cat-like quickness while Castillo raced in from the mound to cover the plate, so Diaz remained perched on third base. On the next pitch, with the Rays infield in same alignment, Castillo put a 96 mph sinker on the outer edge of the plate, though Zunino appeared to be set up for an inside offering. Keep this in mind: Springer rarely hits a ground ball to the right side of the infield.

Springer shortened his swing and poked the on-the-outside-edge fastball through the wide-open right side of the infield. Both runners scored. The Astros’ win probability leaped from the aforementioned 48.5 percent to 64 percent.

“I’m sure (coach) Gary (Pettis) was very happy, because every day in BP, he stands at second base and dares George to try and hit him,” Baker said. “George hasn’t hit him yet, so George would’ve hit him today. I am sure Gary Pettis was very, very happy, and we were even happier than Gary was.”

Pettis, who was diagnosed with cancer in late September, has been in attendance at Petco Park for the last two games and has served as an inspirational figure for Baker and his players.

Here we’re going to switch back into summary mode. The Astros had just grabbed the lead through a sequence of a leadoff walk, followed by the three highest-leverage plays of the game. The Rays pulled their ace starter who was working on a shutout, bringing in one of their relief aces in the fifth inning, played the infield in and shifted at the same time, played the corners in, did everything by the percentages. The Astros bunted and singled through two shifts to grab the advantage.

Was this old school Dusty getting over on new school Cash? Nah, that’s a stretch. Every move Cash made was logical and defensible, while Dusty’s charges simply had better execution. However, it was a beautiful contrast of what baseball is now, and what it has always been.

It also set the wheels in motion. Jose Altuve doubled in Springer and went to third on a passed ball. Michael Brantley walked. Carlos Correa singled in Altuve. Finally, Castillo got Alex Bregman to bounce into an inning-ending double play. But the Astros led 4-1.

The frame began with an Astros win expectancy of 36.2 percent. It ended at 80.9 percent. There was plenty of game left and both teams scored three more times before it was over. But that inning — the top of the fifth — was the tipping point, when Houston’s Hail Mary comeback from hopelessness in the series felt complete. Now the two teams are even.

“We are all frustrated,” Cash said. “I don’t think (the players) are tensing up. I think they are recognizing that we got an opportunity for the fourth time now to do something special.”

With one more game to go, we know in Game 7, Dusty is going to do Dusty, and Cash is going to do Cash. And, honestly, whether you prefer old school, new school or a blend of all the above, would you want it any other way?

“Getting close isn’t good enough,” Baker said. “I’ll show more emotion after we win tomorrow then onto the next challenge. This whole thing has been a challenge and it has been more of a challenge of positive thinking and faith than it has been a challenge of physically on the field.”


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Way-too-early 2021 MLB Power Rankings: What’s next for Dodgers, Rays and all 30 teams



We can only hope 2021 will be a more normal season, with 162 games and fans in the stands and hot dogs to eat and overpriced beer to drink. We don’t know what the state of things will be come April 1, when the 2021 season is scheduled to begin, but we can speculate on the state of the 30 franchises.

Yes, we’re back with our annual Way-Too-Early Power Rankings. There are a few obvious teams at the top, a handful at the bottom and a whole bunch in the middle. Throw in the difficulty of analyzing a 60-game season and the uncertainty of how the offseason will play out due to the financial losses of this season, and these are the most difficult rankings we have had to do. But we fearlessly move forward.

(Title odds for 2021 from Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill)

2020 record: 43-17
Won World Series
2021 title odds: 4-1

They’re reigning champs. They’ve won eight straight division titles. They have Mookie Betts signed for the long term. They have young starters such as Walker Buehler, Dustin May, Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin to keep the rotation strong for years to come. They have players capable of better seasons (Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, Gavin Lux). They have a good farm system. They have financial flexibility, with only Betts signed past 2022 and all those young players to help them keep the payroll in check. Justin Turner is a free agent, but he would be a nice DH option if the NL makes that permanent. We know they will be good. But we know it’s really all about October.

2020 record: 35-25
Lost NLCS to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 12-1

The offense gives them a high floor:Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, even Travis d’Arnaud and Adam Duvall raked in 2020. Marcell Ozuna is a free agent and it would be nice to bring him back, but rookie center fielder Cristian Pache is ready and he looks like he’ll be valuable on both sides of the ball. The rotation will see the return of Mike Soroka from his Achilles injury and a full season of Ian Anderson to back up Max Fried. Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson have potential, and Atlanta will probably bring in a veteran starter on a one-year deal the way they did with Dallas Keuchel in 2019 and tried to do with Cole Hamels in 2020. The Braves will be favored to win a fourth straight division title even if they don’t do anything this offseason.

2020 record: 37-23
Lost Division Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 17-2

Sure, an argument can be made to put the Padres ahead of the Braves, but I think we have to first make sure Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger are completely healthy in spring training. San Diego brings back essentially every significant player after running out the youngest lineup in the NL, with Jake Cronenworth and Trent Grisham looking like foundation additions alongside Fernando Tatis Jr. (All were acquired in trades; good job, A.J. Preller!) We’ll see if Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers can match their 2020 rate of production, but if Luis Patino and MacKenzie Gore become impact starters, the Padres are poised to make a multiyear run in challenging the Dodgers for NL West supremacy.

2020 record: 40-20
Lost World Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 10-1

The Rays won their first division title since 2010 and did it in quite remarkable fashion, with 12 different relievers recording a save and the pitching staff overcoming a slew of injuries along the way. They were able to pull that off because of the depth of their staff, but having expanded rosters over the 60-game season made it possible to rely so heavily on the bullpen. Of course, you can argue that pitching depth will be even more valuable over 162 games. The offense isn’t elite, although we can’t wait to see what Randy Arozarena will do over a full season or if super rookie Wander Franco is ready to make an impact at some point in 2021.

2020 record: 35-25
Lost Wild Card Series to A’s
2021 title odds: 12-1

Much like the Braves, the offensive firepower of the White Sox should give them a high floor. Even if you see some regression coming from Jose Abreu or Tim Anderson, Luis Robert and Yoan Moncada should improve and a full season of Nick Madrigal will help. Michael Kopech, who opted out of 2020, will hopefully be back, but he hasn’t pitched in two years, so finding another veteran arm to go with ace Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel will be key. Closer Alex Colome is a free agent, but the White Sox have several power arms in their organization, including 2020 first-round pick Garrett Crochet, who could be a dominant reliever right away. Manager Rick Renteria and longtime pitching coach Don Cooper got the boot, with A.J. Hinch a possible replacement for Renteria. That would be an upgrade.

2020 record: 33-27
Lost Division Series to Rays
2021 title odds: 6-1

You can make an argument to put them a couple of spots higher, but not winning the AL East in 2020 points to some flaws. They simply can’t count on Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton being healthy for an entire season, plus DJ LeMahieu and Masahiro Tanaka are free agents, two important players to re-sign or replace. Of course, we know the Yankees will do something big, perhaps signing J.T. Realmuto and moving on from Gary Sanchez or trading for Francisco Lindor and shifting Gleyber Torres to second. Getting Luis Severino back from Tommy John surgery will be a big boost as well.

2020 record: 36-24
Lost Wild Card Series to Astros
2021 title odds: 14-1

The Twins didn’t do it quite like they did in 2019, when they bashed a record 307 home runs (although their 162-game pace for 2020 was still 259), as their team batting average dropped nearly 30 points, and they fell from second in the AL in runs to 10th. Still, they’ve established a foundation of success with three playoff appearances in four seasons. The big issue is they have a lot of free agents to replace or re-sign, starting with 40-year-old Nelson Cruz, but also Jake Odorizzi, Marwin Gonzalez, Rich Hill, Tyler Clippard, Trevor May and Homer Bailey. Those players were minor contributors, but with Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Taylor Rogers getting more expensive in arbitration, the Twins may not be able to fill out the roster with minor free agents the way they’ve done of late. They need a healthy Josh Donaldson, especially if Cruz leaves, and they will have to discard the emotional baggage of 18 consecutive playoff losses to get revved up for 162 games just to get back to October again.

2020 record: 36-24
Lost Division Series to Houston
2021 title odds: 14-1

The A’s weren’t as impressive as they were in 2019 — Matt Olson morphed into an extreme “three true outcomes” slugger, Matt Chapman‘s OBP dipped to .276 and Marcus Semien declined from his third-place MVP performance. They still coasted to the AL West title though, and the division projects as being pretty soft, at least right now. Semien and closer Liam Hendriks are free agents as are several other key role players, so this ranking is not presented with a high degree of confidence. The A’s always seem to maximize their talent, and I do think the rotation will be much better, making up for some of the likely bullpen regression.

2020 record: 26-34
Tied for fourth in NL East
2021 title odds: 30-1

I feel like we need another National League team here, but let’s be honest: There is a wide gap between the NL’s top three teams and the block of mediocre teams in the middle. Let’s roll the dice on the Mets with new owner Steve Cohen to the rescue (once he gets formally approved). Let’s just say Mets fans are pumped about Cohen’s WAW (wins above Wilpon). There have already been reports about all the money he’ll sink into the franchise, not just on players but things like building out a more robust analytics staff. Aside from any splashy moves Cohen may make — trading for Nolan Arenado or Francisco Lindor? Signing J.T. Realmuto or Trevor Bauer? — there is a strong base of talent here. They ranked third in the majors in wOBA (behind the Braves and Dodgers) and fifth in the majors in pitcher strikeout rate. They should be better — a familiar refrain for Mets fans, unfortunately.

2020 record: 34-26
Lost Wild Card Series to Marlins
2021 title odds: 25-1

Everyone was down on the Cubs, especially after that sad two-and-out to the Marlins, but we do need to point out Chicago still won the NL Central despite Javier Baez (59 OPS+), Kris Bryant (73) and Kyle Schwarber (88) all producing well below an average major league hitter and Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras performing below their career norms. That continues a downward trend for this once-great offensive core, from second in the NL in runs in 2016 and 2017 to fourth in 2018, fifth in 2019 and 10th in 2020. Baez, Bryant, Schwarber and Rizzo are all free agents after 2021, but frankly, the trade value for Bryant and Schwarber — and even Baez, to a lesser extent — has cratered. Theo Epstein also hinted that 2021 will be his last season with the Cubs. Does this group get one last chance? In a weak division, with some bounce-back potential, the Cubs could be better than everyone believes. Or maybe the front office will just tear it all down.

2020 record: 29-31
Lost ALCS to Rays
2021 title odds: 20-1

It promises to be a busy winter for the Astros. George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick are all free agents, while Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr. and Zack Greinke are set to be free agents after 2021, as are Justin Verlander and Roberto Osuna, both of whom will likely miss the season following Tommy John surgery. They’ll need more from Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman (and don’t forget about Yordan Alvarez) but they could have a strong rotation if they keep McCullers and Greinke to go with Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy. The outfield free-agent market is thin, so if Springer and Brantley sign elsewhere, the Astros may have to scramble to find help for Kyle Tucker.

2020 record: 35-25
Lost Wild Card Series to Yankees
2021 title odds: 20-1

We start with one of the biggest questions of the entire offseason: Will Cleveland trade Francisco Lindor? It seems weird to say this, but there isn’t an obvious fit, as most of the top teams are set at shortstop. It will be interesting to see if a team tries to pull the Mookie Betts maneuver: trade for Lindor, then sign him to a big extension before he hits free agency after the 2021 season. Aside from the Lindor issue, it’s going to be a similar Cleveland team as we’ve seen the past two years: enough starting pitching to be a playoff team, but an offense that may prevent them from getting there. Please, find some competent outfielders. Cleveland’s outfielders hit .196/.270/.304.

2020 record: 30-28
Lost Wild Card Series to Padres
2021 title odds: 30-1

In one sense, it’s harder to evaluate what the Cardinals did in 2020 than any other team, with them having to play 11 doubleheaders after the team’s COVID-19 outbreak early in the season. On the other hand, they were exactly what we thought they would be: below-average offense with no power, good defense, good bullpen, decent starting pitching. I just don’t how they’re going to get better, especially given that some of their pitching peripheral numbers don’t quite match the ERA figures. Look, as always, you can never discount the Cardinals. They haven’t had a losing season since 2007. The division is wide open. Jack Flaherty will be better. Dylan Carlson could give them an impact outfielder. The bullpen projects as a big strength.

2020 record: 26-34
Tied for fourth in NL East
2021 title odds: 30-1

No team had less incentive in 2020 than the Nationals, and once Stephen Strasburg went down, it kind of felt like the entire team went down with him. Juan Soto played at an MVP level for 47 games, leading the NL in batting average and the majors in OBP and slugging. It wasn’t a full season so I’m not saying it compares, but his 212 OPS+ was the best since Barry Bonds in 2004.

There are concerns in the starting rotation, however, beyond Strasburg’s nerve issue. Anibal Sanchez fell apart, Patrick Corbin got knocked around (85 hits in 65⅔ innings) and even Max Scherzer had his highest ERA since 2012.The real problem may have been the defense: The Nationals ranked last in the majors with minus-43 defensive runs saved. As always, depth is an issue and they need youngsters Carter Kieboom (no home runs in 99 at-bats) and Victor Robles (.608 OPS) to contribute at the plate. If Strasburg is healthy, don’t ignore the 2019 champs.

2020 record: 32-28
Lost Wild Card Series to Rays
2021 title odds: 50-1

The Blue Jays face a very interesting offseason after making the playoffs as a wild card and ranking third in the AL in runs. The offense potentially looks even better if you’re buying the breakouts of Teoscar Hernandez and Rowdy Tellez. Worth noting: The Jays hit much better at their temporary home in Buffalo, so we have to be careful about overrating the offense. Hyun-Jin Ryu was terrific (at least until his playoff start), but the rest of the rotation was so problematic that the Jays acquired Taijuan Walker, Robbie Ray and Ross Stripling for the stretch run. Walker and Ray are free agents, but Nate Pearson will help, and the Jays should have some money to spend in free agency.

2020 record: 28-32
Third in NL East
2021 title odds: 40-1

It’s hard to see the Phillies much better than the .500 team they’ve been the past three seasons, which led to general manager Matt Klentak being reassigned within the organization. They had two great starters in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler and finished fourth in the NL in runs, but the bullpen (6.92 ERA, worst of all time) undermined all the positives. The Phillies allowed a .345 average on balls in play, and maybe that would drop over a full season, but it stands as the highest ever. This has been a multiyear problem. They were middle of the pack in BABIP allowed in 2019, but fifth-worst in 2018 and sixth-worst in 2017. They’ve been unable to fix the defense. Anyway, J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius are free agents. The payroll would have been more than $200 million given a full season in 2020, so you wonder if there is room to re-sign Realmuto and fix the bullpen and replace/re-sign Gregorius and maybe add another starter.

2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in AL West
2021 title odds: 40-1

Billy Eppler is out as general manager after a five-year run that included no winning seasons. Yes, he inherited the bad Albert Pujols contract, but he also inherited Mike Trout and was never able to build a successful team around him, despite additions like Andrelton Simmons, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon. Simmons is a free agent, Pujols is finally down to his final season and Jared Walsh (.971 OPS, nine home runs in 99 at-bats, a low 13.9% strikeout rate) has to play. The immediate concerns are trying to turn Jo Adell into a major league hitter (.161, 55 strikeouts, seven walks in 132 PAs), figure out what happened to Ohtani (.190) and Justin Upton (.204) and — as always — address the pitching. Sounds like the same story as the past five years.

2020 record: 29-31
Lost Wild Card Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 50-1

This is a difficult team to read. The Brewers didn’t hit at all in 2020 (I think the NL must have stored its balls in Lake Michigan, because nobody could hit). Two-time batting champ and 2018 MVP Christian Yelich hit just .205, and I know it was just 58 games, but his strikeout rate went from 20.3% to 30.8%. Something doesn’t add up there.

They do have two great one-two combos in Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes in the rotation and Devin Williams and Josh Hader in the bullpen. Does Williams’ stunning breakout (53 K’s in 27 innings) make Hader trade bait? Burnes certainly looked like the real deal with his new cutter, but he’ll have to prove he can do it over 30 starts instead of 10. David Stearns is one of the more creative GMs around, although he’d probably like a do-over on the Trent Grisham/Zach Davies for Luis Urias/Eric Lauer deal.

2020 record: 24-36
Fifth in AL East
2021 title odds: 60-1

This was the hardest team to project. The pitching was so awful — 5.85 runs per game, the most for the franchise since 1932 — that it’s easy to assume it will be bad again in 2021. It was also bad in 2019 (5.11 runs per game), so we have a two-year track record. Maybe they get Chris Sale back at midseason and Eduardo Rodriguez returns from his COVID-related heart issue. There is a nice offensive core with Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Alex Verdugo and Christian Vazquez (and J.D. Martinez if he bounces back). I’m not sure what Bobby Dalbec will be. I guess his upside is Joey Gallo, if that’s a good thing. More importantly, is Chaim Bloom playing the long game or will there be pressure to get the Red Sox immediately back into contender status?

2020 record: 31-29
Lost Wild Card Series to Braves
2021 title odds: 25-1

The Reds sneaked into the playoffs as a wild card with a late surge, but the team embarrassingly exited with two shutouts to the Braves, including a 13-inning defeat. The Reds have morphed into the most extreme example of a “three true outcomes” offense we’ve seen in this launch-angle era. They ranked fourth in the NL in home runs and first in walks, but hit a pathetic .212. The entire package added up to ranking just 13th in the NL in runs, then you dig deeper and realize they hit 55 home runs at home and 35 on the road, so much of their power was simply a result of their home park. It’s a bad offense, and I’m not sure it improves much in 2021. Trevor Bauer is a sure bet to sign elsewhere as a free agent, and we still don’t know if Nick Senzel is the solution in center field or an injury-prone role player.

2020 record: 31-29
Lost Division Series to Braves
2021 title odds: 60-1

It was a fun ride to their first postseason trip since 2003, but once you get past the starting trio of Sixto Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara and Pablo Lopez, holes remain. The pitching staff was next to last in the majors in strikeout rate, and the team’s top five relievers were all 30-something guys you can’t necessarily count on for 2021. There are no offensive stars as the lineup relied on stopgap veterans, while the young hitters still have trouble controlling the strike zone (and the young hitters aren’t really all that young). The minus-41 run differential is a little misleading as the Marlins had to use more players than any other team due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but I’m not sure I see another .500 season unless some of the young hitters suddenly develop into solid regulars.

2020 record: 29-31
Third in NL West
2021 title odds: 80-1

Call me skeptical. They went from the second-worst offense in the NL to a top-five offense — without making any significant additions. Brandon Belt with a 1.000 OPS? Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson over .900? Donovan Solano chasing a batting title? I smell a lot of regression coming on, and the Giants don’t have the rotation to back that up. They also had the oldest lineup in the league: Mauricio Dubon is the only returning regular who won’t be 30 or older in 2021. Maybe catcher Joey Bart makes an impact, but a 41 to 3 strikeout-to-walk rate suggests he’s not ready for prime time. Several of their big contracts come off the books after 2021 if you factor in buyouts, so look for the Giants to wait until that big 2021-22 free-agent class to start flipping over the roster.

2020 record: 27-33
Third in AL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

There were some nice positives in 2020: Kyle Lewis may win Rookie of the Year, Justus Sheffield was much improved, Marco Gonzales solidified himself as one of the most underrated starters in the majors, Dylan Moore turned into one of the best utility players as a power/speed combo. But there is still zero star power here, at least until Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez arrive as potential All-Star outfielders, Kelenic in 2021 and Rodriguez probably in 2022. Jerry Dipoto will have to reconstruct a bullpen that was one of the worst in the league (5.92 ERA). The Mariners are on the rise and have other potential impact prospects, including pitchers Logan Gilbert and Emerson Hancock, but look for them to hold the course in 2021 and push forward in 2022.

2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in AL Central
2021 title odds: 150-1

The Royals have some interesting young pitchers in Brad Keller, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, with Josh Staumont as a potential closer, but there are still huge gaps across the roster, especially on the offensive side of things. They need to figure out center field, second base and left field, and even Adalberto Mondesi Jr. now looks like just a placeholder at short until Bobby Witt Jr. arrives in a couple of years. This ranking could be selling the Royals a bit short, as young pitching can carry a team if it comes fast (and 2020 top pick Asa Lacy may not need much time in the minors), but they need to find some hitters.

2020 record: 25-35
Fifth in NL West
2021 title odds: 60-1

That was ugly, and the fans are turning on the team after a couple of years of trades (Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke and the deadline deals this season) that don’t appear to have returned any front-line talent. Ketel Marte and Eduardo Escobar, so good in 2019, fell off, with Marte inexplicably deciding he no longer wanted to walk. Robbie Ray couldn’t throw strikes and was finally traded. Merrill Kelly hurt his shoulder. Madison Bumgarner didn’t win a game. The problem for 2021? The Diamondbacks had the second-oldest lineup in the NL (six of their top eight regulars were 29 or older). Bumgarner now looks like a bad $80 million gamble. They’re only a season removed from going 85-77, so there is rebound potential, but the Snakes are a mess at the moment.

2020 record: 25-35
Fourth in AL East
2021 title odds: 150-1

Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of positives in 2020, especially after losing 108 games in 2019 and 115 in 2018. Anthony Santander had a small-sample breakout with the metrics to back it up. Ryan Mountcastle looks ready to join the lineup in 2021 and Trey Mancini will hopefully be back at full strength after finishing his chemo treatment in September. Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer could be arms to watch for the rotation.

They do have financial flexibility, especially as they get closer to the end of Chris Davis‘ deal, and with Adley Rutschman close to the majors and starters D.L. Hall and Grayson Rodriguez perhaps ready in 2022, the farm is better than it’s been in at least 10 years. But the base level of talent here remains pretty low.

2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in NL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

Right now, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story are still on the roster. Will they be there come spring training? The relationship between Arenado and the Rockies is strained, making him a trade candidate this winter. He won’t be easy to trade, though: He didn’t have a good 2020 at the plate, ended the season on the IL, has a full no-trade clause and can opt out of his deal after 2021. If Arenado is traded, you could see the Rockies dealing Story as well since he’s a free agent after 2021. Mostly, this team just needs a makeover. They ranked eighth in the NL in runs, and for a Rockies team, that’s horrible. (They had finished below fifth just one other time in franchise history.)

2020 record: 23-35
Fifth in AL Central
2021 title odds: 200-1

Sometimes you just have to point out the obvious: Jeimer Candelario was the team’s best player in 2020 — a 26-year-old first baseman who hit .203 the year before. Look, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal project as good starters at some point, but their struggles in limited action in 2020 suggest that may not be in 2021. Along with Spencer Turnbull and prospect Matt Manning, there is a rotation to dream on, but there is no offense, and Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, their top position player prospects, are more on a 2022 timetable.

2020 record: 22-38
Fifth in AL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

The Rangers continue to go backward. They were bad in 2020 in a year they thought they could contend, they weren’t particularly young and the farm system has struggled to develop pitchers and turn toolsy position players into quality hitters. The offense had a brutal year — and not just because of the new park. They didn’t hit on the road either. It’s time to admit that Joey Gallo and Rougned Odor are never going to be the core of a championship lineup, and if Lance Lynn is traded — he’ll be a free agent after 2021 — the rotation will have a huge hole to fill.

2020 record: 19-41
Fifth in NL Central
2021 title odds: 300-1

Let’s see, a small-market team coming off the worst record in the sport, won’t spend any money in free agency, and whose three best players in 2019 were all terrible in 2020. The first step is to hope Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman rebound, but with most of the organization’s top prospects still a ways off, the short-term outlook looks bleak. Heck, the long-term outlook isn’t exactly full of roses and puppies.


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Bryant, out 2 years, joins Ravens practice squad



OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Dez Bryant is back in the NFL.

The Baltimore Ravens signed the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver to their practice squad, the team announced Tuesday. Bryant has been out of the league for two years.

Bryant appeared to acknowledge the deal in a tweet Tuesday: “My emotions running high right now… I’m thankful…I can’t stop crying”

The biggest question is when Bryant will suit up for the Ravens. Baltimore’s wide receivers rank last in the NFL in receptions (58) and receiving yards (737).

Bryant, 31, could become a physical possession-type receiver for reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and can complement the speed of Marquise Brown.

The addition of Bryant might lead to a high-profile reunion on Dec. 3, when the Ravens play host to the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday Night Football. Bryant starred for the Cowboys for eight seasons, totaling 531 receptions for 7,459 yards and a franchise-record 73 touchdown catches.

“Obviously, that’s kind of like an ‘OG’-type guy,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said when asked about Bryant on Monday. “He’s been around the league for a long, long time. He actually followed me on Twitter a year or two ago, so I’m excited to meet him, and I’m excited to [be] around him hopefully, and just learn.”

This marked Bryant’s second workout with Baltimore in two months. When Bryant left in August without a contract, he was told to improve his conditioning, a source said.

The Ravens are off to a fast start at 5-1, but their passing game ranks 31st in the NFL. It looks as if Jackson would benefit from another target on the outside because Brown is the only Baltimore wide receiver with more than 11 catches this season.

Bryant is attempting to become the second Pro Bowl wide receiver to miss two full seasons and then return to the NFL since the 1970 merger, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. Josh Gordon was the first.

Bryant hasn’t played in a game since December 2017.

In November 2018, Bryant signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. But he tore an Achilles tendon during his first practice with the Saints and has been out of the NFL since.

Bryant’s 531 career receptions would be the most by any wide receiver before missing two full seasons and then returning to the NFL, according to Elias’ data.

To make room for Bryant, the Ravens waived safety Marcus Gilchrist from the practice squad.


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Augusta National to host College GameDay during Masters



ESPN’s College GameDay Built By the Home Depot show has originated from dozens of college campuses across the country since 1993.

On Saturday, Nov. 14, the show will combine two of sport’s greatest traditions — college football and the Masters.

ESPN announced on Tuesday that College GameDay will originate from Augusta National Golf Club, which is hosting the postponed Masters Tournament next month, Nov. 12-15.

Top matchups that day are No. 9 Wisconsin at No. 13 Michigan and No. 2 Alabama at LSU.

“Any time College GameDay travels to a new destination, it’s special, and the opportunity to be on the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters is extraordinary,” said Jimmy Pitaro, chairman, ESPN and Sports Content. “As this iconic event coincides with the college football season for the first time, we look forward to getting fans ready for a football Saturday while also showcasing the Masters and the greatest golfers in the world.”

Longtime ESPN hosts Rece Davis, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and others will broadcast from the par-3 course from 9 a.m. to noon ET.

In its 13th year at the Masters, ESPN will once again televise the first and second rounds, Nov. 12-13, from 1 to 5:30 p.m. There will also be expanded coverage on ESPN+, including exclusive practice-round coverage Nov. 10-11.

Golf fans will also be able to watch featured holes coverage on ESPN+ on Nos. 4, 5 and 6 in each of the four rounds of the Masters.


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