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Inside the turbulent journey to Brian Ortega vs. Chan Sung Jung

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Angela Hill was sitting in the second row at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on March 7 as Joanna Jedrzejczyk was walking out to challenge women’s strawweight champion Zhang Weili in the co-main event of UFC 248.

Out of the corner of her eye, Hill saw UFC featherweight Brian Ortega coming toward the area where she was seated with her husband, Adam Blair Pryde, who was on her left.

“I’ve seen him a few times in person,” Hill said. “So I did one of those embarrassing things where I thought he was coming over to me. I was like, ‘Hey.’ But he wasn’t coming over to me.”

No, Ortega was looking past Hill, to the man sitting to her right. Ortega asked the man if he was Jay Park, the Korean pop star who is also the co-manager — and sometimes interpreter — for Ortega’s rival Chan Sung Jung, aka “Korean Zombie.”

Park said he was, and as Park got up, Ortega slapped him across the face with his right hand.

“It was really loud,” Hill said. “He just smacked the s— out of him.”

Park stumbled, but then tried to lunge toward Ortega. Hill held Park back, while Blair Pryde attempted to restrain Ortega. UFC and arena security were quickly on the scene. As he was being pulled away, Ortega could be heard in a video published on TMZ saying in the direction of Park: “I told you I’d slap you like a b—-.”

It was the first — and so far only — physical salvo in one of the most extraordinary rivalries in the UFC, a feud that has spanned more than a year. It has included social media smack talk, an endearing cultural gesture, an injury withdrawal and the open-handed slap of a non-fighter.

The one thing it hasn’t included? An actual fight between Ortega and Jung. That will change Saturday night in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Abu Dhabi. Ortega and Jung are two of the best and most exciting featherweight fighters in the world. When they clash on “Fight Island,” the winner will land a title shot against champion Alexander Volkanovski, according to UFC president Dana White.

“If Zombie still has negative feelings for what Brian did — which he has a right to do — it [ means] more to him than [just a sport],” said Ortega’s longtime Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach, Rener Gracie. “If Brian, even though he squashed it, still feels like the disrespect that was thrown his way warrants a response, then it’s more than the sport. That’s kind of up to them. That’s what the world has to wait to find out.”


Jung knocked out Renato Moicano with a bomb of a right hand in just 58 seconds on June 22, 2019. The talk of a potential fight between Ortega and Jung started heating up thereafter. The matchup made sense as both men were jockeying for position near the top of the featherweight rankings.

On the day of Jung’s knockout win, Ortega posted on Instagram, “September ready,” indicating when he would be ready to return from injuries he suffered in a title loss to Max Holloway seven months earlier. On July 15, 2019, Jung responded with “Me too,” adding the flags of South Korea and Mexico (Ortega is Mexican American). Four days later, Jung posted an edited side-by-side shot of himself and Ortega with the caption “What are you doing?” and the hashtag #answerme. Park, who has more than 4 million Instagram followers, commented on the post and tagged Ortega. “im a fan but my guy is calling you out!!” Park wrote.

Ortega fired back on July 24, 2019, referencing Jung’s KO losses: “I’m the real zombie. I don’t go down with head shots.”

On Aug. 2, 2019, Jung posted a Photoshopped image of himself as a zombie on Instagram with the caption: “Are you still scared of me ??” and the hashtag #chicken.

In an interview with MMAFighting.com on Aug. 22, 2019, Ortega questioned Jung’s trash talk and where it was coming from. Jung had not been known for aggressive posts like that.

“I want to give the fans a main event fight somewhere,” Ortega said. “‘Korean Zombie’ sounds good, especially after the fact that he’s talking s—, which is not like him, so I’m guessing there’s something behind that.”

On Sept. 23, 2019, Ortega vs. Zombie was finally booked for Dec. 21 in Busan, South Korea. Ortega posted on Instagram: “Who’s scared? I’m coming to you.”

Ortega flew to Seoul, South Korea, for a media tour to promote the UFC Busan main event on Oct. 14, 2019. While waiting for the news conference to begin, Ortega was approached by one of Jung’s interpreters. The interpreter said Jung wanted to apologize for the social media posts. Ortega said Jung should come over and say it himself, which he did. Ortega accepted. The hatchet — for the time being — was buried.

“If a grown-ass man comes up to you, says sorry and shakes your hand, that takes a lot from where I come from,” Ortega told ESPN recently. “I take that respect and said, ‘All right.’ Brush it under the rug and don’t worry about it.”

That day, Ortega said he also asked a member of Jung’s team what had spurred the recent trash talk. Ortega said he was told that it wasn’t Jung but Park, who manages Jung in South Korea. Ortega made a mental note of that. But Jung apologized, and that was good enough for Ortega.

In fact, Ortega wasn’t content with just positive words during the news conference. After the two did their traditional staredown after the presser, Ortega made a gesture, putting his index finger and thumb together and held it up to Jung. The gesture is called a “finger heart” and is popular in South Korea as a sign of endearment.

“There’s no need to hype up the fight in a negative way,” Ortega said. “The Korean heart and the love, the respect — the whole world saw that Korean heart — that’s the way I wanted it to be. That’s why I did it that way. I said, ‘Let’s make this funny, let’s make this real, let’s make this respectable.’ Let’s have fun in there.”

Jung was clearly stunned by the gesture. He put his face in his hands and patted Ortega on his shoulder. The two put their arms around each other’s shoulders and took photos for the media in attendance.

“We were on good terms,” Jung recently told ESPN through an interpreter. “He had good manners — the heart sign he gave. I had no animosity for him. … That’s a Korean thing that a lot of Americans don’t know, the heart sign with the fingers. I thought it was cute.”


The fight fell apart on Dec. 4. Ortega was forced to withdraw with a partial ACL tear. The news was a huge blow to Ortega, who had spent almost all of 2019 healing from injuries. Ortega had not fought since a fourth-round TKO (doctor’s stoppage) loss — the first of his career — to Holloway in a featherweight title fight at UFC 231 on Dec. 8, 2018.

“It was like, we’re finally here,” Ortega said. “Like this took way too f—ing long [to come back]. And then right before the fight another injury happened. Story of my f—ing life. Really? This had to happen?”

Former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, a man Ortega had already knocked out, filled in against Jung. It didn’t last long. “Zombie” finished Edgar at 3:18 of the first round via TKO.

With two straight first-round finishes, the surging Jung turned his attention to either Volkanovski, who was the current champ, or Holloway, the former champ. In an interview on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show on Feb. 10, Jung said he no longer had much interest in fighting Ortega.

“Ortega already ducked me one time,” Jung said via translation from Park. “I don’t need to fight a fighter that’s ducking me.”

That set Ortega off. He was frustrated by his injury and did not appreciate Jung — even assuming Park was the instigator — going back to trash talk after the two mended fences in Seoul. In the comments on the interview clip posted to the ESPN MMA Instagram account, Ortega commented: “Jay Park welcome to the fight game don’t be surprised if I slap the s— out of you when I see you.”

Ortega said Jung already had someone interpreting for him on the Helwani Show, Korean American Jung coach Eddie Cha. Ortega felt that Park’s role was to be an antagonist, and that ticked him off. With Park being one of Jung’s managers, along with Jason House in the United States, Ortega believed Park was trying to create some buzz.

“I feel like he knows that Korean Zombie is not going to do it,” Ortega said of the trash talk. “Which means, if you don’t stir up the pot, it won’t sell. If you don’t sell, [Park] don’t make money. He’s stirring up the pot, so [Jung] could get more attention, so [Park] could get more money. … It left a bitter taste in my mouth.”

Cha said it was his idea for Park to help with the interpreting on the Helwani Show. Park is a well-known musician worldwide and does have a flair for entertainment. But, Cha said, Park didn’t mistranslate anything that Jung had said. Cha said everything Jung writes on social media or says in interviews is Jung’s own words.

“It’s not gonna be a perfect translation any time you translate English to Korean and so forth,” Cha said. “It was literally the same thing. I think [Ortega] thought that [Park] was making him say those things and writing the script, which was totally absurd. I was right there. It wasn’t anything that Jay did. He was sitting there, just translating.”


play

1:04

Jay Park explains why he doesn’t understand Brian Ortega’s confrontation with him at UFC 248.

On March 7, 2020, Jung; his wife, Sun Young; Park; and House were sitting two rows from the cage for UFC 248. As the co-main event fighters entered the Octagon, Ortega made his way over to where Jung’s party was seated. Jung and his wife had stepped away, and Ortega made good on his Instagram promise — he confronted Park and slapped him across the face.

Security separated them and escorted Park to the greenroom backstage, where he met up with Jung, Sun Young, House and Cha. UFC executive vice president and chief business officer Hunter Campbell came into the room to see what was going on. So did Las Vegas Metro Police Department officers. Park was interviewed for an incident report. Jung sat there quietly, seething.

In an angry Instagram post, Jung wrote: “It was not a fight like real men would do. What you have done is same as a grown-up to beat a child. You should have attacked me. If so, I would have not been upset. You are such a coward for slapping a musician not a fighter … Now, your f—ing face stays in my mind and I will f— you up in the cage. I hope you won’t run away from me again.”

View this post on Instagram

My pride is my enemy, and over the last couple days I’ve been battling it. I hope you understand that I’m human and I’m flawed, in more ways than one. In the beginning, I justified my actions based on the series of events that led up to Saturday, but I now realize that what I did was wrong overall. My parents taught me dignity and respect, and I didn’t show that. My coaches have always taught me that martial arts are to empower the weak against the strong. On Saturday, that didn’t happen. _ When I make a mistake, I own the consequences. But in this case the negativity that I’ve caused has spilled over to the people closest to me, and that’s how I know that what I did was truly wrong. I’m sorry to you guys and my family. _ I apologize to @JParkitrighthere for my actions and the shit storm that followed, you deserve to enjoy MMA from outside the octagon just like any other fan. I apologize to @KoreanZombieMMA for dragging your friend into an equation that should start and end with the fighters.

A post shared by Brian Ortega (@briantcity) on Mar 11, 2020 at 2:41pm PDT

Jung’s team demanded Ortega apologize or Park would press charges. Two nights later, Ortega posted on Twitter that he was sorry for slapping the interpreter and the K-pop star but “I don’t apologize for slapping the ‘instigator.'” Ortega later deleted that post and tweeted a more formal apology March 10.

“I don’t want to take this dude’s money,” Park said March 9 on the Helwani Show. “I don’t want him to go to jail or anything like that. I don’t wish anything bad about him. It was just really weird. I don’t know what other way to put it. I don’t know what he was thinking. He needs to get his act together. Real talk.”

Per Las Vegas Metro PD spokesperson Larry Hadfield, Park has a year from the incident date to decide whether to pursue charges against Ortega. Because of that and the potential for a lawsuit, Ortega said he’d rather not speak in detail about what happened.

Ortega understands the backlash, though. What he did to Park seemed the polar opposite of how he has been viewed during his UFC run. Ortega is one of the UFC’s most popular fighters — he’s in Modelo commercials, is active in charities and rubs elbows with the likes of Robert Downey Jr.

“No one expected that from me,” Ortega said. “No one has ever seen that, no one ever expected it, from a media perspective. People who know me, they know me. They understand how I work and how I move. To the media, it’s always: I win, and I have positive things to say. But I’ve also said it in the media — none of these guys have ever tried to piss me off. I don’t have any reason to be mad. The guys I’m fighting are all respectful or they’re not talking s—. Why would I get mad at someone? I’m not gonna get mad unless you poke the bear. Understand? You poked the bear.

play

1:23

Brian Ortega describes the timeline of when he started to want more from his training camp and ulimately why he decided to make a change.

“You want to f—ing be a Chihuahua and walk around a pit bull and start barking loud, don’t be mad if they f—ing nip at you. There’s a reason why [fighters] walk in the room — you can be a celebrity, you can be anyone — when we walk in the room, there’s a certain sign of respect, because they know what we do. There’s no games involved, and it’s real blood, real sweat, real tears and real f—ing physical pain.”

Ortega grew up in San Pedro, California, the hard-scrabble Harbor area of Los Angeles. In a way, Gracie said, the slap was a bit of a reminder that Ortega didn’t have the easiest upbringing.

“There’s definitely a different code of human interaction that Brian was used to growing up,” Gracie said. “Which is why he doesn’t go there. Up until now in his career, we’ve known nothing like this of him. It’s just happy, smiling, super chill, loving his fans, super interactive. But when you provoke him, you get his past and to some degree the core of who he is — not by choice but by circumstances. When you trigger that, you deal with the consequences. There’s no doubt.

“You want Brian on your team. You don’t ever want Brian against you. Because if he’s on your team, he’ll die for you. And if he’s against you, there’s no limit. That’s what it is.”

Jung’s team, though, saw it differently.

“[Park] isn’t a fighter,” Cha said. “He’s a pop star, he’s a rapper. He’s a businessman. He’s 130-something pounds. It’s just a bully move. It’s like a reporter, if you translate something and a No. 3 fighter in the world goes and hits you, that’s some punk s—.”


On March 11, Ortega posted a more robust apology on Instagram, writing that “I now realize that what I did was wrong overall.” Jung accepted the apology in his own post and said he was also sorry.

“It’s not about Jay or anything else. [Jung is] just focused on Brian. He knows what’s at stake. He’s never once brought that up, used it as fuel or anything else. It’s already motivation enough to win when you get in the top five and there’s a potential title shot [on the line].” Eddie Cha
Chan Jung Sung’s Korean American coach

“I too, apologize for trash talking,” Jung wrote. “I thought my fans were enjoying it but what happened taught me to be more careful. Also, I realized this was not the person that I really am. We have only one more thing left between us and that is the fight. I will fight you and I will beat you, I really will.”

Ortega said he definitely has regrets about how things transpired.

“One hundred percent I wish it played out differently,” Ortega said. “I didn’t want this. I always try to have a good rep in the UFC. I always wanted a good name for myself, and I didn’t want to mess it up. I have a good record with the UFC and these guys. I’ve been doing good, I’ve been on good behavior.

“We all need reminders in life. ‘You’re acting this way, you’re doing that.’ That was just a reminder that I cannot act the way I used to act. Like, ‘Brian, you can’t just be going around and slapping people and doing s— like that and checking people.’ You’re getting to a spot where you’re being recognized. People look up to you whether you like it or not. You’re a role model to people, whether you like it or not.”

Jung and Park are also ready to move forward. Park declined to be interviewed for this piece and will not be in Abu Dhabi this week, Cha said, because he wants the focus to be on Jung.

“Now, it’s all business,” Cha said of Jung. “We’re focused on the fight. It’s not about Jay or anything else. [Jung is] just focused on Brian. He just wants to go out there and compete. He knows what’s at stake. He’s a professional. He’s never once brought that up, used it as fuel or anything else. It’s already motivation enough to win when you get in the top five and there’s a potential title shot [on the line].”

ESPN has Ortega ranked No. 3 and Jung at No. 8 in its featherweight rankings.

The stakes are very high, and the bad blood might be on the back burner, which is kind of ironic, considering the real violence is about to commence.

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

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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

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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

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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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