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  • MLB notebook: Mets' Familia suspended 15 games
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    New York Mets closer Jeurys Familia has been suspended 15 games for an offseason domestic violence incident, Major League Baseball announced Wednesday.

    • Familia, 27, was arrested in Fort Lee, N.J., on Oct. 31 after he allegedly caused a scratch to the chest and a bruise to the right cheek of his wife, Bianca Rivas. The misdemeanor simple-assault charge was dropped against Familia in December after the prosecutor told the judge that Rivas did not wish for the case to be pursued any further.

      Commissioner Rob Manfred met with Familia on Monday to discuss the incident.

      Familia will not appeal the suspension and can continue participating in spring training and exhibition games prior to Mets' Opening Day game on Monday against the Atlanta Braves. He forfeits 18 days of pay, worth more than $700,000, according to reports.

      --Mets left-hander Steven Matz will not be ready for the start of the regular season, manager Terry Collins confirmed.

      Matz continued to experience discomfort in his pitching elbow and was sent for an MRI exam. He was scratched from his scheduled Grapefruit League start on Monday.

      "He still feels it," Collins said. "We thought it would be important to get it looked at."

      Matz, 25, underwent Tommy John surgery earlier in his career, but he was reassured by doctors earlier in the week that he has no ligament damage in the elbow.

      --Boston Red Sox utility infielder Josh Rutledge will start the season on the disabled list after straining his left hamstring in a Grapefruit League game on Tuesday night.

      Red Sox manager John Farrell said that Rutledge will "require some time" off to recover and would likely open the season on the 10-day DL, according to the Providence Journal.

      Rutledge, 27, emerged this spring as a candidate to play some first and third base against lefties. He hit .265 with three RBIs in 28 games for the Red Sox last season.

      --Rotation questions for the Seattle Mariners could be amplified after left-hander Drew Smyly was scratched from his scheduled Friday start with an unspecified arm injury.

      Smyly, one day after being named the No. 4 starter and scheduled to take the ball in the series finale of the season-opening four-game set against the Astros, is now up in the air for that game and beyond.

      He spent much of the spring participating in the World Baseball Classic.

  • Mets LHP Matz won't be on Opening Day roster
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    New York Mets left-hander Steven Matz will not be ready for the start of the regular season, manager Terry Collins confirmed Wednesday.

    • Matz continued to experience discomfort in his pitching elbow and was sent for an MRI exam on Wednesday. He was scratched from his scheduled Grapefruit League start on Monday.

      "He still feels it," Collins said. "We thought it would be important to get it looked at."

      Matz, 25, underwent Tommy John surgery earlier in his career, but he was reassured by doctors earlier in the week that he has no ligament damage in the elbow.

      Matz said he felt tenderness before his last outing on March 22 after giving up five runs and eight hits in four innings against the Miami Marlins. He is 1-1 with a 4.26 ERA in four starts this spring.

      In 22 starts last year, Matz was 9-8 with a 3.40 ERA over 132 1/3 innings before being shut down in September.

      With Matz's availability in doubt, Collins announced his starting rotation for the first three games of the season. Noah Syndergaard will start the opener and be following by fellow right-handers Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey.

      Syndergaard went 14-9 with a 2.60 ERA in 31 appearances (30 starts) last season. The flame-throwing 24-year-old struck out 218 batters in 183 2/3 innings. The 6-foot-6 Syndergaard was 9-7 with a 3.24 ERA in his rookie season in 2015.

      DeGrom, the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, had his 2016 season curtailed due to elbow surgery to remove scar tissue in his right elbow. He posted a 7-8 mark with a 3.04 ERA in 24 appearances after winning 14 games the previous year.

      Harvey also is making his way back from surgery. He went 4-10 with a 4.86 ERA in 17 starts last year before season-ending surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome in his right shoulder.

      An All-Star in 2013, Harvey missed the 2014 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He is 29-28 with a 2.94 ERA in 82 starts over four seasons.

  • MLB roundup: Wacha, Cards cruise past Nationals
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    Michael Wacha earned his fourth win of the spring as the St. Louis Cardinals broke camp with a 6-2 victory over the Washington Nationals on Wednesday in Jupiter, Fla.

    • Wacha fanned four in four innings and gave up two runs, including Ryan Zimmerman's solo homer in the third. Matt Carpenter drove in two runs for the Cardinals without an official at-bat, and Jose Martinez added a two-run double.

      Mets 2, Braves 2

      A passed ball by Blake Lalli allowed Kevin Kaczmarski to score the tying run in the top of the ninth inning as New York forged a tie with Atlanta in Orlando, Fla. Lalli's homer gave the Braves a 2-1 lead in the seventh. Tim Tebow played left field for the Mets and went 0-for-3, walking in the ninth prior to Lalli's passed ball.

      Twins 5, Red Sox 3

      Byung-Ho Park clubbed a two-run homer in the top of the eighth as Minnesota rallied to beat Boston in Fort Myers, Fla. Park finished with three RBIs for the Twins. Xander Bogaerts and Pablo Sandoval walloped solo shots for the Red Sox, while Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello tuned up for his Opening Day start by working four innings.

      Phillies (ss) 8, Pirates 2

      Aaron Altherr, Cameron Perkins and Maikel Franco each cracked a solo homer as a Philadelphia split squad stopped Pittsburgh in Bradenton, Fla. All three homers were belted off Gerrit Cole, who pitched three innings in preparation for his Opening Day start. Altherr and Franco each knocked in two runs.

      Phillies (ss) 8, Tigers 2

      Daniel Nava touched Justin Verlander for a three-run homer as a Philadelphia split squad dumped Detroit in Lakeland, Fla. Rhys Hoskins and Brock Stassi also cracked solo shots for the Phillies while Michael Saunders tripled home a run. Verlander allowed four runs and five hits in his final tuneup before Opening Day.

      Yankees 3, Blue Jays 1

      Aaron Judge went 2-for-3 with an RBI as New York edged Toronto in Dunedin, Fla. Jordan Montgomery pitched five innings to earn the win for the Yankees, scattering six hits and fanning four. J.A. Happ allowed only two hits and a run over four innings for the Blue Jays, recording a pair of strikeouts.

      Marlins 5, Astros 5

      Each team scored three runs in the ninth inning, leading to a tie in West Palm Beach, Fla. Dan Straily cruised through six innings for Miami, giving up just five hits and a run with no walks and four strikeouts. Derek Fisher belted a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth for Houston, which broke camp after this game.

      Rays 15, Orioles 6

      Peter Bourjos, Nick Franklin and Shane Peterson each homered in a 12-run sixth inning as Tampa Bay outslugged Baltimore in Port Charlotte, Fla. The newly acquired Bourjos also singled home a run in the inning, which saw Tim Beckham add a two-run single. Hyun Soo Kim and Chris Dickerson each homered for the Orioles.

      Angels 8, Brewers 6

      Scoring four runs in the first inning and four more in the sixth, Los Angeles notched a win over Milwaukee in Maryvale, Ariz. C.J. Cron and Ryan LaMarre each homered in the sixth for the Angels, with LaMarre's blast supplying the winning runs. Travis Shaw homered and drove in three runs for the Brewers, who also got a solo shot from Jesus Aguilar.

      Indians 9, Reds 6

      Cleveland and Cincinnati combined for seven homers in Goodyear, Ariz., with the Indians coming out on top in the slugfest. Yandy Diaz, Michael Brantley, Brandon Guyer and Francisco Lindor all went yard for Cleveland, while Jose Peraza, Adam Duvall and newest Red Scooter Gennett countered with the long ball in a losing cause.

      Padres 9, White Sox 9

      San Diego and Chicago teamed to knock eight balls over the fence at Glendale, Ariz., in a tie game. Austin Hedges walloped two homers for the Padres, which also got homers from Wil Myers and Erick Aybar. Tyler Saladino, Jose Abreu, Nicky Delmonico and Jake Peter went deep for the White Sox. Peter's two-run shot in the bottom of the eighth wiped out a 9-7 San Diego lead.

      Rangers 0, Royals 0

      Unlike most Cactus League games Wednesday, pitching dominated this one as Kansas City and Texas couldn't dent the plate in Surprise, Ariz. Dillon Gee fanned nine in six innings for the Rangers, allowing only two hits. Danny Duffy's final tune-up before Opening Day was a success as he worked four innings for the Royals, permitting just three hits.

      Cubs 15, Athletics 11

      Pitching and defense were optional in Mesa, Ariz., as Chicago outscored Oakland. Kyle Schwarber belted two homers for the Cubs, Alfredo Almora Jr. cracked a grand slam and Willson Contreras also homered. Marcus Semien, Andrew Lambo and Matt McBride each homered for the Athletics, who lost despite an eight-run fourth inning.

      Dodgers 3, Mariners 3

      Ryan Casteel's RBI double in the bottom of the ninth enabled Seattle to tie Los Angeles in Peoria, Ariz. Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager touched Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw for RBI hits in the first. Kershaw pitched three innings in his final tune-up before Opening Day, giving up two hits and two runs with two walks and no strikeouts.

  • Mets closer Familia suspended 15 games
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    New York Mets closer Jeurys Familia has been suspended 15 games for an offseason domestic violence incident, Major League Baseball announced Wednesday.

    • Familia, 27, was arrested in Fort Lee, N.J., on Oct. 31 after he allegedly caused a scratch to the chest and a bruise to the right cheek of his wife, Bianca Rivas. The misdemeanor simple-assault charge was dropped against Familia in December after the prosecutor told the judge that Rivas did not wish for the case to be pursued any further.

      Commissioner Rob Manfred met with Familia on Monday to discuss the incident.

      Familia will not appeal the suspension and can continue participating in spring training and exhibition games prior to Mets' Opening Day game on Monday against the Atlanta Braves. He forfeits 18 days of pay, worth more than $700,000, according to reports.

      "Mr. Familia and his wife cooperated fully throughout the investigation, including submitting to in-person interviews with MLB's Department of Investigations," Manfred said in a statement. "... The evidence reviewed by my office does not support a determination that Mr. Familia physically assaulted his wife, or threatened her or others with physical force or harm, on October 31, 2016. Nevertheless, I have concluded that Mr. Familia's overall conduct that night was inappropriate, violated the Policy, and warrants discipline.

      "It is clear that Mr. Familia regrets what transpired that night and takes full responsibility for his actions "... (He) received a favorable evaluation from the counselor regarding his willingness to take concrete steps to ensure that he is not involved in another incident of this type. Further, he has agreed to speak to other players about what he has learned through this process, and to donate time and money to local organizations aimed at the prevention of, and the treatment of victims of, domestic violence."

      Under the terms of his suspension, Famila will make appearances at MLB's rookie programs in the United States and the Dominican Republic, and will make an appearance for a domestic violence group in New York. He already completed a dozen 90-minute counseling sessions.

      "With all that has been written and discussed regarding this matter, it is important that it be known that I never physically touched, harmed or threatened my wife that evening," Familia said Wednesday in a statement issued by the MLB Players Association. "I did, however, act in an unacceptable manner and am terribly disappointed in myself. I am alone to blame for the problems of that evening.

      "My wife and I cooperated fully with Major League Baseball's investigation, and I've taken meaningful steps to assure that nothing like this will ever happen again. I have learned from this experience, and have grown as a husband, a father, and a man."

      Familia was a first-time All-Star last year and led the majors with a team-record 51 saves, finishing with a 2.55 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings for the Mets in 2016. He pitched for the Dominican Republic during the recent World Baseball Classic.

      The Mets plan to use Addison Reed as their closer in Familia's absence. Reed, 28, was 4-2 with 1.97 ERA in 77 2/3 innings last season.

  • Red Sox INF Rutledge to open season on DL
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    Boston Red Sox utility infielder Josh Rutledge will start the season on the disabled list after straining his left hamstring in a Grapefruit League game on Tuesday night.

    • Red Sox manager John Farrell said Wednesday that Rutledge will "require some time" off to recover and would likely open the season on the 10-day DL, according to the Providence Journal.

      Rutledge, 27, emerged this spring as a candidate to play some first and third base against lefties. He hit .265 with three RBIs in 28 games for the Red Sox last season.

      First baseman Mitch Moreland was a late scratch from the lineup on Wednesday due to the flu. Farrell said Moreland was sent home and will be quarantined for three days.

      The Red Sox are hoping Moreland will be ready for Opening Day on Monday against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Fenway Park.

  • Mariners scratch Smyly from spring start
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    Rotation questions for the Seattle Mariners could be amplified after left-hander Drew Smyly was scratched from his scheduled Friday start with an unspecified arm injury.

    • Smyly, one day after being named the No. 4 starter and scheduled to take the ball in the series finale of the season-opening four-game set against the Astros, is now up in the air for that game and beyond.

      He spent much of the spring participating in the World Baseball Classic.

      Smyly returned in 2016 from a shoulder injury the previous season. He was acquired by the Mariners in an offseason trade with the Tampa Bay Rays.

      Mariners manager Scott Servais did not specify the extent or nature of the arm injury. Smyly is scheduled to visit a specialist Thursday.

      Servais described Smyly's issue as a "soggy" arm.

  • Nationals season preview: Looking for back-to-back titles
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    WASHINGTON -- The Nationals have won the National League East in three of the last five seasons, with a title in the even numbered years of 2012, 2014 and 2016.

    • And rookie manager Matt Williams won the division in his first year at the helm in 2014 with the club, just as veteran skipper Dusty Baker did in 2016. And the club has yet to win a playoff series.

      So obviously Washington and general manager Mike Rizzo hopes those trends do not continue this season under Baker, getting ready for his second season in the nation's capital. Baker enters the season in the last of a two-year contract he signed with the Nationals.

      Among the new faces in the everyday lineup are center fielder Adam Eaton and catcher Matt Wieters. In addition, Trea Turner, who played mostly center field as a rookie last year, will start at shortstop after he hit .342 with 33 steals in 73 games last season.

      Eaton was acquired during the winter meetings -- held about 10 miles south of Nationals Park -- in December as the Nationals sent young pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning to the Chicago White for the veteran outfielder.

      The trade meant the loss of Giolito and Lopez, who both made their major league debuts in 2016.

      "Adam is a real good (addition) for us," Rizzo said during spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida. "He grinds out at-bats. He plays a great center field. He brings a lot of dynamics to the ballclub. He gives us another quality at-bat in the lineup. He will be a great grinder at the plate."

      Wieters was signed as a free agent in February after he spent all of his big league career just north of Washington with the Baltimore Orioles. He is a switch-hitter who has taken a hit from the sabermetrics folks due to poor pitch-framing.

      "He was several weeks behind when he came here," Rizzo said. "There is a big learning curve for him. He is a fine catcher who calls a great game. He makes our lineup stronger and longer. He will be one of the leaders in the clubhouse. He is a great addition to the ballclub."

      The other returning regulars include several big personalities and/or contracts: right fielder Bryce Harper, left fielder Jayson Werth and right-handed starters Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

      Harper dropped to .243 with 24 homers last year after he was the Most Valuable Player in 2015 when he hit .330 with 42 homers.

      Werth hit .244 with 28 doubles and 21 homers last year. Scherzer was the Cy Young Award winner as he went 20-7 with a 2.96 ERA while Strasburg, who will make the Opening Day start Monday against the Miami Marlins, was 15-4 with 3.60 ERA in 24 starts in 2016.

      Scherzer came to camp with a fracture on his right finger but pitched five scoreless innings on March 27 against the New York Mets. "I am on pace to start the season," Scherzer said. "Our core is intact. We are always going to be fighting in September."

      First baseman Ryan Zimmerman looks to bounce back after hitting .218 with 15 homers in 115 games last season. "Zim has been working on his approach and his mechanics," Rizzo said. "He likes where his stroke is. He will be ready when the bell rings."

      The big question mark is who will be the closer for the Nationals.

      Mark Melancon was very effective down the stretch last year after he was acquired in a trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

      But the Colorado native signed a four-year deal with the San Francisco Giants, and the Nationals also lost out on free agent Kenley Jansen -- who stayed with the Dodgers. "We made competitive offers to both," Rizzo said.

      The in-house candidates to start the year as the closer are right-handers Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Koda Glover. Rizzo said of Glover: "He has closer stuff."

  • Mets season preview: No major moves from 2016 playoff team
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    General manager Sandy Alderson expressed his faith in the New York Mets' core talent and its ability to produce a franchise-record third straight playoff berth by making no major additions or subtractions to the team that fell to the San Francisco Giants in the National League wild-card game.

    • "We have roughly the same squad coming back, but I do think we have the capacity to improve, whether that comes through injury or experience or growth of some of the young players," Alderson said at his season-opening press conference in February. "I really think that we have the potential to be better than we have been."

      Of course, to reach that potential, everything will have to go according to plan -- which, for a famously star-crossed franchise, is almost as unprecedented as three straight playoff trips. And sure enough, the Mets were reminded of the fragile nature of their 2017 hopes as they prepared to break camp in the final days of March.

      Left-hander Steven Matz, expected to be the fourth starter in a vaunted rotation, missed his final scheduled Grapefruit League start due to a sore elbow. Matz's ailment underscored not only his checkered health history -- he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010 and has battled lat, elbow and shoulder injuries in his first two big league seasons -- but also the fact that none of the Mets' starters have ever thrown 200 innings in a season.

      Projected fourth outfielder Juan Lagares suffered an oblique strain during the final weekend of exhibition play. Lagares is the only true center fielder on the roster, so any extended absence will remove the safety net beneath 36-year-old Curtis Granderson, who will start in center this season for the first time since 2012.

      No player 36 or older has played 100 games in center since 36-year-old Mike Cameron did so for the Brewers in 2009. And no playoff team has featured a center fielder 36 or older since the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series with 36-year-old Jim Edmonds in center field in 2006.

      Granderson is one of seven projected starters who is at least 30 years old. The Mets chose to hang on to their lone 20-something, catcher Travis d'Arnaud, instead of pursuing free agents Matt Wieters and Derek Norris.

      But d'Arnaud, who struggled hitting and throwing last season due to a shoulder injury, gave up 12 stolen bases in Grapefruit League play. Manager Terry Collins acknowledged d'Arnaud would likely not catch ace Noah Syndergaard due to his inability to contain the running game.

      The Matz and Lagares injuries and d'Arnaud throwing woes won't instantly derail the Mets, who remain focused on winning their second pennant in three years and the franchise's first world championship since 1986.

      "We've got some big pieces," Collins told the New York Post in January. "You've got to say we're a playoff team again. I want us to grasp those expectations that are in front of us and run with them."

      But the news coming from Port St. Lucie late in spring training was a reminder it is also impossible to forget the Mets' floor -- and the shutting of a championship window for a team built on cost-controlled pitching and veteran position talent -- feels as close as their ceiling.

      "These guys are legit," Collins said in February.

      As long as they're healthy, that is.

  • Marlins season preview: Flawed rotation without Fernandez
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    There is a huge collective hole in the heart of Miami Marlins coaches, players and fans, and there is a similarly sized chasm in their rotation.

    • The death late last season of ace pitcher Jose Fernandez caused that spiritual wound as well as that void on the mound, and it's nearly impossible to see the 2017 Marlins as a playoff team without him.

      This is a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since 2003 and has been stuck at 70-something wins in each of the past three years.

      The Marlins added Edinson Volquez and Dan Straily to their rotation, and brought in a couple of relievers, most notably Brad Ziegler. But, mostly, this is the same team that won 79 games last year, minus their superstar pitcher in the late, great Jose.

      Spring training has been relatively uneventful except for the hamstring injury that starting third baseman Martin Prado suffered while competing for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic.

      Miami's young starting lineup is the strength of the team, with speedy Dee Gordon batting leadoff, emerging star Christian Yelich in the three-hole and feared slugger Giancarlo Stanton batting cleanup.

      The bullpen has the potential to be above average. If that happens, it could mask some of the flaws of a below-average rotation.

      But if the Marlins fall short of the playoffs yet again, at least Yelich and Stanton can take solace in the fact that they won a championship with Team USA in the WBC earlier this month.

      "Pop bottles for America," Yelich told The Miami Herald regarding his team's champagne celebration. "It was the most fun I've ever had playing baseball."

      Don't look for 2017 to be nearly that much fun for the Marlins.

  • Blue Jays season preview: Raised expectations
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    The Toronto Blue Jays ended a long absence from the postseason fray in the past two seasons but suffered disappointing exits in each, falling in the American League Championship Series to the Kansas City Royals and the Cleveland Indians.

    • The October runs marked the first postseason appearances for the Blue Jays since 1993, when they won the second of two consecutive World Series championships.

      Now, merely making the postseason and reaching the ALCS is not good enough. The club talks about taking it one step farther to the World Series.

      "We feel good," manager John Gibbons said. "It's a little bit different look and a few new faces, but we feel confident. Our goal is to get one step further, to get to that World Series."

      They will have to do it without Edwin Encarnacion and the 42 homers and the 127 RBIs he provided last season before being allowed to escape as a free agent to the Cleveland Indians.

      The only thing that can save management from this mishandled negotiation is if designated hitter Kendrys Morales, a rather quick signing by Toronto when Encarnacion was still available, has a monster season.

      The Blue Jays were an offensive juggernaut in 2015. Last season, the hitting faltered at times, particularly early, and the starting pitching became the strength. J.A. Happ finished with a 20-4 record while Aaron Sanchez led the American League with a 3.00 ERA to go along with a 15-2 record.

      "It's been exciting around here the last couple of years," Gibbons said. "It's changed everything in the organization and the outlook on us. We've always had expectations, but they weren't always realistic, probably. In this game, you figure that out the longer you are in it. But we think we're one of the better squads out there."

      Right-hander Marco Estrada will get the start on Opening Day in Baltimore against the Orioles, followed by Happ and Marcus Stroman, who was the World Baseball Classic MVP. Francisco Liriano, who has had a brilliant spring will slot fourth, while Sanchez occupies the No. 5 slot.

      Closing will be Roberto Osuna, who has 56 career saves despite just having turned 22.

      There is reason for optimism.

      If the hitting can overcome the loss of Encarnacion and the pitching carries on from last season, then the Blue Jays have a chance in the American League East against the Boston Red Sox, who appear improved over the team that won the division in 2016.

      After winning the division with a late-season surge in 2015, the Blue Jays needed extra innings to beat the Baltimore Orioles in the wild-card game in 2016.

      Encarnacion may be gone, but Jose Bautista returned after a season in which he was hampered by injuries. A stiff back forced him to miss the final game of the WBC, but Bautista has been able to return to action since coming back to camp and is impressing his manager.

      "I've never seen him look better," Gibbons said. "He shows up ready to go. He's capable of a monster year like he's really had in his time in Toronto. I expect him to have a big year; but, more importantly, he expects to have a big year."

      Another good sign is that second baseman Devon Travis has overcome offseason arthroscopic knee surgery and expects to be ready to lead off on Opening Day.

      He could be on the verge of a breakout season after batting .301/.342/.469 with 19 homers and 85 RBIs in 163 games over two injury-interrupted seasons since being acquired in a trade with the Detroit Tigers.

      There is a big question in left field, where the team would like Steve Pearce to play much of the time. Melvin Upton Jr. and Ezequiel Carrera are among the other possibilities for playing time in that spot. Justin Smoak has not had a strong spring training hitting, and his struggles could mean Pearce getting more playing time at first base.

      If the Blue Jays are in contention as the season progresses, do not be surprised if they are buyers before the trade deadline. Just reaching the postseason is not good enough anymore.

  • Orioles season preview: Searching for starting pitching
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    The Baltimore Orioles faced a few major questions in the offseason, and they answered most of them.

    • They'll platoon, in some form, the corner outfield spots. Welington Castillo takes over for Matt Wieters as the regular catcher, and they re-signed Mark Trumbo.

      But the biggest question will take a while to answer: Is the starting rotation strong enough to carry this team?

      What made that question even tougher to answer is the shoulder soreness that sidelined No. 1 starter Chris Tillman. There's no projected date yet for his return after he missed nearly all of spring training and even got a cortisone shot in mid-March.

      Kevin Gausman is coming off a strong second half of 2016, and manager Buck Showalter said the right-hander will take the ball on Opening Day vs. the Toronto Blue Jays. Gausman really helped carry the Orioles to a playoff appearance last year and threw well again in spring training.

      "I felt good in the spring," Gausman told The Baltimore Sun. "I've been throwing the ball well, throwing a lot of strikes. I'm happy with where I'm at right now.'

      Dylan Bundy will pitch next, and after that comes Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jimenez -- in some order -- with no fifth starter needed until mid-month. There's still a question as to who will go in the No. 5 spot. It could be left-handers Jayson Aquino or Chris Lee or right-hander Tyler Wilson as Tillman likely won't be ready.

      The bullpen should be strong again, led by closer Zach Britton (47-for-47 in save opportunities last year) and right-handers Darren O'Day and All-Star Brad Brach. But they've also got some younger pitchers who really helped in 2016 and could do even more this year; right-hander Mychal Givens and left-hander Donnie Hart have impressed manager Buck Showalter.

      "That's what you look for -- guys who kind of came onto the scene," Showalter told The Baltimore Sun. "Are they continuing to grow? Are they taking the experiences they've had and using them? There's a certain calmness and tempo to their workouts, to everything. You can tell they're moving to the finish line."

      The offense and defense will give the starters plenty of support, but they don't want to win games by having to outscore the opposition. That's too risky, and it happened too often in 2016.

      Baltimore led the major leagues with 253 homers last year and finished with five players who hit at least 25 home runs. All of them, including Trumbo (MLB-best 47 homers) return, but the Orioles should have more speed this year thanks to outfielders Joey Rickard, Craig Gentry and Seth Smith.

      The defense also should be solid. Losing catcher Matt Wieters to free agency hurts, but the infield will be solid, and center fielder Adam Jones, one of the best in baseball, anchors the outfield.

      In the end, the biggest issue once again comes back to the starting rotation. If Tillman remains out for a long period, what will the Orioles do in the No. 5 spot? And can Miley and Jimenez find the consistency they couldn't last year?

      Also, can Gausman and Bundy pitch consistently in the top two spots? These are questions to which the Orioles need good answers if they want to make the playoffs once more.

  • Braves season preview: Hoping to surprise
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, March 29, 2017

    LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Atlanta Braves have confidence that the offensive improvement they showed the final two months a year ago wasn't a mirage, and they think that the three stop-gap veteran starters added for 2017 will stabilize the rotation.

    • If that is the case, the Braves could outperform most predictions and avoid a third straight losing season as they move into their new suburban ballpark just outside Atlanta.

      The Braves won 20 of their last 30 games in 2016 to finish 37-35 after the All-Star break, and that took some of the sting away from another season of more than 90 loses.

      "We had a really good second half," Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said. "The players feel that they can compete and win this year."

      The Braves went from averaging 3.4 runs per game to 5.2 after acquiring veteran outfielder Matt Kemp from the San Diego Padres and promoting shortstop Dansby Swanson from the minors.

      First baseman Freddie Freeman thrived with Kemp batting behind him and there were usually runners on base, with center fielder Ender Inciarte turning red hot from the leadoff spot.

      "We all liked where we were at the end of last season," said manager Brian Snitker, who took over a team that was 9-28 before Fredi Gonzalez was fired.

      The pitching, though, remained iffy in 2016 and the bulk of the young mound talent the Braves have acquired in their rebuilt is still a year or more away.

      That's why the Braves signed 40-somethings Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey and traded for Jamie Garcia.

      "We added three veteran pitchers and didn't touch our farm system," general manager John Coppolella said. "I think we've given ourselves a much better chance to compete this year."

      Two-time All-Star Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz, impressive this spring, fill out the rotation and veteran Jim Johnson was re-signed as the closer.

      If the Braves are to win 80 or more games, though, it likely will be mainly because of their lineup, which was further boosted with the addition of second baseman Brandon Phillips.

      "I feel we can go out there and win, especially with these veteran guys we brought in," said Kemp, who had 35 homers and 108 RBIs with the Braves and Padres last year. "Hopefully the last two months (of 2016) can be a whole season."

      "When we traded for Matt, it showed we were ready to win," said Freeman, who had 34 homers and hit .302 a year ago after batting .365 in the final 50 games. "The optimism is high. It should be an exciting season."

  • Rays season preview: Hoping for better health
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, March 28, 2017

    The 2016 Tampa Bay Rays lost 94 games -- their most in nine years and their first last-place finish since that same 2007 season -- but there is optimism that a healthier, upgraded roster can again have the team competing again in the American League East.

    • Even so, there are lingering questions about Kevin Cash's squad.

      After dealing players at last year's trade deadline, most notably left-hander Matt Moore to the San Francisco Giants, the Rays continued to make moves in the offseason, sending lefty Drew Smyly to the Seattle Mariners and second baseman Logan Forsythe to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

      Without significantly changing their payroll, Tampa Bay added pieces as well, including outfielders Colby Rasmus and Mallex Smith, infielder Rickie Weeks and catchers Derek Norris and Wilson Ramos.

      Injuries will be a factor early in the season, with Rasmus, shortstop Matt Duffy and reliever Brad Boxberger opening the season on the disabled list.

      Despite dealing away two starters from last year, the rotation will be counted upon as a team strength, which means ace Chris Archer must be much improved from his disappointing 9-19 record last season. If he can regain his All-Star form, the Rays could get back to possessing a dangerous pitching staff.

      Along those lines, Alex Cobb must come back from injury to his old self, Blake Snell must improve on his rookie season and Jake Odorizzi and Matt Andriese need to provide solid starts, with closer Alex Colome anchoring a largely rebuilt bullpen.

      Duffy will be the team's everyday shortstop once healthy, with Brad Miller and his surprisingly impressive bat taking over at second base. Weeks can play first, as can returning veteran Logan Morrison, with Evan Longoria unchanged as a fan favorite at third base.

      Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, fresh off another Gold Glove season, was rewarded with a lucrative extension this spring, and the Rays will need fellow outfielders Corey Dickerson, Rasmus and Steven Souza to stay healthy after multiple injuries decimated the Rays' outfield last season.

  • MLB roundup: Giants rally past Cubs
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, March 28, 2017

    Chris Marrero hit a go-ahead three-run homer in the top of the ninth, and Justin Ruggiano and Tim Federowicz each hit solo shots later in the inning as the San Francisco Giants rallied for a 10-7 victory over the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday at Mesa, Ariz.

    • Denard Span led off the game with a homer for San Francisco. Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta struck out seven in four innings but gave up three runs and five hits.

      Dodgers (ss) 3, Padres 1

      Bobby Wilson drilled a two-run homer to lead Los Angeles over San Diego at Glendale, Ariz. Right-hander Chris Hatcher pitched two hitless innings of relief for the victory. Hunter Renfroe had a run-scoring double for the Padres.

      Twins 1, Rays 0

      Byung Ho Park homered in the seventh inning to lift Minnesota over Tampa Bay at Fort Myers, Fla. Four Twins hurlers limited the Rays to five hits and walk. Logan Morrison and Daniel Robertson had two hits apiece for Tampa Bay.

      Brewers 13, Indians 12

      Pinch hitter Mitch Ghelfi hit the game-winning single with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning as Milwaukee defeated Cleveland at Phoenix. Orlando Arcia hit two homers for the Brewers, and Ryan Braun, Eric Sogard and Jesus Aguilar each hit one. Daniel Robertson went 3-for-4 with three RBIs for the Indians.

      Orioles 5, Braves 4

      Austin Hays drove in the go-ahead run with a two-out single in the top of the ninth inning as Baltimore edged Atlanta at Kissimmee, Fla. Pedro Alvarez contributed a two-run single for the Orioles. Matt Tuiasosopo had a two-run double for the Braves.

      Astros 7, Marlins (ss) 3

      Brian McCann hit a two-run homer as Houston knocked off Miami at Jupiter, Fla. Astros ace left-hander Dallas Keuchel allowed three runs and six hits over 4 2/3 innings. Giancarlo Stanton slugged his second homer of the spring for the Marlins.

      Reds 9, Dodgers (ss) 3

      Adam Duvall homered twice and drove in four runs as Cincinnati defeated Los Angeles at Goodyear, Ariz. Arismendy Alcantara also homered for the Reds. Cody Bellinger hit a two-run homer and Will Smith added a solo shot for the Dodgers.

      Angels 14, Athletics 3

      Martin Maldonado hit a three-run homer as part of a five-RBI day as Los Angeles hammered Oakland at Tempe, Ariz. B.J. Boyd had two hits and an RBI for the Athletics.

      Diamondbacks 15, Mariners 6

      Marty Herum hit a grand slam and Kris Negron belted a three-run shot as Arizona routed Seattle at Peoria, Ariz. Brandon Drury, A.J. Pollock, Jake Lamb and David Peralta also homered for the Diamondbacks. Jean Segura had three hits and Mike Zunino hit a two-run homer for the Mariners.

      Rangers 4, Rockies 3

      Joey Gallo homered and hit a run-scoring double to help Texas down Colorado at Scottsdale, Ariz. Right-hander A.J. Griffin allowed two runs and six hits in 5 1/3 innings for the Rangers. Mark Reynolds hit a two-run blast for the Rockies.

      Royals 7, White Sox 4

      Alex Gordon, Cheslor Cuthbert and Brandon Moss each hit solo homers as Kansas City beat Chicago at Surprise, Ariz. Right-hander Nathan Karns gave up one run and five hits in six innings for the Royals. Carlos Sanchez and Jacob May each had two hits for the White Sox.

      Cardinals 3, Mets 3

      Matt Adams went 3-for-4 with a three-run homer as St. Louis and New York played to a nine-inning tie in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Lucas Duda slammed a three-run homer for the Mets. New York's Yoenis Cespedes added two hits.

      Marlins (ss) 4, Nationals 2

      Matt den Dekker hit a two-run double to help Miami defeat Washington at West Palm Beach, Fla. Left-hander Kelvin Marte (one hit in 3 1/3 innings) and right-hander Javy Guerra combined for 5 1/3 innings of one-hit shutout relief. Jayson Werth slugged a two-run homer for the Nationals.

      Red Sox 9, Pirates 2

      Mookie Betts homered and drove in four runs as Boston routed Pittsburgh at Bradenton, Fla. Jackie Bradley Jr. went 3-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs for the Red Sox. Jose Osuna went 2-for-2 for the Pirates to raise his spring average to .440.

      Tigers 6, Yankees 3

      Justin Upton and Steven Moya each launched two-run homers as Detroit beat New York at Tampa, Fla. Right-hander Michael Fulmer allowed one run and three hits over five innings for the Tigers. Aaron Judge homered for the Yankees.

      Blue Jays 10, Phillies 4

      Troy Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson each hit their first homers of the spring as Toronto knocked off Philadelphia at Clearwater, Fla. Melvin Upton Jr. and Mike Ohlman also homered for the Blue Jays. Howie Kendrick drove in three runs for the Phillies.

  • Red Sox season preview: Life after Papi
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, March 28, 2017

    The Boston Red Sox won the World Series in three of the last 13 seasons and the big bat right in the middle of it all was David Ortiz.

    • Welcome to 2017, and the Red Sox beginning life after Big Papi, the spiritual and statistical leader of this baseball team.

      The Sox pulled off another last-to-first run last season but, amid the Ortiz celebrations, stumbled into the playoffs and were swept by the Cleveland Indians in the Division Series.

      Now, Ortiz has retired and club president Dave Dombrowski spent the winter churning the roster with an aim at another run to the top of the American League East. He made several moves, none bigger than trading super prospects Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech to the Chicago White Sox for ace left-hander Chris Sale. The farm system has been heavily tapped by the Dombrowski regime, and the time to win is now.

      On paper, the acquisition of Sale gave the Red Sox a killer trio atop the rotation, with Sale joining aces David Price and Rick Porcello, the latter the 2016 Cy Young winner. But Price threw a scare into everyone in Boston when he went to see Dr. James Andrews earlier in the spring about an elbow problem. The bad news is Price will not open the season on the active roster, but the good news is he should be back by May.

      Replacing Ortiz in the lineup ... well, you don't replace Ortiz in the lineup. But rookie Andrew Benintendi showed enough during last year's stay to let the world know he's going to be a quality player, Pablo Sandoval is in shape and back from shoulder surgery and Mitch Moreland was acquired to provide power and also give the Sox a true fielding first baseman -- thus allowing Hanley Ramirez to move to designated hitter.

      Dombrowski quickly announced John Farrell would be coming back as manager for 2017. Now, the folks who set the odds on the coming season have the Red Sox and Cleveland Indians as the teams to beat in the American League.

      Major expectations.

      "I think that when you have a good club, those expectations don't really bother them," Dombrowski said. "I think you just really have to go about taking care of your business on a daily basis, and that's how you deal with expectations."

  • MLB notebook: Trump will not throw out first pitch
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, March 28, 2017

    President Donald Trump will not participate in the longstanding tradition of presidents throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Nationals Opening Day games due to a scheduling conflict.

    • Trump, who was inaugurated on Jan. 20, was extended an invitation by the Nationals but declined, a team spokesman told ESPN.

      Washington opens its season on Monday against the Miami Marlins.

      Former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush threw out ceremonial first pitches at Nationals games previously.

      --The Cleveland Indians finalized a five-year contract with club options for the 2022 and 2023 seasons with infielder Jose Ramirez.

      Ramirez's deal is worth $26 million guaranteed and includes a $2 million signing bonus, Cleveland.com reports. He could make as much as $50 million over the life of the deal.

      The 24-year-old Dominican Republic native's salary will jump from $571,400 in 2017 to $2,428,600 in 2018. The club options are worth $11 million and $12 million, respectively.

      --Outfielder Peter Bourjos was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for a player to be named later or cash considerations after an impressive spring training with the Chicago White Sox.

      The deal opens playing time for one of the White Sox's top prospects, Jacob May.

      The Rays needed outfield help because Colby Rasmus is headed for the disabled list to start the season.

  • Phillies season preview: Young team still rebuilding
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, March 28, 2017

    The question surrounding the Philadelphia Phillies is how much of an improvement will they make in 2017 as their rebuilding process under general manager Matt Klentak continues.

    • And if Klentak's moves in the offseason are any indication, the Phillies plan on competing a bit more when the season kicks off next week in Cincinnati.

      Klentak, hired at the end of 2015 to lead the Phillies into a rebuilding stage, has taken the long view for the organization overall but elected to fill holes with veterans this offseason instead of giving immediate playing time to younger players.

      Still, the plan is the same, to keep moving forward while developing younger talent.

      "I have been very pleased and encouraged in my year and a half with the Phillies," Klentak told MLB.com last week. "From our ownership group, to our president, to me, to our baseball operations group, to (manager) Pete Mackanin and his staff, everybody is on board with that. To me, that's the sign of a healthy organization, when there's continuity in the direction we're trying to head. That's the main reason why I'm so bullish on our future."

      The future looks bright, but what about the present?

      The Phillies, after owning the worst record in baseball in 2015, had an eight-win improvement in 2016, finishing the year 71-91. Slow and steady is the plan.

      Klentak decided to surround young slugger Maikel Franco's middle-of-the-order bat with some veteran help. The Phillies signed Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders in the offseason and will start the season with the two manning corner outfield spots, positions where the Phillies struggled mightily to find offense in 2016. The two figure to bat second and fifth, respectively, in the Phillies' Opening Day batting order, providing support to center fielder Odubel Herrera -- an All-Star last season -- and the third baseman, Franco.

      The Phillies are also counting on the steady improvement of their leadoff man, second baseman Cesar Hernandez, who led the team with a .294 batting average and .371 on-base percentage last year. If he can improve his base running ability -- he was caught stealing 13 times in 30 attempts last year -- the Phillies will have a bona fide leadoff hitter capable of scoring close to 100 runs.

      While Philadelphia's offense was in the bottom half of the league in 2016, its starting pitching staff was in the middle of the pack and is largely unchanged in 2017. The addition of Clay Buchholz -- despite his spring training struggles -- adds veteran depth and inning-eating abilities to a staff with young arms.

      Jeremy Hellickson, who agreed to a $17.2 million qualifying offer, will again lead the staff and start Opening Day in Cincinnati and will again see his name in trade talks as the trading deadline approaches. Continued improvements from Vince Velasquez, 24, and Jerad Eickhoff, 26, and a bounce-back year from Aaron Nola, 23, will put go a long way. Nola, the seventh overall pick in 2014, had his season cut short with UCL and flexor tendon injuries to his (right) throwing arm.

      Where Klentak upgraded best, it seems, is in the bullpen. Phillies relievers ranked 28th in ERA last year, so Klentak added veterans Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek to the fray.

      "You can see it in their eyes," Mackanin, the manager, told reporters in Clearwater at the beginning of spring training. "They feel like they're going to be a better team this year."

      How much better remains to be seen.

      "I believe if we play good baseball, and we play around .500 to get started ... I'd love to start off quick," Mackanin told reporters. "I think as we do that, and prove to ourselves that we're an improved team, I think there's no telling what can happen down the stretch."

  • Yankees season preview: Rebuilding with youngsters
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, March 28, 2017

    It was a quiet offseason for the New York Yankees, unless you consider all the talk about young players in the minor leagues who are on the verge of making the majors to be noise.

    • For the Yankees, they're hoping the talk eventually leads to positive results for a team that has grown stale and boring to many fans. It has been nearly five years without a playoff victory and the old way of doing business -- signing veteran free agents to lengthy contracts -- is a thing of the past for now.

      "I'm optimistic about this season, because I think there's a good mixture and there's a lot of talent in that room," manager Joe Girardi said. "Sometimes with young players you have to manage how they handle certain situations, whether it's struggling for a couple of weeks and how they respond, but we're up for that task. I think we have good veteran leadership in there that will help the young players through that."

      Last year, the Yankees stumbled to a 9-17 mark, hovered around .500 leading into the non-waiver trade deadline. It could turn out to be one of the best things to happen to the Yankees since it accelerated a rebuilding program.

      By the end of July, the Yankees decided to pull the plug, getting Gleyber Torres from the Chicago Cubs for Aroldis Chapman, acquiring Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield from the Cleveland Indians for Andrew Miller and other highly touted prospects from the Texas Rangers for Carlos Beltran

      Shortly after shedding three of their most productive veterans, the Yankees called up catcher Gary Sanchez. Sanchez struggled during spring training last season but electrified the Yankees so much that they climbed back into wild-card contention.

      To review, Sanchez hit 20 home runs, drove in 42 runs and produced an OPS of 1.032 in only 53 games. He was so productive that some thought he could have won Rookie of the Year, an award he finished second in the voting to Detroit Tigers' right-hander Michael Fulmer.

      Sanchez will be joined by another player, who produced in a similar matter in 2015. Greg Bird hit 11 home runs in 178 at-bats and was scheduled to be now-retired Mark Teixeira's backup before injuring his shoulder.

      Now he is the regular first baseman and putting on a power show in spring training.

      Sanchez and Bird are part of a team in the midst of completing a transition from veterans to youngsters.

      There are still plenty of veterans but the real interest lies in seeing how the youth movement unfolds and combines with the goal of staying in contention.

      The Yankees may miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons but if a youth movement goes according to plan, postseason games could return to the Bronx sometime soon.

  • Trump declines Nationals' Opening Day first pitch offer
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, March 28, 2017

    President Donald Trump will not participate in the longstanding tradition of presidents throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at Washington Opening Day games due to a scheduling conflict.

    • Trump, who was inaugurated on Jan. 20, was extended an invitation by the Nationals but declined, a team spokesman told ESPN.

      Washington opens its season on Monday against the Miami Marlins.

      Former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush threw out ceremonial first pitches at Nationals games previously.

      William Howard Taft was the first president to throw out a ceremonial first pitch for the Washington Senators in 1910. Thirteen presidents in all have thrown out ceremonial first pitches for the Nationals and Senators franchises.

  • Indians INF Ramirez lands five-year deal
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, March 28, 2017

    The Cleveland Indians finalized a five-year contract with club options for the 2022 and 2023 seasons with infielder Jose Ramirez.

    • The deal was completed after Ramirez passed his physical on Tuesday.

      Ramirez's deal is worth $26 million guaranteed and includes a $2 million signing bonus, Cleveland.com reports. He could make as much as $50 million over the life of the deal.

      The 24-year-old Dominican Republic native's salary will jump from $571,400 in 2017 to $2,428,600 in 2018. The club options are worth $11 million and $12 million, respectively.

      Ramirez signed with the Indians as an amateur free agent in 2009 and made his major league debut in 2013. He played parts of three seasons with the club before playing his first full season in 2016.

      In 152 games last year, Ramirez hit .312 (176 for 565) with career-high totals of 11 home runs, 76 RBIs, 44 walks and 22 stolen bases.

  • Rays acquire OF Bourjos from White Sox
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, March 28, 2017

    Outfielder Peter Bourjos was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for a player to be named later or cash considerations after an impressive spring training with the Chicago White Sox.

    • The deal opens playing top for one of the White Sox' top prospects, Jacob May.

      May, 25, is batting .339 this spring and entered the 2017 Opening Day roster mix when Charlie Tilson went down with a stress reaction in his foot. Tilson isn't expected to play until June.

      The Rays needed outfield help because Colby Rasmus is headed for the disabled list to start the season.

      Bourjos, a Chicago native, signed as a free agent two weeks before spring training began and quickly entered a battle for the starting centerfield job. He hit .313 (15-48) with four doubles, three triples and three RBIs over 19 Cactus League games this spring.

      Bourjos played the entire 2016 season with Philadelphia, hitting .251 (89-355) with 20 doubles, seven triples, five home runs, 23 RBI and 40 runs scored in 123 games.

      The switch-hitting May was a third-round pick in the 2013 draft.

  • Twins season preview: Little change on field
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, March 28, 2017

    A new, and younger, front office leads a Minnesota Twins franchise that was long known for its organizational stability.

    • On the field, though, in Year One of the new regime, the Twins will look very similar.

      The top of the power structure changed with the hiring Derek Falvey as the chief baseball officer and the subsequent addition of Thad Levine as general manager after the club parted ways with longtime GM Terry Ryan last July.

      The shakeup was inevitable after Minnesota slipped precipitously in 2016 following a surprisingly 2015 that saw the Twins challenge for a playoff spot until the last few weeks.

      Falvey comes to Minnesota after nine seasons with the division rival Cleveland Indians in which he was most recently the assistant general manager. Levine spent 11 years as the Texas Rangers' assistant general manager.

      Little occurred over the winter in terms of player movement. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe was released, and Kurt Suzuki signed with the Atlanta Braves as a free agent.

      The one addition made to the major league roster was Jason Castro. The catcher hit just .210 with 11 home runs and 32 RBI for the Houston Astros last year, but the Twins rave about his ability behind the plate, particularly in regard to pitch-framing.

      "Catching was a focus of ours, and Jason was a target early on, and not just from a player's standpoint," Falvey told MLB.com after the signing. "A lot has been made about his defense, but we really look into the background of these guys. It's important for the culture of our team. He checked every box and then some."

      The biggest priority for Falvey -- who helped identify many of the Indians' young starters -- and Levine is finding pitching for a team that allowed the second-most runs in the majors last season and had the highest ERA from starting pitchers.

      The Twins will have Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson and Hector Santiago back in the rotation to start the season, but they were still undecided on the fifth spot as spring training headed into its final week. Improvement across the board is the hope. The same goes for a bullpen that will be largely unchanged aside from left-handed newcomer Craig Breslow, who made the team as a non-roster invitee.

      A model organization in the early 2000s, Minnesota lost more than 90 games in five of the past six seasons and hit rock-bottom with 103 losses last year. The surprise of 2015 -- when the Twins went 83-79 in manager Paul Molitor's first season -- appears an aberration. In a division loaded with the defending American League champion Indians, the 2015 World Series champion Kansas City Royals and the perennially tough Detroit Tigers, contending in 2017 would be unlikely, although Molitor's crew wasn't expected to compete heading into 2015, either.

      Minnesota should score runs. The Twins were 16th in the majors in runs last season with Brian Dozier's surprise 42 homers leading the way. However, until Falvey and Levine can solve the pitching issues, the Twins won't be a consistent contender.

  • Brewers season preview: Quantity if not quality
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, March 28, 2017

    The Milwaukee Brewers don't have a collection of superstars on their roster this season -- and as such, they more than likely won't be challenging the Cubs for the National League Central crown -- but they do have is something very important for a team in the midst of a massive rebuilding process:

    • Strength in numbers.

      Unlike most rebuilding squads, the Brewers believe they have legitimate major league players at every position at the big league level, and if any of those players can't hold their own, the minor league system is primed with prospects waiting for their chance.

      "I think we have a number of players who have a chance to be a part of this organization for a long time, both from a talent-level perspective and a major-league-experience perspective," general manager David Stearns said. "We have a lot of younger players, players who are just beginning their major league careers, and because of that, we have the ability to keep them here for multiple years going forward."

      The Brewers went 73-89 a year ago, good for fourth in the NL Central and a five-game improvement over 2015. That number might have improved significantly had the starting pitchers not stumbled out of the gate in April. However, optimism is high after the pitching staff closed the season strong, combining for a major-league-best 3.13 ERA over the final 39 games.

      "It's a great stepping off point, a great building point for us because they showed that that level is in them," manager Craig Counsell said of his pitchers. "But now we have to do it for a longer stretch. And if we do it for a longer stretch, how we prevent runs -- pitching and defense -- is the start of that. How we prevent runs will be a big factor in what the ceiling of this team is this year."

      Improved pitching, combined with a young offense that led baseball with 181 stolen bases and produced 181 home runs, could make for an exciting 2017 campaign.

      Ryan Braun will once again anchor that offense. The Brewers' longest-tenured player is back for an 11th season, despite being the subject of multiple trade rumors during the winter. He posted a .305/.365/.538 slash line with 30 home runs and 91 RBIs last year.

      "I expected Ryan to be back, as I said over and over," Counsell said. "I expected Ryan to hit third, and I'm very happy that I get to continue writing his name.

      "He played at a high level last year. He's going to play at a high level this year. It's what he's done, and I think it's what he'll continue to do."

      Most important for Milwaukee, Braun was healthy last year.

      He came to camp fresh off back surgery, but thanks to a plan that he created with Counsell and the team's medical staff, Braun appeared in 135 games in 2016.

      "I feel a lot better this year than I have in a long time," Braun said. "So certainly the goal is to play more than the (135) games I played last year. I think the goal is always to be somewhere over that 150 range. Obviously, there is a long ways to go, but certainly, though, the goal is to play in more games that I did last season."

      Count Braun among those impressed with the influx of young talent into the organization.

      "The energy has been really good," Braun said. "The competition is a great thing for everybody. It should inspire everybody to become the best version of themselves and to understand that they need to reach their potential and continue to have success to establish themselves as big-leaguers. The overall talent level, athleticism and size. That's what really stands out."

  • Enthralling WBC broke up spring monotony
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, March 28, 2017

    The baseball season is nearing.

    • You can see it in the starting lineups that are being marched out each day in spring training games. They are looking more and more like the lineups you will see next week when the season begins. And yet still the games are not as compelling as the World Baseball Classic games were the previous few weeks.

      So, the time for ripping the World Baseball Classic is over.

      It has its issues. General managers dread it because they worry about a star player getting injured. Players shrug it off because they believe -- correctly -- that it holds no meaning close to the postseason. Even management and the players' union seem a little lukewarm on the thing. And it probably doesn't get nearly the attention in the United States that it deserves because it goes up against the NCAA Tournament.

      But it beats the living daylights out of spring training baseball, the version we saw three weeks ago as well as the incarnation we are seeing now. And for this reason, all in baseball, so worried about bringing in the next generation of fans with all the pace-of-game rule changes, need to start emphasizing the event.

      Maybe you watched your favorite team in some spring training games.

      New York Yankees fans recently got to see ace Masahiro Tanaka twirl five scoreless innings and first baseman Greg Bird hit a couple home runs. New York Mets fans saw Zack Wheeler throw five shutout innings. Boston Red Sox fans watched inspired play from a slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval. No question, it whets the appetite for the regular season.

      However, still there are players in a game that may not play in the big leagues this season, players whose names you hear for the first time, and it takes some air out of the balloon.

      Then there was the WBC. Maybe it doesn't get all the biggest stars right now. No Mike Trout, no Bryce Harper and no Noah Syndergaard in this last one. But the games were played with near All-Star-team-caliber players. They were played passionately by players who cared about competing for their country. And the games were so much more compelling with players who deeply care about their performance because of their patriotism.

      Maybe you got a chance to see the World Baseball Classic finale last Wednesday night, and you glimpsed something special. Team USA, behind six scintillating no-hit innings from Toronto Blue Jays ace Marcus Stroman, beat Puerto Rico 8-0 to capture its first title in the fourth tournament.

      The Americans popped their USA jerseys and celebrated as if they won a playoff series. They took a victory lap around Dodger Stadium to thank those in the 51,000-plus crowd who remained -- riveted -- by the performance.

      "It was the most fun I've ever had playing baseball," said Team USA outfielder Christian Yelich of the Miami Marlins.

      Like tearful Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals, many of those on Team Puerto Rico stayed on the field and consoled one another rather than retreating to their clubhouse. They applauded the Americans, many of them their Major League Baseball teammates. And the players from Team USA came to them, between the third base dugout and the third base line, and embraced them.

      The Major League Baseball postseason has none of this, but isn't there room, too, for some of the collegial feelings we saw here?

      The signature play of the tournament was the Orioles' Adam Jones of Team USA robbing Baltimore teammate Manny Machado of a home run in the Americans' (virtual) quarterfinal win over the Dominican Republic. This was spectacular by any measure in any game. And it was cute how they tipped their hats to one another right after the play and something Orioles fans will be enthralled to hear and read about when they are back in camp.

      The WBC is not pretending to be the playoffs. But isn't it better than Grapefruit League action to see a lineup in which the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton is batting eighth for Team USA against Dominican Republic starter Ervin Santana of the Minnesota Twins? And playing in a game where the participants feel it is truly worth celebrating after a victory?

      "Now, after what we've done, the way everybody is buzzing about it on Twitter, and all of the attention it's getting, you're going to see everybody in the league want to play in the next one," Team USA reliever Pat Neshek of the Philadelphia Phillies said after the final. "Everyone's going to want to be part of this.

      "So maybe now the WBC has some momentum. Because it's only played every four years, we'll see if that is sustained to the next one."

      When a spring training game ends, many of the starters already have left the stadium. We know they are excited about the coming season, and we'll see that when it starts. But even they aren't crazy about spring training games.

      The WBC was exciting and a nice change of pace. Let's hope it gets more attention next time.

  • Royals season preview: One last title chase
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    SURPRISE, Ariz. -- After advancing to the World Series in 2014 and '15, the Kansas City Royals finished 2016 at .500.

    • The 2017 season will be a last hurrah for several of the Royals' core players of the championship seasons, as they will become free agents.

      Those eligible to hit the open market after this season are first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain and left-handed starter Jason Vargas. The Royals traded closer Wade Davis and speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson, both who can declare for free agency after the 2017 season, during the offseason.

      "I don't think it will be a distraction," Royals manager Ned Yost said of having so many players in their free agent year.

      The 2017 Royals will look a lot like the 2016 Royals. Moustakas missed most of last year with a knee injury. Right-hander Yordano Ventura died in a vehicle accident in the Dominican Republic in late January, leaving a hole in the rotation and in the Royals' hearts.

      The starting pitching has no bona fide ace, but left-hander Danny Duffy could be close to ascending to that. He will be the Opening Day starter after going 12-3 with a 3.51 ERA last season.

      "I felt like Dayton (Moore, general manager) did a wonderful job in the offseason, especially considering what happened (Ventura's death)," Duffy said.

      Raul Mondesi, the son of the former big league slugger by the same name, defied the odds and won the second base job.

      "The kid can impact a game in a lot of ways," Yost said. "I knew this kid was talented. But he had to mature and grow up and believe in his abilities.

      "As long as he realizes that all he has to do is do something every day to help us win a game. It's not about the batting average. It's about the defense. It's about the base running, maybe putting down a bunt. Maybe it's getting a hit and stealing second."

      Jorge Soler, who was acquired from the Cubs for Davis, was having a rough spring. But just before breaking camp, Soler sustained an oblique injury, and he will begin the season on the disabled list. Paulo Orlando will replace him in right field.

      Nathan Karns, who was acquired in the Dyson deal, will be the No. 5 starter.

      Free agent signees Jason Hammel, Travis Wood and Brandon Moss should help the Royals contend. Hammel, a 15-game winner last season for the Cubs, is slotted to start the third game. Wood, a left-hander, will be in the bullpen after Karns was awarded the final rotation slot. Moss brings power to the designated hitter position, and he can also play the outfield and first base.

      Alex Gordon, who broke his right wrist last year in a collision with Moustakas and hit a puny .220, had a good spring. He likely will bat leadoff when the season opens.

      Kansas City plays six of their first nine games against the Minnesota Twins and the Oakland A's, so a good start is imperative.

      If the Royals remain healthy, they have the talent to return to postseason. If they appear to be out of contention in late July, Moore could trade some of the pending free agents for young players.