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Saturday 23rd Sep 2017

If you need a break from baseball, accept my apology.

The injury bug that has hit the pitchers the last few years has naturally affected the fantasy world. As a result, some people have padded their bench with more hurlers than in the past. Some others have relied on the inevitable turnover to pick up players from the waiver wire during the season. Both strategies worked well.

Then came 2015. Looking around at various leagues, including the “expert” ones, it became apparent that most fantasy teams that did well this year have started the season with a solid pitching staff. Their draft strategy did not rely on picking up free agents during the season. Specifically, the winning teams did not start the season with one or two pitchers picked up in the last rounds of the snake draft or purchased for $1 at the end of the auction.

Bad pitchers may ruin your ERA and WHIP. To win, one must do well in these two categories.

Having to rely on one or two free agents is of course unavoidable. However, no new pitcher promoted during the 2015 season either matched a Jose Fernandez of 2014 or in any way shined to the point of carrying a team to the crown. Chris Heston was good for a few weeks at the beginning of the season. Mike Montgomery did well for a couple of months in the middle of the season and Luis Severino was a good late-season pick-up. Other highly regarded prospects who were promoted to the Majors in 2015 (Taylor Jungmann, Andrew Heaney, Jon Gray, Aaron Nola, John Lamb, Matt Wisler, Steven Matz and Cody Anderson) all had their ups and downs. That said, it is my expectation that after having acquired the major league experience, most of these players will do well in 2016.

One pitcher who missed the beginning of the season and performed very well was Jaime Garcia, but Garcia is not a prospect.

2016 will likely be no different. Consequently, it may be reasonable to get four pitchers in the first ten rounds of snake drafts or spend between $90 and $100 on pitching in an auction. This amount is a bit more than what the current wisdom tells us about the hitters/pitchers ratio.

This auction dollar amount includes closers. How to draft closers is a perennial question. One valid option is to punt the category. Punting either Saves or Stolen Bases is the easiest way to dedicate auction dollars or early-round picks to other areas. Picking up a top-tier closer and two additional ones at the end of the draft or for $1 at the auction is another valid alternative. There are plenty of turnovers in this position and new closers will pop up on the waiver wire.

However, I found that the best draft strategy is to pick up three mid-tier relievers, at $10 to $12 each, who have solid job security at the beginning of the season. By the time one is replaced by his Major League team, which is quite likely, your team will have accumulated more saves than most.

My first auction for 2016 is coming up less than a month from today at the Arizona First Pitch in Phoenix. The crowd at the AFP is well informed. I will report on how this group approaches the 2016 pitching. It is never too soon to think about next season.

This year I once again had the joy of participating in Tout Wars, marking my 15th season in the league. Last season I came in (a somewhat distant) second place. After years of going with a heavy hitting approach, I have opted for a more balanced approach, this season utilizing just 72% of my budget allocation on hitting whereas in years past I easily hit the 80% mark or a $200/$60 or more split.

Tools: I used to develop my own elaborate, visual basic heavy spreadsheet but in recent years, especially with Tout Wars now posting the draft on the fly on the Internet, I focus on very few items and avoid tracking other people'™s teams. Now I only use 1) Grid with player values and 2) A single excel sheet that tracks:

My budget“ by roster slot
My roster and spending
Categorical goals

By far the most important function is the budgeting function which I split into two columns, hitting and pitching. First, I assign a total dollar target to be spent on each column, then I assign possible dollar targets to each roster slot. The budget automatically updates to show me how much I have left to spend against that budget and most of all, it allows me the flexibility to amend the budget throughout the auction as opportunities (good values) present themselves and I can reroute budgeting to other roster slots on the fly.

Pre-Draft Goals:

1. Spread the risk, especially in the hitting department with my highest purchase being a $29 Jacoby Ellsbury. Also, I tried to focus my key purchases on players with good histories of durability: Zobrist, Seager, Aybar, Perez, etc.

2. Target Multiple Position Eligibility players: I purchased Ben Zobrist (2B/SS/MI/OF) at $20 and Marcus Semien (2B/3B/CI/MI) at $15.

3. Pitching: Draft one closer and set a foundation with a high-teens price and mid-teens priced starting pitching options. I was pleased with the combination of Sonny Gray ($19), Jose Quintana ($13), Drew Smyly ($11) and Glen Perkins ($16). I had also wanted to focus on some of the mid to high single digits starting pitching which the AL is deep in as targets, but instead ended up spending money on Kennys Vargas when he fell at a good price.

4. Risks can win you the league, but don'™t pay full value for potential, especially with rookies. See Vargas, Pillar, etc.

The results:

Catcher: Salvador Perez $15 and Blake Swihart $1
While Perez is not the best OBP catcher, I like his durability and power. Swihart was one of my last players. Rather than chase a back-up catcher I might have to pay $2 for, I waited until every other team had their catcher slot filled so no one would outbid me and nominated the Red Sox top prospect for $1. He has only stop-gap type players ahead of him on Boston'™s depth chart and could be up quickly. That has only further accelerated given the injury to Christian Vazquez. I was also pleasantly surprised Caleb Joseph fell to the reserve round, especially given that Matt Wieters' ability to stay healthy the entire season is rather questionable.

First Base: Adam LaRoche $21
LaRoche was my pre-draft target for first base and I had him valued right at $21. Considering how far above their projected price I believe other first basemen went, I was pleased to get LaRoche right at value, especially with his move to homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.

Second Base: Ben Zobrist $20
Pre-draft I had budgeted about $22 for this slot and figured it would go to a Jason Kipnis or Ian Kinsler type, though I did have Zobrist projected right around their value and joined the bidding late to get him at what I consider a $2 profit and while he does not have either of the other's stolen base potential, Zobrist at least offers quite a bit of position flexibility.

Third Base: Kyle Seager $24
I originally had this slot focused on a mid-teens tier 3B, but given the players already taken and the timing of the auction, I  opted to reroute my funding to third base and purchased Seager, who has proven to be a durable, productive contributor. A three-year growth trend in the home run department in his early prime years provides reason for optimism too.

Shortstop: Erick Aybar $15
A pure consistency/durability of skills and health selection.

Outfield: Jacoby Ellsbury $29, Melky Cabrera $18, Matt Joyce $10, Josh Reddick $9
I took more durability risks here in the outfield, though I believe much of Ellsbury'™s injury history is often of the freak accident variety and was willing to purchase him at a very slight profit to set up the foundation of my team'™s stolen base game. Originally I had intended to obtain two $20+ outfielders, but rerouted from here to spend more at 3B. I was willing to purchase Melky Cabrera at full value, considering he was shown essentially the identical skills that he displayed in 2011/1012 regardless of alternative substances and the move to Chicago could help him in the homer department. Joyce is a decent OBP play with some power and the Angels have very limited in-house options to upstage his projected playing time. Reddick is the greatest wild card of the group but was at least a possible bargain at $9 vs. my $13 projected price. It is mostly health holding him back now. In recent seasons, Reddick has become a more disciplined hitter, making more regular contact while still showing solid power. Anything he produces over $9 is a bonus as far as I'm concerned.

SWG/UT: Kevin Pillar $1, Kennys Vargas $5
Pillar was purely an end-game speculative play. The righty has nothing left to prove in the Minors, having shown plus speed and contact-making skills. I am not expecting much from him, but if the skills finally translate to the Majors, there is room for substantial profit. As for Vargas, he is a high-risk/high-reward type who I jumped on at $5 with the idea that it was a level of risk I was quite willing to take. In the Minors, he has shown solid OBP/power skills but has limited experience above Double-A and must now prove it over the entire season. It is these types of picks that can make a season. The lesson with taking chances on players at low prices is to not get married to them. If they fail, you can reserve or release them without much regret and move on as soon as possible to try and make corrections to stay competitive. Waiting for expensive players to turn things around, while prudent, is what can really sink a season.

Pitching: Sonny Gray $19, Glen Perkins $16, Jose Quintana $13, Drew Smyly $11, Aaron Sanchez $5, Yovani Gallardo $6, Darren O'™Day $1, Jeremy Guthrie $1, Dan Straily $1

As stated, I was targeting a mid to high-teens pitcher as my anchor and had Gray in mind in particular, followed by Quintana to stabilize the rotation. I bought both at or close to full value but felt I may have acquired Smyly at a minor profit depending upon how soon he gets back in April and if he can stay healthy for the remainder of the season. These three give my team a nice solid foundation in innings, strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP. As for Gallardo, I am hoping Texas does not have too great an impact on his performance given his solid ground ball tendencies. The three-year decline in strikeouts is a bit alarming, but at the same time he's had a three-year improvement in throwing strikes. Worth a shot at $6. Darren O'Day is Zach Britton's primary setup man and has been a consistent high single-digit to low-teens dollar earner for the last three seasons. I selected Guthrie and Straily along with Oberholtzer in the reserve round as streaming options, though I may switch to more relievers to avoid the negative ERA/WHIP impacts they'™ll likely create. Matt Moore is a wild card who could be back in June.

Reserves: Caleb Joseph, Christian Walker, Brett Oberholtzer, Matt Moore
I have only not mentioned Christian Walker from this bunch. Should Chris Davis fail to hit again, Walker could be the next option for the Orioles. The righty had a break through minor league season in 2014, showing improved power, and he has in the past been known for his above average plate discipline skills. He's a dark horse impact player for 2015.

I believe this will be a competitive team. It is not necessarily or remotely perfect at this point, so I'™ll be watching the FAAB market and pushing for trades when necessary too. I hope some of my strategy here can help you in your upcoming auctions the remainder of this preseason!

Rob Leibowitz is a 25-year veteran of fantasy baseball and is entering his fifteenth season in Tout Wars. He finished in 2nd place in AL Tout Wars in 2014. His regular series, the Prospector, will return next week with a look at pitching for 2015 and beyond.

This past Sunday, I once again had the pleasure of participating in AL Tout Wars, marking the beginning of my 14th year in the league. As always, the event is great fun and an opportunity to catch up with this group who aren’t merely colleagues or fellow members of the industry, but old friends.

This year, Tout made the move to OBP, giving the due respect and, for our purposes, more proper value to players who contribute in the best way possible – creating opportunities to score as many runs as possible.

For years, I’ve used a heavy-hitter focus with budgets that were regularly at 80% or higher devoted to their acquisition. This worked for a long time but not as much in recent years, so I decided that a more balanced budget approach might be in order, so I opted for a slightly more conservative $185/$75 or essentially a 71% split. In the end, this ended up being a $186/$74 or 72% hitting budget, but not significantly different from my expectations.

Heading into the draft, I had budgeted on the pitching side around $25 for an ace starter, $18 for a closer, teens for multiple backup starters, and for low-priced, upside types in the end game. On the hitting side, I budgeted for three hitters in the mid or higher twenties, mid-teens for one catcher and high single-digits for my second while spreading the risk elsewhere.

However, my main tool during any auction over the last several seasons has been a roster-slot/budget calculator where I can just reassign dollars on the fly based on where I am finding value. Finding value and acquiring my needs will always trump my pre-draft position/$ slotting.

So who did I get and why?

C: A.J. Pierzynski $11 – Throughout the draft, I felt catchers were going over value. However, I had targeted Pierzynski from the start. Despite his age, the righty has shown excellent ability to stay healthy and in recent seasons some pop. Many projections this off-season showed less playing time and slightly less than usual value. My value comes from a more typical Pierzynski playing time projection.

C: Dioner Navarro $8 – Came back from the dead and had a great season over a small sample, so of course he is going to regress. On the other hand, Navarro has no competition with J.P. Arencibia and Travis d’Arnaud now gone. The 30-year-old has a pretty good history for plate discipline, contact-making, and mid-teens pop potential. He could be a bust given his history, but $8 is not a significant risk and there is a lot of potential for profit.

1B: Originally budgeted $22 at 1B. Abreu and Pujols both eclipsed that mark and couldn’t bring myself to go all in on Mark Teixeira. Instead, I played it safe and went for Adam Lind at $14. Lind and Pierzynski fit well with my “boring is best” philosophy, as fairly reliable bets to perform at a solid, not necessarily dynamic, but useful-stat adding way.

2B: Howie Kendrick $12 – I had $15 budgeted at 2B and think I got a bargain here. Kendrick is a consistently high batting average threat who actually maintains an acceptable OBP despite an aggressive approach, plus some pop to boot.

3B: Targeted low to mid-twenties at 3B on Longoria, Donaldson or Beltre. Felt Longoria and Beltre went over value, so was happy to get Donaldson at $25. I drafted him a year too early in 2012 as one of my sleepers, but it was nice to see him fully translate that 20-HR/good plate discipline skills to the Majors. Now that they’ve been established in the Majors, I think his production is quite sustainable with perhaps the .300-plus batting average being the exception to that.

SS: Maicer Izturis $1 – Drafted Xander Bogaerts to corner with the knowledge that I can shift him to short shortly after the season starts. I can’t see Ryan Goins holding down second base for the Jays for very long, plus there is Jose Reyes’ injury history, so Izturis should get plenty of opportunities to play if he can keep himself healthy as part of the bargain.

CI: Xander Bogaerts $15 – Bogaerts has interesting long-term potential as a possible .300 hitter with 20-plus HR power. Right now, at age 21, I think he’s capable of producing at a similar level to Jhonny Peralta and therefore I nominated him at a typical Peralta price of $15 with the intent being that I might freeze everyone else out. It worked, so I’m left to wonder how much more cheaply I could have gotten him had I not done the freeze bid, but I can’t complain too much since it worked. Now Bogaerts has to complete his end of the bargain.

MI: Omar Infante $9: Dependable, boring veteran good for a little pop and speed.

OF/SW/UT: Jacoby Ellsbury $29 – Felt this was a bargain even with the minor calf injury. Ellsbury’s injuries have been more of the fluke than the Jose Reyes recurrent type, so I am comfortable with him being my most expensive player. It will be interesting to see what impact the short porch has on his game too.

OF: Welcome to my AARP outfield of Nelson Cruz $18, Josh Willingham $13, Torii Hunter $15, Adam Dunn $15, Marc Krauss $1. I passed on quite a few players I felt were going overpriced earlier in the auction to find that there was not much left in value above the $20 range, but plenty available in the mid-range of talent to be had and decided to act aggressively in my pursuit. I suffered through a season of Josh Reddick  and passed up the potential to get him at a $14 bargain and instead bought Nelson Cruz at full price. Krauss, Dunnm and Willingham at least all came at discounts and combined could be a double-digit profit. Still, again – this is a definite boring is best crew that will compile stats, though I am notably coming up a bit short on steals after making Ellsbury my first purchase and will have to work to correct this via FAAB or trades.

Pitching: Intended to go after Chris Sale or David Price. Ended up with Jered Weaver at $19. Velocity drop-off is a concern, but the skills are still there, so I'm hoping this ends up a bargain after having him valued in the low twenties. I nominated David Robertson to test the closer market and ended up taking him at $19, hopefully as a potential $4 bargain. I usually go solo-closer and  planned to do that again, but liked Tommy Hunter enough not to let him get taken off the board at $9 and bought him at $10.

Other pitchers: Erik Johnson – Potential middle of the rotation type with upside. Nominated and bought at $3. I felt Mark Buehrle was a $5 or so dollar profit for innings eating purposes, similarly with a $1 Vargas and $6 Griffin, who should return to the rotation by mid to late-April. Purchased Dan Straily at $14 as my #2. He has good skills and can miss bats, but he may have pitched a bit over his head from a BABIP perspective. As always, the free agent market is where I typically craft my pitching staff from and I'm not afraid to drop underperformers.

Reserve Rounds: Maicer Izturis is my only non-regular hitter, so I took Francisco Lindor should the Tribe opt to move free-agent-to-be Asdrubal Cabrera. The Tigers have few options in their outfield, so Dirks could reclaim at least a platoon job in left field by mid-season or slightly earlier. Henry Urrutia was selected with the similar idea in mind as a player close to the Majors with David Lough and my other selection Nolan Reimold in his way. Having two out of the three players likely to see the most left field at-bats for the Orioles this season may pay dividends too.

Overall this team will certainly compete on offense and has enough pitching contend, albeit with some question marks, but that's why we play the season out.

Heading into Monday, it seemed a lock that Nate Jones would be the White Sox’s opening day closer. Spring training had done nothing to dispel this notion as Jones appeared in eight games, striking out eight batters, giving up two runs and walking just three. Nevertheless, manager Robin Ventura named veteran Matt Lindstrom as the closer to begin the season. Lindstrom had appeared in just three games this spring, and while the 33-year-old had been effective over that extremely small sample size, he had done nothing to distinguish himself either.

So where do we go from here?

Well, the former Rockie, Astro, Diamondback, Oriole, Marlin and Met went out and got an opportunity right away and received credit for a save on opening day. AL only-league owners are already lining up now to chase Lindstrom with some serious FAAB on the off-chance he somehow holds the job down all season. It is not completely out of the question. Lindstrom was originally groomed to be a closer and did in fact pitch in that role, albeit poorly, in 2009 and 2010.

The 6’3” 220 pounder is actually coming off one of the best years of his career, obtaining his career high games pitched  of 76 while posting a 6.8 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9. Lindstrom still throws plenty hard too. His fastball  is regularly in the mid-nineties and combines that with a solid slider. However, the righty has never been a truly dominant strikeout artist.He's not bad at it, he's just not great at it. Instead Lindstrom has gotten the job done by keeping the ball on the ground (over 50% of the time each of the past two years), a good skill to have in a home run hitter friendly park.

Lindstrom’s nemesis, however, is the left-handed batter. In 2013, they batted .313/.400/.378 against him and quite similarly have a .280/.357/.394 line against him for his career. In other words, absent a new weapon to combat left-handers, it would appear likely that this career trend will be exposed over time and a return to a more specialized middle relief or setup role is more in keeping with his skills.

Still, it must be noted that Lindstrom does indeed have opportunity, and while your expectations and bids should be tempered, a weak bid will not obtain his services.

Other Options

First off, there is of course Jones himself. No Jones owner, barring those in the more shallow mixed leagues, should by any means consider dropping him. The 28-year-old may have struggled with his left-on-base percentage (63%) and BABIP (.330) last year, but was otherwise lights out as he produced a 10.3 K/9 and .30 BB/9 while generating a 51% ground ball rate. In contrast to Lindstrom, Jones did not show a significant split last year and in fact was more effective against lefties than righties.

The reason Jones is not the guy is due to inexperience as a major league closer. The last save Jones recorded was in Double-A. Jones has the high voltage (97 mph fastball) stuff and the ability to control it, but still needs to refine his command within the zone more and perhaps show he can be relied upon in high leverage situations with some consistency. The opportunities should come, but patience is needed.

Lefty Scott Downs has been considered a closer candidate at times, but he has really settled into a lefty specialist role over the past eight seasons and has never recorded more than nine saves in a single season. A career .213 opponent batting average against lefties will keep him in that role.

That brings us to former Dodger Ronald Belisario.  Like Lindstrom, Belisario pitched in a career-high number of games in 2013 (77) and was non-tendered for those efforts. Also like the current closer, Belisario throws consistently around 94 mph, but generates even a higher rate of ground balls (over 60% each of the past two seasons). The righty has acceptable, though far from pinpoint control and misses a fairly low amount of bats for a reliever (6.4 K/9). Barring a bounce back to an out of career context 8.8 K/9 of 2012, middle relief is Belisario’s most likely role.

That brings us to our last viable option, Daniel Webb, who is something of a mild sleeper/dark horse candidate who has just nine games of prior big league experience. A former Blue Jay, the 24-year-old Webb has been in the White Sox organization since 2012 and was very quickly converted to full- time relief after his acquisition from the Jays. Webb is primarily a fastball/slider guy who tosses in an occasional changeup from his days as a starter, though that pitch did earn average and even plus reviews back in those days, so it is possible he’ll throw it more frequently once he’s in the Majors for a longer time period. Webb averages around 95 mph, but has reached as high as triple digits. The one issue with Webb will be his command. In Double-A last year, he produced a 2.2 BB/9 only to fall apart in Triple-A, where he posted a 5.6 BB/9. So do not be surprised if he needs some time transitioning to the Majors. With the exception of that one short stay, Webb’s control and command have been fairly solid over his past few minor league seasons, so there is cause for optimism.

Right now, Lindstrom is the guy, Jones is someone to hold and Webb is someone to stash in deeper leagues.

The second base situation for the Royals had been a revolving door for several seasons with no one single player receiving over 500 plate appearances since Alberto Callaspo in 2009. In fact, since that time only two other players have even received over 400 plate appearances. The signing of Omar Infante should end this trend. Infante, who turns 32 on December 26th, has been a consistent hitter offering few surprises to his game as good, but aggressive, contact hitter with gap power. He once had slightly above-average speed, but that now appears to be in some decline and a return to double-digits steals will be more a factor of manager tendencies. Jim Leyland was one of the least aggressive managers on the base paths, so it is indeed possible that Infante could steal more in 2014 even if his raw speed is in decline. For now, Infante’s game is pretty stable as .270s or better with high single digits HR/SB potential, worth $10 to $12 in AL-only formats.

Mariner Moves
The Robinson Cano move has been quite well digested by now and the consequence of Nick Franklin becoming a principle trade chip is also old news by now. Instead, the Mariners’ moves to acquire both Corey Hart and Logan Morrison as a free agent and Carter Capps via trade is a bit more interesting, as both players’ level of production in 2014 is far from a sure thing when contrasted against the Mariners' $240 M man.

Hart signed a $6 M base salary deal with no option to share time with Morrison between DH and the OF, thus likely ruling out the return of Raul Ibanez. Hart missed all of 2013 due to a knee injury. Prior to last season, Hart had hit no fewer than 26 HRs in any of his three previous seasons. With the exception of his 2012 campaign, Hart has been a fair contact-hitter for a right-handed power hitter. In his last season with the Brewers, Hart struck out nearly a quarter of the time while hitting 30 HRs and saw his batting average drop to .270. Other than that one chink, Hart’s game has been fairly stable career-long and even at age 32, he could enjoy a full rebound given a healthy knee.

Morrison is the more frustrating of the two players. Here we have a player with an above average approach at the plate and the raw power to hit 25 HRs, yet he has a career-high of 23 accomplished in 2011 and a career .249/.337/.427 line. To be fair, Morrison has been limited by knee injuries and that has sapped his power on at least a temporary basis. But even in his 23-homer season, Morrison was a ground-ball hitter. The lefty owns a GB% of 46% and is coming off a 32% FB rate 2013. This combination makes it somewhat difficult to project a 20-plus HR season in 2014, regardless of his pedigree and potential. For now, it is difficult to recommend bidding beyond single digits in AL-only formats for Morrison’s services.

Small Spending Spree
The Mets were active after a long layoff in the free agent market, signing both Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon. The Mets head into 2014 with a rotation of Jonathon Niese, Dillon Gee, Zack Wheeler, Colon and a fifth starter to be named from the ranks of their system (Jenrry Mejia, Rafael Montero or Jake deGrom) or from free agency. Colon, 40, now averages in the high eighties on his fastball and has turned into a pinpoint control artist, throwing primarily either his two-seam or four-seam fastball (86% of the time on those two) while mixing in the rare slider or changeup. Colon is coming off a season as a pitch to contact pitcher who posted an 80% left on base rate while producing a second straight sub .300 BABIP and 6% HR/FB in a very pitcher-friendly park. A rise in ERA of at least a full point should be expected.

After having signed Chris Young to man right field, the Mets are continuing that theme with adding Granderson to man left. What they have done is significantly upgrade the defense of their outfield, now manned by three players who have been everyday CFs at points in their career. Granderson and Young are both noted for their patience at the plate and their power/speed profiles, but their high strikeout rates as well. Ideally, Granderson and Young would platoon, but given the size and scope of Granderson’s contract, that is unlikely. Instead, the Mets now have a 32-year-old left-handed hitting OF whose on-base percentage should be nearly 100 points higher than his batting average. The shift from Yankee Stadium to Citi Field will impact Granderson’s home run output for sure, but there should still be enough left in this two-time 40-homer hitter to at least top 20.

First Base Solution
Rather than go the trade route, the Rays decided what they already had in 2013 was better than the other remaining options (free agent or trade) and gave James Loney a three-year deal. The move shifts Ben Zobrist back to where his bat plays best: second base. Loney had a nice bounce back season, hitting .299 with 13 HRs. While this level of production has value as a corner infielder in AL-only leagues, it must be noted that this level of play is Loney’s ceiling. The lefty is a line-drive and ground-ball hitter who has hit less than 30% of his balls in play in the air. In order to hit .299, however, it has to be noted that Loney produced a by far career-high 30% line-drive rate and .326 BABIP. In other words, as a fairly slow runner with a career .308 BABIP, it is more probable that Loney is more likely to be a .270s to .280s hitter in 2014.

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