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Tuesday 22nd Aug 2017

I was asked about Howie Kendrick’s hot start by my buddy Grant Paulson over at Sirius/XM Radio tonight, and I feel like I’m in the minority when I say that I am not buying the Angels’ infielder.

It’s not that he can’t be a serviceable second basemen in any format, but Kendrick has yet to put together a full season of productive baseball, and I’m not ready to commit to one after just five games.

The 27-year-old is hitting .429 with three homers, all solo shots, six runs, and no steals so far this season, spending all his time out of the No. 2 spot in the batting order – but split between first and second base, defensively.

Of course, Kendrick has never hit more than 10 home runs in a season, even when he logged more than 600 at-bats last year. And he’s not a typical No. 2-hitter, since he doesn’t draw a lot of walks nor does he see a lot of pitches (he averaged fewer than four pitches per plate appearance last season).

When Kendry Morales returns, Kendrick will slide back down to No. 6 in the lineup, and I’m not even sure that he’ll get every-day at-bats. He’s been a streaky player in the past, and with Mike Scioscia’s favorites Maicer Izturis and Erick Aybar also needing playing time in the infield, the talented Alberto Callaspo (hitting .438 this season) looming, and the Angels' desire to get Mark Trumbo's bat in the lineup, Kendrick could find himself on the bench at least once or twice a week.

Sure, he’s off to a nice start. But the power is a fluke and he still needs to prove he can stay healthy and productive for a full season. Let someone else make that bet.

Those of you who had the number two in the How-Many-Games-Before-Fernando-Rodney-Loses-His-Job Sweepstakes can now claim your prize. He’s pitched just twice this season, and his first outing was a one-inning save with two strikeouts and no runs allowed.

Rodney then blew a lead against the Royals Sunday, walking three batters and allowing two runs to score and t hat was all Scioscia needed to turn the ninth inning over to the young, flame-throwing right-hander, Jordan Walden. The 23-year-old has a 14.3 strikeout-per-nine rate in his early major league career, which is actually much better than he’s ever done in the minors. But with Rodney’s inconsistency, Walden took the job and pitched a clean ninth against the Rays for his second career save on Tuesday.

Walden can dial it up into triple digits, and while he is young and unproven, has the skill-set to become the Angels closer for a long time.

The Baltimore Orioles, on the other hand, have yet to name a closer, but I’m really getting the feeling it’s going to be Koji Uehara in the long run. Even with Uehara injured for most of Spring Training, Buck Showalter never named Kevin Gregg the ninth-inning man.

Showalter has said he’ll let Koji ease into things, since he can’t pitch on back-to-back days yet, but it’s looking like once he can, Uehara will be the O’s closer – and that appears to be a valuable gig this season.

Gregg’s only appearance came during a one-out save in the O’s second game against the Rays, when Uehara bailed Michael Gonzalez out of the eighth inning. Uehara finished off the Tigers with a perfect ninth inning on Monday night, though there was no save situation with the O’s protecting a four-run lead.

Brian Roberts is proving just how valuable he is to Baltimore’s lineup. Roberts has a hit in each of the O’s first four games, including two home runs and eight RBIs. For someone who came on the cheap in most fantasy drafts this year – after nursing a sore back and neck during Spring Training – Roberts is at least looking healthy so far and should be the spark for the O’s offense as long he’s in the lineup.

On the opposite side of the coin, Tsuyoshi Nishioka hasn’t impressed in his first five major league games for Minnesota. The Japanese standout has struckout seven times and collected just four hits in 20 at-bats, but his plate appearances haven’t looked good. He has a typical swing for Japanese imports, using his whole body to twirl the bat around as he offers very little pop.

His asset though will be his speed. So even if the second baseman can hit .250, he should have no problem stealing 20-25 bases. I’m not sure how long he lasts in the two-spot in the batting order though, and the Twins’ offense is averaging roughly three runs a game – nothing too exciting.

Of course, it’s only the sixth day of the young season. Anything can happen.

There is a common misperception in fantasy baseball that the top of the line, All-Star-caliber players are who win or lose you a league.

It may seem like that at times, especially when someone like Josh Hamilton or Troy Tulowitzki heats up in September and carries your team to a championship.

But I actually find quite the opposite to be true.

If you play in standard snake-draft leagues, everyone is getting one of the best players in the league anyway. Yes, choosing one that performs well is going to help you a lot more than choosing the guy who puts up a stinker of a season, or comes down with a devastating injury.

But it’s your middle and late-round picks that end up separating you from the rest.

Or if you play in auction formats, it’s the $3-$13 players who end up winning you a league.

If you look back at AL-only drafts last year, the picks that turn the big profits are guys like Nick Swisher ($13 in LABR), Luke Scott ($12), Jered Weaver ($12), Brett Gardner ($10), Austin Jackson ($6), Trevor Cahill ($6), John Buck ($5), Colby Lewis ($4), Dallas Braden ($3), Jake Westbrook ($3), and Carl Pavano ($3).

So I’ve been putting together a list of those who can be impact players on the cheap this year.

Here’s a few off my cheat sheet:

Austin Kearns, OF, CLE: It seems like Kearns has been in the league forever, and he’ll enter his 10th season in the majors this year at 30 years old. He put together a very nice line in 301 at-bats with the Indians last season before getting traded to the Yankees, hitting 8 home runs with 42 RBI and 4 steals. He’s slated to open as the Tribe’s starting left fielder, at least until Grady Sizemore gets healthy, and could find his way into the lineup for 350-450 at-bats this season. He went for $1 at Tout Wars. Boom.

Will Rhymes, 2B, DET:  Another $1 steal at Tout, Rhymes is the Tigers’ starting second baseman for Thursday’s opener against the Yankees. The 27-year-old hit .301 with Detroit in limited time last year, but stole 22 bases with a .305 average in Triple-A. The playing time should be there, and he won’t cost a whole lot.

Jack Wilson, 2B/SS, SEA: Is Wilson a stud? Of course not. But he’ll be in the field most days covering second base, at least until Dustin Ackley gets the call, in which case Wilson might slide over to short and push Brendan Ryan to the bench. It’s easy to forget he was an All-Star with Pittsburgh a few years back and has the ability to hit for a good average. Wilson was a reserve selection in Tout Wars by our own Lawr Michaels.

Zach Britton, P, BAL: A favorite of Jason Grey, Britton cost $3 on draft day, but it will be a $3 well-spent for Jason. The talented lefty is just 23 years old, but has compiled an ERA under 3.00 at the Triple-A level over the past two years. He had a better spring than any other O’s pitcher, and came two days away from cracking the Opening Day roster. But Britton was told not to make any long-term plans at Triple-A Norfolk, and he could be back up with the club as early as late April. With the uncertainty of Brad Bergesen and Chris Tillman in the rotation, Britton could be this year’s Rick Porcello.

Koji Uehara, P, BAL: Uehara took a while to get on the field this spring, but he’s been effective since returning. Kevin Gregg has been perfectly healthy, but Buck Showalter has refused to name a closer, even when Uehara’s status for Opening Day was uncertain. I really think Uehara is going to win the job, as long as he’s ready to pitch, and he isn’t costing much ($6 at Tout).

Jordan Walden, P, LAA: Another Jason Grey selection, for $2 at Tout, Walden can dial his fastball up to triple digits, his only problem has been consistency. The 23-year-old fanned 23 batters in 15.1 innings during a late-season call-up last year and figures to play an important role in the back-end of the Angels bullpen. With the erratic nature of Fernando Rodney and Scott Downs’ preference to remain in a set-up role, Walden could earn some save chances by mid-season. The good thing though is that he has a great skill set, so even if the opportunity doesn’t open up for Walden, he can still play a valuable role in racking up the strikeouts.

Alexi Ogando, P, TEX: Another $6 choice, this one by Lawr, Ogando was originally thought to be the Rangers’ closer as they experimented with Neftali Feliz in the rotation this spring. But a late decision to put Feliz back in the bullpen, along with health issues from Brandon Webb and Tommy Hunter, has left a vacant spot in the rotation. Ogando will fill that void for the time being, and has been working on developing another pitch to add value as a starter. I’d explain, but Jason Grey does a much better job here.

 

 

We’re right in the heart of fantasy draft season, and I’m starting to notice a theme: Speed ain’t cheap.

I seem to have been caught watching the “stolen base guys” get plucked off the board, one by one, before the 10th round is even over.

So I tried something different in my long-time home league that drafted on Tuesday night. After drafting Joey Votto in the first round, my next four guys – Carl Crawford, Andrew McCutchen, Jimmy Rollins, and Jayson Werth – all have significant speed.

At first I hated it. I thought I was in trouble, lacking significant power and run production with most of the big sticks off the board.

But then I watched the rest of the draft unfold, and it didn’t turn out so bad. There was still some great power options in the middle and later rounds. And since the more expensive stolen base guys tend to do a lot of things well – like hit for a good average – your options expand later in the draft.

I was able to pick up Pedro Alvarez (7th round), Mark Reynolds (12), and Carlos Quentin (13), hoping for somewhere close to 100 homers among those three guys.

If you look at the AL Tout Wars results from this weekend, the same thing holds true.

Even the worst of the steals guys went for a decent price tag:

Peter Bourjos ($15)

Coco Crisp ($18)

Austin Jackson (18)

Rajai Davis ($20)

Brett Gardner ($22)

Juan Pierre ($22)

Jacoby Ellsbury ($29)

Some of these prices I thought were a bit high.

I wish I was at the draft – I had to miss it for the first time in a few years – to see the flow and the runs of the auction. That’s the thing with drafts like these. It’s hard to set auction values and stick to them because there are different runs in every draft that greatly affect the way it all unfolds.

And for some reason in the Tout draft, there were some great buys in the power department, all starting with my man Mark Trumbo ($4 to Ron Shandler):

Brennan Boesch ($1)

Andruw Jones ($2)

Brandon Inge ($5)

Josh Willingham ($8)

Kila Ka'aihue ($9)

Matthew Joyce ($10)

J.D. Drew ($11)

Manny Ramirez ($13)

Travis Snider ($14)

I think I’d rather have all these power guys at those prices than the previously mentioned speedsters. Our own Todd Zola actually picked up a few of these big hitters after taking care of stolen bases with the higher-paid, five-tool players.

I think that’s the way to go this year.

And I think Todd’s team has a good chance of knocking off the champ, Jason Grey.

Click here to see the full results, including Lawr Michaels’ high-risk/high-reward squad.

 

 

We’re always looking for the next big thing in fantasy baseball. Actually, after the 2010 season, a lot of people have referred to that as the “next Jose Bautista”.

But as many fantasy analysts and baseball writers have since pointed out, Bautista showed us some signs that it was coming, we just missed them.

Bautista always had a good eye at the plate, but without much of a chance of every-day playing time he was never able to fully blossom as a power-hitter. In 2009, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was among the best of his career, and his 11 home runs in 193 at-bats after the All-Star break should been enough for us to know something was coming.

Certainly not 54 home runs, but at least something was coming.

As I was drafting in a 15-team, winner-take-all league on Tuesday night (that ran well into Wednesday morning due to some horrifically slow drafters), my friend Tom and I had already decided the best strategy in this type of format would be to go big or go home. Not only did we draft Jose Bautista, but we hopefully drafted several of the “next Jose Bautistas”.

Here are a few guys in the American League we targeted who could be in for career years:

Ryan Raburn, OF, DET (drafted - round 15, pick 9): The 29-year-old will be entering his first season with a full-time gig. It’s funny, between Bautista, Nelson Cruz, Angel Pagan, Andres Torres, Garrett Jones, and many others, we’re starting to see a new trend in baseball where hitters aren’t reaching their full potential until their late 20’s and early 30’s. Raburn might be another one of those guys.

He hit 15 homers with 62 RBIs in just 371 at-bats last year, but he really shined when Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland starting giving the outfielder a steady diet of playing time in the second half, when Raburn hit 13 home runs, 46 RBIs, and a .315 batting average.

From the source: "Last year, I did real well," Raburn said. "I think the difference is I'm not so worried about results right now. Just a matter of getting comfortable, getting the swing down, stuff like that, and just preparing myself for the year instead of trying to prove I belong on the team. Now I can just get myself ready."

Edwin Encarnacion, DH, TOR (drafted - round 16, pick 5): Some players can’t get into any rhythm when the move from the field to the designated hitter role. Others take the new opportunity and turn it into a pretty good way to make a living. I have a sneaky feeling Encarnacion is going to fall into the latter.

A terrible third baseman, Encarnacion hasn’t become the every-day player many scouts believed was possible from the 28-year-old Dominican. But he’s entering his prime age as a hitter and has averaged 21 home runs in just over 400 at-bats the last three seasons.

He’ll be sharing DH and 1B duties with Adam Lind, but Encarnacion fits right in with the power-hitting Blue Jays.

From the source: "I think you're seeing the timing really being established," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said of Encarnacion’s adjusted swing in Spring Training. "It was good to see him carry it over from one day to the next.

“I think he showed us the power he really has in there. It's good to see him put together four or five at-bats in a row where he's on time, and I know he's feeling much better about himself and how he's swinging the bat.”

Adam Jones, OF, BAL (drafted - round 10, pick 9): Scouts have said that it’s not Nick Markakis or Mark Reynolds showing the most improvement in Oriole’s camp, but the bulked-up Jones who has said to be the best-looking hitter on the team this Spring.

The 25-year-old – who was the key in the Erik Bedard trade with the Mariners a couple years back – hit 19 home runs in 474 at-bats in 2009, but struggled with the rest of the O’s lineup last season, hitting the same number of homers in 100+ more at-bats.

But Buck Showalter has been known to get the most out of his players, and Jones – a speedy player who stole just 7 bases last year – has been open about his desire to learn how to steal bases more effectively at the big-league level.

Regardless of his speed, Jones could become a strong hitter in the middle of a productive Baltimore lineup.

From the source: “I just left a guy in Sarasota, soaking wet, who’s been in the cage for an hour,” Showalter said. “The want-to is there.”

Added Jones: “If I improve on all my numbers, what can anybody say? That I had a bad year? Not if I improve.”

Other notable breakout candidates:

Gordon Beckham, 2B, CWS (drafted - round 7, pick 13)

Kila Ka'aihue , 1B, KC (drafted - round 18, pick 14)

Matt LaPorta, 1B, CLE (drafted - round 21, pick 12)

Matthew Joyce, OF, TB (drafted - round 24, pick 15)

 

Many will debate the validity of mock draft results and expert leagues and so forth. But, there are two drafts every year that I pay a lot of attention to.

The first, LABR, has been completed. The second, Tout Wars, won’t finish up for another couple weeks. But for anyone who plays in an AL- or NL-only format, the draft results and auction values in these drafts are quite helpful when preparing for your own leagues.

Now, every league is going to be different, and every draft has different flow and positional runs that alter the final results. But, you can take the results from a draft like LABR and tailor it to your own league, targeting specific guys at values close to their LABR price tag.

Since this is a column for American League chat, and since I’ve been preparing for an AL-only draft of my own all day (thanks to my business management professor not showing up and having some assignments pushed back), I thought it’d be fun to create an All-LABR team (just the offense side, for now) from this weekend’s results.

(And if you want the full LABR results, head over to USA Today where Steve Gardner has it all broken down.)

C – Jesus Montero, NYY, $5: Now there is some risk with drafting the Yankees’ top prospect, but for $5, the cost to gamble is minimal compared to the potential upside. Scouts have raved about his ability with the bat, and most seem to agree that he can hit at any level. Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated has reported that there isn’t a lot of confidence in Russell Martin making much of a comeback in the AL. And now with Francisco Cervelli out with a broken foot, it’s looking more and more likely Montero starts with the big-league club on Opening Day.

And who better than Kevin Long and Tony Pena to work with the prized youngster on his bat and defensive abilities, respectively?

C – Miguel Olivo, SEA, $4: This pick was looking a lot better before an MRI revealed Olivo has a strained adductor muscle in his groin and probably won’t be ready for Opening Day. Either way, Olivo has averaged 53 runs, 19 homers, 63 RBI, 6 SB, and a .259 average in 392 at-bats over the last two seasons. Seattle signed him to a two-year deal worth over $6 million to be the every-day catcher, and as long as there’s not a serious problem with his leg that keeps him out for longer than expected, he could be a productive second backstop in an AL format.

1B – Miguel Cabrera, DET, $35: First consider that Hanley Ramirez went for $41 and Albert Pujols for $40 on the NL side of LABR. Cabrera is clearly the most dominant player in the American League, and the scary thing is, we may not have seen his best yet. The price tag may have gone down a bit due to his crazy DUI incident, but he responded just fine the last time he was arrested for a similar event, and that was in the middle of a season. If you’re putting aside $30-$35 for one top player, there’s no better choice than Cabrera.

2B – Gordon Beckham, CWS, $17: The former first-rounder struggled big time in the first half of 2010, hitting .216 with just three home runs. He has admitted to feeling a lot of pressure last year, and a strong finish – Beckham hit .310 with six home runs in the second half – proved he had overcome his fear. Remember, he’s only 24-years old with just two years of big league experience.

3B – Lonnie Chisenhall, CLE, $2: Chisenhall is unlikely to start the season with the Indians, but he’s making it a very difficult decision for them to make. The 22-year old is hitting over .500 this spring, prompting manager Manny Acta to tell MiLB.com that Chisenhall has been “hitting the ball right on the nose.” With third base in shambles, even if the youngster does start the year at Triple-A, he’ll likely be up by mid-summer – and this kid can hit.

SS – Marco Scutaro, BOS, $9: The Jed Lowrie rumors started floating early in the offseason, but Terry Francona has put them to rest plenty of times, insisting that Scutaro is the guy. Even hitting at the bottom of the lineup, the shortstop will score runs, and he can steal a few bags. A much better option than gambling $15 on the Twins’ Nishioka or $14 on a rebound from Alexi Casilla.

CI – Edwin Encarnacion, TOR, $14: I’m actually shocked he went as high as $14, but Encarnacion is still a great buy at that price. He hasn’t played a full season in years, but has averaged over 20 homers each of the past three campaigns. This year he’ll try his luck at the DH position, and I think he’ll be a solid fit.

Second half numbers last year: .262, 11 HRs in 183 at-bats.

MI – Reid Brignac, TB, $9: Rays’ GM Andrew Freidman knew what he was doing when he let Jason Bartlett go to San Diego. Tampa seems more than content going forward with Brignac as their shortstop, and with Ben Zobrist needed in other spots on the diamond, Brignac should have no competition and a long leash.

OF – Magglio Ordonez, DET, $13: Magglio returned to the Tigers on a one-year deal worth $10 million and is out to prove he deserves that money. After missing time in each of the past three seasons, he’s averaged around 450 at-bats each year, but still hit over .300. And if he can stay healthy, he’ll earn you at least $20 from batting average and counting stats alone.

OF – Grady Sizemore, CLE, $13: I’m a sucker for this kid. Granted, he’ll miss the start of the season recovering from microfracture surgery on his left knee, but even if he gets 500 at-bats, he can easily out-earn the price tag. A nice speed/power combo at a cheap cost.

OF – Juan Rivera, TOR, $10: The 32-year-old will be the every-day left fielder on a team that can score. Another mid-level outfielder, which is how I love to fill the position, Rivera is one of the few 20-home run players who can be purchased at $10 or less.

OF – Jeff Francoeur, KC, $4: I mean, this is a bit ridiculous. The 27-year-old split last season between the Mets and the Rangers and managed just 13 home runs in 454 at bats. He has blamed some of that on Citi Field and some on trying too hard to hit balls out of the park. Either way, Francoeur is back in camp 25 pounds lighter this year and said he has a new approach at the plate (don’t they all?). Whether he’s better or not, $4 for a respectable player with a starting gig is as good as it gets.

OF – Brett Gardner, NYY, $18: There’s a reason Joe Girardi has talked about moving Derek Jeter back to the 2-hole, and it extends beyond the shortstop’s demise at the plate. Gardner surprised everyone with his ability to not only run, but hit, in his first full year as a starter. Gardner stole 47 bases in 477 at-bats last season, and we can only imagine what he’s capable of with 600 at-bats atop the Yankees’ potent lineup.

UTI – Luke Scott, BAL, $15: Scott will have to play the outfield with the acquisition of Vladimir Guerrero, but he’s logged over 700 at-bats there in his career, hitting .268 with 36 home runs. I think the Orioles are going to be scoring a lot, and Scott should find himself in the middle of it quite often.

What do you think? Who were the best buys?

In a keeper league with 11 friends of mine, league mate Harry Weber asked me an interesting question today: "Would you keep Nelson Cruz for $23?"

Now, whenever I get asked these questions, it’s very difficult to answer without in turn asking 27 questions back about the league format, other players on your team, etc. But I know this league well enough (I am the commissioner), and I do know Harry’s team, so I offered my response.

Yes.

In real baseball, Cruz was put on waivers prior to the 2008 season, and every team passed on him. I can't imagine any general managers are too happy with that decision.

We all know that Cruz has dominated while on the field over the past few seasons. We also know he’s had trouble staying on the field. The Rangers outfielder spent three separate stints on the DL last season with hamstring issues, for example.

But when he did play? Super-Star.

Cruz hit .318 with 22 home runs and 17 stolen bases. Prorated to a full season of 600 at-bats, and the 30-year-old would have put up a ridiculous line of 90-33-117-25-.318, and that’s MVP quality production.

Will he stay healthy enough to be worth his salt in 2011? No one really knows.

What we do know is that he chose to skip winter ball in the Dominican Republic in favor of additional rest. We also know that strength and conditioning coach Jose Vazques spent four days with Cruz working toward improving the outfielder’s running mechanics and creating a quicker start.

And Ron Washington loves to keep his players running on the bases. The Rangers are fourth in the AL in steals since 2007, and fourth in stolen base percentage.

Cruz will run, so that isn’t a concern. He will also hit in the middle of a super-productive lineup, in a very hitter-friendly park. Cruz has hit one home run in every 15.65 at-bats over the past two seasons, fourth best in the AL.

We don’t know if he can stay on the field. But we do know that he’ll be incredibly good when he does play. And, the slugger is up for a contract extension at season’s end.

So yes, I’d pay $23 to keep Cruz in a 12-team mixed league. I’d probably pay upwards of $28, actually. Even with 500 at-bats, you’ll get plenty of production.

A few other outfield observations from the AL:

Nick Markakis seems to be drafted in the top 10 rounds every year. I was having this conversation with a friend last season, and it was at the point where Markakis wasn’t even worth starting in a 12-team mixed league.

The power was down, and the outfielder doesn’t have much speed (and the Orioles weren’t scoring). Markakis finished the year with 79 runs, 12 homers, 60 RBIs, 7 steals, and a .298 batting average.

Here’s the deal with the 27-year-old: Markakis is entering his prime, and I really don’t think we’ve seen the best from him yet. He was the only respectable hitter in the lineup for almost all of last year, with Brian Roberts injured for most of 2010. Take a look at the O’s lineup now – it’s a complete 180. Markakis will be sandwiched between good hitters wherever he bats in the order.

And, Markakis has averaged 160 games over the past four seasons. He plays a lot. A career .298 hitter, in a lineup that’s going to produce, there’s no reason he can’t go something like 100-18-100-10-.300. Nothing sexy about it, but that’s rock-solid.

Heard this from the Red Sox camp: J.D. Drew is probably going to sit against most lefties this year (and please read this, you won't be sorry). Mike Cameron is apparently looking light-years ahead of the way he looked last year in spring training (physically, that is) and he’s not getting paid $7.75 million to do nothing.

Cameron hits lefties very well, and he’ll likely sub in for Drew in RF and even David Ortiz at DH. And remember, Jacoby Ellsbury played in 18 games last year. I think Cameron is going to make for a very good sleeper pick in AL-only formats.

Prior to the injury-plagued season of 2010, Cameron’s four-year average: 81-23-75-17-251.

I really don’t like Alex Rios. I’m not entirely sure why. (I know that’s the type of spot-on fantasy coverage you were looking for). I will say this though: He’s being projected by many as a 20-home run, 30-stolen base guy. Rios has done each of those things just twice in his eight year career, and never in the same season. Rios is also 30 years old. Just sayin’.

The more I read about Grady Sizemore, the more upset with myself I become for drafting him in a slow-draft league with Todd Zola and Perry Van Hook, among others, earlier this off-season. I mean, I got him in the 10th round, so it wasn’t terrible value. But this is getting ridiculous.

Don’t take it from me, the injury expert, Will Carroll, said it best over at Sports Illustrated this week: “I’d cut the steals projections in half.”

For what it’s worth, Peter Gammons said Manny Ramirez (eligible at outfield) could be the best DH in the AL East, and Manny reportedly bumped his off-season workout up to the level of his Red Sox days. He plays great when he’s motivated, and he’s not going to want to look bad in front of the division audience – mainly Theo Epstein.

It’s important to note, outfield isn’t that deep in the American League this year. There are a ton of question marks once you get past the big-guns. Don’t be afraid to take a few good ones early, or set aside some dough at your auction.

Until then, hope you’re all enjoying the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. That damn Christiano Ronaldo has a looker of a girlfriend…

Oh, the dreaded catcher position.

If you play in a 12-team AL-only format, someone in your league is going to end up with Jason Varitek, Ramon Castro, Jeff Mathis, or Lou Marson as one of their starting catchers.

Oh yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.

I mean honestly, what the heck are you supposed to do with this position?

If you take a look at all the catchers in the American League, sort them from top to bottom, I have to get to the 12th or 13th guy before I find someone I feel comfortable taking given their expected draft position/auction value.

Let’s break it down a little.

There are those in the industry who love Joe Mauer. But I can’t justify taking a catcher with a history of knee problems (and had surgery in December), who, in his “healthy years”, averages just over 500 at-bats in a season.

Now, I know that’s pretty good compared to his peers. But when you talk about guys who are supposed to help you out in batting average, those at-bat totals are extremely important. Ichiro hitting .331 in 680 at-bats is a lot different than Mauer hitting .327 in 510 at-bats.

Add in that Mauer has hit 9 or less home runs in three of the past four seasons, and I really wouldn’t want to waste a first-, or even second-round pick on him. Those are supposed to be the picks who you build your team around. A guy or two who you can count on do a few things really well for you, and stay on the field.

To me, Mauer just doesn’t seem to fit that bill.

Then you take a look at some of the other guys on the list: Victor Martinez, Mike Napoli, Jorge Posada, Russell Martin, Carlos Santana

No thanks.

V-Mart will likely become more of a designated hitter in Detroit, since he’s awful defensively, and pitchers really don’t like throwing to him – just ask the Red Sox staff – and I’m not sure how he’s going to handle that role.

Posada has had three straight years of less than 400 at-bats, though I will admit, he can still hit. But he is yet another player moving to a DH role.

Napoli, Martin, Santana – all those guys just scream over-rated to me.

I actually don’t mind Matt Wieters this year, but I highlighted that in more detail in this space before.

So I decided to take what I call the “Theo Epstein Approach to Catching” this year.

Draft two guys who, together, will probably pile together 600-700 at-bats. But in those at-bats, two guys who can hit the ball decently well. (And I know, Epstein has one guy who can hit decently well, and another who has hit .212 the past three seasons, but the idea still works.)

I’d much rather put together a catching team of guys like Jesus Montero and Jarrod Saltalamacchia than try to chase at-bats from those who will likely do more harm than good anyway.

I actually really like Salty this year. It’s easy to forget that he’s only 25 years old, and has a ton of experience for a guy that young.

He was a first-round draft pick by the Braves out of high school and does have decent power, he spent all winter working out with Gary Tuck and Jason Varitek, and the pitching staff has already had nothing but great things to say about the new backstop.

What does his defense have to do with fantasy? Well, it means that Saltalamacchia is going to be in the lineup a lot. With Varitek his only competition, and likely only getting one or two starts a week when tough lefties are on the mound, Salty will finally have a starting job all to himself. And hitting anywhere in the Boston order is no bad place to be.

By waiting until the late rounds to take guys like Salty, Alex Avila, John Jaso, or even Brayan Pena, you can spend your earlier picks on much more productive hitters. The difference between someone like Saltalamacchia and Carlos Santana probably won’t be a whole lot, but they’re being drafted 260 spots apart. Actually, I’d be willing to place a bet that Salty ends the season with more runs and RBIs than the Indians’ hot prospect.

Then you consider the difference between hitters in another position taken in the same two rounds, and that’s like trading in Fred Lewis for Nick Swisher, or Clint Barmes for Brian Roberts, or Nate McLouth for Nick Markakis, or… well, you get the point.

To me, it just makes sense to wait on catching this year, at least in the American League.

 

 

It’s a question that no one outside of Boston really cares about answering.

Is Marco Scutaro the every-day shortstop, or is Jed Lowrie going to get a chance to win that title?

Well, in fantasy baseball, specifically AL-only leagues, this question means a lot.

Scutaro has been a pretty darn good fantasy player over the past two years, and at a position that has been quite thin. He’s averaged 96 runs, 12 home runs, 58 RBI, 9 steals, with a .279 batting average over two seasons. Those numbers have been enough to make Scutaro the fourth or fifth best shortstop in the AL.

Now, he did spend most of his time atop the Red Sox lineup last year, and he’ll likely be stuck at the bottom of the order this season. Though at the same time, Boston should be scoring at a much more frequent pace, thus making that transition somewhat neutral.

Jed Lowrie is a guy that was basically invisible at the start of last season. He was sick with mono, and didn’t even reach the club until late July. But with all the injuries the Sox had, Lowrie was able to get some at bats down the stretch, and made the most of them. He hit nine home runs in 171 at bats, swinging .287 with an even walk-to-strikeout rate. For anyone’s standards, that’s a great line.

But Lowrie has a long history of injury problems, and the Sox have given him plenty of chances to prove himself – all of which Lowrie has squandered.

The 26-year-old Stanford alum was originally thought of as the shortstop of the future, coming out of the first round in the 2005 amateur draft. Lowrie spent six seasons in the minors, never hitting more than 13 home runs, nor having any success at the Triple-A level.

Boston skipper Terry Francona opened things up a little bit earlier in the off-season, when he suggested that Lowrie might have a chance to compete with Scutaro for the starting gig, and that made fantasy projectors everywhere skeptical of Scutaro’s playing time.

But Francona quickly put those rumors to rest, telling reporters, “Scutaro’s our shortstop. (Lowrie) gives us something not a lot of teams can say they have. A switch hitter than can play first, second, third or short and play a lot. He can play for a week, he can play it for a day, he can play it for two weeks. That at some point is going to probably save us. How many times have you seen where everybody stays healthy?”

It was kind of an awkward interview, and it seemed like Tito was being careful not to say too much, good or bad, about either player. But I really can’t see any situation where Scutaro isn’t the everyday shortstop for the Red Sox this year.

And, if Lowrie didn’t have such a great finish to the 2010 season, this wouldn’t even be a topic of discussion.

Bottom line is, Lowrie has never been able to stay healthy, and even when he has been on the field, he hasn’t been nearly consistent enough to be considered a starting shortstop, especially on a team like the Red Sox (though Lowrie has said that if he were on a different team, he’d be a starter).

And Boston has defensive-guru Jose Iglesias waiting in the minor leagues, who scouts have said could win a Gold Glove today if he was in the Majors, but his bat is about a year away – which fits perfectly given the one year left on Scutaro’s contract.

Scutaro is the guy, so draft him without worry, while your league-mates have likely downgraded him with Lowrie’s shadow looming overhead. Actually, in the drafts I’ve been in so far this year, Scutaro has slipped every time, becoming a nice steal in AL-only leagues.

Other shortstop tidbits from around the league:

Derek Jeter isn’t done. Temper your expectations, but he’s still be a phenomenal hitter in a great spot in a great lineup.

Orioles’ shortstop J.J. Hardy could find the 25-home-run power he once possessed with Milwaukee. And Baltimore will give him every chance to prove it.

Yunel Escobar isn’t more than two years removed from having a ton of fantasy hype in the Braves organization. He doesn’t excel in any one category, but he can do everything well, and if Toronto has a decent offense again, he’ll produce.

Reid Brignac is a similar guy – some power, some speed, and he’ll be given a chance to play every day in the beginning of the season. But he strikes out a lot, and that might start to rub Joe Maddon the wrong way.

Alcides Escobar was the No. 12 rated prospect by Baseball America heading into last season. And he swiped 42 bags in Triple-A in 2009. He barely ran at all in Milwaukee last year, but he’ll be the shortstop in Kansas City and could be a sneaky source of 25 steals.

Johnny Peralta has 25-home-run power and Detroit will score some runs. If he stays on the field, he can produce.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka won the batting title in Japan with a .346 average last year. But before that, he was a mediocre hitter who never topped .300. They say playing in Japan barely compares to playing in Triple-A competition, and I can’t see any way Nishioka strokes higher than .270, with little power to boot.

Asdrubal Cabrera is extremely underrated this year. Hits for solid average, can steal 15 bases, and will play every day.

Elvis Andrus is extremely overrated this year. Zero power, 68 percent success rate stealing bases, and a .265 batting average.

Alexei Ramirez barely has a 65 percent stolen base success rate. Just a thought.

Cliff Pennington was 29-for-34 swiping bags last year. Just another thought.

Erick Aybar was only moderately valuable in 2010 because he spent a good portion of the season in the leadoff role. The Angels currently don’t have a lead-off guy, but there’s no way Aybar (.318 career OBP) spends another 400 at-bats in that spot.

There is no Seattle Mariner shortstop worth owning. Seriously…

 

Everyone is quick to point out all the flaws of Alex Rodriguez as a fantasy player – and we won’t bother getting into what kind of person he is. But, for those keeping score:

  • ARod hasn’t played a full season in three straight years.
  • ARod's batting average has declined each season of the last three years.
  • He’s 35 years old and he only stole four bases last year.

There it is folks. That right there is the extensive list of all the flaws of A-Rod, the fantasy third baseman. But none of them really affect his expected output for 2011.

He’s 35, yes, but A-Rod has also hit at least 30 bombs in 13 straight seasons, including the past three, when he hasn’t played in more than 138 games. Most of the great players have continued to be productive in the power department into their late 30’s. And there’s no debating that A-Rod is one of the greatest players ever – despite his admission to steroid use.

Rodriguez has had injury problems, but none of them have kept him out of the lineup for more than a temporary period. Last year, A-Rod had to miss games on two separate occasions after being hit by a pitch, one of which came in batting practice. He missed 15 games with a lower leg strain in late August, but seemed great after that, cranking nine home runs in September.

If you look at his splits from last season, the great start, the slow summer – when he battled the leg injury – and the incredible finish, it’s tough not to wonder how well he would have done had he played all season.

Even after his return from hip surgery in 2009, he remained perfectly healthy all season, smacking 30 bombs in just 444 at-bats. There aren’t more than a few players in the game who could do that.

In a position so thin, especially in AL-only leagues, Rodriguez is once again an elite player, and deserves first-round draft status.

He bats in the middle of perhaps the most potent offense in baseball, minus the Red Sox. In just 137 games last year, he still managed to drive in 125 runs, and score 74. ARod also plays half his games in hitter-friendly – and that’s putting it lightly – Yankee Stadium. His three-year average in just less than 500 at-bats per season is impressive: 85-32-109-12-.286.

So what’s all the fuss about? I’ve seen too many draft boards and rankings sheets with A-Rod outside of the top-15, top-20, and in some cases, even the top-30.

For my money, he’s easily the No. 3 third baseman, and I could make the argument to put him at No. 2. That is also expecting another season where he only plays 135-140 games.

If ARod can avoid some bad luck and play the entirety of the season, which the Yankees will likely desperately need out of him if they want to make the playoffs, the possibilities are endless.

And he battled leg injuries last year folks, it’s no mystery why he wasn’t stealing bases.

My thing with Rodriguez is this: Project him for 520 at-bats, and adjust accordingly. You still get something around 30-35 home runs, 115 RBI, a batting average around .280-.290, and a handful of steals.

Then look around at who is being drafted ahead of him; Robinson Cano, Chase Utely, Ryan Braun, Matt Holliday, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Joe Mauer.

None of these guys have the upside that A-Rod does if he can play in 155 games; top-notch power, league-leading RBI numbers, and a .300 average, all from a thin position.

Now, on to the pathetic bunch that makes up the rest of the American League third basemen:

Evan Longoria is probably going to hit more than the 22 home runs he hit last year, but the Rays lost A LOT on offense and will be counting on 37-year-old Johnny Damon and 38-year-old Manny Ramirez to stabilize the lineup. They combined for 17 home runs last year.
Adrian Beltre in Texas is a great fit, no doubt. But everyone else in your draft knows that too, and with his price tag, there probably isn’t much room to profit. If he slips, it makes sense to take him, but let someone else in your league over-pay.

Beltre’s teammate, Michael Young, is a Grade-A ballplayer in every sense of the word. Don’t let his undefined role scare you off – he’ll find a place to play and he’ll be in the lineup every day. Young was sixth in the league with 189 hits last year and has been at the top of the leader board year-in and year-out. He routinely piles up the at-bats and is a career .300 hitter. In the same lineup as Beltre, Young might be the smarter pick, and rounds later.

Bet on the under for Jose Bautista matching his 54-home-run output of a year ago. But don’t sell him short either. Just because a player doesn’t put it all together until he’s 29 years old doesn’t mean he can’t continue at a similar level. Nelson Cruz just became fantasy-relevant two years ago. And they’re the same age.

Kevin Youkilis is as good a bet in the third round as anyone. Especially if you take some risk with your first pick or two, Youk is as stable as they come and he’s fully recovered from his thumb injury.

Brandon Inge played in 144 games last year and hit just 13 home runs. At that level, he does a lot more harm than good.

Danny Valencia can hit, there’s no doubt about it. But he doesn’t have much power for a third baseman, and the seven home runs he hit in 299 at-bats last year may not be that far away from what he ends up with in 2011.

It looks like Mike Aviles will get a chance to start at third for the Royals in spring training and could provide a rare source of 15 steals from the hot corner, though he’ll have Mike Moustakas breathing down his neck come May.

Jason Kipnis will almost definitely start the season in the minor leagues, as his only experience above the Double-A level came in the International League playoffs last year, when he hit for the cycle. But with Jayson Nix and Jason Donald being the other options at third base for the Indians, Kipnis might be with Cleveland by June, and he can hit.

OK, so Robinson Cano is good. Well, he’s really good.

I can finally admit that, and those who know me well know that it took me a while to get to that point.

Not that I thought he wasn’t good, I just didn’t see the reason for all the hype around someone who may or may not hit 20 homers and could barely steal five bases in a season.

But here’s a few things to keep in mind when you’re thinking of dropping a first round draft pick on the Yankees’ second basemen:

1. It is said a hitter reaches his prime statistical year at age 27, ahem, Cano’s season last year. They tend to regress a bit after that. It doesn’t happen with everyone, but it’s an average among most major leaguers.

It took Cano until his fifth full season in the bigs to top the 19-home run mark, hitting 25 two years ago. He hit 29 last year, but that was fueled largely in part to a ridiculous April in which he hit eight.

And for what it’s worth, his fly ball rate (36.5 percent) was the highest of his career last year and has now increased in each of the past five seasons. At least he figured out Yankee Stadium.

2. Cano's second half numbers took a dive as he seemed to regress back toward his typical numbers, somewhere around a .300 average and 25-home-run power. Cano also fanned a lot more per plate appearance in the second half.

3. Cano has no speed (most second basemen have at least some speed). Actually, if you take an average among all second basemen in the AL, consider Cano's three steals of last year a negative value when determining how much to spend on draft day. To put it in perspective, there were 24 players at the position who stole more bases than Cano did last year in the AL alone.

These are just a few things to consider, but what I really think it comes down to is what you are expecting when you draft Cano. ESPN’s Eric Karabell, for whom I have a ton of respect--and with whom I agree with more often than not--ranks the second sacker fourth overall in mixed leagues.

That puts Cano ahead of the likes of Troy Tulowitzki, Carl Crawford, Carlos Gonzalez, Joey Votto, David Wright, Ryan Braun, Evan Longoria (alright, you get the point.). So, in order to produce that type of value, Cano would have to hit something around 30 bombs, drive in 120 runs, and hit at least .310. Is it possible? Sure. Is it likely? No.

All I’m saying is, be careful what you’re paying for. Second base isn’t the deepest of positions, as it never is. But drafting Cano at fourth overall, or the second player in AL-only leagues, is just ridiculous.

And he really needs to shave…

Anyway, here are a few tidbits from the second base position in the AL:

All I ever heard from the Howie Kendrick fan-boys was, “Just wait till he plays a full season, he'll win a batting title.” Well, he played one last year, and it really wasn’t that pretty. In 616 at bats, he hit just 10 homers, stole 14 bases, and collected a .279 batting average. His terrible strikeout to walk rate doesn’t help, and he couldn’t touch lefthanders. No thanks.

Chone Figgans isn’t nearly as bad as his numbers portrayed him to be last season. He’s obviously not going to help you in the HR/RBI category, but the guy can still flat-out run. Expect an increase in batting average somewhere close to his career .287-mark and pencil in 40 steals – not bad from a thin position.

Gordon Beckham was playing with various injuries all of last season, and he quietly put together a 23-6-27-.310 mark in 171 second-half at bats. He’ll have no competition for playing time and the White Sox actually have a decent lineup, as Kenny Williams decided to go all-in this season. He’s going to have a lot more value than where he’s being drafted right now.

Is Brian Roberts going to stay healthy? Who knows? But, if he does and you draft him in the 10th round, which is his current ADP in 12-team leagues, you’re guaranteed a winner.

Chris Getz can really fly if he finds his way into the lineup in Kansas City.

Jed Lowrie will not start for the Red Sox, so put that notion to rest. Marco Scutaro is the guy. But Lowrie will get his at bats, somewhere, somehow. Just don’t pay for them.

Carlos Guillen hasn’t played a full season since 2007, but it was a good one (.296-21-102, with 86 runs). Guillen appears healthy and could produce for the Tigers.

Alexi Casilla is only 26 years old and is terrific defensively. He’s going to play somewhere.

Depending on your league eligibility rules, don’t forget about Ryan Raburn, who could easily hit 25 homers. But I already talked about him here.

Last, but certainly not least, Dustin Ackley was ranked as the No. 5 prospect in baseball according to MLB.com. He crushed the Arizona Fall League, hitting .424 and winning MVP honors, dominating just about every hitting category. If he doesn’t start the season as the opening day second baseman, Seattle has already given up. Ackley will be at Safeco by May at the latest.

The most common observation from early fantasy drafts for the 2011 season is that first base is the deepest position. Narrow the player pool down to just the American League and it becomes even more evident.

Of the top 15 first baseman this year, 10 are from the AL. So if you’re playing in a 12-team mixed league that uses just one first baseman, patience could pay off as you fill in your other positions with top-tier players, and settling for someone like Derrek Lee or Paul Konerko really won’t hurt you.

But for those of you AL-only junkies playing in a traditional league that uses a corner infield spot as well, the way you play the first base position can be very important. After the top 10 guys or so, there seems to be a real drop-off in talent. And after the next few guys after that, the drop off is huge.

So while first base is still the deepest position, it also makes sense to try to grab two of the top 10 or 12 guys, adding solid production to both your 1B and CI slots.

There are roughly five tiers that split up the position in the AL, here’s the breakdown:

Tier No. 1: Miguel Cabrera (DET), Adrian Gonzalez (BOS), Mark Teixeira (NYY): Now, despite these three guys being in a class above the rest, you can make an argument for Cabrera and even Gonzalez in tiers of their own, since Teixeira’s mediocre batting average separates him from the others. But his run and RBI totals will keep him in the top group, as he’s easily surpassed the 100-mark in each stat both years he’s been on the Yankees.

Gonzalez has been the center of debate among plenty of fantasy gurus this year. Many believe the move to Fenway Park will give a very nice boost to the left-handed hitting Gonzalez’ home run totals, and playing in a productive offense where he isn’t the only guy who can swing the bat will surely add to his numbers as well. He’s been drafted as high as No. 4 overall, which might be a little crazy considering he’s never produced even top-10 fantasy talent. But if he slips deep into the first round, don’t hesitate to take him along with the upside that the Red Sox lineup will surely bring in 2011.

Tier No. 2: Kendry Morales (LAA), Justin Morneau (MIN), Kevin Youkilis (BOS): This trio is interesting, considering each of them suffered season-ending injuries during the 2010 season. But the bizarre broken leg of Morales is something that should be recovered by the start of spring training, and the 27-year-old can get back to where he left off. He cranked 11 homers in just 193 at bats before going down following the celebration at home plate in the end of May, hitting .290 and driving in 39 runs. If he continues to grow, he could easily join that top tier as we prepare for fantasy drafts in 2012.

Morneau’s back problems limited him to just half a season last year, but he hit .345 with 18 home runs before being sidelined in mid-July. He recently began intensifying his preseason workouts and is hopeful that he’ll be ready for the start of spring training. There are a lot of Morneau-haters out there, aided by the apparently-pitcher-friendly Target Field, which have helped send him down on draft boards. But I’ll be taking advantage of the hesitation and reaping the rewards.

Youkilis had a muscle tear in his right thumb last season, something the doctors told him they’ve never seen a pro athlete do before. An orthopedist told me there was concern that too much scar tissue could have built up, shortening the muscle, and possibly affecting the motion in his hand. But so far there have been no worries coming out of the Sox camp, and Youk pronounced himself ready if the Sox had made the playoffs last fall. Pencil him for the usual numbers across the board.

Tier No. 3: Adam Dunn (CWS), Paul Konerko (CWS): A tier for White Sox teammates only, Dunn and Konerko provide something that no first base-eligible players below them can: stable power.

Dunn is making the move to DH after spending the majority of last season at first, and many seasons before that in left field. He might see a few at bats from the field, but he’s not a great defensive player and will likely just handle the stick as the DH this year (though he carries 1B eligibility from 2010). Pencil in the usual for the fun-loving cowboy from Houston.

Konerko is coming off the second best batting average of his career, posting a .312 mark last season with 39 home runs and 111 RBI. The 34-year-old isn’t getting any younger, but he’s been surprisingly durable throughout his career, taking less than 540 at bats just once in the last 12 seasons. He’s also hit at least 28 homers in every year but one since 2004, and you can count on at least that again in 2011.

Tier No. 4: Derrek Lee (BAL), Billy Butler (KC), Michael Cuddyer (MIN): Talk about durability and you have to include Lee’s name in the mix. He struggled through some aches and pains last year, sure, yet still compiled 547 at bats. Lee always seems to miss a few games during the season, but he’s gotten through the year relatively injury-free in 10 of the past 11 seasons. The 35 homers from 2009 have been quickly forgotten, but Lee will be hitting out of the three-hole for a surprisingly potent Baltimore lineup with plenty of protection around him. You can’t get much better in the late rounds than him.

Talk to any group of people about Billy Butler and you’re sure to find a few lover-boys in the mix, as Butler has been teasing us with his batting average/power potential for the past few seasons. He’s still yet to eclipse the 21-homer mark though, and a regression to just 15 HRs last season isn’t anything we were hoping for. Butler is a gap hitter, and a good one at that, and certainly possessed the skills to keep his average above .300. But the Royals lineup is nothing to be excited about, and at this point, even 25 homers seems to be asking a little too much.

Tier No. 5: Mitch Moreland (TEX), Kila Ka’aihue (KC): OK, now we’re taking a little bit of a gamble. But both of these players are capable of providing very solid years for their respective teams.

Ka’aihue will likely make his long-awaited opening day start after pummeling minor league pitching for the past eight years of his life. But he’s still only 26 years old, and while his .217 average during 52 games with the Royals last season wasn’t much to get excited about, the Hawaiian did connect on eight homers. And his 24:39 BB:K rate isn’t all that bad either. His walk rate was even with the K-rate in the minor leagues, and he has a great chance to hit 25 home runs and provide some solid production at a decently low cost.

Moreland enters the season as the likely starter at first base for the Rangers, though the recent acquisition of Adrian Beltre pushes Michael Young to a DH/rover position, and he could steal some at bats. Moreland doesn’t possess the power that Ka’aihue has, but he’s a career .313 hitter in the minors and will be in a much more productive lineup. If he gets the majority of the starts at first for Texas, there’s no reason he can’t get something close to 80-20-80-.280.

The best of the rest: Matt LaPorta (CLE), Daric Barton (OAK), Justin Smoak (SEA), Dan Johnson (TB): There’s not a whole lot of stability in this group, but it is certainly not lacking upside.

Johnson is a power-hitter with terrible plate discipline, but with Carlos Pena gone to the Cubs, he could smack 25-plus homers for the Rays and become a staple in their deflated lineup.

The Indians are still waiting for LaPorta, the key guy from the CC Sabathia trade with the Brewers a few years back, to become the slugger they were looking for. He probably won’t, but he’s still a capable bat who will get his chance to play.

And after being demoted to the minors by the Mariners last year, Smoak crushed the ball before his return to the big-league club late in the season. He hit .325 with three home runs in just 11 September games and could be ready to make the next step. Remember, he’s just 24, and scouts couldn’t stop raving when he slipped to the 11th pick of the 2008 draft, drawing comparisons to Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira with his raw power from both sides of the plate. Seattle’s lineup is miserable, but Smoak could be a lone bright-spot in 2011.

Check back next week as we take a look at the dreaded second base position.

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