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Why September return of Nick Markakis could be Braves’ October difference-maker

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WASHINGTON – It’s a classic case of addition by addition.

The Atlanta Braves got Nick Markakis back on Friday. In related news, they just became an ever more dangerous October out.

Playing in his first game since suffering a fractured wrist on July 26, Markakis was all over the place. Facing Nationals ace Max Scherzer in the second inning, he lined a single to center field. In his next trip against the three-time Cy Young winner, Markakis laced a double to center and came around to score the Braves’ first run of the game. In the fifth, he came up with the bases loaded and just barely missed hitting a grand slam, instead settling for a 385-foot sac fly that sent Nats outfielder Victor Robles all the way to the wall in left-center and extended Atlanta’s lead to 3-0.

“I was just up there trying to get comfortable again,” said Markakis, who was hitting .284 with a .787 OPS at the time of his injury. “Your first game back after seven weeks against a pitcher like that is not the easiest feat, so I was pleased. Didn’t see as many pitches as I’d like to, but when I did see my pitch, I tried not to miss it.”

He didn’t miss much of anything in the outfield either.

With Atlanta and rookie starter Mike Soroka leading 2-0 in the bottom of the fourth, following a leadoff double by Adam Eaton, Nats MVP candidate Anthony Rendon lifted a fly ball to the gap between left and center. Markakis, a right fielder by trade who was playing left field for the first time this year, converged on the ball along with center fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. and confusion ensued. In the end, it was Markakis who ended up laying out and making an acrobatic, albeit avoidable, backhanded grab that kept Washington scoreless and almost resulted in him getting trampled by Acuna. An inning later, Markakis was on the ground again, sliding to his knees in shallow left to deprive Robles of a leadoff single.

In typical Markakis fashion, neither play was a work of art (nor was the ball that got under his glove in the seventh and was graciously ruled a double). But considering that Markakis has now played a grand total of four games in left field over the last 12 years, the Braves will gladly live with it. Just like they’ll gladly live with having Markakis back in the lineup.

In the seven weeks since Markakis suffered that broken wrist, the Braves’ outfield has been something of a mess. Austin Riley, who came out of nowhere to win Rookie of the Month in May, came crashing back to earth and then landed on the injured list with a sprained knee in early August. Opening Day center fielder Ender Inciarte, who missed two months with a lumbar strain and returned shortly before Markakis got hurt, hit the IL again in mid-August with a balky hamstring. Riley and veteran reserve Adam Duvall, a pair of right-handed hitters, have been good against southpaws but can’t be trusted against righties, and lefty swinger Matt Joyce has been the opposite. If not for Acuna, who’s played all three positions (not at the same time) and is threatening to join the exclusive 40-40 club, Atlanta’s outfield might have collapsed on itself and turned into a certifiable black hole. Or something like that. Now, with Markakis back, the Braves’ universe is measurably more copacetic.

“My god,” said manager Brian Snitker following Markakis’ re-entry into Atlanta’s atmosphere. “It’s just something else. One live BP, and two of the hardest hit balls he’s probably had all year. And made a couple really nice plays in left. The guy’s a ballplayer. It’s huge for our lineup and our team to have him back in there.”

To be clear, the “huge” that Snitker refers to is more about the future than the past. Despite the disarray in the outfield, the Braves did just fine, thanks, without their veteran outfielder. In fact, their 30-14 record during Markakis’ absence was tops in the National League and 2.5 games better than the mighty Dodgers. Over that stretch, they managed to extend their division lead by three games over a Washington team that was as hot as any in the league. But that was then and this is now: In order for the Braves to accomplish their goals, from overtaking LA for top seed in the NL to winning a playoff series for the first time in nearly 20 years (2001 was the last time) to going all the way, they’ll need all hands on deck. On Friday, they added one more very capable pair of hands.

“It was awesome to have Kakes back,” said Soroka. “I know he really wanted to come back and make an impression, and I think he did that right off the bat. That gave us a little life.”

More importantly, it gave Atlanta an even better chance in October.

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Indians’ Carlos Carrasco day to day with mild hip flexor strain

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Cleveland Indians right-hander Carlos Carrasco has been diagnosed with a mild strain of his right hip flexor after feeling discomfort while doing squats in the weight room during spring training.

The team said Friday that Carrasco was considered day to day after an MRI revealed the strain.

Manager Terry Francona said Carrasco felt something in his upper leg when squatting on Wednesday.

The 32-year-old pitcher made an inspiring comeback last season after being diagnosed with leukemia. He revealed that in June, and returned as a reliever in September after treatment.

Carrasco had said earlier in camp that his health was good and that he was excited about the upcoming season, when he is expected to move back into the rotation.

The Indians, who traded two-time AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber this winter, were already down one starter this spring with right-hander Mike Clevinger recovering from knee surgery and out until mid-April.

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Why the Cleveland Indians should play it out with Francisco Lindor

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Francisco Lindor didn’t sound like a man who had been shopped around all winter and was approaching the end of his time with the Cleveland Indians. He sounded genuinely upbeat about the potential of a franchise that has spent the past two offseasons reducing payroll. He sounded sincere when he addressed reporters after Monday’s workout and said, “I wanna win here. I wanna stay here.”

In the end, as is always the case, money will be the deciding factor. Twenty months from now, Lindor will become eligible for free agency and will command a contract that could exceed the eight-year, $260 million deal Nolan Arenado signed to stay with the Colorado Rockies. The Indians probably won’t go there. You could argue they can — that practically every billionaire owner has the financial resources for such a commitment — and Lindor would agree.

“The team is not broke, the league is not broke,” he said. “There’s money.”

But the reality is Lindor’s free-agent years could ultimately absorb about a quarter of the Indians’ budget, and that ratio doesn’t necessarily yield sustainable success in the sport. Indians president Chris Antonetti was adamant about his desire to keep Lindor when he spoke at the start of camp, but he also acknowledged the inherent difficulties.

“When you look at the economics of baseball, and the realities of building championship teams in a small market, it gets really tough,” Antonetti said. “The interest is there, the desire is there, on both sides, to try to get something done. And whether or not that’s possible, we just don’t know.”

Consider this a plea to play it out, regardless of where that leads. If the Mookie Betts trade taught us anything, it’s that attaining equal value for generational talents is unrealistic — especially if they’re nearing free agency, even more so in a time when front offices are so protective of their prospects.

Rival evaluators believe the Boston Red Sox did well in their trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, considering Betts is only a season away from free agency and that they also wanted to offload David Price‘s contract. But it might not have been worth all the blowback. It might not have been enough to justify all those days — 81 of them, at least — when fans will sit in the stands at Fenway Park and not see Mookie Betts play.

Few executives were surprised Lindor wasn’t traded this offseason. Many believed the Indians were mainly trying to get a sense for his market value, open to being blown away by an offer but mostly gathering intel for a potential trade in July. Given the urgency of teams vying for a spot in the postseason, the return might be better then than it would have been this past offseason. But if the Indians wait until the 2020-21 offseason, when only a year would separate Lindor from free agency, trading a franchise pillar might no longer be worth it.

In short, the Indians may reach that proverbial fork in the road in about five months.

“Our first priority would be if we could find a way to extend Francisco’s term here,” Antonetti said. “If that’s not possible, then we have to look at alternate paths. And one of those paths is Francisco staying here ’til the end of his contract or term with us and leaving as a free agent. That could happen. That’s happened with players here in the past. And there have been other situations in which we’ve traded them. It’s really dependent upon a lot of factors that would play into those decisions. But our clear preference would be for him to be here beyond 2021.”

Lindor, who won’t turn 27 until November, accumulated 23.2 FanGraphs wins above replacement from 2016 to 2019, sixth highest in the sport. During that time, he batted .284/.346/.495, hit 118 home runs, stole 81 bases, played in four All-Star Games, won two Silver Sluggers and took home a couple of Gold Gloves at shortstop. The Indians are 72 years removed from their last World Series championship. They may never employ someone as good, as magnetic or as exciting as Lindor — and they’re still in a position to win with him.

The Minnesota Twins look like legitimate contenders and the Chicago White Sox suddenly loom as threats, but the Indians have the pitching depth to sustain the loss of Corey Kluber and still possess the talent to recapture the American League Central. The window is still open, even if only slightly, and who knows when it might be again? The Indians can hold on to Lindor for these remaining two years, give it their best shot, then live with the results of it. His talent justifies impracticality.

“I’m not sure we’re gonna win 105 games or 100 games, but we’re gonna compete, and it’s gonna be a fun year,” Lindor said. “We’ll surprise a lot of people. A lot of people are not counting on us. I am.”

Publicly, at least, Lindor and Antonetti continue to hold out hope for an extension.

The question is whether the Indians can consistently field a winning team with Lindor on their payroll.

“That’s the biggest challenge,” Antonetti acknowledged. “It’s not the desire.”

Antonetti said both sides have made “meaningful efforts” in their pursuit of an extension. Lindor understands his value and understands the business components that make trading him a possibility. The Dodgers, New York Mets, San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds were all linked to him over the winter, but Lindor said he “didn’t really pay much attention” to the rumors.

“Single, no kids, two dogs,” he noted. “I can just pack up and go.”

Perhaps he should just, you know, stay.

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MLB managers, GMs weigh in on sign stealing, proposed playoff format

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This has been the busiest spring training in memory — and it has nothing to do with the action on the field. Baseball has been buzzing with talk of sign stealing and commissioner Rob Manfred’s handling of the Houston Astros‘ transgressions, a proposed change to the playoff format and trade rumors involving some of the game’s biggest names.

ESPN baseball reporters Jesse Rogers and Alden Gonzalez made the rounds during media day at the Cactus League in Arizona, asking managers and GMs for their takes on some of the hot-button issues.

How are you addressing sign stealing as spring training opens?

Milwaukee Brewers GM David Stearns: “This is a topic of conversation in every clubhouse, and it’s a topic of conversation with every fan base. And through these conversations, I think there’s an awareness of it. I don’t know that we’re necessarily doing anything systematically different than we have in the past, but there’s certainly an awareness of it.”

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts: “We’ve been working on getting a handle on multiple sign systems, and probably getting some type of card that [the pitcher] and the catcher have to be able to kind of choose which system they use, and can be able to change it at any point in time, whether it be within an at-bat or change of an inning, whenever they want.”

Oakland Athletics GM David Forst: “I don’t know that we’re doing anything differently. We’ve had these concerns for the last couple seasons, not only going into Houston but other places. I think Bob [Melvin] and the catchers, the pitching staff, I think they’ve had an ongoing conversation about how to change this up or how to do it. I don’t think this is something new that has to be addressed for the first time.”

Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto: “It’s not like sign stealing is new to baseball. This is a much different thing, but we have adopted multiple sets of signs, we changed them very frequently, and made sure that we never got too stale. I remember coming up as a player, you had one set of signs on Opening Day and you didn’t change the signs again until the All-Star break, and through the year you’d go through two sets of signs. We’re doing four and five a game, just to make sure that there’s a constant flow.”

Texas Rangers manager Chris Woodward: “Making sure our guys abide by the rules. We’re very aware of what happened with the Astros. Obviously that was probably the height of how bad you could do it. But teams are always going to try to get away with as much as they can. So we tell our guys, ‘Let’s not even border on getting close to the [line].’ Teams are going to get as close to the line as they can. We do that in other ways as far as just preparing, trying to do the best we can with the numbers and do everything we can with our players and our staff to give ourselves the best advantage. But in that way, a line’s been drawn.”

San Diego Padres manager Jayce Tingler: “You don’t want to get too far out in front until we know exactly what the rules are, as far as video and things like that. I feel it’s our responsibility to be versatile and be able to protect our signs, and besides that, we’re just waiting to hear the rules.”

Chicago Cubs GM Jed Hoyer: “You have a responsibility to protect yourself from legal sign stealing. That’s on us. You can’t blame that on anyone else. We have to be vigilant. It’s important to classify those things differently. The real-time, trash-banging stuff, you can’t have that, but if it’s based on the night before or the last start or whatever, that’s legal and we have to come up with ways to prevent that.”

What is your preferred playoff format?

Major League Baseball is considering a new playoff format that would add two more wild-card teams in each league, with the top team in each league getting a bye and the other six teams playing best-of-three series.

Forst: “My preference is to go back in time and get rid of the one-game wild card the last two seasons. … We [the A’s] obviously are victims of that game three times now. I’m open to any proposal that changes that format.”

Dipoto: “I think more teams in the playoffs is a good thing. I vote yes. That’s fun. It’s fun to imagine more teams competing. I go back to 1994, as an active player — when they went to the new three-division leagues and added a wild card, who had ever heard of such a thing? It was, like, blasphemy. And it made the postseason so much more exciting. I don’t see why the next layer isn’t going to do the very same thing.”

Tingler: “I just want to see the Padres in it.”

Woodward: “I’m all for more teams, not because our team right now doesn’t grade out as a top-three team. Regardless of whether I had the best team in baseball or the worst team in baseball, it’s healthy for the game. We do it in other sports.”

Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell: “It’s something I thought about for sure. One idea I’ve had for years is making the first round longer, a best-of-seven. I like the wild card. It’s been good, but if there is a way to improve it, I’m all for it. More playoffs is a good thing.”

Stearns: “There’s a benefit from a competitive balance standpoint to having more teams in the race. That’s clear. It’s potentially going to lead to strong engagement, it can help out in some other areas as well. I certainly understand the purist argument that increasing the number of teams potentially dilutes the regular season. I’m still digesting it. … I’m interested to hear the debate on this. I’m glad we’re thinking about these things. As an industry, we haven’t been great at implementing change.”

Roberts: “I think an ideal playoff format, for me, is three seven-game series. I think that the wild-card system, as is, is great. But that first division series should be seven games. I just think that over the course of a seven-game series, it shows the better team. I just think it’s harder to steal a series.”

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Kansas City Royals GM Dayton Moore: “I view it real simple. This is my 27th year in pro baseball. I grew up in the game very traditional. Whatever the commissioner says, we do. Whatever the rules are, we do. I wasn’t for instant replay. I wasn’t for interleague play, but I don’t get caught up with it. If the commish says this is best for baseball, then we’re going to work like heck to make sure it is the best for baseball.”

Hoyer: “I would lean toward maintaining the importance of the regular season. That’s what makes baseball special. It matters. The marathon is really important. The more playoff teams we have, the more we sort of get away from that a little bit. If we go that route, I would hope they would do something to preserve that, whether it’s making a big deal out of the team that finishes with the best record or whatever it might be. The marathon is why we do this. It’s why we look at the standings every day. We don’t look at the standings every day in other sports in the same way.”

What’s the most exciting thing at your spring training camp?

Cleveland Indians GM Chris Antonetti:Francisco Lindor‘s hair. The blue/silver combination is something you won’t see in any other camp.”

Forst: “We don’t often get to return the majority of our club. I’m excited that we have a group that knows each other, that has played together, and that can actually build on the previous season, and that we didn’t have to do quite as much turnover this offseason.”

Dipoto: “Watching the young players grow. We have so much young talent. If I were to flash back two years, it’s night and day — what’s happening in our organization, the quality of the prospect system, the quality of the young guys that are at the big league level. I think we’re going to wind up as the youngest team in the American League, and what’s exciting to me is watching them get better every single day.”

Woodward: “The belief. Our group has a lot of optimism. There’s a lot of belief in our clubhouse that we’re gonna be good. And they expect to be.”

Stearns: “I’m excited about our depth as a team. We took an approach to this offseason where we believe we created a really talented roster from 1 to 30 that we think can help us throughout the entirety of the season. I think it’s about as deep a team as we’ve had since I have been here, so I’m excited about seeing that depth come together and seeing some of our different puzzle pieces fit together.”

Moore: “We have great energy and a hunger with our players that, truthfully, I haven’t seen over the last couple of years. Mike Matheny is a tremendous man and great leader. We had an interesting offseason. We’ve had an ownership change and a managerial change. The neat thing about our ownership group is they live in K.C. or have strong ties to K.C. That gives us a competitive advantage going forward. They don’t view this as an investment. They view this as a mission.”

Chicago White Sox GM Rick Hahn: “We’re on the precipice of an extended run of success. This rebuild was never aimed at jumping up and winning for just one year. It was aimed at putting us in a position to contend for multiple years. From our standpoint, we view this as just a start.”

Bell: “What’s exciting in camp is the culmination of a lot of different work over the last couple of years putting this foundation together. It’s the excitement of having a player from Japan [Shogo Akiyama] and the media that comes with that. It’s added an element. And veterans like [Mike] Moustakas and Wade Miley and Nick Castellanos.”

Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon: “We have several great athletes, I’m finding out very quickly. There’s more there than I knew. Billy Eppler has done a wonderful job in the draft. We have athletes. It’s very interesting.”

Roberts: “The one thing I’m most excited about in our camp is to watch Mookie Betts every day.”

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