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The unavoidable areas of concern for some of MLB’s top contenders

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The intimidating rotation that lifted the Washington Nationals to a championship in 2019 is mostly intact, with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, et al. Right fielder Juan Soto is a popular pick to win his league’s Most Valuable Player Award. Washington also added the thump of Kyle Schwarber, who seems to be clicking well with Nats’ hitting coach Kevin Long, and Josh Bell, who has been destroying baseballs this spring.

But as rival evaluators weigh the Washington strengths, there is a refrain about the team’s problem area.

“That defense is going to be awful,” said an NL official, who noted that the Nationals do have some ability to pitch around the fielding liabilities because of the pitching staff’s strikeout capability.

As Washington Manager Dave Martinez acknowledged the other day, however, the Nationals have to at least improve on defense.

“We did struggle on defense,” Martinez said. “We looked at a lot of different things this winter, about positioning. We talked a lot over the winter about how we were going to structure spring training, to work with guys.”

“We definitely need to get better. Our division is not going to be easy. We need to get 27 quick outs. We talk about it all the time — we can’t give these teams 28, 29, 30 outs. If that happens, some of these lineups are dangerous. We have to make sure we limit our mistakes.”

Last year, the Nationals scored a minus-11 in outs above average (OAA), 25th in the majors, as Sarah Langs noted. Center fielder Victor Robles is regarded as a good center fielder and was a plus-3 in OAA, and yet the team’s outfield as a whole posted a minus-2 — and now they’ve added Schwarber, who has been one of the worst-rated outfielders in baseball since 2016. Similarly, Bell has scored some of the lowest defensive metrics among first baseman.

Players can adapt and improve. There may be no better example of that than in the Nationals’ own division. The Mets’ Pete Alonso improved defensively, going from being regarded as nearly unplayable to now being seen as at least average. Bell has worked hard this spring, on his footwork. He is 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds and has been working on staying low.

“I’m watching Josh Bell doing things and learning things that he didn’t know before,” said Martinez. “He loves working on it with [infield coach Tim] Bogar, working with Ryan Zimmerman.”

It’s an area of concern for a team that expects to contend. Here are some other trouble spots among clubs who expect to play in October.

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Jed Hoyer says Chicago Cubs’ major trade-deadline shake-up was ‘right thing for the organization’

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WASHINGTON — An 11-game losing streak sealed the Chicago Cubs‘ fate in the standings not only for 2021, but also for the future of the franchise well beyond this season.

In the span of 24 hours, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer tore down the team he helped put together — which won a World Series in 2016. First baseman Anthony Rizzo was traded to the New York Yankees, shortstop Javy Baez to the New York Mets and third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant to the San Francisco Giants.

All three popular Cubs will be free agents after this season.

“We could either hold these players for two months and have them compete for a fourth-place team or do everything we could do in our power to reset our farm system and reset our organization,” Hoyer said on a post-trade deadline Zoom call. “We accelerated that over the last 10 days or so.”

Hoyer also traded All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel to the White Sox. Though it looks like a full-on rebuild, Hoyer actually believes he avoided one, calling the Cubs’ significant roster shake-up at the trade deadline difficult but necessary.

“Was it emotionally difficult?” Hoyer asked. “Yes. Do I think it was absolutely the right thing for the organization? I do.”

He cited teams like the Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers and Giants who went all the way to the end of their team control with players and then took years to be competitive again.

“They ran to the end of the cliff and fell off and they had to rebuild,” Hoyer said. “We were willing to go to that point if this was a winning team this year, but we weren’t, so with that we were able to speed that process up dramatically.”

The Cubs sped it up even before the season began when they traded Cy Young runner-up Yu Darvish and failed to make meaningful additions to the team. Their inability to sign their own players to contract extensions also contributed to the breakup. From the 2016 roster, only pitcher Kyle Hendricks signed a long-term deal.

“I have to say that we made offers to everyone that I believe will stand up exceptionally well,” Hoyer said. “We weren’t able to reach deals. Does that frustrate me? It does, but I have to be honest, I know we put our best foot forward. I’m proud of the offers we made.”

Rizzo turned down an extension this past spring, while Baez was a pandemic casualty as talks stalled when baseball shut down in March.

There’s disagreement between the Cubs and Bryant’s camp on exactly what — or if — he was offered a big contract several years ago. Bryant claims he never saw a deal worth over $200 million or else he would have signed it.

The team also struggled to an extent since winning the World Series. There were three more playoff appearances between 2017 and 2020 but the team was flawed, lacking contact as well as young, up-and-coming pitching. Despite being in pennant races every year, the Cubs underachieved, looking and performing poorly at the plate in particular.

The result of it all was Hoyer maxing out the situation facing him on Friday and trading for seven players over the last two days, all of whom are at the beginnings of their careers.

“There’s two types of currency in this game,” Hoyer said. “There’s prospect/talent currency and there’s financial currency. The last two or three years, we were short on both.

“We have prospect currency and financial currency going forward.”

But now they are short on star players as a depleted Cubs team took the field on Friday night against a depleted Washington Nationals squad. Both organizations are resetting with the hope to compete again in short order. For Hoyer, it meant saying goodbye to players he’s watched grow up. Players who helped break a 108-year championship drought.

“I don’t want anyone to feel like there is a lack of emotion,” Hoyer said about trading away a number of beloved players. “Did we decide as a group to not have them the last two months here? We did. But I love those guys and I hope people understand that. What we created was really special.”

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Dodgers’ Andrew Friedman says willingness to ‘be aggressive’ key to team’s big trade-deadline splashes

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Andrew Friedman’s reputation as a pragmatic executive who seeks value on the margins and shies away from the headline-grabbing acquisitions is no longer applicable. The Los Angeles Dodgers ‘ president of baseball operations, who cut his teeth in the front office of a famously frugal Tampa Bay Rays organization, is officially a big-game hunter. Over the last four years, Friedman has acquired — either through free agency or via trade — Yu Darvish, Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Trevor Bauer, Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, a sextet of players who have combined for 25 All-Star Game appearances, four Cy Young Awards and one MVP.

The latest move — plucking Scherzer and Turner from the Washington Nationals for a package of four prospects, headlined by catcher Keibert Ruiz and pitcher Josiah Gray — might have provided the Dodgers with some distance in a tightly contested National League West and made them the favorites to repeat as champions.

“I feel like we had a championship-caliber team before this, with the group of talent we have, with the guys that are coming back from injury,” Friedman said Friday. “But whenever you’re in position to win a championship and you have impact-type players that you can add — our mindset is to be aggressive on that and try to balance the today and the tomorrow. And some of the times that we’ve balanced the future have put us in position to do this.”

Scherzer, the best starting pitcher available by a wide margin, was being pursued by the division-rival San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants. The Dodgers, with a clear need at the top of their rotation because of the sexual-assault allegations surrounding Bauer, made him a clear target. But they didn’t want to part with premium prospects for someone who would amount to a rental. Adding Turner, a star shortstop who is controllable through 2022 and might offer positional flexibility, created a path for both teams to acquire what they needed.

The question now is where Turner plays.

Corey Seager, the Dodgers’ starting shortstop over these last five years, was activated off the injured list Friday after missing the last 11 weeks with a fifth metacarpal fracture in his right hand. Seager will return to his regular position while Turner navigates Major League Baseball’s health-and-safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this week, but it’s unclear how the lineup will shake out when both are active.

Turner spent a lot of time playing center field and second base in 2015 and 2016, while Seager has played almost exclusively at shortstop as a professional. It seems logical that the Dodgers would deploy Turner in center field, which can put the struggling Cody Bellinger in something of a left-field platoon with the right-handed-hitting A.J. Pollock, or second base, where he can occasionally spell the young Gavin Lux. But Friedman and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts remain non-committal.

“I’m gonna talk to him and kind of figure out where the best fit is for him, our club, but this guy can do so many things on a baseball field,” said Roberts, who got to know Turner when he was in the Padres’ minor league system and Roberts was on their major league coaching staff. “Right now, he’s a Dodger, Corey’s a Dodger. It’s about winning, and we’ll put the pieces together.”

The Dodgers began their weekend series against the lowly Arizona Diamondbacks three games behind the Giants, who augmented their lineup in a big way by trading for four-time All-Star Kris Bryant. Two and a half games behind the Dodgers are the Padres, who acquired Adam Frazier, the major league leader in hits, and also traded for another back-end bullpen piece in Daniel Hudson. The Dodgers have won the NL West each of the last eight years, but doing so again is far from a foregone conclusion.

Freidman admitted that the dynamics of the division were “definitely a factor” in his approach.

“Right now, we’ve gotta really think long and hard about August and September,” Friedman said. “That definitely played a role in this for sure.”

The Dodgers still aren’t certain when they’ll see Turner, but Scherzer, who pitched six innings of one-run ball on Thursday, will join the team on Saturday, throw his side session on Sunday and is expected to make his first start for the Dodgers in Wednesday’s highly anticipated game against the Houston Astros. Duffy, nursing a flexor strain, isn’t expected to be activated off the IL until sometime around September, at which point the Dodgers will assess his role. Ideally the 32-year-old left-hander would act as a dynamic, multi-inning reliever, playing a role similar to the one Julio Urias filled in recent years.

The Dodgers began the year with a plethora of starting-pitching options, Urias included. But Dustin May has been lost to Tommy John surgery and Bauer has been caught up in legal trouble that has kept him away from the team since the end of June. Those circumstances — combined with Clayton Kershaw’s forearm inflammation and Tony Gonsolin’s inconsistencies — made starting pitching the Dodgers’ focus before the trade deadline.

“We collectively felt that that was a top priority for us to move the needle to give us the best chance to win the World Series in ’21,” Roberts said.

Roberts hand-selected Scherzer to serve as the NL’s starting pitcher at the All-Star Game earlier this month and called him a “fierce competitor, champion, winner.”

“The work he puts in each day before starts, in between starts, parallels Clayton’s, which is very well-documented to Dodger fans.”

From 2013 to 2021, Scherzer, 36, has accumulated 131 wins, three Cy Young Awards, eight invitations to the All-Star Game and a 2.86 ERA. Scherzer leads the majors in FanGraphs wins above replacement (fWAR) during that nine-year stretch with 48.4. Right behind him is Kershaw, with 45.4.

Turner, 28, ranks fourth among shortstops in fWAR since 2018, batting .298/.359/.484 with 68 home runs and 111 stolen bases in 439 games. He made his first All-Star Game this year and is on pace for a career-high 27 homers. Friedman called him “a dynamic player” who would add a welcomed blend of foot speed and contact ability to the Dodgers’ offense.

The Dodgers haven’t been particularly close to whole offensively for most of the year, but Seager returned on Friday and Mookie Betts (hip) will be back on Sunday. The hope is that Turner will be activated days after that, then Kershaw will follow, then Corey Knebel will rejoin the back end of the bullpen, all within the next two weeks — putting the Dodgers in prime position for what should be an epic battle in the NL West.

“For anyone — myself included, a sports fan, baseball fan — to wrap their head around the NL West baseball, see as the dust finally settles, it’s crazy,” Roberts said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this.”

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San Francisco Giants acquire Kris Bryant from Chicago Cubs for two prospects

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The San Francisco Giants added some punch to their lineup, acquiring star third baseman Kris Bryant from the Chicago Cubs at the trade deadline, it was announced Friday.

The Cubs received two prospects in return — outfielder Alexander Canario and right-hander Caleb Kilian.

Bryant, who is hitting .267 with 18 home runs and 51 RBIs this season, immediately adds a boost to the lineup as San Francisco tries to stave off the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.

San Francisco, despite injuries to many of its top players, leads the division by three games entering Friday’s games. Evan Longoria, Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford have all spent time on the IL this season.

After a sizzling start to the season that saw him hit .324 through May, Bryant slumped in June, hitting just .114 with five RBIs. He ranks 27th in the majors in OPS.

The move capped a massive housecleaning by the Cubs ahead of the trade deadline, with the team trading away Anthony Rizzo, Craig Kimbrel and Javier Baez, among others.

In yet another move, the Cubs traded outfielder Jake Marisnick to the San Diego Padres.

“I want to personally thank Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez and Kris Bryant,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said in a statement. “Together they played critical roles for one of the most successful runs in Chicago Cubs history. They each secured a place in the hearts of Cubs fans everywhere. While their days taking the field together as Cubs have come to an end, they gave us memories we will hold forever.”

Ricketts also thanked president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer for “making the tough decisions necessary to build the next great Cubs team.”

Bryant was drafted by the Cubs in 2013, winning Rookie of the Year and MVP in consecutive seasons. He helped the team break its 108-year championship drought back in 2016.

In seven MLB seasons with the Cubs, Bryant, an All-Star selection in 2019, has a .279 batting average with 160 home runs — which rank 15th in franchise history — and 465 RBIs. He is just one of three third baseman in the Cubs’ long history to have multiple seasons with 30 or more home runs, joining Ron Santo and Aramis Ramirez.

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