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AL MVP or end of the two-way experiment? Debating Shohei Ohtani’s 2021 potential

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We’ve all seen flashes of what Shohei Ohtani can do, both at the plate and on the mound. After lightning up spring training with his bat and entering the 2021 MLB season healthy and ready to pitch, is this the year he finally puts it all together to become the two-way star the Los Angeles Angels — and baseball fans — have been hoping for?

As a pitcher, Ohtani — limited by Tommy John and knee surgeries over the past two seasons — has made just 12 career starts, 10 of them in his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2018. His numbers at the plate also have suffered since that season. In this year’s Cactus League, though, he made highlight reels when he hit .548 and slugged five home runs. And while his performance on the mound ended on a sour note, with a blister on his right middle finger in a loss to the Dodgers, he was given the all-clear to rejoin the Angels’ starting rotation.

So is this Ohtani’s year? What would he need to accomplish to make his season a success? And how should the Angels use him to their best advantage — while keeping him off the IL? ESPN baseball writers Buster Olney, David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle and Alden Gonzalez weigh in on those questions and more before Ohtani makes his 2021 pitching debut against the White Sox (8 p.m. ET on ESPN)

What would a successful 2021 look like on the mound for Ohtani?

Buster Olney: If he makes 20-25 starts and has an ERA below 4.50. Given the need for pitching for all teams — and the Angels came into spring training needing more pitching than most — 120 innings of average work would be a boost.

David Schoenfield: Agreed. If he makes 25 starts, that means he has remained healthy and pitched well enough to stay in the rotation. Sure, the Angels are hoping for more than a league-average starter (in 2020, that was a 4.46 ERA across the majors), but just getting through the season would be a huge win. Remember, Ohtani hasn’t done that as a pitcher since 2016, when he made 21 starts and pitched 140 innings in Japan. He had a foot injury in 2017 and pitched just 26 innings. He made it through just 10 starts with the Angels in 2018 before going down with Tommy John surgery, missed all of 2019 and pitched just 1⅔ innings in 2020.

Bradford Doolittle: The Angels are using a six-man rotation. Over a full season, that means each slot would come up 27 times. If Ohtani can make 20 to 25 starts, that will be a successful season. That would put him in the range of how many starts he made during his best pitching seasons in Japan, though he’s not likely to throw as many innings per outing for the Angels as he did for Nippon Ham. The thing is, Ohtani’s stuff is so good that if he can simply make his starts all season, his numbers will be strong.

Alden Gonzalez: Health, first and foremost, and proving he can consistently throw strikes. At this point I don’t have much doubt Ohtani can succeed in the major leagues offensively; it’s all about whether he can be an effective enough starter to consistently turn over a lineup two to three times. And that will hinge on his ability to repeat his delivery well enough to command all his pitches and stay around the strike zone.

Angels manager Joe Maddon was so concerned about that last year that he wondered — albeit briefly — if Ohtani should scrap pitching altogether. Then he saw a cleaner delivery in the videos of his offseason bullpen sessions and saw that carry over into spring training. Now it has to carry over into games that count. A reminder: Ohtani has logged only 79⅔ innings since that improbable 2016 season in Japan.

What would a successful 2021 look like at the plate for Ohtani?

Olney: If he generates 300 plate appearances, posts an OPS over .800 and hits 20 home runs, that’s a pretty good contribution.

Schoenfield: I think a reasonable ceiling is even higher: 475 plate appearances, 25 to 30 home runs and an .883 OPS that was his total over the 2018-19 seasons. Aside from how much the Angels rest him on the day before or the day after he pitches (indications are that they might not do that as much as they did in 2018), the other factor for his PA total is how much he plays against lefties. He has a .706 OPS in his career against southpaws, compared to .893 against righties.

Doolittle: Again, he just needs to be there for a full season and everything will work out. His 162-game averages for 2018 and 2019 were 31 homers, 95 RBIs and 17 steals to go with a slash line of .286/.351/.532. Give Ohtani those percentages for 115 to 120 games with about three-quarters of those counting numbers and he’ll be one of the AL’s best designated hitters.

Gonzalez: I agree with Brad — if Ohtani can replicate the .883 OPS he produced through 792 plate appearances from 2018 to 2019, the Angels would certainly be content. Weirdly, Ohtani’s launch angle dropped from an average of 12.3 degrees to 6.8 degrees in 2019. But he still ranked in the top 3% of the sport in average exit velocity, and he did a much better job producing against lefties. The Angels want him in the lineup as often as possible, no matter who’s pitching. And they believe he’ll continue to be a major threat on the bases (Ohtani had 22 steals from 2018 to 2019).

How valuable would he be if he can pull off both roles for a complete season?

Olney: If he could pull off what Mike Trout believes is possible — 10-plus wins as a pitcher, 30-plus home runs as a hitter — then he would have a really interesting case for the MVP.

Schoenfield: Let’s do a rough statistical comparison. Let’s say he hits .286/.351/.532, like he did over his first two seasons. Going back to 2019, that’s similar to what Edwin Encarnacion did as a DH in 486 PAs (.244/.344/.531) — lower average, but similar OBP and slugging. Encarnacion was worth 2.6 bWAR that year. OK, for a pitcher … how about Chris Paddack from 2019: 140 IP, 3.33 ERA, pitcher’s park. That translated to 2.7 bWAR for Paddack. That’s 5.3 WAR, which isn’t really a strong MVP candidate, but Ohtani would no doubt get extra credit for doing well in both areas.

Doolittle: The parameters I laid out for a “successful” season aren’t outrageous in that they are based on what he has done before, only with the assumption that he does it more often. That’s a major assumption, but we’re trying to be upbeat here. Also, there is the possibility that a healthy Ohtani does better than he did before, both at the plate and on the mound. But just to keep things guarded, if Ohtani performed at that .286/.351/.532 stat line at the plate over 120 games, all as a DH, that’d land him in the neighborhood of 3 bWAR.

Meanwhile, using his rookie-season pitching numbers as a guide, if he accrues bWAR at the rate he did over 10 starts in 2018 over, say, 23 starts, that’s also right about 3 bWAR. Slap the two together and you have an overall bWAR in the 5.9 to 6.1 range. That would be fantastic, but not quite MVP level. That said, if he improved for like a .300/.400/600 season at the plate and a 2.50 ERA on the mound … then we’re getting into no-brainer MVP territory just by value stats. But Ohtani’s narrative with real two-way breakout would lower the WAR threshold he’d need to be in the conversation.

Gonzalez: He would change the game. It’s that simple. He would provide a blueprint for how this type of player can exist at the highest levels of this sport, bringing the type of excitement and intrigue that Major League Baseball covets but cannot manufacture. You wouldn’t suddenly see a plethora of two-way players emerge, but you would eventually see some. And you would see organizations be a little more reluctant to pigeonhole multitalented players who enter their minor league systems.

Ohtani has a special set of skills and an impressive level of discipline, but he isn’t a complete outlier. Think about guys like Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton, who had the talent to do both but ultimately stuck to one. If Ohtani succeeds, maybe that won’t be the case anymore. He can break the mold.

If you were running the Angels, how would you utilize Ohtani?

Olney: If he breaks down this year, then I would shift to focus on hitting. Perhaps he could still be used in a relief role, but I think he has demonstrated that the most reliable path for him to provide production is as a hitter.

Schoenfield: I’m fine with giving him one more shot at going both ways, but I’m skeptical at this point, of the pitching side, of things panning out. Besides the fact that it has been five years since he’s actually done it other than that two-month stint in 2018, he has shown no ability to throw enough strikes since he returned from Tommy John surgery, including 10 walks in 10⅓ innings in spring training. Of course, he also fanned 17 and the stuff was still electric. You never know.

Doolittle: Just as they say they are going to do this year. Let him do his thing according to his preferred routines. And I’d let him hit when he pitches, because it’s really not that hard to pinch hit for the pitcher’s slot late in the game. I don’t know if this attitude is the way to extract maximum value from Ohtani’s talent. But I do know that it’s good for the game to see a player like this. Let him show it can be done.

Gonzalez: I would try as hard as I could to preserve the pitching aspect of this, because a guy with that type of stuff is just so rare. I like what the Angels are doing — giving him another shot at being a two-way player, but making it a real shot by lifting prior restrictions and granting him the freedom to just play. If it doesn’t work this year, then I’d consider giving him a position (likely first base) and look for ways to deploy him as a reliever when needed. Ohtani is a unicorn. Reverting to conventionality with him would be a shame.

What is the single most impressive thing you’ve seen him do on a baseball field?

Olney: Strangely, it’s not hitting or pitching — it’s when he runs the bases, when he goes first to third, or legs out an extra-base hit. The other Angels say that he’s the fastest player on the team, and it’s remarkable to see somebody that big run that fast.

Schoenfield: While his opposite-field power is impressive — most of his home runs go to left-center or straightaway — I’m with Buster: Not only does he throw 99 and have 30-homer power, he’s one of the fastest players in the majors. His top sprint speed in 2020 was in the 93rd percentile of all players. Imagine him playing right field with that speed and arm — another reason to think he ultimately ends up as a full-time outfielder.

Doolittle: This wouldn’t actually rate as one of the top 200 amazing things Ohtani has done, but it stands out for me because it was the only time I’ve seen him homer in person. It was in Chicago and I wasn’t at the game in a working capacity but in the stands. I was there with someone who has been a baseball fan in the past so understands the game but doesn’t really keep up with things these days. I was trying to explain just how rare Ohtani is when he hit a high, majestic homer off Carlos Rodon that ended up just clearing the wall. Good timing, and my companion was impressed. But as I was watching him jog around the bases, I kept thinking, “He also throws 100 with command.” It’s an awe-inspiring concept. I can’t wait to see him pitch in person for the first time.

Gonzalez: It happened exactly two weeks ago, in the first inning of a spring training game in Peoria, Arizona. Ohtani led off with a sharp single against former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell in the top half, then struck out a potential MVP in Fernando Tatis Jr. in the bottom half. It was a perfect encapsulation of what Ohtani is capable of, a snapshot of why so much excitement surrounds him. The Angels will often let him pitch and hit on the same day this season. And I can’t think of anything more fun in baseball right now.

Over/under: One postseason inning pitched and one postseason at-bat for Ohtani in 2021?

Olney: I’ll take the over. I’ve bought into the Angels’ hype for 2021 and picked them to win the division, and I think Ohtani’s showing in spring training is a major reason for that.

Schoenfield: I have the Angels winning a wild card, but I don’t think Ohtani pitches that game. And, unfortunately, my prediction is one-and-done for Trout and company.

Doolittle: Under. The Angels are a fringe playoff contender and it would not be a shock to see them in October. But I didn’t pick them, so I gotta go with goose eggs for this year.

Gonzalez: I can vouch for Buster being on the Angels’ bandwagon all year and will admit I have come around on that, largely because of what Ohtani showed us during spring training. If the Angels reach the playoffs, it’ll be because Ohtani tapped into his two-way ability. And it’ll mean they use him that way in October. Over.

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Seattle Mariners acquire Jake Bauers from Cleveland Indians

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The Seattle Mariners have acquired first baseman Jake Bauers from the Cleveland Indians for a player to be named or cash considerations, it was announced Thursday.

Bauers, who had been designated for assignment by Cleveland, has started 25 of the 43 games in which he’s appeared for the Indians this season, batting .190 with 2 home runs and 6 RBIs.

He was given Cleveland’s starting job despite being outplayed by Bobby Bradley in training camp because he was out of minor league options. Bradley has been recalled.

Bauers is expected to join the Mariners for Thursday’s game in Detroit, and he’ll be back in Cleveland on Friday when Seattle opens a three-game series.

In three major league seasons, Bauers has a .211 average with 25 home runs and 97 RBIs. He did not play for the Indians in 2020, spending the abbreviated season at the club’s alternate training site.

The 25-year-old Bauers was acquired by Cleveland from Tampa Bay in a three-team deal in 2018.

To make room on the roster, the Mariners designated infielder Jack Mayfield for assignment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MLB Power Rankings Week 10

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Ten weeks into the MLB season, we have the fourth No. 1 team of the 2021 campaign atop our MLB Power Rankings.

Which American League team is playing well enough to bump the San Diego Padres from the top spot? Which National League club managed to pass the Padres in the Senior Circuit? Which National League Central team impressed our voters most as the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers continue to trade division leads? Just how far has a recent offensive slump dropped the New York Yankees down our list? And which struggling team fell to No. 30 in this week’s rankings?

Here is what our eight-voter expert panel decided based on what we’ve seen in the first two-plus months of the season. We also asked ESPN baseball experts David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle, Joon Lee, Jesse Rogers and Alden Gonzalez to weigh in with one Week 10 observation based on what they have seen recently for all 30 teams.

Previous rankings: Week 9 | Week 8 | Week 7 | Week 6 | Week 5 | Week 4 | Week 3 | Week 2 | Week 1 | Opening Day


Record: 39-24
Previous ranking: 2

The Rays look like one of the best teams in the sport despite not having any standout player in particular, which is as Rays as it gets. Starter Tyler Glasnow will factor into the All-Star conversation, leading the team with a 2.57 ERA, and Rich Hill has been a great offseason acquisition, with a 0.88 ERA in his last five starts, striking out 31 batters in 30.2 innings pitched. — Lee


Record: 37-24
Previous ranking: 4

With a .617 winning percentage and a run differential that suggests it should be more like .659 and a generally upward trajectory to this season, it might be time to glance down the line and wonder if the White Sox can break the franchise record for wins. Chicago’s mark is 100 by the 1917 club that won the White Sox’s first World Series and also was led in the dugout by Tony LaRussa. We kid! Pants Rowland, in fact, was the skipper of that club and acquired that nickname, we suppose, because he wore pants and must have come from a place where that was a novelty. Tied for second is the 99 wins the 2005 team won under Ozzie Guillen, and that big season was capped with the franchise’s only other World Series title. The Guillen team is tied for second with LaRussa’s 1983 club that won the AL West by 20 games, but lost to Baltimore in the ALCS. To add a second franchise-best team to the list and go on to win it all 38 years later would be a nice bit of historical symmetry for LaRussa and the White Sox franchise. It would also be an unprecedented feat in MLB annals.— Doolittle


Record: 38-23
Previous ranking: 5

The Giants stomached another major injury when Evan Longoria — boasting an adjusted OPS 50% higher than the league average through his first 50 games — was recently diagnosed with a sprained shoulder that will keep him out for several weeks. He joins an injury list that also includes Tommy La Stella, Mike Yastrzemski, Curt Casali, Darin Ruf and Alex Dickerson, among others. The Giants don’t have the position-player depth to necessarily absorb all that — no team does, really — and Longoria’s freak ailment will be their biggest test yet. How they navigate his absence could make or break their resurgent season. — Gonzalez


Record: 37-27
Previous ranking: 1

Among the more surprising elements of this season is that the Padres — still maintaining pace among the best teams in the sport — are simply not hitting. Through their first 60 games, the Padres possessed a .697 OPS that stood nine points below the league average. If you took away Fernando Tatis Jr., that OPS dropped to .666. It’s no secret that the Padres have been carried mostly by their pitchers. But their lineup is just as deep as their pitching staff, and their hitters are among the best at controlling the strike zone. Eventually, one would think, the offense will come alive. In other words: The Padres might not have played their best baseball yet. — Gonzalez


Record: 36-25
Previous ranking: 3

The Dodgers were hit hard by injuries earlier this year, but now, with Tony Gonsolin recently activated off the injured list to fill their fifth-starter slot, they’re almost whole. The only major absentee is Corey Seager, who is trending towards returning from a broken right hand by early July. The Dodgers are currently navigating a soft spot in their schedule, with games against the Pirates, Rangers, Phillies and Diamondbacks — four teams that entered Wednesday a combined 54 games below .500 — before starting another highly anticipated series against the Padres on June 21. — Gonzalez


Record: 37-25
Previous ranking: 6

Boston bounced back from dropping three of four to the Astros by sweeping the Yankees in New York. The return of Chris Sale from Tommy John surgery looms as the left-hander has started to throw bullpen sessions. Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers rank in the top 3 at their respective positions in fWAR, while Nathan Eovaldi is in the top 10 among MLB starters in the same category — ahead of Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish. — Lee


Record: 37-26
Previous ranking: 9

No one player jumps off the page, but the Oakland lineup is packed with steady contributors. The team’s three best hitters so far are Mark Canha, Ramon Laureano and Matt Olson, with strong contributions from Tony Kemp. The team could take a turn for the better if Matt Chapman can pick up his performance at the plate after serving as a lineup anchor the past few seasons. — Lee


Record: 35-26
Previous ranking: 7

We admonished Jose Altuve in this space earlier this season for getting off to a slow start on the heels of his career-worst 2020 season. It wasn’t to rail on him so much as to point out the concerns that go with an undersized second baseman with so much mileage on his tires. Since we did that, we ought to acknowledge that Altuve has gone back to being one of baseball’s best players. Since May 6, he’s hit .331/.418/.545 with eight homers. Now Altuve’s 2020 stat line looks much less like a trend than a strange blip on the radar. — Doolittle


Record: 34-27
Previous ranking: 15

Milwaukee is the beneficiary of a light schedule in June, and the Brewers are taking advantage of it. Their ERA over the past week is tops in the NL and Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta easily give Milwaukee the best starter trio in the division. Though they still struggle to produce consistent damage at the plate, it didn’t stop them from sweeping a four-game series with the Diamondbacks and then keeping that winning streak going in Cincinnati. — Rogers


Record: 35-27
Previous ranking: 8

Some regressions were expected after a strong month of May and complete domination of their opponents at home. It came in the form of a west coast road trip where the Cubs dropped three of four to the San Francisco Giants. But the story of the team right now is 29-year-old Patrick Wisdom. He became the second player in more than 100 years to hit at least eight home runs in his first 10 starts with a team. David Ross rightly said Wisdom is “carrying them.” — Rogers


Record: 30-24
Previous ranking: 10

Marcus Stroman is quietly pitching great in the shadow of Jacob deGrom, with a 2.41 ERA. He sometimes gets overlooked because his 7.5 K’s/9 is not elite in today’s game, but he has the fourth-highest groundball rate among starters and has allowed two runs or fewer in eight of his 12 starts. — Schoenfield


Record: 31-28
Previous ranking: 12

It’s only the second week of June, but any conversation about the American League MVP should start with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. And while Guerrero deserves plenty of praise, don’t overlook the addition of shortstop Marcus Semien, who continues to bounce back from a poor 2020 campaign after signing a one-year deal with Toronto. — Lee


Record: 32-27
Previous ranking: 14

Cleveland cut bait with hard-hitting, underachieving first baseman Jake Bauers this week, designating him for assignment. He could certainly wind up returning if he clears waivers, but it might be time for Bauers to get some new voices in his head. As for Cleveland, the decision means that perennial power prospect Bobby Bradley should get a long look as Terry Francona’s semi-regular first baseman. With a single, two doubles and a homer over his first three games, Bradley already had a third as many total bases (nine) as Bauers did in 43 contests (28). The issue for Bradley, as with so many young hitters these days, is strikeouts. During his last full minor-league season, Bradley struck out in more than a third of his plate appearances for Triple-A Columbus. — Doolittle


Record: 33-29
Previous ranking: 11

There’s a growing sense of panic in New York, with the Yankees offense ranking among the worst in baseball. Few on the team are hitting other than Aaron Judge. After signing a six-year, $90 million contract this offseason, last year’s MLB batting champ, DJ LeMahieu, looks like a league-average second baseman. Certainly not ideal. — Lee


Record: 29-30
Previous ranking: 16

Freddie Freeman‘s .229/.355/.443 line entering Wednesday’s game is far below his MVP numbers of 2020, but according to Statcast measures, he’s been one of the unluckiest hitters in the majors based on his quality of contact, with a wOBA (weighted on-base average) 70 points below his expected wOBA. His expected average and slugging percentage are both in the 90th-plus percentile. Look for more of those hard-hit balls to start falling. — Schoenfield


Record: 32-30
Previous ranking: 13

Sometimes things in baseball are predictable. The Cardinals were motoring along in first place, then got hit with injuries on the mound, and haven’t won since. Jack Flaherty is one of the latest to go down, leaving St. Louis vulnerable at the top of the rotation. Carlos Martinez has been a disaster, and their offense has done virtually nothing to make up for the pitching woes. This is a team in trouble. — Rogers


Record: 29-31
Previous ranking: 18

Going into spring training, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Royals was whether Adalberto Mondesi could build on his big finish to the 2020 season. To refresh your memory: Mondesi hit .356/.408/.667 during 24 September games with six homers and 16 stolen bases. That’s MVP-level performance. The good news is that Mondesi’s performance has kept right on shining, as he’s hit .360 with an 1.080 OPS this season. The bad news is that the big question was the wrong one. We should have been asking if Mondesi is too injury prone to ever reach his potential. Mondesi suffered an oblique injury during spring training, didn’t make his season debut until May 25, put up the above sparkling numbers of nine games, then wound up back on the IL with a hamstring strain. If Kansas City is going to emerge as a surprise postseason contender, Mondesi must figure out a way to stay on the field. — Doolittle


Record: 29-31
Previous ranking: 19

The National League is loaded with pitchers having big seasons, but don’t overlook Zack Wheeler, who has been on a strikeout binge with 44 in 28.2 innings over his past four starts. And note that he went at least seven innings in all four of those outings. His strikeout rate is up from 18.4% last season to easily a career high of 31.1%. — Schoenfield


Record: 29-30
Previous ranking: 22

Whoever said hitting is contagious probably didn’t watch the 2021 Cincinnati Reds. The Reds are a two man show right now. Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker are dominating, but it hasn’t really rubbed off on the rest of the lineup — though Jonathan India is coming off a good week. Having said all that, the Reds just swept the Cardinals in a four-game road series, so whatever they were doing, it was enough. But do they have any staying power? Remains to be seen. — Rogers


Record: 26-35
Previous ranking: 17

A 1-8 road trip to Boston, Toronto and Pittsburgh has put the Marlins in a deep hole. The record is disappointing given how well Trevor Rogers, Sandy Alcantara and Pablo Lopez have pitched, with a 2.71 combined ERA. Despite that, the Marlins are just 19-19 in games started by those three. — Schoenfield


Record: 31-32
Previous ranking: 24

With Jarred Kelenic 0 for his last 39, the Mariners had little choice but to send him back down to the minors. Chris Davis owns the longest hitless streak for a non-pitcher, going 0-for-54 for the Orioles, but that was over two seasons (2010 -19), as was Eugenio Velez’s 0-for-46 in 2010 -11. According to Elias, the longest in-season streaks are the 0-for-45s from Craig Counsell in 2011, Dave Campbell in 1973 and Bill Bergen in 1909. — Schoenfield


Record: 25-33
Previous ranking: 20

As the Nationals continue to slide out of the race, they’re going to have to put together a big winning stretch in the next three weeks or Mike Rizzo will have to consider unloading talent for the first time in his tenure. Max Scherzer, Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson and Josh Harrison are the free agents with some trade value, or lots of it in Scherzer’s case. Kyle Schwarber has a mutual option for 2022 and hasn’t been hitting better, so he’s a possibility as well. — Schoenfield


Record: 30-32
Previous ranking: 24

Shohei Ohtani continues to dominate — on both sides — and Anthony Rendon might finally be turning the corner, but the most encouraging development for the Angels in recent days is probably Justin Upton, whose bat has come alive since moving into the leadoff spot. In his first 14 games hitting first, Upton batted .327/.410/.769 with 11 extra-base hits, six of them homers. His resurgence is helping the Angels creep back towards .500 as they wait for Mike Trout‘s strained right calf to heal. — Gonzalez


Record: 24-37
Previous ranking: 21

The Twins were 11-19 and already struggling when Byron Buxton last played for them on May 6. Though Buxton was enjoying an MVP-caliber season, Minnesota went 13-17 during its first 30 games without him, a period ending with Tuesday’s loss to the Yankees. That’s better, but not nearly the level of winning the Twins needed to crawl out of their early hole. Buxton, after recovering from the hip injury that put him on the IL, was sent out on a rehab assignment this week, which has gone well. He appears to be on track to rejoin the Twins in the next few days. During his absence, Minnesota’s chances at the postseason dropped from about one-in-three to one-in-10. His return is welcome, but it may already be too late to save the season. — Doolittle


Record: 25-36
Previous ranking: 26

One thing progressive organizations do in baseball in 2021 is turn journeymen into good players through targeted MLB-level development. This is not something that’s been a strength for Detroit over the years, but it is an area in which there was hope for improvement when A.J. Hinch was brought in to manage the club and build a coaching staff. It’s just one player, but the emergence of catcher/outfielder Eric Haase is a good sign that the Tigers are getting better at this process. Haase entered the season with a .122 average over 53 career plate appearances through the age of 27, though he’s been in professional baseball since 2011. This season, Haase had an OPS of 1.014 over his first 78 plate appearances, spurring Hinch to vow to play him as often as possible. — Doolittle


Record: 25-37

Previous ranking: 27

The Rockies are expected to activate Trevor Story off the injured list on Thursday, essentially starting the countdown to his final few weeks with the franchise that drafted him 45th overall 10 years ago. Story was batting only .255/.322/.424 through 50 games until being placed on the shelf with elbow tightness. Within the next seven or so weeks, Story will likely become the second franchise pillar to be traded in less than five months, following in the footsteps of Nolan Arenado. The Rockies have no choice but to trade Story, who will enter a star-studded free-agent class of shortstops over the offseason. This is a mess of their own making. — Gonzalez


Record: 24-39
Previous ranking: 25

The Rangers may be signaling they’re open for trade deadline business after DFA-ing Khris Davis this week. Joey Gallo should draw interest, if you can put up with the strikeouts. He leads the AL in K’s but also in walks. He’s coming off a decent week at the plate where he only struck out twice while producing a 1.250 OPS. — Rogers


Record: 23-37
Previous ranking: 29

First, they botch an easy out at first base on the Javy Baez play, and now, Ke’Bryan Hayes misses first base on a home run. What else could go wrong for Pittsburgh? The Pirates will go into trading season ready to deal as the rebuild continues. — Rogers


Record: 22-39
Previous ranking: 30

Cedric Mullins is performing on another level. The Orioles outfielder, who reached base in 11 consecutive plate appearances over the weekend, currently leads all American League batters in hits. With John Means landing on the injured list with a shoulder strain, Mullins is at least one reason left to tune in to Orioles games. — Lee


Record: 20-43
Previous ranking: 28

The D-backs will undoubtedly need to unload players before the end of July. The question is: How aggressively will they do so? Pending free agents such as Eduardo Escobar, Asdrubal Cabrera and Josh Reddick can certainly be had. But what about someone like Carson Kelly, who has emerged as one of the game’s best young catchers? Or a young starter like Zac Gallen, assuming he returns relatively soon from a sprained elbow? Or Ketel Marte, who is signed to a very team-friendly contract? Given the state of the NL West, where the Dodgers, Padres and Giants all loom as long-term threats, would the D-backs go into a full-scale rebuild? Given their talent-rich farm system, that rebuild might not take so long. — Gonzalez

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San Diego Padres’ Yu Darvish honors former Chicago Cubs teammate Anthony Rizzo with walk-up song

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Yu Darvish‘s name was announced at Petco Park to begin the bottom of the third inning on Wednesday afternoon, and “Intoxicated,” a popular house song by Martin Solveig and GTA, blared over the speakers.

Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who famously uses that song as his walk-up music, threw his arms up in the air in mock disgust. Darvish, the former Cubs starter in his first season with the San Diego Padres, cracked a big smile as he approached the batter’s box.

Darvish, making his first start against the Cubs since an offseason trade, wasn’t trolling Rizzo.

He was paying homage.

“I used that song because it was Rizzo who kind of took care of me when things weren’t really working my way in Chicago,” Darvish said through his interpreter after the Padres’ 3-1 loss. “It was, in a way, to say ‘thank you’ to him. And obviously I have a good relationship with him.”

Darvish continued his remarkable season in the rematch against his former team, allowing only two runs over seven innings to put his ERA at 2.28 through his first 13 starts with his new team. But the Padres, collectively struggling offensively in recent weeks, lost for the 10th time in their last 17 games.

Darvish, 34, finished second in National League Cy Young Award voting last year and has been among the game’s best pitchers since the start of the 2020 season, going 14-5 with a 2.15 ERA, 185 strikeouts and only 33 walks in 155 innings.

Darvish’s time with the Cubs got off to a rough start. He joined them on a six-year, $126 million contract in February of 2018 and was limited to only eight starts that season. But he turned it around in 2019, posting a 3.98 ERA in 178 2/3 innings, then reached another level in the pandemic-shortened season.

“Looking back, I had some ups and downs in Chicago,” Darvish said. “Good times and bad times, looking in retrospect. But what I find is that the fans, the organization, and even the media members there — I had tremendous amount of support to get through my years there. So there’s a sense of, I guess, gratefulness there.”

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