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Chicago Cubs place Jake Arrieta, Nico Hoerner, Dan Winkler on 10-day injured list

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CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs placed three players on the injured list, including starter Jake Arrieta, infielder Nico Hoerner and reliever Dan Winkler, the team announced Tuesday.

Arrieta has been plagued by a cut on his right thumb that impacted his last start while Hoerner injured his left forearm colliding with center fielder Ian Happ as the two converged on a ball in Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds. Winkler has right triceps tendinitis.

“We’re optimistic about everyone, to be honest with you,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I don’t think they are very serious. I think all of them are fairly good news with the off days coming up for us. It gives a chance to maximize the rest time without missing too many games.”

Happ is also hurting from the collision with Hoerner. Ross listed him as day-to-day with soreness in his ribs after he was kicked going to the ground for the popup.

Arrieta, Hoerner and Winkler were all having productive starts to their season before going down with their injuries. Taking their place on the roster, the team recalled lefty Kyle Ryan, righty Keegan Thompson and infielder Ildemaro Vargas.

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Dusty Baker, Houston Astros bracing for harsh reception in return to Yankee Stadium

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The Houston Astros return to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday for the first time since Major League Baseball’s investigation of their sign-stealing scandal from the 2017 season, and manager Dusty Baker is not expecting a warm welcome.

“It is going to be wild,” Baker told USA Today Sports.

The Yankees and their fans have been among the Astros’ harshest critics since MLB announced that the organization used a center-field camera, video monitor and trash can to relay opposing teams’ pitches to Houston hitters during the 2017 season. The Astros defeated the Yankees in seven games in the 2017 ALCS before beating the Dodgers in the World Series.

Manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for the entire 2020 season — both were subsequently fired by the team — and the Astros were fined $5 million and lost two draft picks as part of MLB’s historic punishment of the franchise last year.

But MLB’s decision to grant immunity to Astros players as part of the investigation drew widespread outrage around the majors, specifically from the Yankees.

“I don’t think there’s any question about how fans are gonna react to them coming into the Stadium,” Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka said Sunday, according to the New York Post. “Whether they deserve it, I think the fans will let them know.”

Baker, who was hired last year to replace Hinch, has long maintained that the players and coaches involved in the 2017 scandal have “paid” for their mistakes and has called out fans who continue to boo current Astros players.

“There’s only four or five guys here who were even there when the whole thing happened,” Baker told reporters Sunday, according to the Houston Chronicle. “So are people booing the person? Are they booing the uniform, or are they booing the organization?

“Most guys weren’t even here, including myself. What are you going to do? You can’t control what people do. You can only control what you do and how you feel.”

Baker added to USA Today Sports: “As far as I’m concerned, it should be over with.”

Tuesday’s game (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) will mark the first time the teams have squared off since the 2019 ALCS — Houston won in six games — and news of the sign-stealing scandal broke shortly after the Astros lost the World Series to the Nationals that year.

Yankee Stadium will be restricted to 20% maximum capacity because of COVID-19 regulations Tuesday. Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters he has instructed his players to “not get caught up in all that stuff,” but fans in the Bronx will relish their first opportunity to boo the Astros.

Marc Chalpin, a fan who regularly sits among Yankee Stadium’s “Bleacher Creatures,” told the Post that he plans to attend games Tuesday and Wednesday to boo the Astros, saying “we want them to know they’re a bunch of cheats and their ring means nothing.”

“Like all Yankee fans, we’re angry,” Chalpin told the Post. “That 2017 team was special, and they could have gone even further in the playoffs. I don’t know if they would have won it all, but to find out they didn’t make it because the Astros cheated makes it even worse. … Not only did they cheat, they didn’t get punished for it. They faced no consequences.”

The Astros, however, have become accustomed to vitriol from opposing teams and fans. Fans in Anaheim tossed trash cans onto the field last month during a game between the Astros and Angels in one of the latest indications that anger over the 2017 scandal still lingers.

“We’re getting booed anywhere we’re at,” catcher Martin Maldonado told reporters Sunday. “We, as a team, love it. We enjoy it. I think it gets the best out of us. We go out there, and we feel like we’re playing playoff baseball every game. I don’t see anything different if we go out there and play our game.”

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Inside Minor League Baseball’s experimental rules

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Minor League Baseball finally returns to ballparks across the country, with Tuesday marking the first games since 2019 after all of last season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opening Day will feature 55 contests across four levels, though not every team that took the field two years ago will be returning to the diamond in 2021.

Major League Baseball streamlined the minor leagues, contracting 40 teams in the process. All 30 MLB teams will now have four levels of affiliates: low-A, high-A, Double-A and Triple-A — plus a rookie level team housed at each spring training complex.

The post-pandemic restart will also look quite different on the field as baseball experiments with different rule changes at every level, as well as in the independent Atlantic League, as part of an ultimate goal of finding ways to improve the sport. Strikeouts are up, contact is down, games are longer than ever and MLB is aiming to do something about it.

Former Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox front-office exec Theo Epstein has been charged with overseeing the experiments for MLB. He will be analyzing the data and watching games closely.

“There’s a whole team at MLB that is thinking through how to collect the right kind of data, how to analyze the data and dissect it in ways that will allow us to understand the impacts of the rule changes,” Epstein said recently in a phone interview. “We also want to understand how they interrelate to one another and make sure we’re avoiding unintended consequences.”

So with that in mind, and with some help from Epstein, let’s examine the major rule changes you’ll be seeing as you attend and watch Minor League Baseball in 2021.

Triple-A: Larger bases

Bases will increase from 15 square inches to 18 square inches. That also means the distance between the bases will be shortened slightly. It’s a small change but the league thinks it could have an impact in various ways: reduced injuries, more baserunners on bunts and soft contact due to a shorter distance to the bag and even more players attempting to stretch singles into doubles. And of course more stolen base attempts. In other words, just more action.

“Just putting the ball in play will make you more likely to reach the base,” Epstein said. “Infields would have to play in. More balls would get through. The value of a single rises dramatically. The trip around the bases is easier. Now there’ll be a huge premium on just getting on base and athletes who can run.

“You’re not necessarily accomplishing all that by extending the base three inches but you are around the margins. You are nudging the game in a better direction.”

Double-A: Regulating the shift

To start the season, infielders will be required to have their feet on the dirt, though they can stand anywhere on the infield.

In the second half of the Double-A season, the rules will require two infielders to be positioned on either side of second base as well as have their cleats on the dirt as the pitch is thrown.

Baseball is still figuring this one out, hence breaking up the experiment to the first and second halves of the season.

“There are some issues to going to two on each side,” Epstein explained. “There’s enforcement and player safety. You might have fielders moving with the pitch or the swing. Umpires would have to be focused on the action. A little more work to do.”

Low-A Southeast: Automated balls and strikes (ABS)

Robot umpires will be experimented with for the first time in affiliated baseball. Previously, the Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League used electronic signaling for balls and strikes, but now select low-A games will have the home plate umpire wearing an earpiece connected to TrackMan radar systems installed in the park. The software will say ball or strike to the umpire who announce it to the players and crowd.

Epstein stressed electronic calling of balls and strikes isn’t just about umpires getting the call right.

“You’re seeing the ABS being used in the low minors this year because with that comes the potential to change the strike zone to one that is optimal for contact,” Epstein said. “Different strike zones lead to different styles of play.”

Atlantic League: Moving pitching rubber back a foot

This change, debuting in the second half of the league’s season, could be the panacea baseball is looking for without changing the aesthetics of the game. Will anyone really notice the rubber is 61 feet, six inches from home plate instead of 60 feet, six inches? The last time baseball moved the rubber back — granted it was five feet and in 1893 — strikeouts declined and batting averages went up 35 points.

“The extra foot gives the hitter an extra 1/100th of a second of reaction time, which is the equivalent of a mile-and-a half of velocity,” Epstein said. “The presumption is that it will allow hitters to make more contact against premium velocity. That’s the theory.”

More new rules

  • At high-A, pitchers must disengage the rubber prior to throwing to any base or else a balk will be called. With this change, Left-handers will no longer be able to step towards first base with their foot on the rubber. The goal is an increase in stolen base attempts.

  • At all low-A levels, pitchers will be limited to a total of two “step offs” or “pickoffs” per plate appearance while there is at least one runner on base. A pitcher may attempt a third step off or pickoff in the same plate appearance, however, if the runner safely returns to the occupied base, the result is a balk.

  • At Low-A West, a 15-second pitch clock will be implemented with on-field timers expanded to one in the outfield and two behind home plate, between the dugouts.

  • The Atlantic League will experiment with the “double-hook” designated hitter rule. Once a team’s starting pitcher is removed from the game, so is their designated hitter. The goal is to incentivize starters to go along as well as create late game strategy.

Fan polls, hours of deliberations and analyzing data have landed baseball at this moment in time: experimenting with a game that’s well into its second century of existence. Change is inevitable. But of what kind and how much? The 2021 minor league season will help determine the future of the sport.

“We have to do it in a way that isn’t too far removed from the essence of baseball,” Epstein said. “No one is looking to reinvent the wheel here. This is the greatest game in the world and we want to reserve the essence of baseball. A lot of this is restoring the game to the way it’s historically been played.”

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New York Mets, struggling to score, fire hitting coaches

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ST. LOUIS — The scuffling New York Mets fired hitting coach Chili Davis and assistant hitting coach Tom Slater on Monday night.

The moves were made following a 6-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that dropped the Mets to 11-12.

New York has struggled badly with runners in scoring position early this season, a trouble spot last year as well when the popular Davis worked remotely because of coronavirus concerns.

Several accomplished hitters are off to slow starts, including $341 million newcomer Francisco Lindor, who is hitless in his last 25 plate appearances and batting .163 overall. The team has lacked power at the plate as well, a big surprise for a lineup that includes Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto and Dominic Smith.

Minor league hitting coordinator Hugh Quattlebaum and farm director Kevin Howard will join the major league coaching staff to replace Davis and Slater, respectively.

“It was a difficult decision to make,” acting general manager Zack Scott said. “It’s not about 23 games of results.

“We just felt like the players needed a different level of support and maybe some different skills brought into the mix.”

Scott said it was a baseball operations decision and team president Sandy Alderson was in agreement.

“This isn’t about recent results. This is about the process behind the scenes,” Scott said. “It’s too early to be overreacting to small samples of results.”

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