Cactus League Game 7, Mariners at Angels – Logan Gilbert’s Turn

March 7, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Logan Gilbert vs. Jamie Barria, 12:10pm

The M’s won’t have to further enrage Jarred Kelenic by sending him down to the minors. A strained adductor muscle in his knee will sideline the OF phenom, realistically ending any chance he had of making the team. It’s a tough blow for Kelenic, and for the M’s chances to run out their best line-up, but it saves the M’s a tough decision and….it is so, so gross to write about baseball with this service time nonsense as the frame. They’ve essentially made us do so; the service time issue/scandal is included in the mlb.com article about the injury. It’s unavoidable. It’s just a terrible way to think about the game and the M’s young prospects. I cannot wait for a future CBA that enables us to talk about baseball players as players, and not as financial assets/liabilities. I know – we don’t have to fall into it in most cases, but for the past year, and certainly since Kevin Mather’s infamous breakfast, it is completely inescapable when talking about Kelenic.

We’ll see if it becomes more of an issue with today’s starter, Logan Gilbert. The M’s have already committed to a six-man rotation, and with Marco Gonzales, Chris Flexen, Justus Sheffield, James Paxton and Yusei Kikuchi pretty much locking down five spots, you’ve got a number of pitchers – Justin Dunn, Nick Margevicius, Ljay Newsome, and Gilbert – vying for the sixth. Dunn’s probably the favorite, given his starting experience in 2020 and stuff advantage over Newsome. But Dunn’s peripherals were atrocious, even though his ERA looked ok. Margevicius has MLB starting experience too, but his left-handedness may work against him given that four of the five locks for the rotation are southpaws.

All of this gives Gilbert a sliver of a chance to seize the opportunity and take the sixth starter job. His upside handily outpaces his competitors, and I’m keen to see how it plays against what looks like a regular season Angels line-up (watch out for that Trout fellow, Logan). But again, what exactly is Gilbert competing for? Would the M’s who’ve been so public about messing with Kelenic’s service time or buying out Evan White’s (for a deep discount) *really* allow Gilbert to win a job on the opening day roster? Is the service time issue lessened for notoriously volatile pitchers? Would they do it to show that they’re turning the page from the bad old days of the Mather-led M’s? Or is it a joke to think that starting the season with their best six pitchers in the rotation is even on anyone’s mind?

Jamie Barria is a long-time Angel who came up through the system and posted a great 2018 rookie season before absolutely cratering in 2019. Despite the Angels struggles in the rotation in 2020, Barria bounced back when given another opportunity essentially out of desperation. Barria throws a low-90s fastball, in both a four-seam and two-seam form. Both have some sink. His best pitch, and the pitch he throws most often, is a slider at 84. He’s got a change as well, though he doesn’t throw it much.

1: Haggerty, 2B
2: Torrens, C
3: Lewis, CF
4: France, 3B
5: Marmolejos, 1B
6: Raleigh, DH
7: Fraley, RF
8: Walton, SS
9: Bishop, LF
SP: Gilbert

Will Vest may get another chance to pitch today after having a fairly disastrous first appearance as a Mariner. Drew Steckenrider, Paul Sewald, and Aaron Fletcher are also among the probable relievers.

Cactus League Game 5, Mariners at White Sox – It’s Flexen Time

March 5, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Chris Flexen vs. Jonathan Stiever, 12:05pm – On MLB.tv, finally.

The M’s take on the White Sox today in a televised game, giving us our first chance to see the (hopefully) new and improved Chris Flexen.

The White Sox spent years and years in a rebuild they fully committed to, trading away a young, club-controlled Chris Sale among other top players and collecting one of the best assemblages of prospects we’d seen in years. They got the top players in international free agency, they had high-ceiling arms like Michael Kopech, top position player prospects like Yoan Moncada. And then they just kept losing.

Moncada struggled a bit out of the gate, Kopech’s been injured, and many of their first-wave prospects, from Dylans Covey and Cease or the uber-prospect Lucas Giolito and one-time uber prospect Carlos Rodon didn’t become cornerstones. It happens. They became, at least for me, a cautionary tale about rebuilds, and how they can take a lot longer than anyone thinks, even with unbelievable talent.

It’s taken a while, but the Sox are now a pretty good team, and have a real shot in an AL Central weakened by teams that have stopped trying to improve, like Cleveland. They’ve been smart in the free agent market, grabbing Dallas Keuchel last year and Lance Lynn this offseason to help stabilize a rotation that’s grown a bit with Giolito’s emergence. They got Yasmani Grandal to catch, hoping he’d get more out of those starters, and brought in top-shelf closer Liam Hendriks. The White Sox are officially going for it.

I keep wondering if this is what the M’s might look like in a few years. Some growing pains at first (that sounds like I’m talking about Evan White and…yeah, I’m talking about Evan White), followed by slow and steady improvement and then some free agent splashes to round things out. We all hope it doesn’t take as long, but we’ll see. A good Chris Flexen really would help accelerate the M’s timeline.

1: Moore, 2B
2: Lewis, CF
3: France, 3B
4: Raleigh, C
5: Kelenic, RF
6: Fraley, DH
7: Haggerty, SS
8: Travis, 1B
9: Bishop, LF
SP: Flexen

Cactus League Game 4, Mariners vs. Rockies – The Hot Stove Villains

March 4, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Justus Sheffield vs. Chi Chi Gonzales, 12:10pm (Radio on 710am delayed until 7:00pm; live radio available on mariners.com)

The Rockies have probably already sent Kevin Mather a thank you note, a bottle of wine, or some other gift. For a while there, everyone in the baseball world saw the Rockies trade of Nolan Arenado for a package centered around swingman Austin Gomber as the perfect example of everything wrong with baseball. Here was a team that managed to develop a power-hitting SS in Trevor Story, an all-world 3B in Arenado, and an All-Star CF in Charlie Blackmon. All were drafted and developed “home grown” players and formed a core that brought a lot of wins to Denver. But because they could never supplement that core with enough pitching, they struggled in 2019-20. Would they re-tool now that some of their massive bullpen free agent mistakes were off the books? Go after a Trevor Bauer or another free agent starter? Make a trade?

No, they decided that they didn’t have enough to trade and didn’t want to put good money after bad in free agency. Given that Arenado and Blackmon were long past their pre-arb years and had signed extensions, they saw themselves as selling high on over-valued assets. That is, the team that developed and witness Arenado flourish thought “ehhh, not exactly cheap anymore” and not only traded him for lottery tickets and a 6th starter, but *paid* St. Louis Arenado’s 2021 salary. It was, and remains, a perplexing move, and one I would never forget if I was a Rockies fan.

It was the kind of thing that seemed to highlight everything wrong with how players are valued: years of club control seemed to matter much more than what happened in those years, what each player is likely to actually produce. It seemed to be solely about reducing costs instead of bringing in new talent to replace a franchise cornerstone going out. Any time you trade an established star for prospects, you necessarily reduce your payroll. But by sending so much money and getting nowhere near the top prospects in a so-so Cardinals system, the Rockies didn’t seem to be attempting to retool as much as just cut the cord. To their franchise cornerstone. It remains baffling.

So think about their luck when after a week or two of absorbing the slings and arrows of baseball fans, Kevin Mather fires up zoom and speaks to the Bellevue Rotary Club. He, too, lamented that his experienced 3B/face of the franchise as “overpaid,” went on to cop to messing with Jarred Kelenic’s service time, and took potshots at Julio Rodriguez’s English skills. It remains one of the great unforced errors in modern baseball leadership, and it cost him his job. It also got the Rockies out of the headlines for a bit. Fans couldn’t understand the Arenado deal, a deal that didn’t save any money short term but made the Rockies a sure-fire bet to finish last. But Mather incensed MLB’s fans *and players* in ways we won’t fully understand until the next CBA is agreed upon.

It’s that sword hanging over the head of the club that we’re reminded of every time Jarred Kelenic does anything. Yesterday’s HR was particularly well-timed, as ESPN was in the process of interviewing Scott Servais, who said that prospects often show you when they’re ready. As I’ve said repeatedly, all attempts to re-frame Kelenic’s “readiness” for MLB as a baseball question, as something that will be evaluated by his skills/results, is a mistake, and an obvious attempt to conceal what Mather already explained. Kelenic is ready whenever he signs an extension, and the M’s admitted that last year…when they made Kelenic an extension offer.

I don’t know if the M’s will get hit with a grievance, or how the MLBPA and the owners will re-work the service time process, but thanks to Mather, everything’s in the open. It’s irreparably broken. A system the players had hoped would increase competition by enforcing a kind of parity instead rewarded gaming service time. An expanded playoffs didn’t make more teams willing to spend, it *reduced* the teams willing to spend. No one has any incentive to make a mediocre roster better, and a clear and obvious financial interest in making it worse. The M’s and Rockies have both showed why the system needs to change, and for that, I guess, we should thank them.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 2B
5: Murphy, C
6: White, 1B
7: Trammell, LF
8: Travis, DH
9: Bishop, CF
SP: Justus Sheffield

Chi Chi Gonzales was once the Texas Rangers first round pick out of Oral Roberts, the same school that produced Mariners #1 overall pick Mike Moore in 1981. Gonzales was known as a competitor, but has never missed any bats at the big league level. The righty throws a sinking four-seamer, a sinking…sinker, and a slider, change, and rare curve. Despite all of that sink, he’s a fly-ball pitcher, something that seems odd for a guy in Colorado. In fact, HRs haven’t been his big problem. It’s more that he has terrible command, producing sky-high walk rates, which combine with an inability to get guys to chase to result in tons of at-bats with men on. Because of the lack of whiffs, he struggles to strand them. He also happens to be the last starter I saw at a big league game, as I happened to catch his start against St. Louis in late 2019. He tossed a gem, Arenado homered, and the home fans went home happy.

Cactus League Game 3, Mariners vs. Cubs

March 3, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Ljay Newsome vs. Zach Davies, 12:10pm

Scott Servais was on local sports radio yesterday, telling Danny and Gallant that he thought the M’s could surprise people thanks to their pitching. Now of course the M’s posted an ERA over 5 with a similarly-ugly FIP last year, but Servais mentioned how much better the team looked in the second half of the abbreviated season, and obliquely referenced the team’s bullpen improvements over the off-season.

The M’s *starters* really were a strength last year. Once you strip out the bad bullpen, the M’s run-prevention looks a lot better, and the M’s added to that group in the off-season by picking up Chris Flexen, who’s coming off a great season in Korea. The six-man rotation will make more use of their depth, and could help get the most out of Yusei Kikuchi and James Paxton, two of the guys they really need to have big years.

While it’s easy to see why Servais is optimistic, it’s worth exploring why the M’s projections see a below-average group, and how to bridge the gap between these two evaluations. Marco Gonzales’ massive leap forward last year and track record make me much less concerned about him than I have been in the past. He needed to answer questions about how he would miss bats and avoid dingers at a lower velocity, and his 2020 campaign was a pretty loud response to those question. Yusei Kikuchi looked like a different pitcher in 2020, and pitched like one, too – it just didn’t add up to consistent production. Kikuchi is clearly the enigma, and a step forward in results to match his step forward in velocity and stuff would go a long way to making the M’s a good team. For a guy who’s struggled in two years and in very different ways, his projections are remarkably similar between the various systems. They’re not exactly excellent, but an ERA in the mid-4s would be a noticeable and very welcome improvement. Justus Sheffield’s results were great, driven by a promising decrease in walk rate and an almost freakish lack of HRs-allowed. While the projections for Sheffield aren’t great – a mediocre K:BB and HR regression don’t produce eye-popping numbers – he and Kikuchi might be helped by the slightly deadened baseball.

But for all of the variance in potential outcomes for Kikuchi/Sheffield, they’re not the guys the projections disagree on. The biggest mystery, and thus potentially the key to the M’s blowing their poor runs-allowed projections out of the water, is Chris Flexen. Clay Davenport translates his KBO stats and sees an excellent starter, and someone who functions as the real #2 behind James Paxton. ZiPS and PECOTA are hesitant to put too much stock in his 2020, and thus weigh his (brief) MLB stats more heavily, and those MLB stats are *ugly*. Flexen would not be the first pitcher to come back from the KBO with a renewed approach, and if he comes anywhere near the kind of performance he had in 2020, the M’s rotation starts to look quite different.

The other guy the systems can’t quite figure out is today’s starter, Ljay Newsome. I think from the M’s point of view, if Newsome logs plenty of innings in 2021, something’s gone pretty wrong. He’s not among the first six starters on the M’s depth chart, and you have to figure that Logan Gilbert will have magically corrected whatever flaws the M’s point to right around the time he loses a full year of service time (or the super two deadline. Both dates are truly remarkable teaching/player development tools). ZiPS, Steamer, Clay Davenport all see Newsome as generic and replacement-level. PECOTA sees someone who’s a decent bet to out-pitch Kikuchi and Sheffield, presumably due to his microscopic walk rate.

The M’s are going to *need* pitching depth. We’re coming off of a bizarre, pandemic-shortened season, and it may be tough for guys to log anywhere close to “normal” innings for a big league starter. Another key member of the rotation is James Paxton, and I think all of us know not to expect 200 IP from him. Depth absolutely destroyed the M’s bullpen last year, as a couple of injuries showed just how unprepared the M’s were. I’m not putting a ton of stock in Newsome’s (or anyone’s) projections, but a solid year from Flexen and a good start to Gilbert’s career really would change the look of this team’s outlook.

Today’s line-up:
1: Dylan Moore, 2B
2: Kyle Lewis, CF
3: Ty France, 3B
4: Jose Marmolejos, 1B
5: Cal Raleigh, C
6: Jarred Kelenic, DH
7: Jake Fraley, RF
8: Taylor Trammell, LF
9: Donovan Walton, SS
SP: Ljay Newsome

The game’s on ESPN, by the way.

The AAA season’s been delayed by a month, and Tacoma will again host a revised “alternate site” training complex. With the vaccine roll-out speeding up, I’m pretty hopeful that the Rainiers can get into their season in early May, which is when AA was scheduled to start.

Cactus League Game 1? M’s Vs. Padres, Average

February 28, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Marco Gonzales vs. Adrian Morejon, 12:10pm

It’s the first cactus league game, so at this point the M’s are going to roll into 2021 with the team on display today. The line-up in today’s game looks more or less like what we’d all expect their opening day line-up to be. It’s…not bad. Jose Marmolejos and Shed Long look to cede their places to better options, while Dan Vogelbach, Mallex Smith and Austin Nola now ply their trade elsewhere, replaced by Ty France, the returning Mitch Haniger, and the returning Tom Murphy. There’s a bit less shrug-emoji in this line-up, but it’s also a line-up projected to score about 715-720 runs, one of the lowest totals in the league (714 by PECOTA, 711 by ClayDavenport, 731 by Fangraphs). What gives?

The Mariners are projected to have a terrible batting average. Yes, don’t adjust your monitor, I’m going to talk about batting average in this post. One of the earliest lessons any analytically-minded fan learns is that batting average can be misleading, hiding important information all over the place even as it’s held up as some sort of final word on a batter’s skill. We’ve all learned that batters can be fantastically productive despite a low batting average; OBP correlates more with run scoring, and hitting a bunch of dingers will do the trick, too. The M’s are composed of many such players – players with strong skills in one or more phases of the game, albeit with some pure bat-to-ball or batting average-type skills. For each individual player, we can shrug our shoulders and say, eh, sure, I’d love it if he hit .280, but his batting eye or power or up-the-middle-defense are more important to how we evaluate him.

The question the M’s asked in 2020 and haven’t exactly resolved is: What if you made the entire team out of players with the same flaw? The M’s are projected to bat in the mid .230s *as a team*. That can’t be much of a shock, given that they hit .226 last year. Sure, guys like Vogelbach and Smith have moved on, and Ty France and Dylan Moore will produce more base hits. But up and down the line-up, you see the same pattern. We are all excited about a healthy Mitch Haniger, but the man did hit .220 before his injury in 2019, and is projected to hit around .250 (which, for this team, is positively Ichiro-esque). He’ll be surrounded by the likes of Moore (.220 by ZiPS, .229 by PECOTA) and Tom Murphy (.221 by ZiPS, .219 by PECOTA). Both JP Crawford and Kyle Lewis, two guys who look like they’ll be hitting at the top of the line-up, project as sub-.240 hitters. Evan White…well, you get the point.

But what about all of the things those guys do well? That’s true, and you can go down that list and talk about why there’s plenty of hope for each player, or say that they could be league average or better even if those batting average projections are pretty close. The M’s have batters like Haniger and Crawford who are more than capable of drawing walks, and for all of his struggles, White demonstrated a solid eye too. They’re going to take their fair share of walks. Many of these players, especially Murphy, Lewis, and White, have demonstrated some power prowess. But here’s the issue: a solid walk rate won’t be enough to score runs if their average is so low. This is macro version of JP Crawford’s career: very good walk rate, but it pulls his OBP up to .325 for his career. The M’s solid walk rate produced an OBP under .310 last year, and that won’t work long term. If this continues, it’s going to be exceedingly hard to score runs without home runs.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with getting your runs via the long ball. Given where strikeout rates are going, it’s becoming much more of a baseball problem than a Mariner-specific one. With Murphy and Haniger back, the M’s are a good bet to improve upon last year’s disastrous .370 SLG% (again, decent-ish ISO, but added to a low, low BA). With league-wide trends in the game, and with research continually finding that teams that are dependent upon dingers score MORE runs than supposedly balanced teams both in the regular season and the playoffs, maybe the M’s roster construction is right.

If the ball stays similar to 2019-2020 models, the M’s have a chance to Oakland A’s their way to low-BA, highish-OBP, high-SLG% their way to success. If the ball were to change, somehow, though….OH, COME ON. If MLB is successful in reducing the baseball’s COR (bounciness) in a consistent way, it could reduce fly ball distance and thus home runs. Max Bay created estimates for this impact on *each player* given their batted balls in recent years. Kyle Seager’s name is among the top 10 most impacted by this change. A team with a .230s batting average and a low ISO is going to seriously, seriously struggle to score runs, especially if they strike out a lot. The M’s strike out a lot.

All of this puts a spotlight on players who might give the M’s some base hits on a consistent basis. Ty France is perhaps the best example of this, but it also means we’ll keep a close eye on players like Haniger and Crawford, who’ve had stretches as solid hitters, and other times where they’ve traded average for power or walks. Tom Murphy and Dylan Moore have both been very productive in their short M’s careers, but have done so despite high K rates – what will they do in 2021 in what looks like a full season? And which version of Kyle Lewis will we see? The average-and-power-and-defense five-tool stud we saw early in 2020, or the guy who really struggled to consistently make contact in the second half? The answers to these questions will go a long way to determining how long the M’s hang around in the expanded playoff chase.

Today’s line-up:
1: Crawford, SS
2: Haniger, RF
3: Lewis, CF
4: Seager, 3B
5: France, DH
6: Moore, 2B
7: White, 1B
8: Murphy, C
9: Fraley, LF
SP: Marco Gonzales

Marco will go one inning, I’d expect. Interested to see (er, not SEE exactly, as the game’s only on radio) Wyatt Mills and Rule 5 pick Will Vest, who may pitch an inning in relief. Vest opened eyes in instructs with the Tigers, gaining velo after he spent the 2019 season…gaining velo.

The battle for LF will be fascinating, and not just for the whole soap opera surrounding Jarred Kelenic. Jake Fraley will get another chance after a very disappointing couple of years, and Dylan Moore could see some time there if the M’s want to play Ty France at 2B, Sam Haggerty returns after an injury-shortened 2020, and Braden Bishop remains on the outskirts of this competition, too. None of these options looks like a sure-fire way to avoid a grievance by keeping Kelenic down, mind you.

The Wrong Question

February 26, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

You’re Jerry Dipoto. You’ve got a burgeoning farm system and an iffy big league roster. It’s not a shock that you’re in this position, but you’re constantly aware of the pressure to turn potential into major league production. How do you develop prospects during a pandemic? How do you balance developmental needs with maximizing the success of the big league club with financial forces? It’s a lot. About the last thing he’d need is his boss, erstwhile M’s president Kevin Mather, telling the entire world that the org is manipulating Jarred Kelenic’s service time to get an extra year of club control.

This is, to put it mildly, a tough spot. Mather essentially brags about it, saying that Kelenic would be up in late April. As detailed by Nathan at DomeandBedlam, Jerry’s response was to essentially question whether starting Kelenic in Tacoma (or Arkansas) is such an obvious violation of the letter or spirit of any rules – it’s quite rare for a player to debut in the majors with so few minor league at-bats and games, and that’s doubly true for a player drafted out of high school.

Maybe it’s the pressure, but Dipoto instantly shoots himself in the foot by arguing such a promotion would be essentially unprecedented in the past few decades (he seemed to use A-Rod’s 1994 debut as the exception that proved the rule). This, as several people instantly discovered, wasn’t true. Juan Soto made the Nats out of spring training as a teenager way back in 2018, and things seemed to work out – they even won the World Series in 2019, and Soto’s raked consistently. But is Kelenic really akin to the generational talent of Soto (who, let’s remember, was seen as the 2nd best Nats OF prospect back when he debuted!)? Luke Arkins at ProspectInsider examines that question, comparing the games and plate appearances for several prospects, from Tatito to Bryce Harper. He ends by arguing that Dipoto’s close to the situation, and thus has more of a sense of when a prospect’s ready than any of us reading news reports.

In a vacuum, I might agree with Arkins; it’s not that no prospects have debuted with so few at-bats, it’s that none of them debuted after a season without any official at-bats due to a global pandemic! However, we do not and could not live in a vacuum. We live in a world after Kevin Mather’s Hour of Candor went viral. Mather didn’t speculate, he flat out TOLD the Rotarians that Kelenic would be up in late April. Worse for Dipoto, Bob Nightengale’s interview with Kelenic and his agent not only confirms what Mather says, he goes further: Kelenic was offered a contract extension similar to the one Evan White got (but with more money), buying out his pre-arb/arb years and making the whole service clock argument moot. The M’s were perfectly prepared to let Kelenic make his debut in *2020* if he’d just sign a team-friendly contract. Caution is often warranted with Nightengale, but Ryan Divish confirmed the whole thing on the recent LookoutLanding podcast (which is well worth a listen).

Jerry Dipoto wants us to ask how we can be so sure that Kelenic’s ready. That’s the wrong question, because it’s one that Jerry himself was willing to answer affirmatively…a year ago. The M’s have been perfectly content to trot out a weaker big league team (Jose Marmolejos/Tim Lopes/Shed Long LF platoon) to keep Kelenic down. They’ve been caught red-handed essentially offering to trade an immediate big league promotion for a team-friendly deal that would hurt Kelenic’s leverage. They are not the first team to do so, and they likely won’t be the last. But they have to understand that they can’t get everyone to debate the perfectly-debatable question of Kelenic’s timeline in a post-Mather, post USA Today column, world.

The whole bit about keeping Kelenic down for 12-15 days to get another year of club control is about giving the team more leverage. It’s what we all expect teams to do, even after the Nats and Juan Soto showed it’s not literally required (which is a way many fans have come to see it). If Kelenic is all that Kelenic thinks he is, all of us would be happy – it would save Jerry’s job, the M’s would be compelling, and Kelenic would be the star he wants to be. Keeping him down those couple of weeks would knock several million off any long-term deal they’d offer. But to try and save those several million, they’ve royally pissed him off, making it less likely he’d sign a deal that…saved those several million. To sum up, the M’s saw Kelenic as their best option last year, but wouldn’t promote him in order to take away some contract leverage. They’ve been so utterly transparent that they’ve lost the leverage anyway.

Just as Kevin Mather flubbed the easiest question imaginable for an M’s exec (“Talk about Julio Rodriguez”), Dipoto flubbed the fall-out by talking about service time. The M’s desperately need to NOT talk about that right now, and to commit to fans that they take the longest playoff drought in US pro sports seriously. How hard would it be to say something anodyne like, “Jarred will show us when it’s time” or “We’ll have to wait and see” or something. Talking about his minor league at-bats let’s Mather’s statement that he would be ready in late April hang around, a juicy target for a future grievance or grist for the CBA negotiations in a few months. This is not a good sign, and not a good pattern. I swear I’ll talk about actual Mariners baseball stuff soon. I just haven’t stopped shaking my head at this franchise since last Sunday.

Kevin Mathers and Post-Competitive Baseball

February 23, 2021 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

There is one rule of operating a Major League Baseball team – one piece of wisdom passed down from owner to owner, executive to executive. Don’t do anything stupid. The definition of stupid can change, of course, due to changes in the CBA, long-standing practices being declared “illegal” by nosy judges, shifts in fan preferences/tolerance. But the central idea makes a heck of a lot of sense for a business with an anti-trust exemption from Congress: there’s no real way to lose unless you go out of your way to find one.

In the 1980s, teams colluded to limit player salaries. There wasn’t as much TV money sloshing around front offices, but teams still wanted a way to ensure that salaries stayed low, and that a fellow owner going rogue wouldn’t upset anything. Even within this system that illegally prevented competition, the Commissioner needed to crack the whip occasionally, berating owners for trying to win even if that meant :gasp: losing money for a year.

The owners got caught in 1987, the same year the perpetually down-on-their-luck Mariners drafted Ken Griffey, Jr. A year after the Kid debuted, MLB signed a multi-year deal with ESPN, and the TV gold rush began. By the end of the 1990s, MLB – a baseball organization – had developed the best media streaming system in the world, and soon would have TV companies and other sports leagues as *customers* for its services. For years, teams had to be somewhat competitive to attract fans to games. The M’s often failed at this, and that failure led to tight budgets, which led to failure.

The league accounted for this with things like the draft, giving awful teams the first shot at the best amateur talent at artificially low prices. That was great, but some teams didn’t seem to care too much, and the draft seemed kind of like a crap shoot. The M’s getting Al Chambers and Mike Moore #1 overall didn’t make them any less a laughingstock, after all. But you can see where this is leading: the TV gold rush began to weaken the nexus between on-field success and annual profit/loss.

Despite the big national deal with ESPN, baseball remains a very regional game, and so regional sports networks jumped in, paying huge rights fees for baseball and televising every game (a novelty at the time). This enabled them to compete with ESPN and other cable channels, and to charge cable companies more to carry their channel. This revenue stream was massive and varied tremendously from market to market. A team coming to the end of its agreement with its RSN was in for a windfall, and often tried to spend before the deal was up to give them extra leverage in negotiations with the RSN. There was still a vestigial connection to on-field success, or at least the perception of one.

In this environment, what does “stupid” look like? At the same time RSNs changed the economics of the game, the nascent sabermetric movement was making serious inroads in the game. Bill James wasn’t just a bizarre, nerdy secret anymore, and the internet brought attention to outsiders from Voros McCracken and Keith Woolner and Clay Davenport (and, yes, Dave Cameron and Derek Zumsteg!). They saw right away that teams were often making baffling decisions in player acquisition, overvaluing things a player didn’t control, and ignoring others that were more important to run-scoring/run-preventing. By the 2010s, the Players Union saw how much teams had incorporated the lessons from analytics, and wanted to try get more of the TV money flowing to veterans and not draft picks and international free agents.

It’s hard to overstate the owners’ luck here. Not only had the value of owning a club skyrocketed, but now you had really smart people telling you that the *worst* thing you could do is to give a big contract to a guy like Carlos Lee. You didn’t want to tie up payroll in an aging slugger when you could get 90% of the production for 1% of the cost from some unfairly-maligned AAAA slugger. And THEN the Players thought it would help if teams were *forbidden* to sign draft picks to over-slot bonuses. And THEN put hard caps in place on international signings. Competition was already kind of unnecessary and unseemly, but you got labor peace by limiting it further! You couldn’t even BE stupid anymore. This beat the old system in which some teams would break ranks and sign the best player to a big contract. We can’t have that.

This isn’t to say that there wasn’t an adjustment period. Clubs had to learn a new argot, and teach it to fans. Again, the analytic movement and, uh, blogs like this one was already doing that for them. WE taught that a club shouldn’t necessarily splash out for a big free agent. WE taught that an extra year of club control was super valuable, probably MORE valuable than a month or two of a very young rookie’s big league production. WE were always talking about undervalued commodities when we meant baseball players. We cared a lot about salaries.

The great Joe Sheehan has argued* that there may have been a time in which it was right or partially right to do so: in the 1990s-2000s, one really big move might have precluded others. Scarcity still existed at some level, and clubs watched their budget pretty carefully. But at this point, it is harder and harder to justify that kind of zero-sum thinking. The Padres just spent a ton on Manny Machado, but that didn’t in any way prevent them from extending Fernando Tatis Jr., nor should it. With this much money in the game, there’s no way you can really lose by committing a ton of money to Tatis, Trout, Betts, etc.

This is a depressing prologue to the central paradox of this age: if nothing matters, if doing just about anything, leads to well-nigh guaranteed money, why are teams so *similar*? Why are they all copying each other? Why do the ivy-league GMs and the Jerry Dipotos all talk the same way about “years of club control” and flexibility and competitive windows? I think it’s because all of us – myself, sabermetric people, casual fans, the players – overestimated the desire of baseball teams to actually win. The players assumed that all of the money “saved” on the draft would flow to them, just as they expected the luxury tax to create a ton of parity with multiple teams in contention each year, and thus bidding up free agents that’d put them over the top. At the same time, you had sites like this or Fangraphs or BaseballProspectus talking about the value of high draft picks, about trading veterans for prospects, and how fans shouldn’t necessarily hate it when a team is simply not competitive. Ooops.

Teams deemed exceeding the luxury tax “being stupid,” for the purpose of defining the one guiding principal. Teams have diverted more space and resources to luxury boxes, not only increasing revenue per seat but creating a revenue floor even when a team’s awful. Teams have taken some early sabermetric ideas and turned them into rigid dogma. It’s not just that you can get an extra year of club control by keeping a player in the minors for a month, it’s that you HAVE TO, in all cases, even if that player is better than the incumbent, and even if you might be in a playoff hunt. Not only that, fans will applaud you for it. Nothing is gained by reckless competition. All of the money, all of the insights that analytics gave – there’s still only one World Series winner, and there’s still 30 teams getting wealthy no matter what.**

This all gets to WHY a Kevin Mather can rise to the level of President of the Seattle Mariners, a point made more forcefully by David Skiba here. David’s point is dead-on: Kevin Mather is in no sense a businessman, because this is not a business. Mather’s job seemed to have been to count the money and to remind people that a little competition is a dangerous thing. I’m not sure even the baseball ops folks would argue for, say, Jarred Kelenic to start the year in Seattle, but if they did, Mather would be there to say, “No, let’s be smart about this.”

It’s only someone so insulated from real-world consequences that can nitpick minuscule expenses like a translator for a beloved ex-player and current coach. It’s only someone so steeped in the dogma of club control that can forget that you can’t talk about how it’s manipulated with the general public. Mather’s job was to enforce the one rule, and he ironically lost his job because he exposed it so clearly. Every M’s prospect knew, at some level, that the team would monkey with their service time to save a buck, but there he was, telling the Bellevue Rotary Club about it.

But he wasn’t content to merely say the quiet parts loud. He had to double down and take pot shots at things like Julio Rodriguez’s English, even as the M’s marketing department highlights Julio’s own English-language interview show on YouTube. He mentioned not allowing employees to park in the parking garage, because said garage didn’t have space for them, but also that the neighborhood made this lack of parking dangerous. The stuff about manipulating service time? Every single team does that. Every potential replacement for Mather will do that. What compelled Mather to take a completely unnecessary jab at the club’s hyper-charismatic future star? Why brag about banning employees from the garage? My initial thought was that he was trying out some new excuses for manipulating service time; that Julio’s English wasn’t quuuuuite where it needed to be in April of 2022, but would get a ton better by May. It’s dumb, but the Cubs holding down Kris Bryant for “defense” in 2015 was at least as dumb, and we all laughed, but let it go.

No, I think Mather was trying to communicate to an audience of business folks that he was one of the gang. He ran a business, just like they did, and he had the same kind of concerns – employees want too much, I don’t understand all of the accents I hear, and man, the city center’s kind of dangerous now, y’know? None of it is true, of course. He was the President of a big league club that’s valued at $1.6 billion dollars and which now owns the majority of its own RSN. The club is incredibly valuable because it is an MLB team, not because of anything they do on the field. It got to this point because the Mathers of the game recognized that competing was a fool’s errand. He wanted to fit in with the Rotarians, but nothing about MLB is analogous to the real world.

Patrick Dubuque (my favorite baseball writer) notes that the entire league is made of Mathery characters, and that much of what Mather said is standard operating procedure. That’s both true and depressing. I’m not sure what the club can do to rebuild trust with pretty much every level of the organization. I think of the language teachers in the M’s Dominican camp, the people that gave Julio Rodriguez such a great foundation that he could give interviews in English in the US at 18-19 years old. I think of the ushers who were told that the neighborhood they work in is dangerous, but that the costs for police to protect them is kinda annoying. I think of veterans called overpaid, and the real harm this can do to a club trying to make the playoffs for the first time in a generation.

Do the M’s *have* to break camp with Kelenic on the roster now just to show that Mather doesn’t represent their culture? I don’t know. I’m sure some are now rooting pretty hard for him to go 2 for his first 20. But even that – even forgoing their precious 7th year of control – would be a fig leaf. If the M’s want to show that Mather doesn’t represent “who we are” then they have to ditch the one rule. They have to stop talking about competing and actually compete. This team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2001 spent the offseason picking through the waiver wire and nabbing a closer who might pitch in 2022. They did this in the most wide-open AL West we’ve seen in several years, and they’re pretty proud of it. Don’t like free agent deals? The Colorado Rockies are paying the St. Louis Cardinals to play Nolan Arenado, all-world 3B, in exchange for some low-level prospects and a swingman or two. Stop being driven by an artificial timeline to compete and actually compete. The bar has never been lower, just like the risk. I think Patrick’s right, and that every team in baseball has a Kevin Mather. Fine, then doing the right thing should be even easier, Mariners. Literally no one will stop you. Show us who you are.

* I subscribed to Joe’s newsletter this year, and it’s been a worthwhile purchase.

** I can see an argument here that I haven’t shown this, I’ve merely asserted it. This is true! But as teams won’t open their books, they can’t disprove it.

The Mariners Begin to Build for 2021

December 16, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 52 Comments 

Going into the offseason, Jerry Dipoto was quite candid about what would be on his shopping list: bullpen arms, primarily, but they would investigate lower-cost, lower-risk deals if any presented themselves. In December, they’ve begun to execute that somewhat low-stakes plan, first by picking up reliever Will Vest in the Rule 5 draft, then by grabbing SP/RP Chris Flexen, fresh off of a successful run in the Korean KBO. This week, they traded for Rangers reliever Rafael Montero. Today, they picked up hard-throwing, TJ-rehabbing reliever Keynan Middleton.

There’s no real way to spin these as win-now moves, but they do address a real weakness of the 2020 team (the bullpen and the back of the rotation). We’ll get to the specific players here in a minute, but at this point, the moves reflect an interesting sort of line the M’s are trying to walk. Because, for the first time in a while, they have high-end prospects nearing the majors, they are very, very hesitant to bring in any higher-end free agent who could block one of their prized prospects. We see this in the rotation, to an extent, but they’re most acute in the outfield, where the M’s get Mitch Haniger back for 2021 and will need to fit in Jarred Kelenic before too long.

At a time when the Rangers are squarely in the midst of a rebuild, when the Angels’ haven’t had decent pitching in years, and when teams across the league seem to be cutting costs, this cautious, incremental approach the M’s are taking may be frustrating. The M’s bounty of prospects needn’t *prevent* the club from improving in other ways, and with players like Francisco Lindor to Blake Snell to Nolan Arenado on the block, it seems weird to sit back and content ourselves with the Keynan Middletons of the game.

A big part of this is that it feels awful to be uncertain all the time, a fact brought home to most of us on the evening of Nov. 3rd. What I mean is that it’s hard to ascertain exactly where the M’s are in their own rebuild, and how to evaluate its success. It’s harder than normal not simply because of the usual mix of encouraging and discouraging signals generated by the bizarre and brief 2020 season, but because MLB itself keeps frantically changing the rules around the playoffs and even the games themselves.

That the game is in flux doesn’t get the M’s off the hook. The M’s remaking their bullpen in the offseason has happened roughly every single season of the Dipoto era, and you can’t blame Rob Manfred for that. The issues surrounding the team predate the sudden expansion of the playoffs or the universal DH or the pitch clock. The M’s have continually tried to leverage their real improvements in player development to help the pitching staff wait for Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, and Emerson Hancock to be ready, and the record’s decidedly mixed. They’ve seen big breakouts from Austin Nola and Dylan Moore, but they’ve been balanced out by offensive collapses from veterans like Dee Strange-Gordon and Mallex Smith to newcomers like Shed Long and Evan White; it’s worth remembering that the M’s commercials last year featured Long, White, and Smith, a group who combined to hit [CENSORED] in the regular season.

It appears that the League is pushing strongly for the playoff format of 2020 to remain in place, with an extra round of the postseason allowing in a few more mediocre teams. I’ve been pretty adamant that this isn’t great for baseball and its regular season, and while it may gin up some TV money, I think it will depress the free agent market further (above what Covid already did). But if that’s going to be the way it goes, you can kind of see this as a season in which Dipoto gets to play with house money: if they fall short, well, that’s OK, we were always really building for 2022, despite public pronouncements about 2019, 2020, and 2021. If they grab a playoff spot – and they came kind of close last year – then Dipoto’s the guy who ended the drought and the rebuild gets a weird sort of validation.

But beyond the playoff drought, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a season in which public opinion on the state of club is so divided. Evan White either got his feet wet and won the first of a dozen gold gloves, or his 42% K rate and, frankly, disastrous batting line is the reddest of red flags (in case it’s not clear, I’m in the latter camp). Kyle Lewis’ Rookei of the Year award is either the feather in the cap of the development system from turning an injured, whiff-prone corner OF into a middle-of-the-order and middle-of-the-diamond beast, or they let their guard down, as the league dominated him in the second half. Kyle Seager’s solid season is either something to build around, or wasted on a team that still can’t reliably hold teams scoreless nor outslug teams like Oakland, Houston, Minnesota, New York…you get the idea. You can do this with JP Crawford, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Yohan Ramirez, and a big chunk of the prospects. The team is either right on track, or clearly in need of another infusion of experienced talent. The individual pieces can be debated, and what they all combine into can be debated. I know, it’s sports, that’s what we do, but I don’t recall such variance in where fans see the M’s in 2022-23 – everything from World Series champs to .500 to rebuilding again seems to have a side advocating for their view.

So no, these recent moves are not going to settle this. They will improve a bullpen that looked like it was in bad shape, though. Rafael Montero is already the M’s top projected relief arm by Steamer, for example. Let’s see what the M’s are getting, or at least, what the M’s see in the guys they’ve acquired.

1: Montero easily has the most big league experience. He came up as a starter with the Mets, showing brilliant control in the minors, which allowed him to move up despite middling raw stuff. That control did not follow him to the big leagues, however. His walk rate is over 11% for his career, and was worst in his starting role, before improving a bit in the Rangers’ pen. That transition to the pen greatly improved his fastball velocity, which went from 93 up to 96 in 2019. The other thing the Rangers seemed to do was to take a bunch of spin *off* of his fastball; his raw spin rates declined markedly when he moved from Queens to Arlington, and that’s despite the aforementioned increase in velo.

Given that change, the shape of his fastballs is a bit different, with his four-seam and sinker now showing increased sink/decreased rise. That’s an interesting decision, given that his best secondary pitch is a change-up. Now, to be clear, that change-up is still plenty good, and one of things I’d expect the M’s to do is to get him to throw it more often, the way he did in his breakout 2019. He has a slider, too, which seems perfectly fine, I suppose.

The problem with the drop in spin and drop in vertical movement on his fastballs is that the movement differential between his pitches – particularly the sinker and change, or sinker and slider – gets smaller. Everything comes up sinking, and I will always have flashbacks of this happening to Erasmo Ramirez. The velocity gap means this isn’t necessarily disqualifying, but I just think this makes things easier on the hitter, particularly for pitches that he’ll use in similar parts of the zone.

Montero’s a big fly-baller with HR trouble, and despite the damage that profile’s caused the M’s since 2016, the M’s still love to bet on regression towards the league mean. Makes sense and all, but given Montero’s batted ball profile, even post-sinkering, I’m not sure regression alone is going to solve it. That said, Montero has big league experience and cost the M’s a young pitcher who’d yet to throw a professional pitch plus a PTBNL. We don’t know who that is, but this seems like a decent bet, despite the fact that Montero hit 30 recently.

2: Keynan Middleton was drafted by Jerry Dipoto out of a Eugene, OR community college in 2013. Dipoto’s Angels drafts were not the stuff legends are made of, but Dipoto is nothing if not a loyal evaluator, having picked up Austin Adams, RJ Alvarez, and now Middelton after having drafted them with the Angels. Middleton’s carrying card is a 97 MPH fastball. It’s a pitch with decent if not-terribly-remarkable movement, and, perhaps relatedly, not terribly-great results. Batters have slugged .489 in Middleton’s career, which has been interrupted by injuries. He gets solid K rates with a hard slider, but he doesn’t have the kind of platoon splits you’d think of with a FB/SL arsenal. He does have a change-up he can throw to lefties, but he hasn’t made much use of it.

Like Montero, Middleton’s an extreme fly ball guy, and like Montero, that’s gotten him into trouble with long balls. Despite pitching in a home park that suppressed dingers, Middelton has a 1.32 HR/9 in his short career, and with GBs accounting for only about 1/3 of his balls in play, it’s easy to see why. Again, it’s not lefties who are hurting him: it’s right handers, and they’re doing the damage on his fastball. RHBs are slugging .550 with 8 HRs off of his four-seamer, and I’d think the M’s are going to try and figure out why.

He’s coming off of two years lost to injury, and he’s on a one-year, $800,000 contract. This is a riskless signing, really, and while I’m not sure that Middleton’s going to give you more than competent 7th-inning-guy stuff (despite the velo), it’s pretty hard to argue with it.

3: In Chris Flexen, the M’s have a potential rotation piece, which would merit a lot more attention than the rest of these bullpen moves. Flexen is another guy who came up in the Mets system with solid control only to see that control collapse completely in the bigs. Flexen has a negative K-BB% ratio for his career, due to a walk rate over 15%. He had a 93 MPH fastball with some rise to it, and a hard slider at 87, and he’d also play with a curve and change, but none of it seemed to work.

All of that changed in 2020 when he joined the Doosan Bears of the KBO. He posted a K/9 over 10 and, crucially, a K:BB ratio of 4.4:1. He was tough to hit in a hitter-friendly league, and essentially had the season of his life. The question is how it’ll translate back to the big leagues. The case of Merrill Kelly is an encouraging one, as the career MiLB guy took off in the KBO, as he posted good but not Flexen good K rates in the for years. Returning with the Diamondbacks, Kelly’s been a reliable middle-of-the-rotation piece with solid control. If the M’s get Merrill Kelly-liek results, they’d be thrilled.

In Korea, Flexen relied on the combination of his 93 mph fastball (quite firm for the league) and his curve, a pitch that may have been his fourth-best offering before. Despite his control issues with New York, he threw in the zone even less, getting whiffs on his curve that was set up by high four-seamers. We’ll see if this approach can work for him in MLB, or if batters will make him prove that he can throw the curve (or slider) for strikes.

Flexen signed a two-year deal for $7M guaranteed, making this perhaps my favorite of the four acquisitions we’ll talk about. There’s upside here that far exceeds even Montero’s, just given the innings he could log. And with the M’s confirming they’ll use a six-man rotation, there’s some room for him to do so. I’ve said it for years, but the six-man rotation and increased rest may be ideal for pitchers like Flexen and Yusei Kikuchi who’ve pitched in Asia, where starters typically get more rest than MLB’s five-man rotations offer. The M’s simply do not have the talent that many of their rivals do, and thus it’s incumbent upon them to get more out of the talent that they have. Taking a flyer that the KBO in some sense “fixed” Flexen, once the Mets #4 prospect, and pairing that with a six-man rotation, is a great way to try and do that.

4: Finally, the M’s again made a selection in the MLB Rule 5 draft earlier this month. They picked reliever Will Vest, who had been in the Tigers system. Vest was drafted in 2017, and has been up-and-down in his career in the Tigers’ system. That club has seen a player development transformation as well, with guys like Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, Alex Faedo and others give them a lot of near-majors pitching. I say that not only to highlight why a guy like Vest may have been available, but to highlight one of the things that’s made the Tigers system notable: guys pick up velocity.

Skubal, the old Seattle University product, is perhaps the big example, but it looks like it happened to Vest, too. He didn’t make his college team’s varsity squad until late, and into the draft, he was talked about as a low-mid-90s guy with some armside run. By early 2019, he was throwing 94-96 according to this YouTube video, and then showed up in instructs this fall touching the high 90s.

He’s got a hard slider around 88, and the workings of an interesting change (though, to me, most change-ups are interesting) in the mid-80s. I think this is an intriguing pick, and I hope he’s both able to stick on the roster the way Yohan Ramirez did AND have a bit more control than the ex-Astros farmhand showed. It’s simply not allowed to complain about Rule 5 picks, and Vest could be a solid member of the developing bullpen, particularly if he’s able to hit 97 more often.

’20 40-Man Preview Extravaganza

November 9, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

As has been the case for *most* of the year, we’re in uncharted territory. Certain questions were resolved with in-season additions of good friends such as Ljay Newsome, Aaron Fletcher, and (way ahead of time) Joey Gerber, but this offseason provides more conundrums than are characteristic. How much will teams be ready to gamble on Rule 5 selections amidst limited alternate site data? If the market looks to be flush with relievers, then how do you weight your own potential in-house additions? And then there was last year’s fun where we signed Evan White to a long-term contract a season early, didn’t add anyone we needed to, but neither did we lose anyone at the major league level. Are we planning to use the Rule 5 to our own advantage again? When it comes to choosing between seemingly clear options, Jerry Dipoto has been a huge fan of selecting “what’s in the box,” particularly if the box has the potential of containing an upper-90s relief arm (hi, Yohan Ramirez!).

Conventional rulings on the matter would dictate that we are adding, or risking the loss of, college players from the 2017 draft and high school and July 2nd signings from 2016. At least two, maybe three of the additions seem to me to be rather obvious, but there are multiple relievers we have from the year’s college crop that qualify as intriguing. It’s just a question of how much 40-man space you want to devote to the bullpen, especially when it’s the strength of what looks to be a bone-chilling marketplace. For other teams, position scarcity might drive up the value of, say, starters, but we don’t have much to offer there either. Thus, what we’re looking at here are one guaranteed outfield addition, one in pitching (wherever he lands), and a few appealing bullpen arms. Lacking the usual numbers to crunch here, I’ll be supplying 2019 stats instead. We’re looking at a November 20th deadline.
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Game 57, Mariners at Athletics

September 25, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Chris Bassett, 6:40pm

The M’s season ends in Oakland, who just clinched the division. Tonight, we get a match up that kind of typifies the strange ease with which the A’s have outpaced the M’s in recent years. Chris Bassitt has pitched exactly 200IP if you combine this year and last year. In that time, he’s gone 17-7 with an ERA in the low/mid 3’s. Yusei Kikuchi has pitched 202 innings over the same two seasons, but has fared a bit worse: he’s 8-15 with a 5.55 ERA.

Yes, sure, Bassitt’s FIP is higher than his ERA, while the opposite is true for Kikuchi. And Kikuchi’s been better in 2020, with a velo spike leading to much better results in terms of K:BB and home runs allowed. But as encouraging as all of that is, Chris Bassitt, just a guy, ex-White Sox farmhand, trade throw-in, has helped the A’s win a lot more games than Kikuchi, free agent steal, WBC stalwart.

Look at the pitch stats, and there are no grand revelations to be had. Kikuchi throws harder, and his new cutter is pretty clearly better than anything Bassitt throws. Bassitt relies on mixing a four-seam, sinker, and cutter with well-timed curves and change-ups. Kikuchi’s cutter is a ground ball machine, giving Kikuchi the edge in ground ball rate. Bassitt’s ultra slow curve poached some called strikes, but batters don’t offer at it enough to be a real strikeout pitch.

I don’t want to talk down Bassitt even as I praise him. He throws 94; it’s not like he’s just a junkballer. But his fastball(s) don’t have any kind of distinguishing movement. This was supposedly one of the problems with Kikuchi’s fastball. There’s no obvious tell, it’s just that the A’s guy keeps coming out on top.

1: Crawford, SS
2: Lewis, CF
3: Seager, 3B
4: France, 2B
5: Marmolejos, DH
6: White, 1B
7: Lopes, LF
8: Bishop, RF
9: Odom, C
SP: Kikuchi

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