Puig & Co.: New-look Reds try to escape NL Central cellar
By JOE KAY
AP Sports Writer
Tuesday, March 19
CINCINNATI (AP) — During Yasiel Puig’s six seasons in LA, the Dodgers won at least 91 games and made the playoffs each year, reaching the World Series twice. The outfielder knows nothing but winning at the major league level.
An offseason trade transplanted Puig to the other side of the country and the standings. He’s now playing for a Reds team that’s lost at least 94 games for four straight years and has taken up full-time residency in the NL Central basement.
The weather is very different in Cincinnati. So is what passes for chili. The baseball? Puig will soon find out if that’s palatable, too.
“I’ve been with the Dodgers for six years, and six straight years we’ve been in the playoffs,” Puig said during a visit on a subzero winter day to look for a house. “I hope this is not a year we’re going to be out in October, you know? I come here to bring this team to the playoffs again.”
He’s got some reinforcements joining him. The question is whether they’ll be enough to make much of a difference.
The Reds are trying to morph from down-and-out rebuilder to overnight contender. They made three offseason deals, including one that brought Puig, Matt Kemp and left-hander Alex Wood from the Dodgers. They overhauled their rotation and their outfield in an attempt to become relevant again.
It’s an unusual strategy for a rebuilding team. Four of the players they acquired are eligible for free agency after next season, along with second baseman Scooter Gennett, their best hitter the last two years, so there’s no telling what comes next.
For now at least, the Reds are worth watching again.
“We’re going to do something better,” Puig promised.
Some things to watch as the Reds celebrate the 150-year anniversary of fielding the first professional baseball team and open the season at home against the Pirates:
FAMILIAR NAME AND NUMBER: First-year manager David Bell gives the Reds a little nostalgia in the dugout. Bell’s grandfather, Gus, and father, Buddy, played for the Reds. He’s wearing their No. 25. Bell significantly changed the players’ routines in spring training, and he explored using reliever Michael Lorenzen in center field, another indication he’s open to new things. He’ll get a lot of the focus in his first season managing in the majors.
NEW FACES: The starting rotation has been the biggest problem the last few years, and it has a whole different look with the addition of Wood from the Dodgers, Sonny Gray from the Yankees and Tanner Roark from the Nationals. Often-injured Anthony DeSclafani and Luis Castillo are the holdovers. If the rotation can be merely above-average, the bullpen and the offense are good enough to get the Reds back to respectability in a tough division.
VOTTO: Former NL Most Valuable Player Joey Votto is coming off one of his worst seasons with only 12 homers, 67 RBIs and a .284 average. The Reds’ highest-paid player — he’s owed $25 million annually through 2023 — turns 36 in September. He said last season was “a bit of a shock,” and he worked on his swing in the offseason. A return to his norm would help the Reds’ offense significantly.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Infielder Nick Senzel was taken second overall in the June 2018 amateur draft, Cincinnati’s highest pick since 1983. The Reds are trying to turn him into a center fielder who could fill Billy Hamilton’s role. How quickly he settles in at his new spot will be one of their more interesting subplots.
JULY: Gennett was interested in getting an extension over the offseason, but the Reds were taking more of a wait-and-see approach to how things turn out. Most of the players they acquired in offseason trades also are eligible for free agency after the season, which leaves the Reds in an interesting spot. What will they do when the trading deadline approaches in July? How much will their position in the standings dictate their financial decisions? It’ll be a very interesting month in Cincinnati.
Royals brimming with optimism despite 100 losses a year ago
By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Sports Writer
Wednesday, March 20
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Very few teams coming off 100-loss seasons head to spring training full of confidence.
The Kansas City Royals are a rare exception.
Fresh off a strong finish to 2018, and after a quiet offseason for the first time in years, the Royals believe they are poised to take another step toward contention. They have a new-look lineup full of speed, a bright young cast of pitchers and the same kind of positive mindset that carried the organization to its first World Series title in three decades in 2015.
“It all started with the progress we made at the end of last season,” said Royals manager Ned Yost, who went into last season still recovering from a dangerous fall from a hunting stand on his Georgia farm. “I felt really great where we ended up. It was a great winter. I’m more ready this year than I have been the last couple of years to get back at it.”
The Royals started last season with a cobbled-together roster of veterans and prospects, but by August had jettisoned just about everybody with a gray hair. In their place came the next wave of young players, and together they made life miserable for other contenders down the stretch.
Now, that same group is poised to enter a season together for the first time.
Second baseman Whit Merrifield is armed with a new contract after a breakthrough year, and the base-stealing expert is joined by speedsters such as Billy Hamilton and Chris Owings. Adalberto Mondesi finally lived up to his hot-shot prospect billing late in the season, and a cast that includes Ryan O’Hearn, Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler are poised to take the next step in their development.
Brad Keller is poised to start opening day, anchoring a young but tantalizing rotation that includes Jakob Junis and erstwhile building blocks Ian Kennedy and Danny Duffy.
If the bullpen, which was among the worst in the big leagues a year ago, manages to come together early this season, the Royals believe they can hang around well into the summer.
“I like our identity. I know we’re going to play good defense and I know we’ll be able to steal bases. That’s the thing that gives us some comfort, if there is such a thing,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “If there’s anything that still has to be sorted out, it’s our pitching. I think we have enough talented arms. They’re just going to have to go out there and produce.”
After two straight losing seasons, the Royals are aiming for .500 or better this season.
“You kind of press the reset button. When you go home for four months it’s hard to feel that momentum when you get back,” Duffy said, “but it’s definitely promising to see what Dozier and O’Hearn were able to do at the end of last season. Obviously, Keller was incredible. What a pickup. I feel like we should have some kind of confidence going into this year.”
The season opener comes at home March 28 against the Chicago White Sox.
Just about the only thing that went wrong in spring training was the injury to six-time All-Star Salvador Perez. The catcher tore ligaments in his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery, forcing the Royals to sign veteran Martin Maldonado to pair with Cam Gallagher behind the plate.
Hamilton is poised to start in center field, and joins Mondesi and Merrifield in giving the Royals three of the top eight base-stealers in the big leagues last season. Owings and Brett Philips are also capable of wreaking havoc on the base paths.
The Royals are hopeful that former first-round pick Kyle Zimmer can help their bullpen this season. He’s dealt with injuries throughout his career, but a season spent with the Driveline Baseball academy near Seattle seemed to help. His stuff was electric in spring training.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
The Royals chose four college pitchers within the first 40 overall selections in last year’s draft, and it’s possible right-hander Brady Singer could arrive late in the season. Also keep an eye on infielder Nicky Lopez, who raked during the Cactus League schedule.
Alex Gordon piled up big numbers in the spring, giving the three-time All-Star confidence that his swing might be back in line. The outfielder hit .245 with 13 homers and 45 RBIs last season, and he won his sixth gold glove while providing some much-needed clubhouse leadership.
Maddon, Cubs looking to rebound from disappointing finish
By JAY COHEN
AP Sports Writer
Tuesday, March 19
CHICAGO (AP) — After four consecutive playoff appearances and the 2016 World Series title, the Chicago Cubs are way past playing for Joe Maddon’s future.
They also know what’s going on, too.
Maddon is entering the final year of his contract after the team declined to offer an extension to its 65-year-old manager. While president of baseball operations Theo Epstein has said he thinks the relationship will continue past this season, the situation with Maddon hovers over the Cubs as they try to bounce back from last year’s disappointing finish.
“I love Joe. He’s created a culture here that can’t be beat anywhere in the league,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “I’m obviously biased. I think Joe, when he talks everyone listens. He has so much knowledge. When he talks he is like a father figure. He gets it, and he understands it.”
Maddon took a more hands-on approach during spring training after the Cubs blew a five-game lead in the NL Central last September and were eliminated by Colorado in the NL wild card game. He joined new hitting coach Anthony Iapoce for extensive work with the team on situational hitting, looking to help an offense that was plagued by inconsistency last year.
Chicago hit an NL-best .258 last season and scored 761 runs, fourth in the league. But it also managed one run or less in a whopping 39 games.
The remedy for the Cubs’ offensive issues might be on the roster, or at least they hope so after they failed to make any major moves over the winter.
Kris Bryant is healthy again after he was hampered by left shoulder inflammation last year. Ian Happ stumbled in his second major league season, and Willson Contreras is looking to return to form after he hit just 10 homers and struck out 121 times in 138 games.
“A lot of times as a player you try too hard,” Contreras said. “You fail and you step up. Last year was a learning year for me, my second full season in the big leagues. This year is going to be a little bit easier.”
The Cubs open the season March 28 at Texas.
IN NEED OF RELIEF
The bullpen has potential, but health is a major concern at the moment. Closer Brandon Morrow will miss the start of the season while he recovers from elbow surgery. Pedro Strop has been hampered by right hamstring trouble, and Tony Barnette and Xavier Cedeno also are dealing with injuries. Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr. and newcomer Brad Brach could get plenty of work until reinforcements arrive from the injured list. The 32-year-old Cishek had a 2.18 ERA in a career-high 80 appearances in his first year with Chicago. Brach had 12 saves and a 3.59 ERA in 69 games for Baltimore and Atlanta last season.
The Cubs are hoping Daniel Descalso can provide some additional veteran leadership after he agreed to a $5 million, two-year contract in December. The utility infielder hit .238 with a career-best 13 homers and 57 RBIs in 138 games with Arizona last season.
Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana form what could be baseball’s deepest rotation. Lester went 18-6 last year with a 3.32 ERA. Darvish missed most of his first season with Chicago because of injuries, but looked much better this spring. Hamels provided a big lift after he was acquired in a July trade with Texas, and Hendricks and Quintana also are consistent performers.
Javier Baez is coming off a breakout season , becoming one of baseball’s biggest stars. The slugger hit .290 with 34 homers and an NL-high 111 RBIs while playing his usual stellar defense all around the infield. Producing a similar year could be a tough task.
Albert Almora Jr. played in a career-high 152 games in 2018, and the results were mixed. Almora, who turns 25 on April 16, batted just .234 in September. The sixth-overall pick in the 2012 draft could help strengthen Chicago’s lineup with a better all-around performance this season.
AP freelance writer Jason P. Skoda in Mesa, Arizona, contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
AP source: Trout, Angels close to record $432M, 12-year deal
By The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 20
Mike Trout is about to cash in.
Trout and the Los Angeles Angels are close to finalizing a $432 million, 12-year contract that would shatter the record for the largest deal in North American sports history, a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press.
The deal was disclosed Tuesday by a person familiar with the negotiations who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the agreement had not been finalized. The contract was likely to be announced by the end of this week, the person said.
Hours later, news broke that Alex Bregman and the Houston Astros have agreed on a $100 million, six-year deal that keeps the All-Star third baseman under contract with the team through 2024, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation.
Trout would set a baseball record for career earnings at about $513 million, surpassing the roughly $448 million Alex Rodriguez took in with Seattle, Texas and the New York Yankees from 1994-2017.
Trout’s latest deal would top the new $330 million, 12-year contract between Bryce Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies, and Trout’s $36 million average annual value would surpass pitcher Zack Greinke’s $34.4 million in a six-year deal with Arizona that started in 2016. The contract also would best Mexican boxer Canelo Alvarez’s $356 million deal with sports-streaming service DAZN.
Progress toward an agreement was first reported by ESPN.
Whether Trout’s contract is the largest in the world for a team athlete is difficult to determine. Forbes estimated Lionel Messi earned $84 million from Barcelona in 2017-18 and Cristiano Ronaldo $61 million from Real Madrid, but precise details of their contracts are not known.
A 27-year-old entering what should be his prime years, Trout is considered baseball’s top player and would have been coveted as a free agent after the 2020 season. He lives in southern New Jersey, and Harper said he was excited about trying to recruit Trout to join him in Philadelphia.
Although Trout recently built a home in his native New Jersey, he is staying on the West Coast with the Angels, who are coming off three straight losing seasons and haven’t won a playoff game during his career.
Trout and wife Jessica have made no secret of how much they enjoy living in laid-back Southern California, and the low-key outfielder apparently decided to skip the pressure of free agency entirely.
Trout has been an All-Star in each of his seven full big league seasons and hit .312 with 39 homers, 79 RBIs, 24 steals and 122 walks last year. He has led the major leagues in OPS in each of the last two seasons.
Bregman’s agreement includes this season, buys out three years of arbitration eligibility (2020-22) and pushes back his opportunity to become a free agent by two years.
The person who spoke about that deal did so on condition of anonymity because details had not been released by the team. The agreement was first reported by KRIV-FOX 26.
The 24-year-old Bregman made his first All-Star team last season and was selected MVP of the game after hitting a home run to help the American League win. He set career highs with a .286 batting average, 31 homers, 103 RBIs and a major league-leading 51 doubles, finishing fifth in AL MVP balloting.
The second overall pick in the 2015 amateur draft out of LSU, Bregman has hit .282 with 58 homers and 208 RBIs in 2½ seasons with the Astros, helping them win consecutive AL West titles and the 2017 World Series. He was limited early this spring after having arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow in January.
MORE FROM AROUND SPRING TRAINING
YANKEES 6, RAYS 2
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman announced that setup man Dellin Betances will begin the season on the injured list due to right shoulder inflammation. Betances got an MRI after he continued to lack velocity with his fastball.
Cashman also announced that starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez had passed his physical. If added to the 40-man roster, the 33-year-old left-hander would get a $3 million salary while in the major leagues and the chance to earn $9 million in performance bonuses: $300,000 for each start through 30.
Gary Sanchez hit two run-scoring doubles for New York, and Aaron Judge singled in a run and scored twice. Greg Bird hit a solo drive for his third spring homer.
Yankees right-hander Luis Cessa struck out five while pitching four scoreless innings.
Tampa Bay’s Tyler Glasnow struggled in his fourth start. The right-hander issued four walks in 3 2/3 innings and was charged with five runs, sending his spring ERA to 11.00.
NATIONALS 3, BRAVES 2
Collin Cowgill capped Washington’s three-run ninth with a two-run homer. Anibal Sanchez pitched five innings of two-run ball.
Austin Riley, one of Atlanta’s top prospects, hit a solo drive for his first spring homer. Bullpen hopeful Max Fried made his third start, striking out seven in five scoreless innings.
PIRATES 3, TIGERS 1
Josh Bell, Adam Frazier and Corey Dickerson had two hits apiece for Pittsburgh, and Steven Brault pitched 3 2/3 scoreless innings.
Detroit left-hander Matthew Boyd allowed three runs, two earned, and seven hits in 4 2/3 innings.
The Tigers also announced that right-hander Michael Fulmer may need Tommy John surgery. The operation was recommended following an MRI exam and a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews.
Fulmer, who experienced elbow soreness during a recent bullpen session, will seek a third opinion.
CUBS (SS) 6, MARINERS 4
Yu Darvish made his fourth start for Chicago’s split squad, pitching 4 2/3 innings against a team of Mariners minor leaguers and allowing two runs — one earned — and five hits, striking out six and walking two. Darvish also had an RBI single. Ian Happ and Jason Heyward had RBI doubles and Wilson Contreras singled in a run.
Kyle Lewis, Seattle’s No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, hit his third home run — a solo shot off reliever Carl Edwards Jr. — and his third double, scoring twice and raising his average to .429.
ROYALS 8, CUBS (SS) 6
Ryan O’Hearn homered, doubled and drove in five runs for Kansas City. Jorge Soler added two hits, and Jakob Junis gave up two runs in five innings.
RANGERS 3, BREWERS 2
Willie Calhoun had two singles, driving in all three runs for Texas. Lance Lynn made his third start, pitching five innings and allowing two runs, four hits, while striking out nine.
Jesus Aguilar hit his third double, driving in a run for Milwaukee. Chase Anderson made his fourth start, allowing two runs and six hits, in four innings.
INDIANS 4, DODGERS 2
Shane Bieber struck out six in five innings for Cleveland. He permitted five hits and walked none. Dodgers newcomers A.J. Pollock and Russell Martin homered off Bieber. Pollock also had a double.
Walker Buehler threw 46 pitches over 2 2/3 innings in his long-awaited Cactus League debut for Los Angeles. He allowed three hits and one earned run. The young right-hander was slowed by shoulder soreness earlier this spring.
PADRES 4, DIAMONDBACKS 3
Eric Hosmer homered and Bryan Mitchell struck out four over two scoreless innings to close it out. Manny Machado went 1 for 4 and is batting .161.
Adam Jones was 0 for 3 in his Cactus League debut for Arizona. He batted leadoff and played five innings in center field.
REDS 6, WHITE SOX 5
Prized prospect Nick Senzel doubled twice and scored three times for Cincinnati. Joey Votto got two hits and Yasiel Puig had a two-run single.
Luis Castillo will start on opening day for the Reds, rookie manager David Bell announced.
Chicago slugger Jose Abreu connected for a pair of home runs. Reynaldo Lopez allowed three runs in 6 1/3 innings.
ANGELS 9, ROCKIES 7
Justin Upton hit his first homer of the spring for Los Angeles. Peter Bourjos and Taylor Ward also went deep, and Kole Calhoun had two hits.
Colorado starter German Marquez was tagged for eight runs and 10 hits in 4 1/3 innings. Daniel Murphy homered and Nolan Arenado got two hits.
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