Steven Wright: The “New” R. A. Dickey

In the history of Major League Baseball, there have been very few pitchers who have actually succeeded in mastering the knuckleball to the point where they were able to absolutely dominate opposing batters on a consistent basis. For the most part, pitchers who throw the knuckleball are ineffective, and have up-and-down, short-lived careers.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Seattle MarinersHowever, as with anything, there are always a few exceptions — Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield, etc. — with the latest example of that being Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox. Through four games started this season, Steven Wright has a 1.37 ERA, with a tick under one strikeout per inning pitched. Following an ERA of 4.09 in 2015, Wright appears to have figured things out.

On Wednesday night alone, Wright went seven strong innings against the Braves (given, Atlanta isn’t exactly a powerhouse team this season), striking out eight and giving up just two runs (only one earned run) in Boston’s 9-4 win. 

Due to his great performance to this point in the season, Wright has subsequently taken over the leading role of most dominant MLB knuckleballer, recently held by R.A. Dickey (the only other active knuckleball thrower).

With Toronto this season, Dickey has recorded a subpar 6.75 ERA, and hasn’t been all that terribly great since he took home the Cy Young award in 2012 with the Mets. That season — the only extremely fantastic season of his career — Dickey posted a 2.73 ERA over 33 starts, while striking out 230 batters, but he’s gone 40-40 with a 4.06 ERA since then.

Steven Wright didn’t actually appear in the big leagues until the season after Dickey had his breakout year, but it appears that Wright is on the verge of having a special season as a knuckleball pitcher much like the one of Dickey in 2012.

Boston could certainly continue to use successful outings from him, as their other starters hold ERA’s above 3.51, with David Price possessing a 5.76 and Joe Kelly unbelievably having a 9.35 ERA over three starts. For that reason, Steven Wright is currently being looked at as the surprising Ace of the staff, and has been a welcome surprise for the Red Sox so far this year.

While I’m not necessarily saying that Steven Wright’s 2016 season will end up being as successful as R.A. Dickey’s 2012 campaign, with him winning the Cy Young, it is definitely a positive sign for Wright of great things to come. I imagine not even Wright himself would have envisioned this good of a start to the season when things began back on April 4th, but every given baseball season is much like the knuckleball pitch itself: You never know where it’s going to wind up.

My Initial 2016 MLB All-Star Game Ballot

We aren’t even a month into the baseball season, and the 2016 Major League Baseball All-Star game ballot has already been released. I feel it’s a little too early to be casting votes for the Midsummer Classic, as some superstar players have gotten off to rough starts and will likely get back to their former glory by the time the All-Star game arrives on July 12th out in San Diego, while some previously unknown players who have busted out of the gate will likely be merely trickling along by that time.San Diego

But even so, I decided to go ahead and post a blog on the subject, regardless of the earliness of it all.

Voting itself is simple. Although there are no longer paper ballots that you can pick up and fill out at your local ballpark, you can head over to MLB.com and fill out an online ballot with the player you feel most deserves the honor for each position. You can vote up to 5 times per day, and 35 times total, for the players of your choice. (Voting is open until June 30th.)

Due to the All-Star game still being over two months away, I divided things up a bit this year. I’m going to go ahead and cast 15 votes for the players I feel are All-Star worthy as of now (the players discussed below), with a plan to go back and cast my other 20 available votes in the final week leading up to the actual game. Odds are, at least a few of them will be different, but as for right now, here are the players at each position that I feel are deserving of playing in the 2016 MLB All-Star game:

FIRST BASE:  Joe Mauer (AL),  Adrian Gonzalez (NL)

With guys such as Eric Hosmer, Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis to choose from in the American League portion of things, this wasn’t necessarily an easy decision, but I ended up going with Joe Mauer. Leading the pack in batting average, Mauer has really gotten off to a nice start of what looks to be a bounce back season.

For the National League, I chose Adrian Gonzalez. He is second in the National League first basemen group in average, and is off to an equally good start as Joe Mauer. Amazingly, Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo are all batting down around .200, making this a somewhat easy choice.

SECOND BASE: Ian Kinsler (AL),  Neil Walker (NL)

Picking between Jose Altuve and Ian Kinsler was rather difficult, as both have stats very similar to the other. In the end, however, I chose Kinsler for the all-around game he brings to the table. While Altuve has had a hot bat to begin the season, it’s Kinsler who I feel can continue to hold his streak the longest.

There are multiple options for National League secondbaseman, with Daniel Murphy and Jean Segura’s high averages jumping out as All-Star worthy. But I wound up picking Neil Walker, who has a combination of a good average, along with a high early homer total that make him All-Star game worthy.

SHORTSTOP:  Carlos Correa (AL),  Zack Cozart (NL)

After winning the 2015 American League Rookie of the Year award, I currently have Carlos Correa being the AL starting shortstop at the All-Star game as well. Correa plays a great defense and has just as much pop in his bat as anyone around baseball. Therefore, I picked him on my ballot.

The National League shortstop spot goes to Zack Cozart in my mind. While Trevor Story leads the pack in homers and RBI’s, the majority of those came during his extremely hot (and historic) first several games. Recently, Story has cooled off a ton, and the shortstop spot is Cozart’s to lose, in my opinion.

THIRD BASE: Manny Machado (AL),  Nolan Arenado (NL)

There are a ton of worthy candidates in the American League for All-Star game third baseman, but, unfortunately, I could only choose one on my ballot. Josh Donaldson, Mike Moustakas, Nick Castellanos and even Adrian Beltre all have cases. But I went with Manny Machado, who has been incredible to start the season.

Going against Maikel Franco and Kris Bryant was extremely hard to do, especially with them getting off to good starts, but I didn’t go with either of them. Instead, I went with Nolan Arenado. Although his stats aren’t much better than any of the other options, Arenado is one of the best both offensively and defensively at the position.

CATCHER:  Salvador Perez (AL), Wellington Castillo  (NL)

Though his average is a good distance away from the magic .300 mark, Salvador Perez is deserving of the All-Star catcher slot. He is having a great season in Kansas City, once again, and easily earns my vote. Always consistently good, Perez is one of the best catchers in the game, and should be honored as such.

Yadier Molina is always the heavy favorite for National League starting catcher, and he is once again on top in batting average. But I didn’t go with Molina. Instead, I went with breakout catcher, Wellington Castillo. Castillo is having a great year to this point, and he has a very good case for being named the starter in July.

DESIGNATED HITTER: David Ortiz

David Ortiz could be hitting .100 by the time the All-Star game rolls around and he still would be worthy of the vote. Being his final season, and with all he’s done over his career, he deserves it no matter what. But the stats are there, regardless. Ortiz more than deserves to play in his final All-Star game.

OUTFIELD

It’s never easy to narrow down several dozen players to three All-Star picks for each league, especially when you could make a strong case for a dozen of the outfield choices for each league, but it’s a requirement when casting a ballot. So, while I voted for the players who I felt were All-Star caliber players at the moment, there are a few more I would’ve liked to vote for, but couldn’t. Keep that in mind when reading the outfielders I selected for the American League and National League:

Mark Trumbo, Mike Trout and Steven Souza Jr. (AL)

Picking Mark Trumbo and Steven Souza Jr. was a bit tough, but they’re having too good of seasons for me to ignore. Although they likely won’t be the top vote-getters when all is said and done, they earn my vote for now. Mike Trout, on the other hand, was a no-brainer. Despite a slow start, Trout is heating things up, and is still a superstar.

Bryce Harper, Yoenis Cespedes and Ryan Braun (NL)

As with Mike Trout in the AL, picking Bryce Harper for National League outfield was the easiest choice of the three. But after a lot of debate between the candidates to fill the other places, I wound up choosing Yoenis Cespedes and Ryan Braun, who are each having uniquely great seasons, and are each very exciting players to watch.

Jake Arrieta No-Hits the Reds in Blowout Game

The Cubs absolutely pummeled the Reds on Thursday night, scoring sixteen runs to Cincinnati’s zero-spot. But it wasn’t the blowout by the Cubs — including the “home run cycle” of a solo homer, a two-run homer, a three-run homer and a grand slam — that the baseball world was buzzing about when the final out was recorded. Instead, it was once again Jake Arrieta.Arrieta

Arrieta only struck out six batters in the game, but he was still able to mow down the Reds’ batters, throwing the first no-hitter of 2016, and the second in his last eleven regular season starts. With the no-no, Arrieta joins Max Scherzer, Tim Lincecum, Homer Bailey and Justin Verlander as the only active pitchers with multiple no-hitters for their career.

But there’s something about Arrieta that makes this no-hitter extra special. Once a forgotten man within the Orioles’ system, in which he posted ERA’s well above 4.00 in each of his four seasons in Baltimore, Arrieta has been dominant ever since arriving on the scene with the Cubs in 2013. Through four starts this season, Arrieta is 4-0 with a 0.87 ERA, and has been the biggest part in leading the Cubs to having the best team ERA in all of baseball of 2.14.

Winning the Cy Young award last season for his historic outings, Arrieta is well on his way to doing so again this season. Having gone 20-1 in his last 24 regular season starts, with a collective 0.86 ERA, Arrieta has transformed himself into something special as of late, and there are no signs of him stopping anytime soon.

But with the Cubs now 12-4, and with the best winning percentage among all the teams in baseball, there is something more important on the minds of people than Arrieta individually. The question many people are asking with such a hot start is whether or not 2016 will finally be the Cubs’ year as had been predicted before the season began.

If Jake Arrieta has anything to say about it, the answer very well could be yes.

My First Games of 2016 Taking Place This Week

If you’ve been following this blog for any extended period of time, or if you’ve simply taken the time to peruse through the hundreds of posts I’ve written, you know that one of the many things I enjoy doing during any given baseball season is going out to the ballpark and getting autographs from some of baseball’s up-and-coming top talent.

This season, I’m planning to be much more selective than I have been in the past with which games I go to (due to a number of factors), but I still plan on making it out to my fair share of games in 2016.

ProspectsTuesday kicks off my baseball season, as I’m heading out to watch the Mudcats take on the Salem Red Sox. The top three prospects of the Red Sox farm system — Yoan Moncada, Rafael Devers and Andrew Benintendi — are all apart of the current Salem team, so I’m really looking forward to attending this game.

On the other side of things, the Mudcats have their top prospect, Dansby Swanson, as well as 2014 first round draft pick, Braxton Davidson. With so much talent, I’ll either leave the game very elated — having gotten an autograph from most if not all of them — or very disappointed.

But while that game features four of the top 25 prospects in all of baseball, making it one of the best minor league games I’ve ever been to (talent-wise) in my life, the next game on the docket for me isn’t far behind.

On the following Sunday, April 24th, I’m planning on heading out to Durham to see them take on the visiting Indianapolis Indians — the Pirate’s Triple-A affiliate. I’d been looking forward to seeing this team since last season, when I projected so many good players to be apart of their roster. Three of their top four prospects makeup this team, in Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell and Jameson Taillon, in addition to Alen Hanson, their number ten prospect. Thus, it should turn out to be a great game.

All in all, this coming week, I’m planning to see eight of the top 53 prospects in person (including Blake Snell for the Bulls). With this season so uncertain as to how often I’ll be out at the ballpark, it’s nice to get off to such a great start to the year. No matter how the season winds up panning out for me autograph-wise over the next five months, I’m still planning to blog about it all (as I have in the past) after I’ve attended my last game sometime in September.

Vincent Velasquez Completely Shuts Down the Padres

If you aren’t already familiar with Vincent Velasquez, you inevitably will be very soon.

On Tuesday afternoon against the Padres, Velasquez absolutely dominated San Diego’s lineup, allowing just three hits and striking out 16 batters over the course of his complete game shutout, in which Velasquez received 27 swings and misses. This following his first outing of the season, where Velasquez struck out nine over six innings, giving up no runs, it would appear that he’s already in midseason form. Phillies

Velasquez has now struck out twenty-five batters in just fifteen innings of work, and subsequently holds the new record for a Phillies pitcher of most combined K’s in their first two starts of the season, previously set at 20 back in 1964.

Originally a product of the Astros, getting drafted by them in the second round of the 2010 draft, Velasquez came to Philadelphia as part of the Ken Giles trade this past offseason. To this point, it would appear to be a great move on the part of Philadelphia (especially with Giles getting off to a slow start with Houston).

But Velasquez’s career hasn’t been a smooth ride to the top.

Back in 2011, Velasquez underwent Tommy John surgery (an all too common procedure at this point), forcing him to miss the entire 2011 season. In addition to the injuries, once Velasquez finally did make it to the major leagues, he didn’t immediately post the type of numbers he has recently, notching a 4.37 ERA over 19 total games pitched and 7 starts in 2015, leaving many to question him moving forward.

However, Velasquez appears ready to take off.

It certainly can’t come soon enough for Philadelphia, who has been fairly pathetic in recent years. While they dominated their opponents for a number of years in a row not too long ago, they have been in the process of rebuilding over the past few Francoseasons But other than Velasquez, the Phillies’ pitching staff merely consists of standouts Aaron Nola and Jeremy Hellickson — nothing close to resembling their rotation of 2011 that included Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay.

Likewise, the Phillies lack a good, intimidating lineup, currently possessing very little power threats within it. With Ryan Howard no longer the slugger he once was, and seemingly on his last stretch with Philly, Maikel Franco is truly the only major power threat available of what was once an efficient offensive machine.

But there is help on the way, with the Phillies holding seven of the top 100 prospects in baseball throughout their farm systems. Pitching-wise, the Phillies have guys such as Jake Thompson and Mark Appel in Triple-A, both of which are ready to help very soon. Hitting-wise, J.P. Crawford and Nick Williams are coming fast, and should be contributing to the run scoring in Philadelphia before too long.

With the win on Thursday afternoon, the Phillies have now won three straight, and five of their last six, keeping their overall record for the season at .500 (5-5). Inevitably, however, the Phillies will taper out of contention as the year goes on, and as other teams begin to figure things out, ultimately finishing at or near the bottom of the National League East division.

Even so, once every fifth day, Phillies fans will be reminded by Velasquez that their club is well on their way to transforming back into a contender once again, as it was for so many years not so long ago. Rebuilding is a process that takes time, as well as patience on both the part of the team and the fans.

But as Vincent Velasquez proved on Tuesday, the rebuild is getting closer to completion.

Fastest and Slowest Starts to the 2016 Season

It’s been said time and time again by myself and other people around baseball, but it’s worth repeating: You can’t always take a team’s or player’s hot or cold start to a season in stone as to how they will perform over the rest of the season.

While it’s easy to overreact and declare that a team predicted to finish last is now World Series bound because they got off to a good start (or the opposite, that your favorite team is doomed because they’re yet to win a game), it’s still very early, with extremely small sample sizes to look at. But despite that, I decided to take a look anyhow at the starts teams and players around baseball have had to kick off 2016:

Fastest Starts

Teams:

1 — Orioles (5-0)

2 — Cubs (5-1)

3 — Reds (5-1)

The Orioles are off to a surprisingly good start (their best since 1970). While their team has the ability to win often, I would never have guessed that they would be the only undefeated team remaining in baseball a week into the season. Chicago, on the other hand, is off to the great start that people around the baseball world predicted, and are well under way to their World Series destiny. Like Baltimore, the Reds are also over performing tremendously. Them kicking off their season 5-1 isn’t how I ever thought things would pan out for them.

Players:

1 — Tyler White (.556, 3 HR, 9 RBI)

2 — Eugenio Suarez (.435, 4 HR, 9 RBI)

3 — Trevor Story (.333, 7 HR, 12 RBI)

None of these three were household names before the season got underway, but they are each posting numbers that would qualify them as such towards the end of the season. Tyler While is absolutely on fire for the Astros, as is Eugenio Suarez for the Reds. Both will look to continue to lead their given teams. However, while they are each off to hot starts, the talk of the baseball world is Trevor Story. Although Story has numerous players ahead of him in the batting average department, I included him on this list because of his historic seven homers over the course of his first six career games.

Slowest Starts

Teams:

1 — Twins (0-6)

2 — Braves (0-5)

3 — Marlins (1-3)

It’s not all that surprising that these three teams are at the very bottom of the pack among the other 27 teams in the baseball standings. Despite an unbelievable season last year, in which the Twins proved many people wrong, they are off to the worst start in their franchises history. The Braves aren’t faring any better, having yet to win a ballgame, with the Marlins having notched one victory, but still not seemingly on the verge of postseason glory when October rolls around.

Players:

1 — Curtis Granderson (.050, 0 HR, 0 RBI)

2 — Logan Morrison (.056, 0 HR, 0 RBI)

3 — Brad Miller (.059, 0 HR, 0 RBI)

Having yet to record a home run isn’t all that rare this time of season, nor is it unheard of to have recorded hits that didn’t result in a single run batted in. But to be hitting below .100 at any point in the year is a clear sign that your bat has gone ice cold. That’s certainly the case for Curtis Granderson, who is hitting just .050 on the year to this point. Logan Morrison is not far behind, with a mere .056 average, with teammate Brad Miller hitting just .059. While they will each inevitably raise their averages as the season goes on, it’s certainly not the start they were hoping to get off to.

As you can see, there are tons of teams and players who are off to amazingly great starts, with others having yet to show up. Over the course of the 162-game season, the majority of teams and players will inevitably wind up close to where they were predicted to end up before the season began (given, there are always a few surprises). But even so, it’s always fun to take a look to see what kind of start players and teams get off to when any given season begins. How long it lasts is the part that will be intriguing to watch.

Trevor Story Wasting No Time Setting Records

Any time a baseball player makes their MLB debut, it’s bound to be a special day for them. When it happens on Opening Day, it makes it all that more thrilling. But Trevor Story has taken things a step further, not only doing both of the aforementioned things this season, but also exploding onto the scene with the Rockies.  Story

In his brief, three-game MLB career, Story has already accomplished something that no other player in baseball history has ever been able to do. Over the course of his first few games in the bigs, Story has proceeded to launch four home runs (one of which was off 2015 NL Cy Young winner, Zack Greinke), hitting at least one in every single game he’s played, and becoming the first player to ever do so in three straight games to lead off their career.

After a strong Spring Training showing, the Rockies felt confident that Story could be brought up to the majors to fill the void left by Jose Reyes during his absence from the team, but no one could have anticipated Story performing the way he has to this point.

Story is now batting .286 on the season (his only four hits have been home runs) with 4 home runs and 7 RBI’s over the course of three games, and has gone from an under the radar prospect in the Rockies farm system to a star overnight. While I’ll be the first to admit that Story inevitably won’t be able to keep up this historic pace, currently hitting a home run every 3.5 at-bats, it’s still amazing to watch while it lasts.

But while Story will ultimately not reach his on-pace number of 200+ home runs for the season, all signs point to him continuing to produce quality number for the Rockies, likely for years to come. While Corey Seager was the heavy favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year award after his terrific stint with the Dodgers towards the end of last season, it appears that Story is going to give Seager a run for his money.

Although this is baseball, where guys can go from being red hot to ice cold in the matter of a single game, Story is well on his way to breaking his career high of 20 home runs set last season in the minors between Double-A and Triple-A. After all, Story is yet to play a single game at home in Coors Field, where the ball is known to fly out of the park.

It’s crazy to think, but Trevor Story might be just getting started.

Justin Verlander Shines in First Start of 2016

A quick glance at the box score of Tuesday night’s Tigers game versus the Marlins wouldn’t necessarily leave you to believe it, but Justin Verlander was terrific on the evening. Yes, he gave up three earned runs; and no, he didn’t strike out a ton, or receive the win for that matter. But he showed flashes of the old Verlander that the baseball world has come to miss. Verlander

Following a 67 start stretch over the course of 2011 and 2012, in which Verlander went 41-13 with a combined 2.52 ERA, winning a Cy Young and MVP award, he has recorded a 3.84 ERA ever since. Heading into this season, you truly didn’t know what to expect from the six-time All-Star, but he hit the ground running right out of the gate in game one of the year for his 2016 campaign.

Verlander carried a no-hitter all the way into the sixth inning on Tuesday night. But, unfortunately, that’s when things began to fall apart. After surrendering hit number one, in the form of a double to Dee Gordon, Verlander proceeded to give up an RBI-single to Marcell Ozuna and a two-run homer to Giancarlo Stanton, which brought the score up to 5-3, Tigers. However, despite the poor inning, it was just that — one inning. Verlander had already proven in the previous five that he still has a ton of talent remaining.

It’s been quite some time since Justin Verlander performed anywhere near the caliber of pitcher he was just a few seasons ago. However, if his first start of the year is any indication, the old Verlander could be on the verge of breaking out once again. For the Tigers’ sake, they better hope so. Detroit’s lineup is more than good enough to produce a very special season, but their starting rotation has a few question mark; the biggest of which being Verlander heading into this season.

Even so, if Justin Verlander can continue to build upon his outing on Tuesday night, the Tigers could end up surprising quite a few people around the baseball world when all is said and done.

Baseball Returns With a Three-Game Slate

It’s been a little over five months since the last non-exhibition Major League Baseball game was played, but meaningful baseball is finally taking place again today (Opening Day, part one). After a month of Spring Training games, six of baseball’s thirty teams are scheduled to dual it out over the course of this afternoon and evening, with the remaining twenty-four squads playing their opening games on Monday.Opening Day

Game one of the regular season is set to kick off at 1:05, and sees the Cardinals taking on the Pirates in a National League Central battle. Francisco Liriano and Adam Wainwright are the scheduled starters for the contest, leaving little to doubt that it will be a great game. With the NL Central likely to be a very close race throughout the coming 162 games, it’s never been more important to get off to a good start against a division rival.

The second game on the docket for today is another divisional faceoff, as the Blue Jays are going up against their American League East counterpart Rays. While the Rays aren’t predicted to hold up against Toronto in the long run, anything can happen in the first game of the year. On the mound for Tampa is Chris Archer, with Marcus Stroman toeing the rubber for the Jays. It will likely be a fun one to watch, with this game beginning at 4:05 in the afternoon.

But while the previous two games are sure to be exciting and well worth watching, the one I’m going to be watching the closest and am looking forward to the most is the World Series rematch between the Mets and the Royals at 8:37. Game five of the Fall Classic way back on November 1st saw Matt Harvey starting for the Mets, with Edinson Volquez setting the tone for Kansas City, which just so happens to be the pitching matchup for tonight. For that reason, this should wind up being an unbelievable game.

As we all know, the Royals walked away World Series champions over the Mets in 2015, however, that was last season. It’s a new year, and with it comes new opportunities for each and every team around baseball. The road to the World Series starts with game one, and the first week always promises excitement from teams and individual players around baseball, as they all look to get off to hot starts.

Let the season begin.

Sandoval to Start Opening Day . . . On the Bench

When the Boston Red Sox signed Pablo Sandoval to a five-year, 95 million dollar contract heading into the 2015 season, all signs pointed towards him continuing to add to his historically good career statistics that he had posted over the previous six seasons in San Francisco.Sandoval

With the Giants, Sandoval hit twelve or more homers, recorded at least 63 RBI’s and notched a batting average in the mid to upper .200’s from 2009 to 2014, before signing with the Red Sox in November of 2014. With that kind of track record, things were looking bright at third base in Boston.

But it all completely fell apart for ‘The Panda’ last season, when he really struggled offensively, hitting just .245 on the year, with career lows of just ten homers and 47 RBI’s. However, it was his poor defense at third, leading to fifteen errors, that really stood out; and that is ultimately going to keep him on the bench to begin 2016.

After two All-Star game selections and three World Series rings with the Giants, Sandoval will be on the outside looking in to begin his eighth full season in the bigs. Instead, it’s standout 2015 rookie, Travis Shaw, who received the nod from manager John Farrell to start Opening Day at the hot corner.

Following a debut season of thirteen home runs over the course of just 65 games, Shaw hit the ground running in Florida’s Grapefruit League this year, recording an average well above .300, and playing a great defense at third — much better Shawthan that of Sandoval.

However, Sandoval seems at peace with the decision for him to not start game one of the year, and fully believes he can turn things around, saying, “It was the right decision to help the team win. I’m going to be ready during the season to do my job out there.”

Nonetheless, there are many people around the baseball world who don’t hold the same level of hope for Sandoval. Showing up at Spring Training around a month ago extremely out of shape, and with rumors flying that Sandoval may wind up being traded in the near future, there is no guarantee that things will ever be the same for Sandoval, at least with the Red Sox.

Now that Shaw has been given the opportunity to play everyday at third base, I see him thriving there and keeping Sandoval from regaining his role there much at all. It will certainly be interesting to see how it all pans out.

Opening Day for the Red Sox is now less than 100 hours away, set for Monday, April 4th, up in Cleveland against the Indians. But for Pablo Sandoval, the season will begin with him serving a role similar to the 38,000 fans expected to pack the ballpark: a mere spectator.

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