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  • Royals season preview: One last title chase
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    SURPRISE, Ariz. -- After advancing to the World Series in 2014 and '15, the Kansas City Royals finished 2016 at .500.

    • The 2017 season will be a last hurrah for several of the Royals' core players of the championship seasons, as they will become free agents.

      Those eligible to hit the open market after this season are first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain and left-handed starter Jason Vargas. The Royals traded closer Wade Davis and speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson, both who can declare for free agency after the 2017 season, during the offseason.

      "I don't think it will be a distraction," Royals manager Ned Yost said of having so many players in their free agent year.

      The 2017 Royals will look a lot like the 2016 Royals. Moustakas missed most of last year with a knee injury. Right-hander Yordano Ventura died in a vehicle accident in the Dominican Republic in late January, leaving a hole in the rotation and in the Royals' hearts.

      The starting pitching has no bona fide ace, but left-hander Danny Duffy could be close to ascending to that. He will be the Opening Day starter after going 12-3 with a 3.51 ERA last season.

      "I felt like Dayton (Moore, general manager) did a wonderful job in the offseason, especially considering what happened (Ventura's death)," Duffy said.

      Raul Mondesi, the son of the former big league slugger by the same name, defied the odds and won the second base job.

      "The kid can impact a game in a lot of ways," Yost said. "I knew this kid was talented. But he had to mature and grow up and believe in his abilities.

      "As long as he realizes that all he has to do is do something every day to help us win a game. It's not about the batting average. It's about the defense. It's about the base running, maybe putting down a bunt. Maybe it's getting a hit and stealing second."

      Jorge Soler, who was acquired from the Cubs for Davis, was having a rough spring. But just before breaking camp, Soler sustained an oblique injury, and he will begin the season on the disabled list. Paulo Orlando will replace him in right field.

      Nathan Karns, who was acquired in the Dyson deal, will be the No. 5 starter.

      Free agent signees Jason Hammel, Travis Wood and Brandon Moss should help the Royals contend. Hammel, a 15-game winner last season for the Cubs, is slotted to start the third game. Wood, a left-hander, will be in the bullpen after Karns was awarded the final rotation slot. Moss brings power to the designated hitter position, and he can also play the outfield and first base.

      Alex Gordon, who broke his right wrist last year in a collision with Moustakas and hit a puny .220, had a good spring. He likely will bat leadoff when the season opens.

      Kansas City plays six of their first nine games against the Minnesota Twins and the Oakland A's, so a good start is imperative.

      If the Royals remain healthy, they have the talent to return to postseason. If they appear to be out of contention in late July, Moore could trade some of the pending free agents for young players.

  • MLB notebook: Nationals let Nathan go
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    Despite showing effectiveness in spring training, veteran right-hander Joe Nathan was released by the Washington Nationals on Monday.

    • Nathan posted a 3.86 ERA in 12 spring appearances for the Nationals as he attempts to fully return from a second Tommy John surgery. The 42-year-old signed a minor league contract with the Nationals in January, and Monday was the deadline for him to exercise an opt-out clause.

      Nathan pitched 6 1/3 innings with the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs last season. He underwent surgery in April 2015 after throwing only four pitches with the Detroit Tigers and also underwent the procedure in 2010.

      Nathan is eighth all time with 377 saves.

      --Left-hander Scott Kazmir will start the season on the disabled list with an unspecified left hip injury, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

      Roberts also said shortstop Corey Seager will remain in Arizona through Friday to work on his swing after recovering from a strained oblique.

      Kazmir, 33, missed most of the last two months of the 2016 season with back and neck issues. He finished with a 10-6 record and 4.56 ERA in 26 starts.

      Seager, 33, will miss the first two games of the Freeway Series in Anaheim against the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday and Friday to get more at-bats in minor league games. He will rejoin the team on Saturday for the final Freeway Series game at Dodger Stadium.

      --Kansas City Royals outfielder Jorge Soler was diagnosed with a grade one oblique strain, and he likely will begin the season on the disabled list.

      Soler was injured chasing a pitch out of the strike zone Sunday in a minor league spring training game and underwent an MRI exam Monday.

      The injury-prone Soler missed nearly two months with a strained left hamstring last season before returning to help the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series since 1908. Soler was obtained in the offseason for closer Wade Davis and struggled to a .143 average (7-for-49) with two homers in 17 exhibition games.

      --Veteran first baseman James Loney was released by the Texas Rangers.

      Loney, who was competing for the backup first baseman job behind Mike Napoli, batted .174 during spring training. The 32-year-old signed a minor league contract with Texas in January, but the team signed Napoli a month later.

      Last year, Loney batted .265 in 366 plate appearances for the New York Mets.

  • Nathan, 42, fails to land job with Nationals
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    Despite showing effectiveness in spring training, veteran right-hander Joe Nathan was released by the Washington Nationals on Monday.

    • Nathan posted a 3.86 ERA in 12 spring appearances for the Nationals as he attempts to fully return from a second Tommy John surgery. The 42-year-old signed a minor league contract with the Nationals in January and Monday was the deadline for him to exercise an opt-out clause.

      "There's 29 other teams," Nathan told reporters. "I knew every time I took the mound this spring, it wasn't just to try to make this club but showcase for other teams. It was important for me to get out there, even yesterday, in a spot where they probably already knew I wasn't going to make this team."

      Nathan pitched 6 1/3 innings with the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs last season. He underwent surgery in April 2015 after throwing only four pitches with the Detroit Tigers and also underwent the procedure in 2010.

      Nathan is eighth all time with 377 saves. He has four seasons with at least 40 saves and in his last full season Nathan had 35 saves and a 4.81 ERA in 62 appearances with Detroit.

      Nathan began his career as a starting pitcher with the Giants in 1999. After spending 2001 in the minors, he was moved to the bullpen and began closing games in 2004 with the Minnesota Twins.

      Washington also released Matt Albers, who made 10 scoreless appearances during spring training. Albers signed a minor league deal with the team in January after posting a 6.31 ERA in 58 appearances for the Chicago White Sox last season.

      In 452 appearances with the Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks, Cleveland Indians and White Sox, Albers has a 4.38 ERA.

  • Royals' Soler may start season on DL
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    Kansas City Royals outfielder Jorge Soler was diagnosed with a grade one oblique strain Monday and will likely begin the season on the disabled list.

    • Soler was injured chasing a pitch out of the strike zone Sunday in a minor league spring training game and underwent an MRI on Monday.

      Although the tests showed Soler's injury to be the least serious, he continued to be hampered by nagging injuries in his brief career.

      In 2014 as a minor leaguer with the Chicago Cubs, he missed more than two months with strains in both hamstrings. He also injured his oblique in 2015 and missed more than three weeks late in the season.

      Soler also missed nearly five weeks with a left ankle sprain in 2015 and last season missed nearly two months with a strained left hamstring before returning to help the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908.

      Soler was obtained in the offseason for closer Wade Davis and struggled to a .143 average (7 for 49) with two homers in 17 exhibition games.

  • Cubs season preview: Core returns for champs, plus a few new faces
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    The World Series champion Chicago Cubs return their core but didn't rest on any laurels as they open a new season with a title to defend for the first time since 1909.

    • Chicago not only has the ingredients for a second straight 100-plus victory season and National League Central title but enough to possibly make it back-to-back World Series appearances for the first time the opening decade of the 20th century.

      These 21st century Cubs start with the reigning NL Most Valuable Player (third baseman Kris Bryant), a World Series MVP (second baseman-outfielder Ben Zobrist) and not one but three Cy-Young caliber starting pitchers and four hurlers with 15 wins or more.

      Chicago also had one of baseball's best defensive groups with five Gold Glove finalists, a plus-282 run differential that was by far the best in the majors, and was tough to beat at home, going 57-24 at Wrigley Field for a franchise record for wins there.

      While the Cubs rate the early edge, manager Joe Maddon recognizes the road back will be full of challenges.

      "It's hard, it's a gauntlet, you just don't win the National or the American (and) play seven games and go home," Maddon said earlier this spring. "There's so many things that can play a role -- injuries will play a role, hot and cold. The year before when we lost to the Mets, (Daniel) Murphy could not have been hotter and their pitching staff couldn't have been better."

      Chicago won the NL Central with a big league-best 103-58 record, took three of four from the San Francisco Giants in the NL Division Series and beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games for the NL championship.

      In the World Series, the Cubs rallied from a 3-1 World Series deficit with three consecutive victories, including a memorable 8-7 win in 10 innings in Game 7 over the host Cleveland Indians.

      By necessity, the Cubs had to replace an outfielder (Dexter Fowler) and closer (Aroldis Chapman), who signed free agent deals with the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees, respectively.

      They brought in 31-year-old outfielder Jon Jay from the San Diego Padres and right-handed closer Wade Davis, also 31, in a trade that sent Jorge Soler to the Kansas City Royals.

      Any rookie breakthrough onto the 25-man Opening Day roster may be be a long shot, but infielder/outfielder Ian Happ appears closest.

      The Cubs open as the favorite to win another NL Central title, but Maddon warns that challengers abound.

      "I think there's a lot of parity," Maddon said. "You look at our division, Cincinnati and Milwaukee had tough years last year. But I'm here to tell you, heads up on Milwaukee. Pittsburgh will be back, maybe St. Louis."

  • Cardinals season preview: Looking for a rebound
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    By this time last year, the wheels were already falling off the St. Louis Cardinals' wagon. From injuries to players and even a valued coach, spring training was an unmitigated failure, setting the stage for the team's first playoff miss since 2010.

    • Manager Mike Matheny's team appears far more ready to succeed this spring, thanks to a re-emphasis on fundamentals and the addition of former Chicago Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler. That move not only aids St. Louis across the board, but weakens its Central Division rival a little bit and could help close some of last year's 17-game gap between the teams.

      Fowler's arrival helps shore up the middle of a defense that even with perennial Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina, showed serious weaknesses last year. Randal Grichuk wasn't quite as good in center as the team hoped, so he moves over to left with Stephen Piscotty staying in right.

      The club hopes that Aledmys Diaz will continue the improvement he flashed at shortstop over the year's last four months, when he cut down on errors and looked like he could be at least a league-average defender, if not slightly above average. Jhonny Peralta has looked more comfortable at third, while Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko should form a platoon that will get the job done at second. Matt Carpenter is locked into first base.

      Peralta's thumb injury early in spring training last year was the first shot across the bow. Another one was the news that third base coach and valued defensive guru Jose Oquendo had to sit out the season with knee problems. Some felt Oquendo's absence had a negative impact on a defense that not only made more errors, but failed to execute simple fundamentals that cost the Cardinals multiple games.

      Bad defense had a ripple effect. It forced the starters to throw extra pitches, which in turn left more innings for the bullpen to cover. Neither was as good as it had been in previous seasons, and the combination was especially toxic at Busch Stadium, where a team mismatched for its ballpark finished with a losing record.

      If St. Louis can catch the ball more consistently, its starting rotation should bounce back. Carlos Martinez has won the No. 1 spot in the rotation, a position befitting his ability, and Adam Wainwright is the No. 2 man, a better spot for him at this stage of his career. Mike Leake, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha fill out the rotation.

      Leake, a sinkerball pitcher who was most affected by last year's subpar defense, actually started trying for strikeouts because he wasn't sure his teammates could make plays behind him. This spring, Leake has led the staff in innings and is producing a plethora of groundouts, looking more like the guy the Cardinals spent $80 million on before 2016.

      "When he is making good pitches like he has almost all spring, and guys make plays, we have seen a lot of zeros," Matheny told mlb.com. "Staring at a complete game every time he gets out there with his style of pitching."

      Seung Hwan Oh is the closer this year with Kevin Siegrist as the primary setup man. Trevor Rosenthal is slated for a role similar to what Andrew Miller filled for Cleveland last postseason. The club thinks he could work multiple innings at high-leverage spots prior to closing time, shortening games and getting the game to Oh with a lead.

      Matheny said after last year's 162nd game that a lot of teams were happy the Cardinals didn't make the postseason, because they could have given playoff teams fits. No one will ever know if that was true, but based on the signing of Fowler and a return to emphasizing the fundamentals that so mysteriously disappeared last summer, St. Louis could be back as an October mainstay.

  • White Sox season preview: Rebuilding starts here
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    CHICAGO -- The Chicago White Sox watched last fall as the crosstown rival Cubs snapped a 108-year championship drought.

    • Now, the White Sox will try to follow the same blueprint as their neighbors to the North. General manager Rick Hahn made no secret that a rebuilding project was underway this offseason when he shipped ace left-hander Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox and speedy outfielder Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals in exchange for a handful of talented prospects.

      More deals could be in store before the trade deadline for the White Sox, who are focused on long-term success much more than their win-loss total in 2017. Left-hander Jose Quintana, closer David Robertson and third baseman Todd Frazier are among the veterans who could be shipped to contending teams in the coming months as Chicago continues its youth movement.

      To lead the effort, the White Sox hired Rick Renteria to replace Robin Ventura as manager. The 55-year-old posted a 73-89 record as Cubs skipper in 2014 but was fired after Joe Maddon became available the following winter.

      Hahn praised Renteria's ability to connect with younger players and teach proper fundamentals.

      "We're going to have a team where your identified priorities are teaching, holding guys accountable and building something for the future," Hahn told the Chicago Tribune. "Ricky and his staff, in my opinion, can very much handle a team that's ready to win, and I fully expect them to be in place when this team is ready to win. But in a lot of ways those were the first moves publicly saying this is what we're doing."

      Most of the team's top prospects will open the season in the minor leagues. As the year progresses, fans might expect to glimpse the franchise's future with the arrivals of second baseman Yoan Moncada, left-hander Reynaldo Lopez, and right-handers Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech. Homegrown catching prospect Zack Collins and right-hander Zack Burdi could reach the majors sooner than later, and right-hander Carson Fulmer should be back soon after a brief big-league stint in 2016.

      As the White Sox await an influx of young talent, the major league roster features a couple of young building blocks including shortstop Tim Anderson. As a rookie in 2016, Anderson hit .283 with nine home runs, 30 RBIs and 10 stolen bases in 99 games.

      Renteria will look for leadership in a group of veterans that includes Jose Abreu and Frazier at the corners of the infield. Quintana is the quiet leader of a starting rotation that also includes young left-hander Carlos Rodon, up-and-down right-hander James Shields and journeyman right-hander Miguel Gonzalez.

      In all likelihood, Chicago will miss the playoffs for the ninth season in a row. But thanks to Hahn's trades and Renteria's arrival, the franchise is hopeful that its rebuilding project will lead to brighter days on the South Side.

      "I'm really happy to be here," Renteria told CSN Chicago. "I'm happy to be in the situation we're in. The organization is taking the step that is hopefully leading us as many organizations have done over the last six or seven years, trying to create something more sustainable over time. The foundation is being laid both with the players and the way they're going about doing everything. So hopefully it will be something good for us."

  • Indians season preview: Roster loaded for another Series run
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    The American League champion Cleveland Indians reported to spring training with a roster that on paper was stronger than the one they used to get to the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series, before losing to the Chicago Cubs last year.

    • Because of that, there wasn't much competition for jobs in camp. It was mostly a case of monitoring the progress of the returning injured players, ramping up the healthy players for the start of the season and evaluating the progress of selected prospects that will start the season in the minor leagues, but could be summoned to the major league club during the season.

      The biggest question at the start of camp was the health of All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley, who missed virtually all of the 2016 season with a shoulder condition that required two separate surgeries. The news on Brantley was good. He began playing in spring training games in late March, and there was growing optimism that he could begin the season on the major league roster -- or at least join the team shortly after Opening Day.

      That's great news for a lineup that already was bolstered by the addition of free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion. Cleveland was able to sign him to a three-year, $60 million contract, to the astonishment of many, including Indians officials themselves.

      Encarnacion gets plugged into the cleanup spot in the batting order, replacing Mike Napoli, who was both popular and productive hitting out of the No. 4 spot last year.

      Napoli had a career year in 2016, hitting 34 home runs with 101 RBIs. However, Encarnacion, who at 34 is a year younger than Napoli, has averaged 39 home runs, 110 RBIs and a .912 OPS over the last five years. The Indians were second in the American League in runs scored last year. With the addition of Encarnacion and the return of Brantley, who in 2014 finished third in the American League MVP voting, Cleveland's offense could be even more prolific this year.

      The Indians will begin the season missing one of the key members of that lineup. Second baseman Jason Kipnis will begin the season on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation. The team projects Kipnis will return to the lineup by mid-or-late April.

      The loss of Kipnis in the first few weeks of the season means third baseman Jose Ramirez will likely move to second base, which was his original position as a minor leaguer. The leading candidates to replace Ramirez at third base are minor leaguers Giovanny Urshela, Yandy Diaz and Erik Gonzalez.

      The pitching staff is about as good as it gets in the American League. Last year's staff led the league in strikeouts, and was second in the league with a 3.84 ERA. The starting rotation and bullpen return intact. Terry Francona, the 2016 American League Manager of the Year, is one of the most skilled bullpen handlers in the majors. He proved it last year in the playoffs, when he redefined postseason bullpen usage by using his top relievers in a variety of situations.

      The Indians this year will benefit by having a full season of Andrew Miller, the midseason acquisition last year who was virtually unhittable in a combined 36 appearances for Cleveland in the regular season and postseason. Miller, who was voted the MVP of the AL Championship Series, and closer Cody Allen anchor the back of the bullpen.

      "Our goal this year is to pitch them a lot without pitching them too much," Francona said. "It's a fine line."

      The rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin all won 11 or more games last year. Kluber, who in a combined 38 starts in the regular season and postseason, had a record of 22-10 with a 2.96 ERA. The durable Kluber has averaged 33 starts and 224 innings in each of the last three years. Whether there will be any effect from throwing a career-high 249 innings last year remains to be seen.

      Carrasco was bothered by some swelling in his elbow during camp. The condition is not thought to be serious, but it did set Carrasco back a few days and Francona said Carrasco will remain in Arizona to make another start when the Indians break camp before rejoining the team.

      It's possible Carrasco could start the season on the disabled list, but he would likely be back by mid-April. The Indians won't have to adjust their rotation because, due to off-days in April, they can get through the first week or so of the season with four starters.

      Overall, the Indians are about as complete a team as there is in the American League. There are no glaring holes in the roster, there's a good mix of veterans and younger players who, following last year's march to Game 7 of the World Series, are battle-tested for another postseason run.

      The Indians are a heavy favorite to win the Central Division, and appear to be well positioned to return to the World Series, which they haven't won since 1948.

  • Tigers season preview: Avoiding injuries crucial for veteran team
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    Staying healthy to remain a contender was the Detroit Tigers' winter mantra heading into the 2017 season.

    • Then midway through spring training, right fielder J.D. Martinez suffered a sprain to the Lisfranc ligament in his right ankle that will sideline him 3-to-4 weeks dating from March 24. And it could be longer for him to work his way back into baseball shape.

      So much for an injury-free season.

      "No question our lineup is better with J.D. Martinez's bat in it," manager Brad Ausmus said. "But we will deal with it. When you think about it, it's three to four weeks from (March 24) and 10 days of that are while we're still in spring training.

      "So if it goes four weeks, that's only 2 1/2, three weeks of missed time in season."

      Couple that with uncertainty in center field and Detroit will open the season April 3 in Chicago against the White Sox having big question marks in two of the three outfield positions.

      The Martinez injury could prompt the club to hand the center field job to rookie JaCoby Jones, although it would prefer he show at Toledo he has learned the strike zone and can lay off slow stuff away from the plate.

      The club entered the last week of spring training not fixed on whether a platoon of left-handed hitting Tyler Collins and right-hander Mikie Mahtook would work.

      One other candidate, 2015 regular Anthony Gose, was returned to the minors March 26 and will attempt to convert to pitching while he plays the outfield. Gose threw 97 mph in high school.

      Detroit elected to stand pat under a policy of not letting payroll rise after just missing out on the playoffs in 2016. The Tigers want to get younger and more athletic over the next two to three seasons.

      One of those ways likely involves letting J.D. Martinez become a free agent with no compensation after this season or trading him at mid-year. Losing Martinez, third baseman Nick Castellanos and starting right-hander Jordan Zimmermann for more than a month each last year hurt Detroit, along with substandard pitching from high-priced Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe, who was released March 25.

      Getting rid of center fielder Cameron Maybin, limited to 94 games by injury, saved money but created the current problem at that position.

      Zimmermann has a neck condition the Tigers feel is manageable but losing him opened a spot for Michael Fulmer to have a Rookie of the Year career beginning.

      Any rotation headed by Justin Verlander can't be downplayed. Fulmer will draw more attention from opponents this season but he's a Verlander disciple and has the pitches to minimize a sophomore falloff.

      Sanchez and Pelfrey dropping the ball in 2016 created spots for Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, both of whom have bright futures.

      Despite a declaration to "take the 12 best pitchers" out of spring training, a late surge by Sanchez following a mechanical adjustment (getting his arm further away from his head) might induce Detroit to keep him and use Boyd's last option. The Tigers owe Sanchez more than $21 million over the next two years and logically would like to get something back on that instead of releasing him.

      "We're in the business of winning baseball games," Ausmus said. "We're going to make decisions that help us win baseball games. It will sort itself out in the next week."

      At any rate rotation depth, established depth, is something Detroit will have that was absent a year ago at this time and becomes a strength as the Tigers try to overtake overwhelming AL Central favorite Cleveland while staving off Kansas City.

      Spring training was tough on the Tigers in terms of wins because it lost a lot of high-profile players to the World Baseball Classic.

      And first baseman Miguel Cabrera came out of the WBC with a sore back, not returning to the lineup until March 26.

      Detroit exercised an option on closer Francisco Rodriguez's contract as it waits for either Bruce Rondon, whose velocity was down in the spring, or Joe Jimenez, who will open the season in the minors, to show closer capabilities.

      Ausmus will continue to deal with the worst baserunning team in baseball and a station-to-station offense that has base-cloggers Cabrera and Victor Martinez as its 3-4 hitters.

      Any lineup featuring those two plus Castellanos, Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez (when he returns) as its top six is going to score runs, though.

      Upton has had a big spring and looks ready to build on the strong last two months he had in his first year with the Tigers. Castellanos, probable to replace Maybin as the second-place hitter, appears to have matured into a prime-time bat.

      There are questions in the bullpen but for the first time in recent seasons Detroit may have options in the minors who could be ready before June.

      "We have a really good baseball team," general manager Al Avila said. "I don't know why people keep saying it's an old club. Yeah, every year we are getting older but J.D. Martinez in right field and Justin Upton in left (both turn 30 in August) are in the prime of their career. If you are 29, that's when you should be at your peak and both are at that point.

      "Then you look at the older guys, Kinsler and Cabrera, and look how they produced -- not like washed-ups. They continue to produce like they are in their prime."

      Detroit hopes the fact Cleveland has overshadowed it will be a plus for the Tigers, who got mauled by a 14-4 margin by the Indians in 2016.

      "I've never walked into a spring-training locker room and not felt we had a chance to win it," Verlander said. "I don't know if anybody else who has been in the game as long as I have can say that. Pretty special."

  • Loney released by Rangers
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    Veteran first baseman James Loney was released by the Texas Rangers on Monday.

    • Loney, who was competing for the backup first baseman job behind Mike Napoli, batted .174 during spring training.

      The 32-year-old signed a minor-league contract with Texas in January, but the team signed Napoli a month later.

      Last year, Loney batted .265 in 366 plate appearances for the New York Mets. Loney spent his first seven seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who traded him to the Boston Red Sox in 2012. He spent the next three seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays before joining the Mets.

      In 1,443 regular season games, Loney has a .284 batting average with 108 home runs and 669 RBIs.

  • MLB roundup: Scherzer looks sharp against Mets
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    Max Scherzer looked ready for the start of the season, going five scoreless innings and fanning seven as the Washington Nationals blanked a split New York Mets squad 6-0 on Monday in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Bryce Harper belted a two-run homer and a solo shot while Trea Turner cracked two solo homers. Tim Tebow started in left field for the Mets and went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.

    • Red Sox 11, Orioles 9

      Sandy Leon homered twice, including a grand slam, in a nine-run fifth inning as Boston outscored Baltimore in Sarasota, Fla. Steve Selsky also homered for the Red Sox and Mitch Moreland was 2-for-3 with two RBIs. Cedric Mullins and Johnny Giavotella belted homers for the Orioles and Mark Trumbo was 3-for-4 with a run.

      Mets (ss) 5, Marlins 0

      T.J. Rivera's three-run homer capped a five-run sixth that lifted a New York split squad to a win over Miami in Jupiter, Fla. Zack Wheeler tossed five shutout innings for New York, giving up just two hits and fanning three. Tom Koehler whiffed seven in 5 2/3 innings and didn't allow an earned run for the Marlins.

      Giants 14, Reds 2

      Madison Bumgarner fanned nine in seven innings as San Francisco routed Cincinnati in Scottsdale, Ariz. Jae-Gyun Hwang belted his fifth homer of the spring for the Giants and Gorkys Hernandez went 3-for-5 with two runs and an RBI. Stuart Turner cracked a solo shot for the Reds.

      Royals 10, Athletics 3

      Jason Vargas pitched seven solid innings and got four homers of support from the Kansas City offense in its win over Oakland in Scottsdale, Ariz. Mike Moustakas, Paolo Orlando, Brandon Moss and Alcides Escobar each went deep for the Royals. Matt Chapman slugged a solo shot for the Athletics.

      White Sox 5, Dodgers 2

      Melky Cabrera, Yolmer Sanchez and Todd Frazier each cracked homers as Chicago subdued Los Angeles in Glendale, Ariz. Yasmani Grandal stroked a two-run single in the first inning for the Dodgers, who were shut down after that by Derek Holland. He scattered five hits in six innings, getting the win over Hyun-Jin Ryu.

      Angels 4, Diamondbacks 2

      Jesse Chavez breezed through six shutout innings for Los Angeles, giving up three hits and fanning three in a win over Arizona. Albert Pujols paced the Angels' offense, going 2-for-4 with a double and two RBIs, and Shelby Miller lasted 4 1/3 innings for the Diamondbacks, fanning four.

      Rangers 6, Rockies 5

      Mike Napoli homered and doubled as Texas held off Colorado in Surprise, Ariz. Robinzon Chirinos added three hits, including two doubles, for the Ranger. Delino DeShields and Jurickson Profar also contributed two hits each. Alexi Amarista homered and went 2-for-4 for the Rockies.

      Padres 12, Mariners 2

      Wil Myers and Ryan Schimpf each clouted two-run homers off Yovani Gallardo in the first inning as San Diego routed Seattle in Peoria, Ariz. Jabari Blash cracked his seventh homer of the spring for the Padres and Luis Sardinas also homered. Tuffy Gosewisch belted a solo shot for the Mariners.

      Pirates 4, Twins 1

      Adam Frazier and Andrew McCutchen each homered in a three-run first inning as Pittsburgh dumped Minnesota in Bradenton, Fla. Ivan Nova fanned six in four innings in earning the win for the Pirates. Miguel Sano touched him for a solo shot in the second. Phil Hughes lasted six innings for the Twins, allowing six hits and four runs.

      Braves 11, Tigers 3

      Freddie Freeman was 3-for-4 with three RBIs as Atlanta banged out 19 hits in a rout of Detroit in Orlando, Fla. Dansby Swanson was 3-for-3 with three runs, and Tyler Flowers added three hits and two RBIs. Daniel Norris was the unlucky recipient of the Braves' all-out assault, giving up 13 hits and nine runs in three-plus innings.

      Cardinals 3, Astros 2

      Carlos Martinez tuned up for his first Opening Night start by going five innings in St. Louis' win over Houston in West Palm Beach, Fla. Martinez also knocked in the eventual winning run after Kolten Wong tripled in the second to tie the score at 2. Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann drove in runs for the Astros.

      Phillies 7, Blue Jays 1

      Tommy Joseph went 4-for-5 with a two-run homer as Philadelphia dusted Toronto in Dunedin, Fla. Freddy Galvis added two hits and two RBIs for the Phillies. Vincent Velasquez got the win with five innings of work, striking out seven. Russell Martin drove in the Blue Jays' only run with a solo homer.

      Indians 4, Cubs 3

      Willson Contreras hit two solo homers, but it wasn't enough for Chicago in a loss to Cleveland at Goodyear, Ariz. Abraham Almonte homered for the Indians, who got 5 2/3 innings of two-run ball from Danny Salazar. Cubs starter Jon Lester gave up four runs in six innings.

  • Dodgers LHP Kazmir to open season on DL
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    Left-hander Scott Kazmir will start the season on the disabled list, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Monday.

    • Roberts also said shortstop Corey Seager will remain in Arizona through Friday to work on his swing after recovering from a strained oblique.

      Kazmir, 33, will go on the disabled list with an unspecified left hip injury. He averaged just 84 mph and topped out at 87 mph against the Texas Rangers on Sunday in his first start in three weeks.

      Kazmir missed most of the last two months of the 2016 season with back and neck issues. He finished the season with a 10-6 record and 4.56 ERA in 26 starts.

      "As far as the potential disabled list, it's looking like he'll start the season on the DL," Roberts said. "I told him we've got to figure this out. It's not his arm, but we've got to get to the bottom of it. It's something with the hip. We just can't understand why there's just no velocity. Don't know if it's a strength thing or what."

      Seager, 33, will miss the first two games of the Freeway Series in Anaheim against the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday and Friday to get more at-bats in minor league games.

      Seager will rejoin the team on Saturday for the final Freeway Series game at Dodger Stadium.

      Seager, who hit .308 with 26 home runs and 72 RBIs in 157 games last season, is expected to be ready to play on Opening Day next Monday against the San Diego Padres.

      "Corey's healthy and it's just ramping up the at-bats," Roberts told reporters from spring training in Phoenix. "We want him to feel comfortable in the batter's box. Tomorrow he'll be off, Wednesday he'll log four to five or six (innings). I would expect him to miss the two games in Anaheim. For me, realistically, he'll be back for the last game at Dodger Stadium."

  • Reds season preview: Time to speed up rebuilding
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    CINCINNATI -- How much longer?

    • That's the question on the minds of many Cincinnati Reds fans going into the 2017 season. While most pundits agree the Reds still are a year or two away from being reasonably close to wrapping up their rebuilding process, there are a few pieces of the puzzle that should fit better this summer.

      For one thing, the everyday lineup is pretty much set now that the club dealt Brandon Phillips to the Atlanta Braves and handed the second base job to talented prospect Jose Peraza. It's still possible that shortstop Zack Cozart could be traded, which would open up the position for 23-year old Dilson Herrera. There is not much suspense left in the batting order.

      Center fielder Billy Hamilton is coming off a breakout year offensively. Left fielder Adam Duvall was a National League All-Star who hit 33 home runs and drove in 103 runs in his first full season in Cincinnati. And, Joey Votto was, well, Joey Votto, hitting .408 after the All-Star break.

      The Reds' rebuild focuses mostly on young pitching, and if you trust the scouting reports, they have an abundance of quality arms.

      Over the past two seasons, rookies started 166 of 324 games for Cincinnati, including a club-record 110 in 2015. And, there are several young arms that could crack the rotation this season, including left-handers Amir Garrett and Cody Reed, who's coming off a rough major league debut last year but had a strong spring.

      Heading into the final week of spring training, as many as seven pitchers were vying for three spots in the rotation, a testament to the Reds' pitching depth and how they performed in the spring.

      "I'm not looking at 2017 to be a replay of 2016, because we say it's a rebuild," manager Bryan Price told MLB.com. "I'm looking for 2017 to be a significant improvement over 2016. In order to do that, you have to have pitching depth in the rotation and bullpen. I think we've satisfied some of those issues we had last year. Now we have to stay healthy."

      That's been an issue. Cincinnati's retooling process might be further along if it hadn't been for injuries. In the past three seasons, 36 different players have made 57 separate appearances on the disabled list. That streak of bad luck will extend into this season.

      Right-hander Homer Bailey, who signed a six-year, $105 million contract in 2014, will begin the year on the DL again after undergoing forearm and elbow surgeries last year. Raisel Iglesias who could be the club's future closer, came down with back issues and a sore elbow late in spring training. Anthony DeSclafani, the projected Opening Day starter, will begin the season on the DL and catcher Devin Mesoraco is being brought along slowly after hip and shoulder injuries limited him to just 16 games in 2016.

      Due to injuries, 34-year old veteran right-hander Scott Feldman will get the start on Opening Day, a move more out of necessity than one intended to be part of the grand plan. That said, Feldman has made two prior Opening Day starts: in 2010 for Texas and 2014 for Houston.

      "His experience and the way he commands the strike zone, I think really makes him the best candidate," Price told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "He's exactly the guy we were looking for and targeted -- a veteran guy with presence that commands the zone and has a veteran savvy that will serve us well. That will work well in an Opening Day environment."

      If the pitching holds up and the club can get healthy, the Reds could surprise some folks by improving on last year's 94-loss performance. It won't be easy.

      Perhaps the biggest obstacle confronting Cincinnati in its quest for contention is the NL Central itself. The defending world champion Chicago Cubs have a core of young players locked up for the foreseeable future. The St. Louis Cardinals are perennial contenders.

      The Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers are trying to beat Cincinnati to the finish line with rebuilds of their own, but the Reds still have 19 games each against the Cubs and the rival Cardinals. Not an easy task.

      Price and the entire coaching staff were brought back for 2017, but beyond that is anyone's guess. Dick Williams, who assumed the general manager's chair in taking over for Walt Jocketty, will want to see improvement in his first season at the helm.

      "The last couple of years, we were preaching that we would have to make tough decisions, trade players, restock the system," Williams told MLB.com. "I think people are starting to see the fruits of that labor. We're starting to get some of these exciting young players opportunities. This year, we'll learn about what those guys can do."

  • Pirates season preview: McCutchen switch, Kang status keys
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    There were a few surprises in training camp for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the biggest ones came before it started.

    • Andrew McCutchen was not traded and moved from center field to right after a subpar season, and Pittsburgh was able to re-sign right-hander Ivan Nova to remain an important part of the starting rotation.

      Still, there are a lot of questions surrounding a club that missed the postseason last year after a three-year run of playoff appearances and plays in the National League Central Division with the defending Worlds Series champion Chicago Cubs and perennially strong St. Louis Cardinals.

      The most impactful news in March for the Pirates was the status of third baseman and power hitter Jung Ho Kang, who remained in South Korea and on the restricted list after a DUI arrest. It was unclear when or even if Kang would join the Pirates.

      David Freese looks to inherit third base with Kang missing. Freese is part of a movement in which manager Clint Hurdle is keen on having a lot of interchangeable parts. That is, bench players and even some starting fielders who can plug in at different spots.

      Opening Day starter Gerrit Cole, 26, was slowed by three injuries last year but will be counted on to serve as the staff ace. Nova and Jameson Taillon have locked down spots in the rotation. Chad Kuhl has a strong inside track on the No. 4 spot.

      The fifth spot, however, is up for grabs, and going into the final week of spring no one had jumped way out in front. Tyler Glasnow seemed to be coming on, but he still needed to beat out Steven Brault, Drew Hutchison and Trevor Williams. It's entirely possible that competition will bleed into the season.

      "Everybody had an opportunity to go create separation, and that hasn't really happened in my mind," Hurdle said. "They've all competed. We have our own thoughts and our own measurements that we'll use. The good part is we've got depth, and they know it."

      The bullpen returns fairly intact but Tony Watson, who inherited the closer role after stalwart Mark Melancon was traded last season, had a rough spring.

      The outfield could be more than solid after the big switcheroo, which was made to get Starling Marte's substantial skill and arm into center fielder, where former NL MVP McCutchen regressed last season. Gregory Polanco moves from right to left.

      "We went through the process as thoroughly and as respectfully as we could," Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington told mlb.com. "(McCutchen) wants to stay in center field, and he believes he's a center fielder, but again, I can't say this enough: Without Starling Marte, this is not a move we make."

  • A's season preview: Little change from 93-loss club
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    The Athletics have a new slogan this season: "Rooted in Oakland."

    • Note the absence of the letter "u" -- as in "Routed in Oakland."

      That would be last year's mantra.

      Actually, the A's were pretty much routed everywhere last season. They lost 93 games, just the second time in the past 19 years the fell more than 88 times -- topped only by the 94 defeats they took in 2015.

      They fielded sloppily (third worst in the American League), pitched poorly (second worst) and hit worst of all (dead last) last season.

      And how did they respond? By jettisoning their most potent hitter, Danny Valencia, to the Seattle Mariners for -- you guessed it -- a minor league prospect.

      In fact, you might actually recognize the A's this season, which often isn't the case on Opening Day.

      However, for a team coming off a 93-loss season, familiarity is not necessarily a good thing.

      The projected rotation of Kendall Graveman, Sean Manaea, Jharel Cotton, Andrew Triggs and Raul Alcantara did a majority of the pitching before tens of thousands of empty seats in meaningless August and September games at the Coliseum last season.

      And the most recognizable A's pitcher of all, ace Sonny Gray, returns ... well, when his lat strain will allow.

      Meanwhile, a majority of the batting order -- Stephen Vogt, Ryon Healy, Khris Davis, Marcus Semien and Yonder Alonso -- won't need an introduction to A's fans this season, either.

      So, a last-place team is banking its improvement on a glorified DH/pinch hitter in right field (Matt Joyce), a one-hit World Series wonder (Rajai Davis), a third baseman no longer good enough to play for the Minnesota Twins (Trevor Plouffe) and a banished relief pitcher from across the San Francisco Bay (Santiago Casilla).

      Things are so bleak in Oakland this spring, manager Bob Melvin admitted during camp that the club's primary goal this season was to escape last place.

      With Gray already hurt, Valencia gone and arguably the worst defense in baseball, that is mighty pie-in-the-sky stuff.

  • Angels season preview: Bounce-back anticipated
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    An enterprising screenwriter could find abundant material for an old-fashioned soap opera by studying the Los Angeles Angels' past three seasons.

    • Act One found the Angels compiling the major league's best record in 2014, only to be swept in the American League Division Series by the eventual World Series winners, the Kansas City Royals.

      In Act Two, the club recovered from the unceremonious dismissal of outfielder Josh Hamilton before the 2015 season because of a drug and alcohol relapse, the midseason firing of general manager Jerry Dipoto and a summer collapse to miss a playoff spot by one game.

      The drama intensified in Act Three, with season-ending injuries claiming five starting pitchers and two closers before the Angels won nine of their final 11 games last year to avoid finishing last in the AL West.

      However, the upcoming episode of As The Halo Turns promises to be the most intriguing yet.

      General manager Billy Eppler navigated owner Arte Moreno's financial restrictions during the offseason to fill significant holes without relinquishing significant talent. Eppler acquired outfielders Cameron Maybin and Ben Revere, second baseman Danny Espinosa, catcher Martin Maldonado and infielder Luis Valbuena while collecting pitchers off waivers.

      Maybin will become the 20th Angel to start in left field since Opening Day 2015, with Revere in reserve. Espinosa replaces the dedicated, yet overmatched, Johnny Giavotella. Maldonado brings a reputation as a superior pitch-framer. Valbuena provides missing left-handed power.

      Fangraphs.com was so impressed that it projected the Angels as a wild-card contender. Eppler agreed.

      "We have the potential to be in the playoffs," he told the Los Angeles Times.

      Eppler explained the rationale for his acquisitions.

      "In a perfect world, you have elite defense up the middle," he told Fangraphs.com. "I think everybody has noticed that the position players who have walked in the door have all been solid average, or better, defensively. That's something that is important to us."

      Espinoza and Maldonado join center fielder Mike Trout and shortstop Andrelton Simmons up the middle. Complementing Trout and Simmons on offense are designated hitter Albert Pujols, right fielder Kole Calhoun and third baseman Yunel Escobar.

      But one plot complication already has developed. Valbuena, projected to be the starting first baseman, will be out four to six weeks with a strained right hamstring. Valbuena had season-ending surgery on that muscle last August.

      Nevertheless, for Eppler's view of the club's potential to become reality, the Angels must get solid pitching.

      Indications from the starters this spring appear positive. Right-handers Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker are impressing after recovering from serious injuries. Richards relied on injections of stem cells and platelet-rich plasma to avoid Tommy John surgery. Shoemaker sustained a fractured skull and cranial bleeding after a batted ball hit him in the head in September, but he has been dominant in spring training.

      However, the bullpen remains a work in progress, especially after closer Huston Street strained his back March 3. Right-handers Cam Bedrosian and Andrew Bailey are competing to fill Street's role, while competition elsewhere remains wide open.

  • Astros season preview: Key newcomers join young nucleus
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    Before the Astros stepped foot in their new spring training facility at West Palm Beach, Fla., virtually all the decisions regarding their 25-man roster were made, rendering the notion of Grapefruit League competition futile.

    • There were evaluations set to impact the fringes of the roster, but the series of offseason maneuvers executed by general manager Jeff Luhnow essentially eliminated the need for manager A.J. Hinch to stringently analyze every player in his clubhouse. The Astros knew what they were before they arrived by design.

      "This is what a team that's going into the season that's profiled to be good, that has a lot of depth, is supposed to feel like," Hinch said. "It should be hard to crack our team."

      The additions of Nori Aoki, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick put Hinch in position to construct his batting order and defensive alignment before the club went through the paces of actually preparing for the season. The protracted, painful rebuild to contention manifested in a postseason appearance in 2015, and after a small regression last season, the Astros have made the leap to championship contender. They did so by blending the aforementioned veterans with their core of young stars who are in the throes of individual ascension.

      By letting free agents Jason Castro (Minnesota Twins), Colby Rasmus (Tampa Bay Rays) and Luis Valbuena (Los Angeles Angels) walk, the Astros showed that what they acquired instead is sufficient, and that they are eager to approach the next organizational hurdle.

      "We're going to miss the free agents that we lost, but we responded by bringing in some guys that have done some things in this game," Hinch said. "Reddick has played a lot of playoff games (21). McCann has played in some huge markets (Atlanta and New York) in some really big games. Aoki has played in the World Series (with the Royals). You can't substitute that type of experience easily."

      The Astros remain defined by their core of standout position players: second baseman Jose Altuve, center fielder George Springer and shortstop Carlos Correa. Third baseman Alex Bregman appears set to join that mix. Add Evan Gattis and Yulieski Gurriel to the fray, and Houston comes equipped with a dangerous lineup.

      The rotation isn't as intimidating. The Astros need ace left-hander Dallas Keuchel and promising right-hander Lance McCullers to rebound from injuries. The team toyed with pursuing an ace in the offseason, but offers for Rays right-hander Chris Archer and Chicago White Sox lefty Jose Quintana were ineffective. The Astros have enough talent in the minors to muster another pursuit of a frontline starter at the trade deadline should things not play out according to plan.

      That was by design, too. The team payroll is just shy of $120 million this season, the highest it has been since Luhnow arrived prior to the 2012 season. However, the Astros still have the chips necessary to acquire more veteran talent should they need it, and that is a direct reflection of how well Luhnow has managed his duties.

      "The fact that we were able to make the investments in the free agents and through the trades without giving up a lot of our farm system is a position that a lot of general managers wish they could be in, but because we started with relatively low payroll and (are) increasing every year, we've had the luxury of being able to follow that approach," Luhnow said.

      "It can't go on indefinitely. At some point, we're going to have to essentially rely on other resources to acquire players. But right now, we're in a good spot."

  • Dodgers season preview: Loaded, but ailing, roster
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    Spring training, a time associated with hopeful optimism, began with ominous familiarity for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    • The team that set a major league record by putting 28 players on the disabled list last year watched injuries interrupt several key contributors' development.

      Right-handers Pedro Baez, Josh Ravin and Sergio Romo dealt with thumb, groin and back injuries, respectively. A tight left hip deprived left-hander Scott Kazmir of velocity. Outfielder Trayce Thompson missed the first 10 days while recovering from back surgery.

      Shortstop Corey Seager, the National League Rookie of the Year last season, returned after missing three weeks because of a strained oblique muscle, and he expects to be ready Opening Day. Outfielder Andre Ethier, however, will join Ravin on the disabled list with his second major spring training injury in two years, a herniated disc.

      Last year, Ethier broke his right leg by fouling a ball off his shin, and he played just 16 games.

      "I've been stuck in spring training for 18 months now," Ethier told the Orange County Register. "It feels like 'Groundhog Day' all over again."

      Yet Ethier's allusion to the comedic movie bodes well for the Dodgers.

      Despite the numerous injuries last year, Los Angeles won its fourth successive National League West championship. Despite the Dodgers' physical problems so far, they should contend for a fifth.

      Seager, left-hander Clayton Kershaw, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, third baseman Justin Turner, catcher Yasmani Grandal and closer Kenley Jansen lead a talented, deep squad. Supplementing that foundation is second baseman Logan Forsythe, who replaces Chase Utley at the position and as the leadoff hitter. Forsythe, the Dodgers' only major offseason acquisition, batted .264 with 24 doubles and a .333 on-base percentage for the Tampa Bay Rays last year.

      Andrew Toles exemplifies the Dodgers' depth. Expected to be part of a platoon in left field, Toles laid outright claim to the position this spring by batting .340 and not making an error in the field through Sunday. The 24-year-old continued his success from last year, when he played at three minor league levels and hit .314 in 48 games for the Dodgers after being promoted from Triple-A Oklahoma City.

      "He's having a really good camp," manager Dave Roberts told the team's website. "For him, the at-bat quality continues to be there. He's a really good athlete, he's dynamic, and he does a lot of things to help you win a baseball game."

      Los Angeles also could receive help for the rotation from left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, who pitched just one game in the previous two seasons because of shoulder, elbow and leg injuries. In three outings through the weekend, Ryu conceded only five hits, one run and one walk in nine innings while striking out eight and holding opponents to a .167 average.

      However, outfielder Yasiel Puig continues to pose the biggest question: Can a player whom Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully nicknamed "the Wild Horse" harness his talent? A revelation in his first two seasons, Puig's performance and attitude deteriorated so much that the Dodgers tried to trade their former All-Star before optioning him to Oklahoma City in August.

      This spring, Puig had three home runs but a .233 average through Sunday. The Dodgers scratched him from the Friday game against the Arizona Diamondbacks so he could work on his swing.

      Roberts emphasized Puig's talent while issuing an iron challenge delivered in velvet.

      "If Yasiel is going to get 600 at-bats, then the Dodgers are in a pretty good place," Roberts told the Los Angeles Times. "With the skill set of Yasiel, if he's performing and warrants being out there every night, then we're in a good place."

  • Mariners season preview: Vets provide spring stability
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    Unlike recent years, when the Mariners spent a good part of spring training auditioning young players and trying to find the right mix, the 2017 spring provided very few answers. This year's veteran-laden team will answer most of its biggest question marks as the season wears on.

    • Will Felix Hernandez get back to being a Cy Young contender? Will Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano continue to produce as age takes its toll? Is Yovani Gallardo ready to bounce back from the worst season of his career? Is Jarrod Dyson the answer in the leadoff spot?

      They are all legitimate questions, and only time will tell whether Seattle's most important conundrums will lead to success on the field.

      What Seattle did learn from spring training was that two of its youngest cornerstones -- first baseman Daniel Vogelbach and outfielder Mitch Haniger -- are on different timelines. Haniger was one of the hitting stars of the spring, while Vogelbach struggled enough that he was sent to Triple-A.

      "(Vogelbach) put in a lot of work," general manager Jerry Dipoto said, "but as we get closer to Opening Day, it became apparent we weren't seeing a product that is finished enough to feel great about starting the season."

      It was a markedly question-free spring, which says a lot about where this franchise is. Dipoto worked the phones all winter to make a series of under-the-radar trades that helped shore up the bullpen, add some veteran presence to the rotation and give the lineup a jolt of speed. The Mariners are expecting to play a different brand of baseball, thanks to the additions of Haniger and leadoff hitter Jarrod Dyson, but the offense is still going to revolve around Cano, Cruz and third baseman Kyle Seager.

      Cano and Cruz spent a good part of the spring playing at the World Baseball Classic, and the goal for them this spring was a clean bill of health. Seattle got that, so now the question is whether Cano (34) and Cruz (36) are still in their prime and capable of playing at an elite level for the entire season.

      "Obviously, they're a huge part of our team -- our offensive club, our leadership and all that stuff," manager Scott Servais said this spring.

      Hernandez has done what he can to answer all the questions that swirled after a frustrating 2016 season, but his solid spring won't matter if he can't get off to a good start when the real games begin. Hernandez is part of a leaky rotation that could easily fall apart if brittle starters such as Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton don't hold up.

      Year 2 of the Servais era brings fewer question marks, and the biggest ones involve the players with the best track records. On paper, there is plenty to like about this year's Mariners.

  • Diamondbacks season preview: Pitching, defense emphasized
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    PHOENIX -- It was all about pitching when the Arizona Diamondbacks acquired right-handers Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller before the 2016 season, and it was all about pitching when the team faltered.

    • Some of the starting pitching concerns have been assuaged by performances this spring, although the entire staff will have to take a step forward if the team is to be a contender in the rugged NL West after posting the highest ERA in the majors last year.

      Miller and left-hander Patrick Corbin look to be returning to form, and new right-hander Taijuan Walker is showing signs that he might be ready to become a season-long rotation contributor, a step left-hander Robbie Ray took a year ago. Greinke's velocity was a touch under his normal early in the spring, but that seemed a minor issue for a veteran who uses spring training to round into form.

      The D-backs' 2016 struggles led to a front-office overhaul over the winter, and new general manager Mike Hazen and manager Torey Lovullo are doing things a little differently, with more of an emphasis on an analytics.

      "There is an overall excitement," Lovullo said. "We want to start a new business and see how it runs. The track record speaks for itself. Mike Hazen comes from a winning organization (in Boston)."

      Second baseman Jean Segura was traded to Seattle for Walker, and power-hitting catcher Welington Castillo was permitted to leave via free agency as the D-backs turned their focus to the pitch-framing side of that position.

      Segura was the only NL player with 200 hits a year ago, and Castillo set career highs in homers in 2015 and RBIs in 2016, so will be interesting to see if those losses can be offset by the return of center fielder A.J. Pollock and the position switch by Brandon Drury, who will replace Segura at second.

      Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Lamb, Yasmany Tomas and a healthy Pollock -- he fractured his right elbow last spring and played only 12 games -- are a good starting point. Advanced metrics graded Pollock as the best center fielder in the NL in 2015, and his absence was crushing. He nursed a groin injury this spring, but it was not serious.

      Drury had a strong rookie season when playing out of position in the corner outfield spots, and one major league talent evaluator has compared him to Jeff Kent at second. Right fielder David Peralta has played well this spring, his 2016 injuries a thing of the past.

      Hazen's offseason objectives were to improve the bullpen and the defense, and veterans Fernando Rodney and non-roster invitees Tom Wilhelmsen and J.J. Hoover have pitched well this spring, Rodney while with the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. Defense was addressed when Drury was moved to second and the decided to go glove-first behind the plate.

      "I want these guys to be able to tell a really good story at the end of the year, and what that story is we're not sure," Lovullo said. "To be competitive means to focus, to be mentally tough and earn everything they get on the field. That's my expectation."

  • Rockies season preview: Expectations are elevated
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    The Colorado Rockies are a talented team that now must turn into a good team, general manager Jeff Bridich said. It is a realistic expectation, as new manager Bud Black is taking over a club on the rise.

    • Black's hiring was the most notable move of an offseason that included three key free agent signings. The Rockies gave Ian Desmond a five-year, $70 million contract -- the largest they have ever handed a free agent position player -- with the intent of having him play first base, a position he has never played in his 1,083 career games.

      The Rockies also took steps to shore up their dreadful bullpen.

      They signed left-hander Mike Dunn to a three-year, $19 million contract -- the largest the Rockies have ever given a reliever. Colorado also signed Greg Holland, who didn't pitch last year while recovering from Tommy John surgery but whom the Rockies believe can regain his status as an elite closer. Colorado guaranteed him $7 million in a deal that includes a 2018 option.

      The Rockies enter their 25th season against a backdrop of uninspiring franchise history. Although they improved by seven wins to 75 last season, they have endured a franchise-record-tying six straight losing seasons.

      Colorado has made the postseason three times, always as a wild card, and is the only National League West club never to win the division. The Rockies also have experienced just seven winning seasons, three coming in the first five years of the franchise's existence.

      Black is the team's seventh manager and the first former pitcher. He says he looks at the game through a pitcher's eyes, which can only help the Rockies, given the pitching perils inherent in Coors Field and the fact they will have a young rotation.

      The Rockies went to spring training with four starters set and several prospects vying for the fifth spot. Chad Bettis was expected to be an anchor in the rotation, its oldest member at 27 and the team leader last year in wins (14) and innings (186). But Bettis has begun chemotherapy after a recurrence of testicular cancer. There is no timetable for his return, but he will miss at least half the season.

      In his absence, Jon Gray, 25; left-hander Tyler Anderson, 27; and Tyler Chatwood, 27; will start in a rotation where left-hander Kyle Freeland, German Marquez and Antonio Senzatela and to a lesser degree left-hander Harrison Musgrave are competing for the final two spots. Marquez pitched for the Rockies in September; the other three await their major league debuts. They have impressed Black with their talent, which he knows is fine up to a point.

      "The only thing we have to be cautious about is that it takes time for these guys to really become major league pitchers," Black said. "It happens fast for some guys, but for most it takes longer."

      The success of their rotation will go a long way toward determining whether the Rockies can make the sizeable leap needed to contend for the postseason.

      The Rockies had to deal with injuries in spring training. They will be without Desmond (broken left hand), outfielder David Dahl (rib, stress reaction) and catcher Tom Murphy (broken right forearm) for a portion of April. Left-hander Chris Rusin (right oblique strain) isn't expected to be ready on Opening Day but should return soon thereafter.

      Dahl, who was slated to start in left field after making his major league debut in late July and hitting .315 with an .859 OPS in 63 games, summed up his idle spring with an outlook the Rockies share when they contemplate the returns of him, Desmond, Murphy and Rusin before too long.

      "It's tough to sit, for sure," Dahl said, "but I suppose it's better for it to happen now instead of at midseason."

  • Rangers season preview: Expectations are high
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    The Texas Rangers didn't open spring training as the team expected to win the American League West for a third straight year. No, despite the Rangers' pedigree, that honor goes to the Houston Astros or the Seattle Mariners.

    • However, the Rangers got out of spring training exactly what they wanted. With the exception of a sore right biceps to expected starter Andrew Cashner, a deep Texas team will open the season healthy and with what it thinks is enough depth to win the West again.

      "It's been a unique spring, with the (World Baseball Classic) and a handful of smaller injuries keeping us from seeing everyone on the field together," Texas general manager Jon Daniels said. "That makes for a little bit of a challenge in evaluating the club, as well as giving the group time to play as a unit. That said, we feel our roster is strong. The division is going to be very competitive -- every club has a case to be improved from last year. It's going to be a fun season. We've got high expectations of ourselves."

      Those expectations are helped by the fact the Rangers have arguably the best front three of any rotation in the West. Yu Darvish, who is a free agent after the season, will make his first Opening Day start in his free-agent season. Veteran Cole Hamels is also healthy and lefty Martin Perez is primed for a breakout season after winning 10 games last season and making a career-high 33 starts.

      As good as the top of the rotation is, the Rangers need Cashner and Tyson Ross to help soon. Cashner, who signed a one-year deal, could join the rotation in mid-April. Ross made just one start for San Diego last year before going down with a shoulder injury. He had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome and the club hopes he can make an impact in May.

      While there may be concerns about the rotation, there are none about a bullpen filled with power arms and a deep lineup. Right-hander Sam Dyson starred in the World Baseball Classic and is coming off 38 saves in his first year as closer. There are power arms setting him up in righties Keone Kela and Matt Bush. The club could use more from the left side, with Alex Claudio the only proven commodity.

      The Rangers added to their offense by bringing back first baseman Mike Napoli for a third-straight year. He'll give Texas four players in the infield with 30-homer ability in Napoli, second baseman Rougned Odor, third baseman Adrian Beltre and catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

      Texas needs Shin-Soo Choo to stay healthy after he played in just 48 games last season. He will spend time at DH to try to stay healthy. Outfielder Nomar Mazara is poised for a breakout season after hitting 20 homers and driving in 64 as a 21-year-old rookie.

      The good thing for Texas in its bid to win the West once again is the depth it has. Jurickson Profar, Ryan Rua and Delino DeShields give the club options in the infield and outfield and all had huge springs. They just need their opportunity.

      Regardless, Daniels feels like his club once again will be in the mix.

      "There's very good balance on this team," he said. "No one unit has to carry it -- we've got a good catching tandem, a strong infield, and a number of athletic outfielders that each brings a little something different. And our pitching staff may be as talented as any we've had, top to bottom."

  • Padres season review: Team in transition
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    The San Diego Padres are in transition.

    • Changes started last season as they traded off such talent as outfielders Matt Kemp and Melvin Upton Jr. and pitchers Andrew Cashner, Drew Pomeranz and Fernando Rodney for prospects and then invested more than $80 million in the draft and the international signing period.

      The Padres added a ton of prospects, and their farm system improved measurably.

      However, the future is a ways away, even if three of their top position-playing prospects -- catcher Austin Hedges, right fielder Hunter Renfroe and center fielder Manuel Margot -- are arriving permanently this season.

      Most of their young pitching prospects -- led by 2016 first-round draft picks Cal Quantrill and Eric Lauer -- will be starting the season at high Class A and below. Some of them won't be making their professional debuts until later this summer when the Padres field two teams in the rookie-level Arizona League.

      Help is on the way, and the Padres are optimistic. They are hoping to contend in the deep and talented National League West by 2019.

      But 2017?

      The Padres have some plusses.

      First baseman Wil Myers stayed healthy in 2016 and had a break-out season (.259 with a .336 on-base percentage; 29 doubles, 28 homers, 28 steals, 94 RBIs and 99 runs scored). Infielder Yangervis Solarte overcame personal tragedy (his wife passed away to cancer last September) and hit .286 with 15 homers and 71 RBIs in 109 games. And infielder Ryan Schimpf hit 20 homers with a .336 on-base percentage in 89 games.

      The Padres will be counting heavily on rookie Renfroe and Hedges.

      But the starting rotation was patched together with free agent signees Jhoulys Chacin, Clayton Richard, Jered Weaver and Trevor Cahill. They will join right-hander Luis Perdomo, who was a Rule 5 rookie with the Padres in 2016.

      If the Padres take a lead into the late innings, they should be in great shape. The bullpen looks to be the strongest part of the team, particularly if Carter Capps has recovered from Tommy John surgery and is able to move into the closer's role.

      "I'm liking the way the bullpen is shaping up," manager Andy Green said. "Brandon Maurer, Brad Hand and Ryan Buchter all look like they're ready to pick up where they were at the end of last season. And Craig Stammen has had a great spring.

      Getting a lead to the bullpen could be problematic.

      The Padres could be doing some things this season that typically do not signal success.

      They have been experimenting with Christian Bethancourt as a hybrid catcher-pitcher-outfielder. They have talked about carrying three Rule 5 players -- right-handed reliever Miguel Diaz, catcher Luis Torrens and infielder Allen Cordoba. And they might carry four catchers -- Hedges, Bethancourt, Torrens and Hector Sanchez.

  • Giants season preview: Counting on Melancon
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, March 27, 2017

    The San Francisco Giants ended the 2016 season totally unconvinced they weren't a better team than the Chicago Cubs.

    • One player away, they almost unanimously agreed.

      And now they believe they have him: closer Mark Melancon.

      That explains, in a nutshell, why the Giants took a relatively low profile to the 2017 offseason. Unlike many teams, they don't believe the race is for second place in the National League this season.

      History tells us there's potentially some logic to the belief. Recent history, in fact.

      If it were Melancon strolling to the mound with a 5-2 lead last Oct. 11 in Game 4 of the NL Division Series, chances are All-Star Game starter Johnny Cueto would have been pitching two days later at Wrigley Field with a chance to eliminate the Cubs for a 108th straight year.

      Instead, five members of the shaky San Francisco bullpen blew a 5-2 lead as the Cubs rallied for a 6-5 win.

      Suffice it to say, the Giants would love to be in the same position this season. They brought back all of their key pieces -- making significant changes only in left field (where the loss of Angel Pagan isn't considered a big deal) and in the bullpen (where a younger group of setup relievers will attempt to set the stage for Melancon).

      Oh, there is one other significant change: the year.

      It is 2017, an odd-numbered year that just two seasons ago seemed to doom the Giants like a rigged roulette wheel before Madison Bumgarner even toed the slab on Opening Day.

      If there was a positive to the four-run blowup in the ninth inning of the NLDS last season, it was that the mystical numbers game of even-year championships/odd-year failures was put to rest. The Giants won it all in 2010, 2012 and 2014, and they missed the playoffs in 2011, 2013 and 2015.

      In 2017, the Giants actually have a chance to win it all. Don't think they don't know it.

  • MLB roundup: Ninth-inning homers lift Blue Jays
    By The Sports Xchange / Sunday, March 26, 2017

    Closer Francisco Rodriguez gave up bases-empty homers to Alex Monsalve and Christian Lopes in the ninth inning, and Toronto Blue Jays posted a 4-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Sunday in Lakeland, Fla. Toronto's Ryan McBroom hit his third homer of the spring in the seventh inning.

    • Nick Castellanos had his fourth homer and eighth double for the Tigers, and Jordan Zimmermann gave up two hits and one earned run in 5 1/3 innings in the most efficient of his five spring starts.

      Red Sox 7, Twins 2

      Chris Sale gave up six hits and struck out six in five scoreless innings, and Christian Vazquez, Andrew Benintendi and Steve Selsky homered for Boston at Fort Myers, Fla. Benintendi's homer was his third. Kyle Gibson gave up four hits and struck out four in six scoreless innings for the Twins, dropping his ERA to 1.59 in seven spring starts. Eddie Rosario, just back from the World Baseball Classic, had three hits.

      Astros 5, Nationals 1

      Jake Marisnick and Marwin Gonzalez homered, Jose Altuve stole two bases, and Joe Musgrove improved to 3-0 while dropping his ERA to 2.45 in six spring starts as Houston topped Washington in West Palm Beach, Fla. Bryce Harper drove in his 11th run with a sacrifice fly for the Nationals, and Gio Gonzalez gave up six hits and five runs in five innings.

      Cardinals 3, Marlins 0

      Mike Leake gave up seven hits, including six singles, and struck out two in six scoreless innings, and Yadier Molina and Dexter Fowler had two hits apiece, including bases-empty homers, as St. Louis topped Florida in Jupiter, Fla. Ichiro Suzuki had two of the Marlins' eight hits.

      Phillies 6, Pirates 3

      Maikel Franco hit his fifth homer of the spring and Andrew Knapp had his second in Philadelphia's five-run first inning off Pittsburgh's Josh Lindblom in Clearwater, Fla. Phillies starter Clay Buchholz gave up five hits, four walks and three earned runs in 3 1/3 innings. Pirates outfielder Jose Osuna continued his spring surge with a two-run double in the third inning. He is hitting .417 with 16 RBIs.

      Yankees 7, Rays 4

      Aaron Hicks hit his third homer of the spring and Ruben Tejada hit his first for New York in a win over Tampa Bay at Tampa, Fla. Bryan Mitchell, a candidate for one of two open spots in the Yankees' rotation, gave up six hits and three runs in three innings. Brad Miller had two singles and two RBIs for the Rays, and Mallex Smith had his fourth stolen base of the spring.

      Orioles 2, Blue Jays 1

      Third baseman Chris Johnson had two hits and an RBI, and Jayson Aquino gave up one run and struck out four in four innings during his first Grapefruit League start as Baltimore topped Toronto in Dunedin, Fla. Aquino previously made five spring relief appearances. Blue Jays lefty Francisco Liriano gave up two hits and one run and struck out seven in 4 2/3 innings.

      Mets 8, Braves 2

      Jose Reyes had three hits, including a triple, and Matt Harvey gave up two runs in six innings in his most effective start as New York beat Atlanta in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Yoenis Cespedes had a single and is hitting .395. Tyler Flowers and Emilio Bonifacio had two hits apiece for the Braves. Atlanta's Matt Wisler gave up eight hits and two runs in five innings during his second spring start.

      Indians 6, Diamondbacks 5

      Michael Brantley hit his first homer of the spring, and Chris Colabello hit his third in a five-run first inning off Robbie Ray, who gave up all six runs. Colabello had three hits and Yan Gomes added two.

      Arizona's David Peralta had two hits and his second homer, and Yasmany Tomas doubled in his first major league game since March 5, returning from an oblique injury. Trevor Bauer gave up three runs and seven hits while striking out eight in five innings.

      Rangers 3, Dodgers 2

      Cole Hamels gave up one run in five innings and Mike Napoli hit his second homer of the spring as Texas beat Los Angeles in Surprise, Ariz. Hamels gave up two hits and struck out two. Dodgers left-hander Scott Kazmir allowed three runs on three hits and five walks in three innings during his third spring start after missing time because of a hip injury. Kazmir appears to have fallen out of the running for a spot in the rotation.

      White Sox 4, Giants 3

      Melky Cabrera had two hits and James Shields gave up three runs in five innings for the White Sox, who scored two runs in the last of the ninth to walk off the Giants in Glendale, Ariz. Eduardo Nunez had a hit and two RBIs, and Ty Blach, a contender for the final rotation spot, gave up two runs in six innings.

      A's 11, Brewers 1

      Catcher Bruce Maxwell hit two homers and Jharel Cotton struck out seven and gave up one run in 5 2/3 innings as Oakland beat Milwaukee in Phoenix. Frankie Montas continued a strong spring with two scoreless innings in relief. Ryan Braun homered off Cotton for the Brewers' only run. Matt Garza gave up five runs and five hits in 2 1/3 innings.

      Cubs (ss) 22, Reds (ss) 4

      Albert Almora hit two homers and drove in five runs, and Anthony Rizzo led off the last of the first inning with his third homer of the spring in a split-squad game in Las Vegas. Rookie Bijan Rademacher had three hits, including a grand slam, after replacing Kyle Schwarber as a pinch runner in the first inning. Schwarber played the previous two games and was scheduled to have only one plate appearance.

      Mariners 7, Reds (ss) 6

      Rookie Tyler Motter hit his third homer of the spring and Mitch Hainger had his 10th double as Seattle beat Cincinnati in a split-squad game in Goodyear, Ariz. Mariners starter Drew Smyly gave up five runs and six hits in four innings. Jose Peraza led off the last of the first inning with his first spring homer, and Desmond Jennings and Reds right-hander Rookie Davis also homered off Smyly.

      Padres (ss) 9, Cubs (ss) 4

      Jabari Blash had three hits, including his sixth homer of the spring, and drove in four runs as San Diego topped Chicago in a split-squad game at Mesa, Ariz. Trevor Cahill gave up two hits and two unearned runs while striking out eight in five innings to earn the win. Javier Baez had a double and two RBIs for the Cubs.

      Royals 8, Angels 7

      Paulo Orlando, in contention for a starting spot in right field, hit his third homer and Brandon Moss hit his second off Los Angeles starter J.C. Ramirez as Kansas City won at Tempe, Ariz. Mike Trout had two hits and Albert Pujols drove in two runs for the Angels. Jason Hammel, named the Royals' No. 3 starter, gave up eight hits and seven runs in six innings.

      Rockies 4, Padres (ss) 1

      Tyler Chatwood gave up one run and struck out seven in six innings, and Nolan Arenado and Mark Reynolds homered for Colorado in a win over San Diego at Peoria, Ariz. Wil Myers had two of the Padres' seven hits. Jarred Cosart got only two outs, giving up three hits -- including Arenado's two-run homer -- and two walks before being pulled in the first inning.