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Adding Cole Hamels latest sign Braves mean business this offseason

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Give Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos credit for acting quickly and decisively in the offseason, while many of his peers wait out the market hoping for bargain-basement deals. A year ago, he signed Josh Donaldson in late November to a one-year contract while other top free agents didn’t sign until spring training had started. This year, Anthopoulos has now added free agent left-hander Cole Hamels on a one-year contract according to reports, in addition to earlier signing Giants closer Will Smith, re-signing reliever Chris Martin and signing Rays catcher Travis d’Arnaud.

It has been a sneakily active offseason for the Braves — and what could be a very effective one as they push for a third straight NL East title after winning 97 games in 2019. The free-agent game isn’t as simple as identifying potential targets and offering fair-market contracts. You have to close the deals. If you wait too long on one player, your backup plan may end up signing with another team. There’s a clear advantage to locking up the player you want as early as possible.

Hamels turns 36 in December, but he hasn’t lost all that much from his peak days with the Phillies, going 7-7 with a 3.81 ERA in 27 starts for the Cubs in 2019, missing a month with an oblique injury. His adjusted ERA+ of 117 isn’t far off him his career average of 123, so he still projects as a solid No. 2 or 3 starter — and, specifically for the Braves, a veteran lefty to help lead a young staff and replace free agent Dallas Keuchel in the rotation.

Hamels has lost a tick off his fastball, averaging 91.7 mph in 2019, but he had full command of the vintage Hamels changeup as batters hit just .170/.237/.270 against it. Opponents hammered his four-seam fastball to a 1.009 OPS, but the odd thing is he still threw it more often (36% of the time) than any season in the previous five years while throwing fewer two-seamers in the process. It will be interesting to see if a new pitching coach and new analytics staff tries to transition him into throwing more two-seamers and cutters.

The Braves needed to add a starting pitcher as they have to replace Keuchel and Julio Teheran — that’s 52 quality starts missing from the 2019 rotation that ranked seventh in the NL with a 4.20 ERA. While a lot of analysts and fans earmarked Madison Bumgarner as the veteran lefty who would go to the Braves since Bumgarner is from North Carolina, the Braves were never going to be in that game. Bumgarner may command a deal close to $100 million and the Braves ranked 27th in the majors in free-agent money committed in the 2010s. (The one big contract they gave was B.J. Upton for $72.25 million.) The franchise owners at Liberty Media simply don’t go after the big free agents, so getting Hamels on a one-year deal fits their priorities.

There’s hope the rest of the rotation can be a little better in 2020 as well, especially since Mike Foltynewicz found himself down the stretch (at least until that final game against the Cardinals) after dealing with shoulder issues in spring training and a stint in the minors. Mike Soroka had a 2.68 ERA as a 21-year-old rookie and Max Fried had a solid first year in the rotation with 17 wins and a 4.02 ERA. Options for the fifth spot include Sean Newcomb, Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright, or maybe another lower-cost veteran free agent.

Of course, there’s still a big hole in the lineup if Donaldson doesn’t return — and it’s going to take a multi-year deal to get him this time. He hit .259/.379/.521, played good defense, and while Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman received more attention and finished in the top-10 of the National League MVP voting, Donaldson was every bit their equal on the field, actually topping both in Baseball-Reference WAR.

The Braves do have a potential in-house replacement in Austin Riley, who moved to left field in the big leagues and started out mashing like Chipper Jones when he hit .324 and homered nine times in his first 18 games. Big league pitchers eventually exploited his aggressive approach, however, and he finished at .226/.269/.471, including a lowly .676 OPS against right-handed pitchers. There’s certainly big-time power potential there, but right now going from Donaldson to Riley at third projects as at least a four-win downgrade — the margin the Braves won the division by over the Nationals.

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Yu Darvish left with more questions in aftermath of Astros scandal

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CHICAGO — In the aftermath of the Astros‘ cheating scandal, Yu Darvish has been left wondering: Was he tipping pitches during the 2017 World Series or were Houston players stealing signs?

In the two-plus years since, the right-hander had thought it was the latter. He was rocked by the Astros that postseason while a member of the Dodgers, and Houston players afterward told him he was tipping pitches.

But now, after a Major League Baseball investigation found that the Astros illegally stole signs that year, Darvish isn’t so sure.

“That’s what I want to know,” he said Friday at the Chicago Cubs‘ winter fan convention.

“A couple of Astros players told me I was tipping pitches, but now it comes out they were stealing signs. Was I tipping or were they stealing?”

Such questions have mounted throughout baseball since MLB commissioner Rob Manfred unveiled the league’s report on the Astros on Monday.

For Darvish, it hit especially close to home.

While with the Dodgers, he had a combined 1.59 ERA in the 2017 NL division and championship series. But against Houston in the World Series, his ERA ballooned to 21.60. He gave up four runs in 1.2 innings in Game 3 in Houston, then got hit hard again in Game 7 in Los Angeles, taking the loss as the Astros captured their first World Series title.

It’s left Darvish with more questions than answers.

“I know they were stealing signs, but at the same time I was not good during the World Series,” he said.

His World Series struggles likely had long-term results, as well.

He was a free agent after that season, and the Cubs later admitted teams may been scared off by Darvish’s performance against the Astros, giving Chicago an easier path to signing him to a six-year, $126 million contract.

It also took Darvish time to mentally recover from the two losses. Coupled with arm issues that ended his 2018 season prematurely, it wasn’t exactly the best stretch of his career, and he’s still wondering if what Houston did contributed.

“I’m better for what I went through,” Darvish said. “But, yeah, everyone is wondering about pitching against them.

“It’s tough to pitch. We’re losing the strike zone. It’s getting smaller. They want [us] to [pitch] quicker. And the hitters are stealing signs.”

Cubs pitchers hope the playing field will be level after the league completes its investigations. MLB also is probing whether the Boston Red Sox used video to decode opponents’ sign sequences and passed the information to their players in 2018, as alleged in a report by The Athletic.

Cubs players echoed what many others in the game have said: The Astros aren’t the only ones cheating.

“You just don’t know to what extent,” right-hander Kyle Hendricks said. “Is it legal sign stealing or illegal? Hopefully this offseason will eliminate that stuff.”

Cubs president Theo Epstein praised the league’s beefed-up investigation arm for its due diligence in the scandal. Both Epstein and star first baseman Anthony Rizzo are adamant the Cubs have never gained an edge using technology in that manner.

The goal is for no team to be able to do it.

“We applaud Major League Baseball’s efforts to step up in this situation and make sure the games are played with integrity,” Epstein said.

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Red Sox CEO says no notable progress in search; fans back Jason Varitek

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CEO Sam Kennedy said the Boston Red Sox haven’t made any notable progress in the search for a new manager as of late Friday but would like to have one in place for the start of spring training in mid-February.

“It’s got to be someone who fits the culture of this team and has a knowledge of what it’s going to take to put a championship team on the field in 2020,” Kennedy said during the team’s winter festival Friday in Springfield, Massachusetts. “It’s a tall task to get someone in place, but Chaim (Bloom) and (Brian O’Halloran) will get it done for sure.”

If it was up to the fans, the answer would be easy: Jason Varitek.

Supporters in Springfield pleaded for Boston’s front office to hire the former catcher and team captain as a replacement to Alex Cora, whom the team parted way with Wednesday due to his involvement in a cheating scandal while bench coach for the Houston Astros in 2017.

Members of the team’s leadership group were hit with “Hire ‘Tek!” chants throughout Friday night, and principal owner John Henry was interrupted several times by fans voicing their support. Henry paused and nodded in acknowledgement, and Bloom, the team’s new chief baseball officer, used the opportunity to appease the crowd.

“I think if you poll the audience, they would just get this done right now,” Bloom said to big applause.

Fans also peppered retired Red Sox legends David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez with questions about the managerial vacancy during a separate panel.

Ortiz was asked if he would accept a managerial or front office job with the team but said that he wasn’t at a good point in his life to do so.

The 44-year-old former designated hitter is still recovering after being shot last June in what authorities called a case of mistaken identity in his native Dominican Republic.

“One day I will be (ready),” Ortiz said.

Martinez said that whoever the Red Sox settle on will be the right choice.

“I guarantee you whoever comes over to manage this great team that we have, it’s probably gonna be the closest to the perfect person that we could ever get,” Martinez said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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Astros owner Jim Crane expects to hire new manager by Feb. 3

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HOUSTON — Houston Astros owner Jim Crane expects to hire a new manager by Feb. 3.

The Astros need a new manager and general manager after AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow were fired Monday, hours after both were suspended by Major League Baseball for a year for the team’s sign-stealing scandal.

Crane said Friday that he’s interviewed a number of candidates this week and has some more to talk to in the coming days.

“We should have another good season with the team pretty much intact … so I don’t know why a manager wouldn’t want to come in and manage these guys. They’re set to win again,” he said.

Crane says his list is still pretty extensive and that he hopes to have it narrowed down by the end of next week. He added that he expects most of Hinch’s staff to stay in place regardless of who is hired.

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