CLEARWATER, Fla. — Jake Arrieta arrived at Philadelphia Phillies‘ camp on Tuesday morning with a new contract and a message for the National League: The team is ready to bump up its timetable to contend.
Arrieta, one of the top free agents on the market this offseason, waited until two weeks before Opening Day to finalize a guaranteed three-year, $75 million deal that could max out at five years and $135 million. In a news conference at Spectrum Field, he made it clear he thinks the Phillies’ are further along in their rebuild than public perception suggests.
“The fan base is hungry,” Arrieta said. “You see the Philadelphia Eagles win a Super Bowl, and it makes the other teams in the city that much hungrier to get to that level. I feel like we’re not far away. I think ‘rebuild’ is a loose term. A rebuild doesn’t mean you can’t win now. I intend to come in here and win right away, even though we are technically in a rebuild. And I think the other players agree with me. We intend to win — rebuild or not.”
The Phillies, who finished last in the NL East at 66-96 a year ago and haven’t posted a winning season since 2011, have been among MLB’s most active spenders in a slow market. They signed first baseman Carlos Santana to a $60 million deal in December and spent a combined $34.25 million on veteran relievers Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek. The Phillies’ ability to make a late, somewhat surprising strike on Arrieta reflected the state of the market and some concerns over Arrieta’s 2017 numbers and long-term durability.
The Phillies targeted Arrieta as a veteran starter to bring stability to a young, evolving rotation. Aaron Nola, the Phillies’ top returning starter, is 24 years old. Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez, the two starters behind him, have yet to break through because of injuries and inconsistent performance. Last year, Philadelphia’s starters ranked 10th in the NL with a 4.80 ERA and ninth with a 2.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“Jake, in our opinion, was the best pitcher available this offseason. Period. Not just the best pitcher — the best player,” said Phillies owner John Middleton. “Handing him the ball every fifth day is going to be great. But it’s what he does in the clubhouse and the dugout and for the other players on the days he’s not pitching that’s going to make a huge difference. We recognize that, and that’s why we really, really wanted him.”
After Arrieta passed his physical exam in Philadelphia on Monday, Middleton’s private plane flew him to St. Petersburg, Fla., for Tuesday’s press conference. A greeting committee welcomed him upon arrival.
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) March 13, 2018
Arrieta’s creatively structured contract pays him base salaries of $30 million, $25 million and $20 million through 2020. He can opt out of the deal after 2019, and the Phillies have the ability to void the opt-out and exercise a two-year option that could keep him with the organization through 2022.
Arrieta has a relatively low 1,161 major-league innings on his arm at age 32, but a drop-off in performance and a decline in velocity last season generated some concerns about his staying power. In 2015, Arrieta posted a 22-6 record with a 1.77 ERA and won the NL Cy Young Award while averaging 94.6 mph on the radar gun. Last year, Arrieta’s velocity dipped to 92.1 mph and he went 14-10 with a 3.53 ERA. Opponents logged a .283/.364/.528 slash line vs. his cutter, compared to .186/.239/.271 in 2015.
Arrieta pointed to his 2.28 ERA after the All-Star break — compared to 4.35 in the first half — as a sign that he was able to figure things out and adapt.
“You get to a point in your career where you understand that pitching isn’t all about velocity,” he said. “High velocity or not, I know exactly what I’m doing on the mound and I know how to utilize my stuff to the best of my ability. If that velocity does go back to 95-96, the league is in a lot of trouble.”
Agent Scott Boras said Arrieta never received an offer to re-sign with the Cubs, who upgraded their rotation by signing Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million deal last month. Boras said Arrieta included the Phillies on his initial wish list of teams at the start of the free agent season in November.
“I don’t think there’s a wait here,” Boras said. “There’s talent in here that needs experiential refinement, attitude and confidence. When you bring in players like Jake, you probably put the cream in the coffee when it’s ready to drink.”
Familiarity helped play a role in bringing Arrieta to Philadelphia. Phillies president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, general manager Matt Klentak and assistant GM Ned Rice knew Arrieta from their previous tenure in Baltimore. Joe Jordan, now Philadelphia’s player development director, selected Arrieta out of Texas Christian University in the fifth round of the 2007 draft while with the Orioles.
Santana, catcher Cameron Rupp, third baseman Maikel Franco, outfielder Rhys Hoskins and a half dozen other Phillies players and coaches ringed the back wall of Arrieta’s introductory news conference and listened to him preach commitment and accountability.
“There’s a message I really want to send to not only the players, but the entire Phillies Nation: We’re going to promise a fight,” Arrieta said. “There’s no guarantee you’re going to feel good or have your best stuff, or you’re going to get a great night’s sleep the night before a game. But what we can promise is, we’re going to have conviction, we’re going to fight, and at the end of the day, we’re going to win.”
Arrieta’s enthusiasm resonated throughout the Phillies’ spring complex before Tuesday’s Grapefruit League game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I was talking to Rhys Hoskins on the way out and I said, ‘Are you excited?”’ Middleton said. “He looks at me and he goes, ‘Bleep, yeah.”’
Dave Roberts says Los Angeles Dodgers playing ‘our best baseball’ of season right now
LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers have spent most of the year profiling as one of the greatest teams in the sport, with an impressive run differential, unrivaled depth and a wealth of star talent. But it never really came together for them — until, perhaps, right now, in the most important juncture of their season.
It pushed the Dodgers 1½ games ahead of the Rockies for first place in the National League West and gave L.A. six wins over the past seven games, with three of them coming against a St. Louis Cardinals team that also is in the thick of playoff contention.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts believes his team is playing “our best baseball” as the regular season reaches its penultimate week.
“It’s not really going out on a limb,” Roberts said. “We’ve been sort of inconsistent all year long, but things are coming together at the right time.”
The middle game of a three-game series provided an encouraging snapshot. Taylor, a catalyst for last season’s World Series team, has shortened his swing and produced 11 hits in his past 29 at-bats. Two innings before Taylor’s first career walk-off homer, Kenta Maeda struck out the side on only 10 pitches, an indication that he might be rounding back into the man who dominated out of the bullpen last October.
“We’re betting on it,” Roberts said.
Maeda, Kenley Jansen, Scott Alexander and Dylan Floro — four members of a bullpen that represents the Dodgers’ greatest weakness — combined to retire nine of the 10 Rockies batters they faced, six of them via strikeout.
Jansen allowed a bloop single to start the ninth, but he struck out Chris Iannetta, retired David Dahl on an infield popup and got Ryan McMahon to hit a broken-bat ground out to second base. Jansen later said that he feels “very close” to resembling the dominant closer who became a legitimate Cy Young candidate last season.
“I feel really good, and it’s at the right time,” Jansen said. “I just have to keep going.”
In many ways, Jansen’s season has mirrored that of the Dodgers as a whole. He struggled mightily through April, during which time his team finished with a 12-16 record. When he got right, the Dodgers followed. When he missed time because of an irregular heartbeat, the Dodgers faded. The Dodgers are playing good baseball again, and Jansen feels like he’s right there with them.
“The thing I like about this year is that nothing is easy for us,” said Jansen, alluding to a 2017 Dodgers team that basically had the division wrapped up by the end of July. “We’re going to really have to earn it to get there this year. I like our chances if we get to the playoffs, because everything we got, we’ve had to earn.”
Clayton Kershaw noted the different ways his Dodgers have won games lately. On Friday, they rode a dominant start by Walker Buehler, the 24-year-old right-hander who has seemingly evolved into a legitimate co-ace. On Saturday and Monday, their offense carried them, amassing 25 runs on 27 hits, eight of which went over the fence. On Tuesday, it was, of all things, the bullpen.
“It’s a good sign when all things start clicking like that,” said Kershaw, who worked around five walks to allow only one earned run in seven innings.
The first seven times the Dodgers entered a game with sole possession of the division lead this season, they lost.
On Tuesday, the eighth time, they finally won.
“We’re playing good baseball,” said third baseman Justin Turner, who saved a run with a diving stop to end the seventh inning. “I think we all like the way we’re going about it right now.”
MLB — Chicago Cubs’ revived offense could make bullpen questions irrelevant
PHOENIX — Perhaps the Chicago Cubs found the secret to playing without a true closer: Dominate the opposition at the plate while taking save opportunities out of the equation. There was no need for any ninth-inning nail-biting on Tuesday, as a team in a hitting slump for much of the second half is beginning to wake up.
“We stacked them one on top of the other,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said of Cubs at-bats after a 9-1 win over Arizona. “Sustained pressure on the opposing pitcher. Traffic early in innings.”
The Cubs were up 5-1 after two — thanks in part to a single and a home run by Murphy — then added on runs later, taking some sting out of the pregame news that righty Brandon Morrow is finished for the year. The closer’s nagging bone bruise in his forearm, which has sidelined him since the All-Star break, hasn’t healed. Meanwhile, his backup, Pedro Strop, is also down, so the Cubs will be mixing and matching more than ever late in games.
At least, they will be in the ones that aren’t blowouts. Tuesday’s drama ended early, thanks to first baseman Anthony Rizzo. His 17-pitch, first-inning at-bat against Matt Andriese was a thing of a beauty. He fouled off five pitches on a 0-2 count, then six more at 2-2.
The sequence set things up for the next hitter, MVP candidate Javier Baez. Rizzo eventually made an out, but it didn’t feel like one moments later, when Baez hit his 33rd home run of the season into the stands in right-center.
“When you wear pitchers out like that, it sets up the next guy and the next guy for success,” Rizzo said. “We want to have that team culture to continue to do that.”
That sets the Cubs up to be at their best, especially when their left-handed hitters come through. It’s an October essential, as most teams — outside the Cubs at least — have righty starters and dominant righty bullpen arms. The platoon advantage comes in handy, and with the return of lefty Jason Heyward from a hamstring injury — he doubled in his first at-bat this month — the Cubs can boast a dangerous array of lefty hitters. That depth was on display Tuesday, as Murphy, Heyward, Rizzo and Ben Zobrist all contributed to the win.
“I like the fact we have a bunch of lefties,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I did like our lineup a lot tonight with Jason back in there.”
Maddon will have two more to choose from when Kyle Schwarber and Tommy La Stella return from minor back ailments as soon as this weekend. It’s as good a time as any to begin a swarming mentality, as the Cubs are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Their magic number is just eight after the second-place Milwaukee Brewers lost to the Cincinnati Reds while the Cubs were pounding the fading Arizona Diamondbacks.
“It’s always nice to move in one direction and see another team move in another direction,” Murphy said with a smile.
Come Thursday, most Cubs won’t be moving anywhere, as it will be their first day in 31 not at a ballpark. Their grueling stretch is coming to an end on a high note, as they’ve already won the series against Arizona after a 5-1 win on Monday. Tuesday’s Game 2 victory was even better. While Murphy had to be at the ballpark on Monday, he got the night off. It showed in his at-bats the next day.
“Joe has done a great job with all of us to get us some time,” Murphy said. “I thought the entire offense was awesome. Great at-bats starting with Rizzo’s at-bat in the first.”
Maybe that’s the answer to the Cubs’ new ninth-inning question: Make it meaningless. It’s doubtful that a team can do that for three rounds of the playoffs, but perhaps that’s not what the Cubs need. Rather, just a break here or there will do for the guys who are filling in for Morrow and Strop. They got that break on Tuesday, as the Cubs continued to inch toward a third straight NL Central division title, thanks to an offense catching its second wind.
“Anytime anybody gets going, I feel like we’re going to be dangerous,” Murphy said.
Aaron Judge returns to Yankees lineup for 1st time since July
Judge batted second and finished with two fly outs to right field, a double play and a check-swing strikeout. Still, after Neil Walker‘s three-run homer in the eighth inning, the Yankees won the series opener against the Boston Red Sox in the Bronx 3-2.
Despite the hitless performance, Judge was still generally pleased with how he played.
“I felt like I never left. Everything felt good,” said Judge, who had spent nearly eight weeks on the disabled list. “Felt like my at-bats were good, I’m seeing the ball well. That’s all I can really ask for, coming back after missing that many weeks.
“I’m excited with the start, we got the win, and we’ve just got to keep that rolling.”
Judge’s first-inning at-bat against Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi marked his first plate appearance since he suffered a chip fracture of the right wrist when he was hit by a pitch July 26. Judge came off the 10-day disabled list on Friday and had played two innings in the field, but the Yankees hadn’t cleared him to hit until Tuesday afternoon.
“We’ll kind of watch it closely and see how he bounces back,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said before Tuesday night’s game. “We’ll pick our spots to maybe try and get him out of there, and we’ll just kind of go day-by-day with this — as far as how he’s bouncing back and how he’s feeling — but I’m looking at it as: ‘We’re going.'”
Judge’s return comes with the Red Sox a win away from clinching the American League East. The Yankees, meanwhile, are trying to retain their lead in the AL wild-card standings over the Oakland Athletics.
If it hadn’t been for Mother Nature, Judge likely would not have gotten this start until Wednesday.
When Boone arrived at the ballpark and first wrote out the lineup Tuesday morning in advance of the game’s original 1:05 p.m. ET start time, he did not put down Judge’s name.
But around 9:30 a.m. ET when the Yankees and Red Sox were debating moving the game’s first pitch to 7:05 p.m. ET due to rain showers that were forecast over the Bronx all afternoon, Judge had a chance to change his skipper’s mind.
“I told them if the game’s at 1, the game’s at 7, I’m going to be in there,” Judge said.
During one late-morning window of dryness, Judge participated in a simulated game on the field, hitting for several pitches off a minor league pitcher, while Boone and various Yankees assistant coaches and executives watched. It was the second time in as many days that Judge participated in a sim game. He had faced three pitchers across 11 at-bats on Monday.
“Kind of deliberated on [playing Judge] after we got finished,” Boone said.
After spending the noon hour thinking about giving Judge the start, Boone went first to general manager Brian Cashman, then his assistants, his training staff and ultimately Judge before determining whether the 26-year-old slugger would hit Tuesday.
“He was like, ‘I’m ready to go,'” Boone said. “So … we go.”
Judge believes his relentless push to play after repeatedly pleading to do so finally got Boone and others to cave.
“I just voiced my opinion — a lot,” Judge said. “They kind of got tired of me telling them I’m going to be playing. They finally said, ‘Let’s put him in there and let’s see what happens.'”
Judge’s return marked the first time since July 2 that the Yankees have had their six 20-homer players in the same lineup. In the 38 games that Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Miguel Andujar, Gleyber Torres and Aaron Hicks all have played together this season, the Yankees are 28-11.
Boone isn’t sure how long it might take Judge, who batted .285 with 26 homers and 61 RBIs before his injury, to return to his dangerous power-hitting form.
“As I’ve kind of said leading up to this, hitting’s a funny thing,” Boone said. “Sometimes it happens real quick. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time.
“It’s just a matter of getting that good timing. That’s something that even for great hitters, it can come and go a little bit. So we’ll see as the next couple days unfold.”
Before Judge was hurt, Yankees right fielders had combined to bat .273 with a .918 OPS; they also averaged 13.7 at-bats per home run. Since Judge last hit July 26, the right fielders that the Yankees have used to replace Judge batted .187 with a .652 OPS, and they averaged 20.8 at-bats between home runs.
New York hopes Judge’s addition will not only shake up those numbers, but also give life to a team that went 26-22 after his injury.
“I definitely think certain guys energize a situation,” Boone said. “When we’re talking about Aaron, not only is he a special player, but he’s a special presence on our club.
“Writing that [name] down on a long day at the ballpark for us, it was nice to write him in and just to see the effect it has on lengthening our lineup. We’re certainly excited to have him back.”
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