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Will taking a seat bust New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez’s slump?



NEW YORK — Gary Sanchez has begun his week spending more time on the New York Yankees‘ bench than squatting on his knees behind home plate.

That’s probably a good thing. At long last, it’s probably the right thing.

The catcher, who went 0-for-4 Sunday against the Mets to drop his batting average to just .190, wasn’t in the Yankees’ lineup for Tuesday’s series opener against the Nationals. He won’t be in there Wednesday, either. With Sonny Gray on the mound, the Yankees are planning to once again have backup catcher Austin Romine work with the pitcher, much the way he has the past month.

Sanchez’s back-to-back bench days — barring a last-minute decision by manager Aaron Boone to use him as the designated hitter — come on the heels of Monday’s team off-day. This means the struggling slugger likely will have three days down before returning to action Thursday.

The combination of a heavy recent workload, what Sanchez calls an “aching” calf, and a string of disappointing at-bats led the typically patient Boone to finally sit the slumping star.

“He’s had just the wear and tear of catching, whether it’s shoulder, knee, calf,” said Boone. “He’s fine, he’s good to play, but overall he’s a little banged up and maybe that’s leaking in a little bit.”

Across his past 15 games, Sanchez has compiled an .075 (4-for-53) average with 18 strikeouts. His batting average in that span is the worst among major leaguers with at least 40 at-bats since May 22.

In addition to struggling to simply make contact, Sanchez’s power numbers have taken a massive hit. He’s on a 16-game homerless streak, the longest of his career by four games.

“The reason I’m not hitting is because I’m missing pitches I usually hit,” Sanchez said through an interpreter. “Maybe I’m overthinking a little too much and that’s why I’m missing those pitches I don’t usually miss. I’ve swung at some pitcher’s pitches, really good pitches, and I’ve missed those.”

He didn’t miss the last pitch he swung at, a line drive right into the glove of Mets third baseman Todd Frazier to end a Yankees loss Sunday night. According to Statcast, the liner left his bat at 92.2 mph. A few feet in any other direction and Sanchez could’ve had himself a timely RBI double.

Sanchez might be banged up, but this time off appears to be a much-needed mental break too.

It hasn’t been all that common for Boone to bench his struggling players for multiple games. Save for an occasional off-day, the first-year manager has regularly opted to give his scuffling hitters their at-bats, hoping routine will eventually ease them out of it.

Boone has done that with Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Brett Gardner, and, until now, Sanchez. For Gardner, who went through one particularly horrid 5-for-42 (.119) stretch in May, the manager’s patience was reassuring and confidence-building.

“It’s important for guys to know that their manager, their hitting coach or whoever it is has their back,” Gardner said. “I think to myself, those four or five, however many weeks to this season, and just to keep running me out there in the leadoff spot, getting me my at-bats and letting me continue to see pitches and work out of it. That’s important to kind of just stay the course.”

It’s easier to give players who aren’t hitting more opportunities to turn it around when others around them are hitting well, the outfielder acknowledged.

“We’ve got a great lineup, and when you’re winning and scoring runs and pitching well and things are going well, you can afford to give guys a little more time to work out of things,” Gardner said.

Gregorius, who had his own 1-for-42 slump that at one point last month dropped his average by nearly 100 points, took comfort in other hitters — such as Gardner, Aaron Judge, Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres — heating up as he struggled.

“Like I say, if it was just about one person, then the team would not be doing good. But everybody picks each other up. That’s one thing that we always have here,” Gregorius said. “One guy’s struggling today, but then the same day, somebody else is going to pick him up anyway.”

Regularly this season, Romine has been there to not only pick up Sanchez but to help carry the team. In 76 plate appearances, Romine is batting .348 with a 1.027 OPS. He’s been especially good with runners in scoring position, hitting .474 with 15 RBIs in 24 chances. On Tuesday, he drove in a runner with a sacrifice fly.

Meanwhile, Sanchez has posted a .721 OPS to go along with a batting average below the Mendoza Line. In 69 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, he’s batting .236 with 24 RBIs and 18 strikeouts.

Boone’s patience isn’t only evident in the opportunities he gives struggling players. It has been evident in comments he’s made publicly about those players. The phrase “I believe he’s close” has been a mainstay in the manager’s lexicon.

Before Sunday’s game, he said something similar about Sanchez.

“He’ll settle in and the hits will start to follow and the hitter we know will be soon after,” Boone said. “One of the things I talk to Sanchie about a lot is go up there and have a good at-bat. Because of who you are and the talent you have, the results will be there. The results will follow when you’re having good at-bats.

“It’s simply a matter of time before he gets rolling again.”

Sanchez’s teammates echo that.

“For me, he’s too talented to continue doing what he’s doing,” Gardner said. “That’s not a knock on him; it’s just a matter of things will find a way of evening themselves out over the last half of the season.”

That’s how Sanchez feels, too.

“Slumps are part of baseball,” Sanchez said. “The same way they begin, they end.”

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Mauer’s Hall of Fame case and more



It’s always corny when a character in a movie actually utters the theme of the script, but sometimes it’s acceptable. A good example is from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” when the title character says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Yeah, it’s hard to read the words and not roll your eyes. But Ferris was right. Time does move awfully fast. For one thing, if they made a chronologically sound sequel to that movie, the Ferris character would now be 51 years old. For another, Joe Mauer just retired. Are you kidding me? Mauer is done? Fifteen years have gone past since he debuted as the hotshot kid making a splash in his hometown? Yep. That’s it for one of the greatest Twins, tearful farewell news conference and all.

The appropriate thing to do at times like this is to evaluate a newly retired star for his Hall of Fame worthiness. That’s exactly what we’re about to do, even though we have about five years before it really matters. One thing about that time gap we should address up front: The landscape of catching has changed, and what it will look like by the time Mauer hits the Hall ballot is impossible to say. This might skew the lens through which his career is perceived.

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MLB — San Francisco Giants face the tough task of rebuilding



There is perhaps one positive way to look at the San Francisco Giants‘ 2018 season. In 2017, the team lost 98 games and finished 40 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West — the furthest out of first place the franchise had finished since 1943. In 2018, the Giants finished just 18½ games behind the Dodgers. Improvement!

If you really want to spin things, you can even point out that the team was 68-68 entering September, just 6½ games out of first place. OK, so the Giants lost 11 games in a row and torpedoed the final month with a 5-21 record to finish 73-89, concluding the franchise’s worst two-year stretch since they lost 196 games in 1984-85. Hey, they were just one great month from a playoff spot!

The reality, of course, is that the Giants weren’t close to making the playoffs and were outscored by 96 runs. They were an old, expensive and bad team. It cost general manager Bobby Evans his job with a week left in the season, although former longtime GM and current executive VP Brian Sabean kept his, as did manager Bruce Bochy, who has one season remaining on his contract.

Last week, the Giants hired Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi, who was Billy Beane’s lieutenant in Oakland and then part of the multiheaded chain of command in Los Angeles under Andrew Friedman. Team president and CEO Larry Baer said Zaidi will have full authority to run baseball operations.

The question without an easy answer: Where do Zaidi and the Giants turn this offseason? At his introductory news conference, he didn’t give away any immediate game plan. “I’m eager to get opinions from a wide range of people on what they think makes sense in terms of a broader direction, and I think where we are, everything has to be on the table in terms of how we move this team and roster forward,” he said.

The lack of clarity is understandable. Rebuilding isn’t an easy option when you’ve drawn 3 million fans nine seasons in a row, and winning is expected after claiming three World Series titles from 2010 to 2014. Plus, the team lacks the kind of players who could bring in a nice haul of prospects anyway. Even franchise icon Madison Bumgarner, who has one season left before free agency, would appear to have limited value at this point.

As Buster Olney pointed out a couple of days ago, Bumgarner’s average fastball velocity has dipped from 92.1 mph in 2014 to 90.9 mph in 2018, and while Bumgarner has never relied on high-octane velocity, his four-seam fastball was tagged hard in 2018, as opponents produced a .954 OPS against it — up from .785 in 2017 and .619 in 2014. His overall strikeout rate, which peaked at 27.5 percent in 2016, dropped to 19.8 percent, his lowest rate since his rookie season in 2010.

In other words, with the decline in peripherals across the board, Bumgarner is more valuable to the Giants right now than another team.

The rest of the core players are essentially untradable because of their contracts in combination with their recent level of production. Look at what this group is owed over upcoming seasons:

Mark Melancon: $28 million through 2020
Jeff Samardzija: $36 million through 2020
Brandon Crawford: $45 million through 2021
Brandon Belt: $48 million through 2021
Buster Posey: $67.2 million through 2021
Johnny Cueto: $68 million through 2021
Evan Longoria: $72.5 million through 2022

That group produced 10.8 WAR in 2018, not completely useless, but not worth the drag on the payroll. Posey’s 2.9 WAR was the highest of the seven — and he underwent hip surgery in late August to repair an impingement and torn labrum. Recovery was estimated at six to eight months, but even if he returns healthy, Posey is a 32-year-old catcher coming off surgery.

Aside from that, Cueto underwent Tommy John surgery and isn’t expected back until late in the 2019 season. Samardzija didn’t pitch after July 14 and finished with a 6.25 ERA. Belt has missed significant time each of the past two seasons.

Of course, that’s what happens to old teams: They get hurt. The Giants had the oldest group of position players in 2018, at an average age of 30.5 (weighted for plate appearances), according to data. Oh, and they finished 14th in the NL in runs scored with that aging lineup.

I did a quick study of old lineups, looking at all teams from 2013 to 2017 that had an average positional player age of at least 30. Those 24 teams averaged 83.2 wins in the year of the study and fell to 77.5 the following season. In the second season after the study, they averaged 80.7 wins — a figure boosted by the 104-win Dodgers of 2017 and the 100-win Yankees of 2018.

That doesn’t account for quality of the lineup, however, as even old-but-good lineups can fall apart in a hurry. The 2013 Red Sox won the World Series with an average age of 30.2, but fell to 71 and 78 wins the next two seasons. Luckily, the farm system produced Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi, and they were back in the playoffs in 2016. The 2013-14 Tigers were old and good, but fell from 93 and 90 wins to 74 and are still trying to dig out of that hole. The 2015 Blue Jays were an offensive powerhouse, leading the American League in runs scored with 891. They’ve gone from 93 wins to 89 to 76 to 73 and scored just 709 runs in 2018.

And those were the good teams, mind you (and none of that accounts for the pitching side of the ledger, of course). With no obvious impact offensive players in the minors, the road to recovery for the Giants isn’t so simple — outside of opening the wallet for Bryce Harper. Except Zaidi is obviously aware that Harper alone won’t turn the franchise into a contender.

“Baseball is about the entire 25-man roster,” he said at his news conference. “No one player and no one move is going to turn the fate of a franchise around. It takes hard work and it takes humility, taking one step forward at a time, making one good baseball move after another, and I really feel like that’s how we’re going to get where we hope and intend to go. I think when you have that attitude and aren’t too myopic about, ‘We’re rebuilding, that means we’re not going to sign free agents, that means we’re not going to acquire veteran players,’ you’re going to leave a lot of opportunities on the table. … As [an] organization right now, we have to cast as wide of a net as possible and not put too many labels on what this process is going to be other than to make smart, sound decisions.”

Here’s the thing that looms over this offseason and the immediate future: Even if Posey is healthy and Belt is a little better and Crawford is a little better, this is still a team that hasn’t won 90 games since 2012. The Giants snuck into wild-card spots in 2014 with 88 wins and 2016 with 87 wins, but what’s the likelihood of this group — in their post-peak seasons — suddenly reemerging as a 90-win team?

That’s why it will take much more than Harper.

With the A’s and Dodgers, Zaidi’s special talent was finding what I call free talent — such as acquiring Chris Taylor from the Mariners or signing Max Muncy as a minor league free agent. Indeed, Harper can’t exactly be dreaming of going to AT&T Park hitting 400-foot fly balls to the warning track in right-center, so the Giants will need plans B, C and D.

Good luck.

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Buster’s MLB Buzz — For many players, this will be a long, cold winter



By the end of spring training this year, there was an angry undercurrent among players and in the union because of the sheer volume of established veterans who were mostly ignored in free agency. Mark Reynolds, a solid defender who was closing in on 300 career homers, would remain unsigned until after the start of the season. Matt Holliday waited for a major league deal, before eventually taking a minor-league deal in midseason and ascending to help the Rockies reach the postseason.

The frustration over the experienced players left behind would manifest in suggestions of management collusion, including one incendiary statement by an agent who, by the end of 2018, would be picked to be the general manager of the Mets.

This winter, there is bound to be more money spent on free agents than during the last offseason, as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and a handful of others accumulate hundreds of millions of dollars in deals.

But for the rank-and-file — for players like Holliday, Reynolds and many, many relievers — it almost certainly will be a very cold winter of waiting for expected offers that never evolve.

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