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2018 Home Run Derby preview, predictions and more

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USA Today Sports

2018 Home Run Derby preview, predictions and more

Baseball’s annual Home Run Derby, which takes place on Monday of each MLB All-Star Week, is one of the highlights of the year. The event started to grow stale earlier this decade, but the recent format switch to have each round be timed (awarding extra time for longer home runs) and introducing a bracket was the perfect injection of excitement.

This year’s field looks somewhat lacking at first glance. From a star power perspective, the eight contestants in 2018 are pretty weak. This might be surprising for Nats fan to hear, considering perhaps the game’s biggest star, Bryce Harper, will be competing. Still, beyond the hometown hero, there aren’t many big names this year.

The absence of star power isn’t helped by the NL-heavy lean of this year’s field. Seven of the eight contestants play in the National League, meaning many of the American League’s top sluggers are sitting out. Major League Baseball has to hope the absence of stars like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Correa, Nelson Cruz, and Mike Trout doesn’t cause casual fans to tune out.

Let’s go through the bracket and see who we think will come out on top.

First Round

1-seed Jesus Aguilar (Brewers) vs. 8-seed Rhys Hoskins (Phillies)

The five most-prolific home run hitters of 2018 are in the American League, and not participating, but Aguilar leads the Senior Circuit in dingers this season with an impressive 24. That mark, however, represents more than half of his career total (40), which is a pattern you’ll see in this year’s field.

Aguilar’s opponent is Hoskins, who Nats fans will come to know and loathe in the coming years as he mashes for Philadelphia. He’s got, by far, the fewest home runs among this year’s group, sitting at just 14. He has even fewer career home runs than Aguilar, with 32.

Despite the differences in their home run totals, these two average similar distances (393 feet vs. 396) and exit velocities (101 mph vs. 104) on their home runs, so it could be closer than the seeding would indicate. In fact, given Hoskins’ greater familiarity with Nationals Park as a division rival, I’ll take the 8-seed in an early upset. UMBC over UVA, look out.

5-seed Kyle Schwarber (Cubs) vs. 4-seed Alex Bregman (Astros)

Schwarber is a big guy, so it’s not surprise that when he gets a hold of one, the ball really flies. His 106.46 mph average exit velocity on his 17 home runs is the 5th-best of any player with more than 15 bombs this season, and he’s hit four “no doubt” home runs this season, a total that trails only Harper and Freeman in this year’s field.

Once again we’ve got two contestants with fewer than 100 career home runs facing each other. Schwarber has hit 63, and Bregman’s got 46. Bregman is easily the smallest player in this group, which is reflected in his 382-ft average home run distance. In a competition where distance matters, that could hurt him. That said, he clearly has good strength, given his 19 home runs on the season so far.

When picking an ultimate winner, the Derby is about endurance, and I bet Bregman can hit more home runs in the course of a night than most of the rest of this group. In the first round, however? Give me the pure power of Schwarber, who has probably eaten meals bigger than Alex Bregman.

2-seed Bryce Harper (Nationals) vs. 7-seed Freddie Freeman (Braves)

Thank goodness Harper made the All-Star game (as if that was ever really in question) and therefore is competing in this year’s Derby. If you thought the field was somewhat barren as it is, just imagine it without him.

Somehow, he’s is the only contestant with previous Derby experience. How much does it matter that Harper competed five years ago? Probably not much, considering the drastic format changes the event has undergone since then. Still, having made it to the final round, where he lost to Yoenis Cespedes, he’s definitely familiar with how to pace himself. Also, Harper is a showman who loves being the center of attention, and as the unofficial host of All-Star Week in D.C., it’s hard to imagine anyone beating him in the first round.

Freeman does represent a tough challenge, as he has the most career bombs of anyone in the field, with 182. He’s sitting at just 16 on the season, but he’s crushed the ones he’s hit, averaging just under 410 feet per homer and over a 105 mph average exit velocity, both numbers better than Harper by a hair.

Bryce ain’t going out this early though. Not at home, and not to a Brave. Harper advances, lock it in.

3-seed Max Muncy (Dodgers) vs. 6-seed Javier Baez (Cubs)

Stop me if you’ve read this before, but while Muncy’s first-half has been impressive with 21 home runs, it only brings his career total to a whopping ... 26. Granted, that’s 26 more than I’ve hit in my life, but still. For a contest all about stars and power, Muncy doesn’t exactly fit the bill. He’s got some strength, averaging over 400 feet on his home runs this season, but while he represents a nice story, him winning would be a worst-case scenario for Major League Baseball in terms of ratings.

Javy Baez, however, is exactly the type of player who rises to the challenge in events like this. The man is a walking ball of energy and star power, and he’s got the requisite power with 18 home runs on an average of 103 mph off the bat. Baez is yet another competitor with fewer than 100 career home runs, but I’ve still got both Cubs advancing to the second round.

Second Round

8-seed Rhys Hoskins (Phillies) vs. 5-seed Kyle Schwarber (Cubs)

Both underdogs advance on the left side of the brackets, and they’ll team up to make one of the girthiest head-to-head matchups in Derby history. Two “country strong” guys cranking bombs in the summer night is what the Home Run Derby is all about, and we’ll get that here with Hoskins and Schwarber.

It’s a close call, but having once seen in person Schwarber hit a ball about 650 feet on a cold Pittsburgh night in October, I have no doubt he can get several balls far enough to add the extra time needed to beat Hoskins and advance to the final.

2-seed Bryce Harper (Nationals) vs. 6-seed Javy Baez (Cubs)

The seeds are simply determined by the each player’s home run total at the time of the announcement, but still, it’s interesting that Harper is the only seed favorite I have making it out of the first round. This would easily be the most exciting head-to-head matchup in terms of fan interest and star power, as Baez and Harper represent the biggest names in this year’s field.

As fun as it would be to see two Cubs go up against each other in final round, and Baez is a legitimate sleeper, there’s just no way I’m picking against Harper in front of his home fans, in a park he knows like the back of his hand. He’s struggled his year at the plate, but one thing he hasn’t forgotten how to do is hit dingers. He’s moving on.

Final Round

2-seed Bryce Harper (Nationals) vs. 5-seed Kyle Schwarber (Cubs)

This is not only the matchup I’m predicting, but it’s also the matchup I think would be the most fun. Unless you’ve got a horse in this race, it’s pretty easy to root for the hometown guy to make it all the way (especially when the hometown guy is one of the five biggest stars in baseball), and Schwarber is an immensely likeable slugger who plays for one of the sport’s best teams and most recognizable franchises.

Harper’s best chance of getting eliminated actually comes in the second round, I expect. He’s not getting knocked out in the first round, and if he makes it to the final round he’ll be so locked in he’s going to finish strong. Both players will be tired by this point, but Harper has the pure will to power through and take the championship. Harper wins it, and unfortunately for those hoping for a buzzer beater, I say he wins the final round fairly easily.

Let’s be honest. You know this was going to be Harper all the way. We all can’t wait to see the show he puts on for the fans.

Who do you have in your brackets?

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Nationals on periphery in Las Vegas

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USA Today Sports

Nationals on periphery in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS -- Marlins Man walked into a modest eatery Sunday here in Las Vegas to look over the options. His bright orange jersey stood out among the cowboy hats and zombie-like Sunday exodus inside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

While another Las Vegas weekend closed, sending an army of roller bags across the casino floor toward the exit and airport, baseball started to creep into the home of the 2018 Winter Meetings. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo wandered across the marble floor. Media members from cities across the country became situated. Television stations raised their studios and radio talkers began to ramble. Everyone is wondering if the show in Vegas will be filled with drama or just another stall along the way to the offseason’s biggest news.

We know Rizzo turned in his homework early. Patrick Corbin’s money and introduction arrived late last week. Corbin, presumably, is the Nationals’ largest offseason expenditure. Surprising comments from Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner to 106.7 The Fan on Friday made that seem to be the case. He described Bryce Harper as all but gone, speaking wistfully, if not definitively.

Which means Rizzo is here for smaller shopping and the rest of baseball waits on Harper and Manny Machado.

A look through the Nationals shows few remaining gaps. Rizzo publicly contends he feels all right about starting the season with a Wilmer Difo/Howie Kendrick platoon at second base. The outfield is clear without Harper. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde will fight for the final rotation spot. Two new catchers have arrived. The bullpen was upgraded. Rizzo didn’t wait and watch what other teams were doing.

“We like the club we have at present,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington last week. “But, we’re never satisfied. There’s tweaks and combinations we can go after. We’ll be looking for values out there. What works for us, how do we construct the periphery of the roster. You can never have enough pitching and we’re always on the look for good starting and relief pitching. That could be something we attack either via the free agent market or trade market.”

One thing the market remains full of is left-handed relievers. The Nationals currently have three. One of which is Sammy Solis.

Washington decided to tender him a contract and the sides reached a one-year deal. There was consideration not to tender him a contract, which would have ended Solis’ time with Nationals. Instead, he’s back despite two back-to-back poor seasons following a strong 2016. Last season was a wreck. Solis finished with a 6.41 ERA. The other two lefties, Sean Doolittle and Matt Grace, were excellent. So, are the Nationals in the market for one more left-handed reliever to be sure?

“We’ve got right now on the roster three really competent left-handed pitchers,” Rizzo said, “in Doolittle, Grace who had a magnificent season last year and Sammy Solis, who we feel is a bounceback candidate. We feel good about the left-handed spot. We feel good about our bullpen as a whole.”

The Nationals were mid-pack last season in relievers’ ERA in both the National League and Major League Baseball. Their bullpen does appear close to done: Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Koda Glover, Grace, Solis, Justin Miller and Wander Suero are eight quick spots down there.

One upside here for Rizzo is he can wait. He doesn’t need to jump at the flush reliever market, which includes several decent left-handed options, because of the team’s prompt signings. A discount may arrive later. A factor to remember in regard to Solis is the Nationals would only be on the hook for 1/6th of his salary if they cut him in spring training. That’s a small penalty if someone in West Palm Beach appears more capable.

Washington also needs a left-handed bat off the bench that can play first base. Matt Adams, Justin Bour and Lucas Duda are names that could fill that slot. None will rattle the meetings.

This is life on the periphery, as Rizzo puts it. Will they talk to a lot of agents here? Yes. Will they consider an upgrade at second base? Of course. Are they part of the gigantic Harper and Machado storylines unlikely to conclude in Las Vegas but en route to dominate the conversation? Not really. At least not if Lerner’s public declaration is filled with flat facts. They offered Harper, he can do better elsewhere, and now life is quieter, even in Las Vegas.

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Nationals double-down on starting pitching by signing Patrick Corbin

Nationals double-down on starting pitching by signing Patrick Corbin

NATIONALS PARK -- A small break in the midst of the hoopla brought together $525 million in starting pitcher salary when Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin said hello for the first time Friday.

Scherzer and Strasburg sat in the front row during Corbin’s press conference. Scherzer shuffled a few seats down from his original landing spot to make more space. New catcher Yan Gomes filled in to his left, Ryan Zimmerman next to him and Strasburg on his side. 

Those top three in the rotation represent Mike Rizzo’s steadfast belief. Winning in the major leagues starts with foundational pitching. Every year. All year. And in the playoffs. 

“I think bullpenning in the playoffs is much different than bullpenning in the regular season,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington.

“The marathon that is the 162 is, I think, dependent and driven on starting pitching. Our philosophy is, how we built what we built so far is pitching, athleticism and defense. I think being strong up the middle and being able to catch the ball as you pitch it not only improves your pitching staff but limits the outs of the other team. Pitching has always been important to us. Starting pitching I think is our key and will continue to be so and developing them and signing them is important to us.”

The Nationals view Corbin as an ascending player. Three consecutive years of ERA reduction, helped by a new breaking pitch that is sort of a curveball, vaulted Corbin to a 3.15 ERA last season and a six-year, $140 million deal with a contender this offseason. That contender is the Nationals, who have more than a half-a-billion dollars tethered to three pitchers, who will be together a minimum of the next three years.

“The payroll's the payroll,” Rizzo said. “We all have budget restrictions and payroll restrictions. We've allocated a lot of resources to our front of the rotation and I think that elite starters, middle-lineup bats and back-end relievers is where I think you spend your money and you try to get values along the periphery of your roster.”

Corbin’s second off-speed pitch pushed him toward elite status. He talked with former Arizona slugger Paul Goldschmidt about what gave him trouble. He watched Clayton Kershaw round off and drastically drop speeds with his curveball. Both made Corbin think another layer would benefit him after years of mediocre results with his changeup, which has been shelved.

Enter the curveball. In essence, it’s just a slower slider. The speed gap -- about nine mph -- couples with an arm angle and release point that directly mimics his slider. He doesn’t even change the grip. Corbin just twists his wrist ever so slightly to slow the pitch and change its shape to the plate, providing a heftier vertical break.

“The slider has always been my pitch coming up from the minor leagues,” Corbin told NBC Sports Washington.

“It was a grip that my father showed me when I was really young. It’s kind of neat I was able to keep that up to this point in time. I have a great feel for it. Able to change speeds and location on the slider. Then adding a slower breaking ball helped just keeping some hitters off-balance.”

The length of the deal gave him assurance and critics pause. The Nationals believe Corbin’s 2018 uptick is closer to who he is as opposed to the prior two years following Tommy John surgery when he struggled.

Corbin was impressed with multiple things from the Nationals: that someone from the ownership level came to dinner with them (principal owner Mark Lerner); that they were willing to annually invest to be competitive; and, despite being an upstate New York native, Washington appealed to him and his wife, Jen, as place to be for several years.

Corbin’s presence takes a rotation that plummeted to 13th in starter ERA among National League teams last season and puts it back toward the top. Tanner Roark will slot in behind the uber-rich trio. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde are among the contenders for the final spot. Rizzo took the organization’s cash and dumped it into his annual priority. He hopes it pays them back. 

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