Hey! It's the Hardball Talk Home Run Derby contest!

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10:38 PM:  Commenter “Joe Tetreault” nailed it.  Look for a guest post from him soon.  (We’ll be emailing you).  Thanks, everybody, for hanging out.

10:30 PM: David Ortiz hit 32 total home runs.  A commenter named “Joe Tetreault” guessed that exactly.  We’ll see if it holds up.  Hanley has 21 homers at the end of the first two rounds.

8:17 PM, MONDAY:  The Derby has started, so the contest is closed.  You guys are great.  Thanks for the participation.  Go Holliday.

7:14 PM, SUNDAY:  Some baseball purists like to rip the Home Run Derby for its corny qualities and its reputation of hurting batters in the second half, but it’s a fun and mostly harmless little spectacle that allows us to celebrate the game’s top sluggers. 

High profile stars like Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols and Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano have bowed out of the contest this year, opting to rest instead, but it’s still a strong field and it should make for an exciting Monday night.  Of course, it couldn’t hurt to make things a little more interesting, and that’s why we’re running a little contest here on HardballTalk.  Here’s how it works:

Guess a winning batter out of the eight participants, then guess how many total home runs that winning batter will tally over the course of the contest, whether it goes three rounds or swing-offs are needed.  For instance, if Pujols was taking part and I thought he was going to win, I’d write “Albert Pujols, 25 HR” in the comments section.  One guess per person, no cheating allowed.  Or else…

The commenter that guesses the winner and the nearest home run total will be allowed to write a post here on HBT on whatever subject he or she sees fit.  In other words, you can do our job for us!  For free!

The field, if you need a refresher, is as follows:

Corey Hart, OF, Brewers – A right-handed hitter, Hart has 21 home runs and a .569 slugging percentage in 306 at-bats this season in Milwaukee.  He hit a career-high 24 homers in 2007 and is obviously well on his way to eclipsing that.

Matt Holliday, OF, Cardinals – Holliday launched his 16th home run of the season on Sunday, which is the highest total he has ever taken into the All-Star break.  A righty, he registered a career-high 36 dingers in 2007 while playing half of his games in Coors Field.

Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins – He almost backed out of the Derby, worried that it might throw off his swing for the second half, but Hanley eventually agreed to provide his superstar presence in an otherwise mediocre field.  The righty has 13 homers this year and hit a career-high 33 in 2008.

Chris Young, OF, Diamonbacks
– The 26-year-old has made quite a few strides at the plate this season and enters the All-Star break with 15 dingers and 61 RBI in 320 at-bats for the disappointing D’Backs.  Young, like the rest of the NL’s representatives, is a right-handed hitter.

David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox
– Big Papi usually plays the role of cheerleader during the Home Run Derby, but decided to participate this year.  He got off to another slow start in April and May, but has roared back strong and will enter Monday’s contest with 18 jacks.  Ortiz is a lefty.

Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers
– A candidate for first-half MVP in the American League, Cabrera has posted a .651 slugging percentage, 22 home runs and 77 RBI in his first 312 at-bats this season.  He bats from the right side of the plate and may be the early favorite.

Vernon Wells, OF, Blue Jays
– Wells often gets dogged for playing poor defense in center field, but he’s launched 19 home runs in 328 at-bats this year for the homer-happy Jays.  The right-handed hitter collected a career-high 33 long-balls back in 2003. 

Nick Swisher, OF, Yankees
– The winner of this year’s “Final Vote” in the American League, Swisher has tallied 15 home runs in 314 at-bats this season for the Yanks.  He can bat from both sides of the plate, but has flashed more power as a lefty this season in the southpaw-friendly new Yankee Stadium.

Angels Stadium typically plays fair with each foul pole checking in at 330 ft., but a more gradual angle in right field could favor left-handers slightly.  All in all, it should be a pretty even fight.

Now it’s your turn.  Tell us who you think will win Monday’s Home Run Derby in Anaheim, California and you can take over this very blog for, like, an hour or something.

Eddie Perez likely to be Braves’ interim manager if Fredi Gonzalez is fired

Atlanta Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez, left, stands with manager Fredi Gonzalez during a spring training baseball workout, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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There’s been a lot of rumbling that Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez will soon get the pink slip. His team is 7-20 entering Thursday’s action. Historically, front offices — particularly those of rebuilding/restructuring teams — respond to that by making coaching and/or managerial changes.

Per MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, bullpen coach Eddie Perez is likely to fill in as the Braves’ manager on an interim basis if and when Gonzalez is fired. Perez has been with the Braves as a coach since 2007. He played for the Braves in 10 out of his 11 seasons from 1995-2005. Perez wasn’t known for his bat, but was respected for the way he called games and handled the Braves’ then-elite pitching staff.

Bowman notes that Gonzalez isn’t expected to be fired over the weekend. If the team plays well, that could extend Gonzalez’s leash, so to speak.

First baseman Freddie Freeman issued a vote of confidence for his skipper, saying, “I think everything is getting magnified since we’re off to this start. I don’t know if it’s fair to put it all on [Gonzalez] because he’s not a player. We’re the 25 guys [who have to] go out there and play every day. We’re obviously not playing to our capabilities. To say that’s Fredi’s fault is unfair in my opinion.”

What’s on Tap: Previewing Thursday’s action

Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, left, and Kris Bryant celebrate a 7-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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The Phillies and Cardinals got started a little early, finishing up their four-game series on Thursday afternoon. In the evening, we have 10 games on our slate, including Cubs-Nationals.

The Cubs have jumped out to a 20-6 start, looking like baseball’s best — and scariest — team. Entering Thursday’s action, the Cubs have a +93 run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed). That’s by far the best in baseball. The next best are the Nationals at +50, the Mets at +44, and the Cardinals at +41. In fact, the Cubs’ run differential is so good that they have under-performed relative to their expected won-lost record of 22-4.

This is without Kyle Schwarber. This is with Jason Heyward hitting a miserable .211/.317/.256, Jorge Soler hitting .185/.276/.292, and Addison Russell hitting .224/.356/.329. It’s with John Lackey pitching to a 4.32 ERA.

What makes the Cubs so good? They’re on-base machines. The club’s aggregate .364 on-base percentage is second best in the majors behind the Pirates. Dexter Fowler has an outstanding .470 OBP and Anthony Rizzo is at an elite .403. In fact, of their regulars with 100-plus plate appearances, Heyward is the only one with a sub-.350 OBP. The league average is .319. The Cubs steal bases, too, as they’re 17-for-24 (~71 percent) in that department.

The Cubs have baseball’s best pitching staff, which has yielded a major league-best 2.54 runs per game. Only four teams are below 3.00 runs allowed per game. Of course, reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta is the big contributor to that with a sterling 0.84 ERA, but Jon Lester has put up a 1.58 mark and Jason Hammel 1.24. Closer Hector Rondon has found himself in only four save situations but has converted each of them with an even 1.00 ERA and a 15/0 K/BB ratio in nine innings. The Cubs’ aggregate bullpen ERA of 2.66 is fifth-best in the majors.

It’s too early to use defensive statistics with any degree of certainty, but even the eye test shows the Cubs to be elite defenders at the important positions, particularly shortstop (Russell), right field (Heyward), and third base (Kris Bryant).

The Cubs’ success isn’t exactly surprising. The club rode five consecutive fifth-place finishes into some high draft picks and that talent is starting to establish itself in the majors. Whether it was fans, writers, or Vegas oddsmakers, the Cubs were preseason darlings.

Kyle Hendricks starts for the Cubs opposite the Nationals’ Joe Ross at Wrigley Field tonight at 8:05 PM EDT.

The rest of Thursday’s action…

Detroit Tigers (Michael Fulmer) @ Cleveland Indians (Trevor Bauer), 6:10 PM EDT

New York Yankees (Masahiro Tanaka) @ Baltimore Orioles (Kevin Gausman), 7:05 PM EDT

Texas Rangers (Derek Holland) @ Toronto Blue Jays (J.A. Happ), 7:07 PM EDT

Arizona Diamondbacks (Robbie Ray) @ Miami Marlins (Adam Conley), 7:10 PM EDT

Milwaukee Brewers (Chase Anderson) @ Cincinnati Reds (Alfredo Simon), 7:10 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Henry Owens) @ Chicago White Sox (Erik Johnson), 8:10 PM EDT

Seattle Mariners (Wade Miley) @ Houston Astros (Chris Devenski), 8:10 PM EDT

New York Mets (Jacob deGrom) @ San Diego Padres (Colin Rea), 10:10 PM EDT

Colorado Rockies (Chris Rusin) @ San Francisco Giants (Matt Cain), 10:15 PM EDT

The Phillies are seeing to it that their minor leaguers eat well

Crop of vegetables. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other vegetables.
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For years we’ve talked about how odd it is that baseball teams are in the extraordinarily competitive business of developing highly-trained athletes yet, for whatever reason, it pays minor leaguers virtually nothing and all but forces them to subsist on junk food and other cheap options.

As Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, however, the Phillies are changing that. Indeed, they’re plowing serious money into nutritious food options for their minor league players:

The Phillies are teaching their minor leaguers how to play baseball, so why not teach them how to eat well, too?

“We want them to not have to worry about anything other than baseball,” assistant general manager Ned Rice said. “When they’re playing for the Phillies, they’ll have that stuff taken care of for them.”

 

That this is a news story — and it is a good and novel one — is kind of sad in some ways. How teams haven’t been on board with this approach for decades is beyond me.

Tracking baseball’s “Naturals”

The Natural
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Rob Neyer has a great column in today’s New York Times in which he tracks the real life players who, at one time or another, were dubbed “The Natural.” A la Roy Hobbs in the book and movie of the same name.

There are some that a lot of people probably remember: Jeff Francoeur and Ken Griffey, Jr. as “The Natural” come to mind easily. There are some who I don’t ever recall being called “The Natural” but were, apparently, like Terry Pendelton and Karim Garcia. There are also some whose stories were far odder and far more tragic than any version of Hobbs’ tale (oh man, a Toe Nash sighting!). Then there’s Rick Ankiel, whose path may be the closest one to Hobbs’ of them all, at least broadly speaking.

Fun stuff that, in addition to being a walk down memory lane, is also an instructive lesson about how the power of narrative works in sports.