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Red Sox, Braves let month full of chances slip away

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The collapses of the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves might have seemed sudden during Wednesday night’s wild action, but in reality they were a long time coming.

Red Sox fans might be tempted to blame Joe Girardi for subbing out his starters early against the Rays, or for leaving Mariano Rivera on the shelf while a host of guys like Boone Logan, Cory Wade and Scott Proctor served the AL wild-card berth to the Rays on a platter.

Maybe blame Terry Francona for failing to inspire his players or for inserting a hint of desperation into his late-season lineup selections.

Braves fans might blame the schedule-makers for allowing the Cardinals to finish in Houston while Atlanta drew the powerful Phillies. Blame the umpires or the managing or Hunter Pence’s dumb luck.

But both teams had a month to wrap things up, and they couldn’t get it done.

As Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia said after Wednesday’s final insult: “I’m devastated. I’m heartbroken. To play hard for 161 games like we have and have it end like this. … It should not have gone down to the last game of the season to decide if we were going to the postseason.”

And from Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel: “It was tough to be so close and then have the feeling like it was falling out of your hands. And that’s the feeling I have now.”

Both are right. For as well as the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals finished the season, it wouldn’t have taken much to end their dreams. It’s not easy to blow a nine-game lead in the final month, as Boston did, or an 8 ½-game edge like Atlanta did. Otherwise it would have happened before.

A couple more wins in the last 30 days. One less mound meltdown. One less injury. One more lucky bounce. That’s all the Red Sox and Braves needed. They had a month to tuck away those playoff berths, and they couldn’t grab them by the throat.

For the Red Sox, it was all about pitching and injuries – and naturally, injuries to pitchers. Yes, Carl Crawford underperformed, but it was the guys on the mound who ultimately caused this collapse.

Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka went down. Josh Beckett tweaked his ankle and wasn’t the same when he returned. Jon Lester lost his touch, Daniel Bard lost his control and John Lackey lost his poise.

Tim Wakefield was thrust into a role he was no longer fit for, and Andrew Miller for one he never should have had. Erik Bedard came in and was mostly … Erik Bedard – showing flashes of brilliance, maddening inconsistency, and a brittle body.

It all added up to a complete meltdown by the pitching staff, including a 5.90 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP during September. It was a collapse that was so complete it could not make up for a truly awesome offense that featured two MVP candidates and led all of baseball in scoring at 5.4 runs per game.

The Braves didn’t have as much trouble with their pitching staff, but the problems they did have – namely injuries to Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson — were devastating, and an offense that was inconsistent all season couldn’t compensate, hitting .235/.301/.359 over the final month.

The injuries also added pressure to a bullpen that has already been ridden hard by manager Fredi Gonzalez, and the seemingly untouchable duo of Kimbrel (4.22 ERA in Sept.), Jonny Venters (5.56), simply wore out.

It was a month full of chances going unclaimed, leading to a pair of historic collapses. Neither the Red Sox nor the Braves could find that one guy to come up with the key hit, or get the key out when they needed it most. The Red Sox finished the season 7-20 and were unable to put together even a two-game win streak in their final 28 games. The Braves went 9-18 in Sept. and lost their final five games.

Both teams missed the playoffs by a single game.

“This is tough,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “This is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had coming off a baseball field.”

That feeling might not go away for a long time.

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The Yankees are paying $86 million for a one-inning reliever

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OXON HILL, MD — The Yankees signing of Aroldis Chapman late Wednesday night came as something of a surprise. And the money — $86 million — was something of a shock. Yes, we knew that Chapman was going to break the bank and likely set a record as the highest paid relief pitcher in history, but seeing it in black and white like that is still rather jarring.

In the coming days, many people who attempt to analyze and contextualize this signing will do so by pointing to the 2016 playoffs and the unconventional use of relievers by Terry Francona and the Indians and Joe Maddon of the Cubs. They’ll talk about how the paradigm of bullpen use has shifted and how relief pitchers have taken on a new importance in today’s game. Chapman’s astronomical salary, therefore, will be described as somehow more reasonable and somewhat less shocking than it first seems.

Don’t buy that jive for a second.

Yes, Andrew Miller and, to some extent, Chapman himself were used unconventionally in the 2016 playoffs, but not long into the 2017 season we will see that as an exception, not the rule. And not just because Chapman showed himself unable to hold up to that level of use in the playoffs. It will be the excaption because the Yankees have shown no inclination whatsoever to deviate from traditional bullpen usage in the past and there is no reason to expect that they will do so with Chapman in the future.

As you no doubt remember, the Yankees had Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller for the first half of 2016. Such an imposing back end of a bullpen has rarely been seen in recent history. All of them, however, were used, more or less, as one-inning-a-piece guys and no real effort was ever made to break any bullpen usage paradigms or to shorten games the way many applauded Terry Francona for doing in the playoffs.

Miller pitched 44 games for the Yankees, totaling 45.1 innings. He pitched more than a single inning on only three occasions. Chapman pitched 31 games for the Yankees, amassing 31.1 innings. He was used for more than one inning only twice. Betances worked in 73 games, totaling 73 innings. On 11 occasions he pitched more than one inning.  It was unconventional for a team to have three relievers that good, but they were not, in any way, used unconventionally. Nor is there any reason to expect Chapman to be used unconventionally in 2017, especially given that Miller is not around and Chapman has shown no real ability to be stretched for multiple innings for a sustained period.

None of which is to say that having Chapman around is a bad thing or that he is any less of a closer than his reputation suggests. It’s merely to say that the Yankees paying Chapman unprecedented money for a closer should not be justified by the alleged new importance of relief pitchers or that changing role for them we heard so much about in the playoffs. Indeed,  I suspect that that changing role applies only to pitcher use in the playoffs. And I do not suspect that this transaction alone pushes the Yankees into serious playoff contention, making that temporary unconventionality something of a moot point in New York for the foreseeable future.

It is almost certain that the Yankees are paying $86 million for the same one-inning closer Aroldis Chapman has been for his entire seven-year career. His contract may or may not prove to be a good one for New York based on how he performs, but don’t let anyone tell you now, in Decemeber 2016, that it’s better than you think because Chapman will somehow transform into a 1970s-style relief ace or something.

Report: Yankees sign Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million deal

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Update (12:02 AM EST): Rosenthal adds that Chapman’s contract includes an opt-out clause after three seasons, a full no-trade clause for the first three years of the contract, and a limited no-trade clause for the final two years.

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Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that the Yankees have signed closer Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million contract. Mark Melancon recently set the record for a contract earned by a reliever at $62 million over four years. Chapman blew that out of the water and many are surprised he didn’t fetch more.

Chapman, 28, began the 2016 season with the Yankees but he was traded to the Cubs near the end of July in exchange for four prospects. The Cubs, of course, would go on to win the World Series in large part due to Chapman. The lefty finished the regular season with a 1.55 ERA, 36 saves, and a 90/18 K/BB ratio in 58 innings between the two teams.

Chapman was the best reliever on the free agent market and, because he was traded midseason, he didn’t have draft pick compensation attached to him.

The Yankees don’t seem to be deterred by Chapman’s domestic violence issue from last offseason, resulting in a 30-game suspension to begin the 2016 regular season.