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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 11: Major turnarounds for the Dbacks, Rockies and Twins

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

In the offseason we hear so much about long-term rebuilds, tanking and teardowns. We hear about moves that are aimed at “the next good [whoever] team,” which may by three or four years in the future. We’re conditioned to believe that there are only a handful of teams who can seriously contend and twenty or more who can’t add, say, a corner outfielder because doing so makes no sense when there are only 80 wins in their future.

Then the season takes place and real baseball shows us that, sometimes, all of that stuff is utter nonsense.

The Arizona Diamondbacks finished 69-93 in 2016, which prompted the firing of then-manager Chip Hale and a complete overhaul of the front office. The hiring of Torey Lovullo was praised all around, but most preseason predictions had them, at best, in third place in the National League West and nowhere close to playoff contention. So much for that: the Dbacks flipped their record to 93-69 and won the Wild Card and, eventually, advanced to the NLDS.

Behind the turnaround: Zack Greinke returning to ace-like form, the emergence of Robbie Ray as a top starter, Archie Bradley‘s astoundingly successful conversion to the relief duties, another MVP-caliber season from Paul Goldschmidt and the deadline acquisition of slugger J.D. Martinez, who smacked 29 homers in 62 games for the Snakes. All of that resulted in an enjoyable season for Dbacks fans and a Manager of the Year Award for Lovullo.

The Colorado Rockies finished in third place in both 2016 and 2017, but in the two Wild Card era, third place can be just fine if you’re in a tough division. That was the case with the Rockies who, place in the standings notwithstanding, improved by 12 games in 2017 behind new manager Bud Black, finishing 87-75 and making the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

As can be expected of a team that calls Coors Field home, the Rockies led the National League in runs, with MVP candidates Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado leading the attack. But unlike most Rockies teams in the past, they could pitch a little too, finishing in the middle of the pack in the league in runs allowed, which ain’t too shabby in Colorado. Of the eight pitchers who made starts for the Rockies in 2017, six had an ERA+ over 100, which is above average. Of the other two, one was a swingman and the other made nine starts after battling cancer. The bullpen, led by Greg Holland, was a strength as well.

The Minnesota Twins lost a major league-high 103 games in 2016, but nonetheless orchestrated a quick turnaround, going 85-77 in 2017, good for the second AL Wild Card. Your feelings about two Wild Card slots notwithstanding, it was the first time a team had lost 100 games and then reached the playoffs in the very next season.

In some ways it was a turnaround within a turnaround for Minnesota, as the Twins were sellers at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, dealing All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler and veteran starter Jaime Garcia, yet went on a 20-10 run in August to surge past the Angels, Orioles, Mariners, Rays and Royals and into playoff contention. Like Lovullo, Twins manager Paul Molitor was rewarded with the Manager of the Year Award for his efforts.

There are a lot of things that can go into a quick turnaround. A team could sharply underperform one season and simply get back to its expected level the following year, with said return appearing to be massive improvement. A team could have a number of players experience career years at once, giving them something of a lightning-in-a-bottle season. A team could, likewise, simply have a critical number of players progress to their true talent level at the same time, thereby having a rebuild culminate the way it expected.

Which of those was the case for the Diamondbacks, Rockies and Twins? We’ll see in 2018. We may also see three or more other teams experience faster-than-expected turnarounds. Regardless of how gloomy things look in the depths of winter.

Astros, Red Sox look ahead in wake of sign-stealing scandal

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Players from two teams at the center of baseball’s sign-stealing scandal faced their fans on Saturday for the first time since the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox ousted their managers amid the fallout from the investigation into Houston’s elaborate scheme.

The Astros and Red Sox held their annual fan fests on Saturday, and instead of discussing preparations for the season, players from both teams were left to answer questions about the cheating that resulted in both teams’ managers being fired.

“It’s a tough situation and as a team we have to stay together and go through this as a team like we’ve been doing, always,” Houston star second baseman José Altuve said. “We have to talk about it at spring training and try not to let things in the past distract us for for next year.”

Houston manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a year by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday after he found illicit use of electronics to steal signs during the Astros’ run to the 2017 World Series championship and again in the 2018 season. Team owner Jim Crane then fired both Hinch and Luhnow. Manager Alex Cora left the Red Sox on Tuesday after Manfred’s report identified him as the ringleader of the sign-stealing scheme when he was the bench coach for the Astros in 2017.

Many Red Sox players talked Saturday about how much they liked and valued Cora and hated to see him go.

“I’m heartbroken about it,” Boston designated hitter J.D. Martinez said. “I understood his side of it. He definitely didn’t want to be a distraction. He was one of my favorite, if not my favorite, managers I’ve had.”

The Astros were fined $5 million, which is the maximum allowed under the Major League Constitution, and must forfeit their next two first- and second-round amateur draft picks.

The investigation found that the Astros used the video feed from a center field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s chances of getting a hit.

MLB is also looking into whether Cora installed a similar system in Boston after arriving the following year, when the Red Sox won the World Series. No conclusions have been reached and there is no timetable; the Astros investigation took two months.

Martinez hopes MLB wraps up the investigation into the Red Sox soon so they can put this behind them.

“I’m excited for the investigation to get over with, so they can see there’s nothing going on here,” he said.

While the Astros were meeting with fans in Houston, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk called for MLB take away their World Series championship, now that it’s been proven that they cheated.

“I mean, I would like to see that obviously. I bet the Dodgers would like to see that,” Grichuk said. “I’ve got a few friends on the Dodgers that are very disappointed that possibly two years in a row they lost due to a team going against the rules.”

Many Boston players are trying not to focus on the investigation or what could be coming for the team, but instead simply trying to prepare like it’s any other season.

“MLB’s going to do what they have to do to look into it,” pitcher Nathan Eovaldi said. “I’m just trying to focus on baseball. I feel like it’s going to pass, and everything’s going to be fine.”

While Altuve didn’t have a problem answering numerous questions about the scandal, Houston third baseman Alex Bregman refused repeated attempts by reporters to get him to address what happened and kept repeating variations of the same phrase.

“The commissioner made his report, made his decision and the Astros made their decision and I have no further comment on it,” Bregman said in some variation again and again.

After being pressed on if he plans to discuss the sign-stealing in the future, Bregman finally gave an answer that didn’t seem as rehearsed.

“I think in the 2020 year our actions will speak louder than our words,” he said.

Altuve and Bregman were the only two stars at Saturday’s fan fest in Houston who were part of the 2017 championship team. Many of the other big names who helped the Astros win their first title, including World Series MVP George Springer, ace Justin Verlander and shortstop Carlos Correa, did not attend the daylong event where fans can interact with players.

Altuve was the AL MVP in 2017, and since the sign-stealing scandal broke, some have questioned whether he deserved the award. In recent days he’s also been accused of wearing an electronic device under his jersey to tip pitches, which he vehemently denies. He was asked how it feels for people to call him a cheater.

“You don’t want anybody to call you that,” he said. “But … I have two options. One is cry and one is go down and play the game and (perform) and help my team. And you know what one I am going to do.”

MLB’s investigation of Houston began after former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, who played for Oakland last season, told The Athletic about the team’s scheme to steal signs. Martinez said he has spoken to Fiers and gets why he came forward.

“I understand his side of it, being in that division, going against those guys. It’s an uncomfortable position for him, but I understand why he did what he did,” Martinez told reporters in Springfield, Massachusetts. “He obviously felt like he needed to and I understand it.”

In Houston, as the Astros try to put the scandal behind them and focus on the future, Altuve, who has often been described as the heart and soul of the team, is confident it won’t derail the Astros from another successful season.

“Everything will be fine,” he said. “We’re going to be in the World Series again. People don’t believe it. But we will.”