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LAS VEGAS — Roman Josi was kind of joking. But he also kind of wasn’t upon assessing what the Norris Trophy landscape could look like over the next decade.

Josi, who won the Norris as the NHL’s top defenseman after the 2019-20 season, would know. The 31-year-old Nashville Predators captain appeared to be in position to capture a second Norris last season, when he scored 23 goals, amassed 96 points and averaged more than 25 minutes per game.

Then came Cale Makar. The 23-year-old Colorado Avalanche star dazzled throughout the season in scoring 28 goals, accruing 86 points and also averaging more than 25 minutes per game.

Josi had more first- and third-place votes, but Makar, in his third NHL season, came away with his first Norris by a difference of 25 points.

“He could have left me that one, right? Because he’s probably going to win 10 in the next 10 years,” Josi said. “Last year, there were so many guys who had unbelievable years and it is going to be the same going forward. There are more and more guys coming. It’s going to be a huge challenge. It’s also going to be a lot of fun.”

Josi has a point. The year before Makar won, New York Rangers star Adam Fox took home the Norris as a 23-year-old. The achievements of Fox and Makar add to a growing belief that the impact the young, puck-moving defensemen will have on the NHL is only beginning.

Think about the blue-line talent age 25 or younger. It started with the “older group” featuring Thomas Chabot, Jakob Chychrun, Charlie McAvoy, Mikhail Sergachev and Zach Werenski. They were soon followed by a second wave led by Evan Bouchard, Rasmus Dahlin, Noah Dobson, Miro Heiskanen, Quinn Hughes, Fox and Makar. Now a third group is starting to emerge with players such as Bowen Byram, Jamie Drysdale and reigning Calder Trophy winner Moritz Seider at the vanguard, with others such as Luke Hughes, Owen Power and Jake Sanderson potentially on the verge of breaking through.

Many of them are not old enough to rent a car without signing a waiver, but they are playing a role in driving discussion about where this league is heading.

“Growing up, I felt like that was kind of the way the game was heading,” said Werenski, who was drafted eighth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2015. “A lot of defensemen were puck-moving. I played at the U.S National Team [Development Program] with Noah Hanifin and Charlie McAvoy, guys who play similar styles to me. Now you see Cale Makar and Roman Josi. Those guys are so talented, almost scoring 30 goals and 100 points and still playing great D.

“Nowadays to be successful, the game is so fast, you have to be a good skater. But you also have to be able to create offensively as well.”

PUCK-MOVING DEFENSEMEN have always existed in the NHL, but the influx seems to have picked up considerably over recent seasons.

Buffalo Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams, who played 10 years in the NHL as a center, said he felt like the evolution was starting to happen around the time he retired in 2008. Early in his career, defensemen played a bigger and meaner style. Toward the end, that type was still around, but players like two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, who could skate and take space away, had begun to emerge.

Adams said more defensemen over the years have developed into stronger skaters who could read plays, break up neutral zone activity and make life difficult for opposing forwards while also having the offensive skill to become a complete threat.

“I look at a player we drafted — Mats Lindgren — in the fourth round,” Adams said of one of the Sabres’ picks in 2022. “He has some elite skating tools at 18 years old. Those are the type of defensemen you are seeing more of. If you can have that, the feet, you can defend well and make a good first pass, those are valuable. The ones that are extremely intelligent who can process the game at a high level and sort out reads, those types of defensemen are becoming more valuable.”

The Sabres hired Adams in 2020, putting him in charge of a rebuild in Buffalo. Part of his strategy has centered around Dahlin and Power. Dahlin was drafted two years before Adams arrived, whereas Power was selected with the No. 1 pick of the 2021 draft.

Adams said Power’s ability to process the game in addition to his defending, skating, puck-moving ability and vision were all traits the organization believed would translate at a high level.

“You look at our team with Rasmus already in the group, there was a thought that if we get into a big game, they could both be on the ice for 30 minutes a game whether it is together or separately,” Adams said. “That is a really valuable thing to have.”

Dahlin, who was drafted with the first pick in 2018 by the Sabres, said growing up in Sweden shaped how he viewed the game. Countrymen Victor Hedman, Erik Karlsson and Nicklas Lidstrom have combined to win 10 Norris Trophies since the start of the century.

That trio inspired a generation of Swedes. Dahlin said he grew up with Adam Boqvist, who plays for the Blue Jackets, and Rasmus Sandin, who plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He recalled how they all played the same style.

“I was able to realize at a young age that a defenseman can also have fun offensively,” Dahlin said. “I’m a little mixed. I have my own style. But I for sure looked at those guys.”

Makar, who was the second defenseman drafted after Heiskanen (No. 4 overall) in 2017, said he started playing defense in atom hockey (age 9-10). He said he liked being a forward but enjoyed being a defenseman more because it allowed him to be the first skater back and in a position to control the game.

He praised his youth coaches who helped him gradually get more comfortable being a puck-moving defenseman. Makar said those coaches showed him a lot of faith, to the point he admits to looking like “a little bit of a puck hog” when watching footage from his youth hockey days.

Even back then, Makar could use his agility, stickhandling, speed, timing and vision as a way of deceiving opponents to his advantage. But because he did not see defensemen at higher levels play that way, Makar thought it might not work as he went up the ranks.

“It might have been the first year in Canada they aired the NCAA championship with [Shayne] Gostisbehere and Union,” Makar recalled. “That was kind of the first guy where I was like, ‘Wow. He’s doing that. All the stuff that I am doing right now, but at a level that is way higher.’ In my mind, it was like, ‘Wow. There is some hope there.’

“It was the first moment I realized there was a change in style. That was definitely a defining moment for sure.”

Dahlin, Makar and Werenski were all top-10 draft picks who broke into the league at an early age. Dahlin played as an 18-year-old after spending two seasons with Frolunda, facing older competition back home in Sweden. Makar played at the University of Massachusetts prior to debuting in the Stanley Cup playoffs at 20, while Werenski, who starred at the University of Michigan, came to the league at 19.

By comparison, the 2008 draft had four defensemen — Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo and Luke Schenn — who were taken with the second, third, fourth and fifth picks, respectively. Doughty debuted at 19 and played 81 games his first season. Bogosian debuted at 18 and played 47 games. Pietrangelo broke into the league at 19, but his first full season came at 21, while Schenn played 70 games in his age-19 season. Karlsson, who was drafted 15th, played in 60 games as a 19-year-old.

So while playing young defensemen is nothing new, Pietrangelo said teams have changed their approach with them. The Vegas Golden Knights star said it feels like more teams are trying to find ways to take advantage of the salary cap, and one is by trusting young players on cheaper deals before they become too expensive. He also said the game has developed into requiring more skilled defensemen than in the past, when the focus was to have more physical blueliners.

“I think now the young players are just better skaters,” Pietrangelo said. “Some of these guys that come in now, obviously, you look at Makar and those guys are just exceptional. For the most part, every defenseman at our camp can skate and move the puck. That’s kind of where the game is going.”

Pietrangelo said he initially played third-pairing minutes in his first full season with the St. Louis Blues. He eventually gained more trust from the coaches and began working his way into a top-four role. Pietrangelo finished his rookie campaign with 11 goals and 43 points in 79 games while averaging 22 minutes.

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said generating offense has become so difficult that teams need all five players on the ice to contribute. He said the previous philosophy was to pair a puck mover with a stay-at-home partner. There is still the expectation all defensemen know how to defend, but there is also an understanding they must be part of the offense.

Bednar, who is the third-longest tenured coach in the NHL, has gone through the experience of trusting a young puck-moving defenseman on three separate occasions. The process the Avs used to assimilate Samuel Girard, as well as Makar and Byram, required buy-in from the entire team.

“First and foremost, you have to be able to check to play in this league, whether you’re a forward or a defenseman,” Bednar said. “To help drive the offense out of them, we encourage our guys to push themselves up the ice and be part of it. There’s the decision-making process. Not only the defensemen who are up in the play, but for our forwards. It’s really team driven. If you want your defensemen to be up in the play, then your forwards have to know their responsibilities are filling in for them. So you’re working in that five-man unit all the time.”

WITH THE INCREASED responsibilities for this crop of young defenseman comes increased compensation. These players are now starting to get paid a lot of money by the time their entry-level contracts expire.

Getting to that point took time. ESPN interviewed four agents who spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could speak freely. All four have negotiated deals for young puck-moving defensemen.

“The market has moved $2.5 million in the course of three years,” one agent said. “When we did a client’s bridge deal, I wanted eight years at $7 million to $7.5 million and that is what I was fighting for. When we did his second deal, the first thing my client said was, ‘Boy, aren’t you glad we did not sign that deal?’ because by that point, the numbers had shifted into the $9 million range.”

For example, both McAvoy and Werenski were among the first of the group who signed bridge deals after their ELCs ended. McAvoy signed a three-year deal worth $4.9 million annually while Werenski signed for three years at $5 million.

Werenski signed with the Blue Jackets on Sept. 9, 2019 while McAvoy re-signed with the Boston Bruins less than a week later.

“I’ve never been on that side of the table [as a general manager]. But the point of the bridge deal is to keep the cap [hit] low,” the agent said. “The bridge deal allows you to have a competitive team with a player that has no leverage.”

The same agent compared the Bruins’ situation with McAvoy to that of the Maple Leafs with Auston Mathews, who was also drafted in 2016. He said the Bruins signing McAvoy to a bridge deal before agreeing in October 2021 to an eight-year extension worth $9.5 million per year that starts in 2022-23 allows the Bruins to hypothetically have McAvoy on their roster for 14 seasons, including the three years from his entry-level deal. It’s a contrast with Mathews, who signed a five-year extension after his ELC, which means he’ll be under team control for only eight seasons.

“As long as the marketplace is what it is, you are happy to pay them,” the agent said. “That is another piece of this. If a guy is that good, why not give them the money? You can keep them for 14 years or possibly lose them after eight or nine years.”

Signing bridge deals is still a possibility. Every team’s situation is different. But the class that featured Fox, Heiskanen, Hughes and Makar saw a deviation from bridge deals, with those players signing long-term contracts after their initial deals.

“We had a guy who went to college and then had an immediate impact in the NHL,” another agent told ESPN. “To me, that first class was the one that sort of opened the door for young defensemen playing immediately, and that second elite class blew the doors off and basically said, ‘Hey, we need to be paid.'”

That same agent said that was his approach when it came to getting his client a new contract after his entry-level deal ended. The agent’s argument was that even though his client is a defenseman, the statistical projections for him were higher than forwards of a similar age who were given long-term deals.

“We never thought a bridge deal was a possibility,” the agent said. “He accomplished enough at the point where we felt we could get some term there. In fact, the team wanted to go longer term and they felt very confident in my client’s value. They wanted to lock him up for as long as they could.”

So why not go longer if the team is willing? The agent explained how signing a deal of at least six years means his client will be around 29 or 30 when it comes time for his next contract. He would be young enough to sign one more large deal before having to worry about age being used against him.

While signing a long-term contract yields life-changing wealth and security, there is another factor to consider. Over time, the market almost surely will go up.

“While we felt good about the total dollar number,” the agent said, “we did not want to chase every last dollar on this contract knowing the landscape will rise.”

Consider the contracts signed by that second wave of young defensemen. Heiskanen signed first on an eight-year deal worth $8.45 million annually on July 17, 2021. Makar signed a week later for six years at $9 million annually. Hughes signed Oct. 1, 2021 for six years at $7.85 million annually while Fox, who still had a year left on his entry-level contract, signed a month later for seven years at $9.5 million annually.

The fourth agent who spoke with ESPN alluded to how those deals would lay the foundation for the next group of defensemen, which includes Dahlin, Drysdale and Seider.

“Makar is at $9 million and teams will say, ‘Are you better than Makar?'” the agent said. “That is what teams will say in negotiations. A [young] defenseman can come along and make $10 million and not be better than Makar or Werenski or Josi. It’s not a function of that player being better, but more how the market is moving.”

Doughty and Karlson are proof that teams are willing to sign a defenseman to a contract worth at least $10 million annually. But Doughty started making $11 million in the 2019-20 season. By that point, he had already won a Norris, two Stanley Cups and was a four-time All-Star. Karlsson’s new deal went into effect that season, and it saw him earn $11.5 million after he won two Norris Trophies and was a five-time All-Star.

What is the likelihood that a team would be willing to give a player who is either 21 or 22 that kind of money? Especially if they do not have a Norris or a Stanley Cup?

“There will be a moment,” one of the agents said. “It’s going to be about the percentage of the cap by that point. I am really hopeful and bullish with where the NHL is. I am hoping in 10 years the cap has gone up significantly. In other sports, there are other young players who make $10 million a year and we don’t blink an eye. The way the game is played and the way offense has to be created from the back end, defensemen will continue to be more and more important.”

As the prominence of these players continues to rise, what does that mean for the Norris Trophy going forward? Pietrangelo said it has changed from the days of Chris Pronger, who won the Hart Memorial Trophy and the Norris in the 1999-2000 season. He said Pronger didn’t need to score 90 points to win the Norris because he had a physical style that made him impactful in every area of the game.

For the record, Pronger scored a career-high 14 goals and a career-high 62 points while averaging more than 30 minutes per game that season. He would have led the league in ice time by nearly four full minutes if he hit those numbers during the 2021-22 season. Pronger’s 14 goals would have been tied for seventh among defensemen while his 62 points would have been ninth.

Makar said it feels like the Norris balloting today leans more toward offensive defensemen. That, in turn, places those with fewer points but consistently strong defensive efforts at a disadvantage.

“It’s almost like you need an extra award for the most all-around guys,” Makar said. “For me, it’s rounding out that game and making sure I can be an option for my team and be up for those individual things. But at the end of the day, there has to be a ‘both sides of the game’ award. There has to be.”

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MLB Power Rankings: Who’s the new No. 1 team atop our list?




MLB Power Rankings: Who's the new No. 1 team atop our list?

As the battle in the National League persists between three powerhouse teams, one has emerged as the new No. 1 in our rankings — the Phillies.

The shake-up in the top five continued beyond that, as the Yankees jumped up two spots to No. 3 and the Braves fell to No. 5 while they try to find an offensive rhythm.

Is Philadelphia the current best team in MLB? And which emerging squad has a chance at knocking one of the elite top-five clubs from its spot?

Our expert panel has combined to rank every team in baseball based on a combination of what we’ve seen so far and what we already knew going into the 162-game marathon that is a full baseball season. We also asked ESPN MLB experts David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle, Jesse Rogers, Alden Gonzalez and Jorge Castillo to weigh in with an observation for all 30 teams.

Week 7 | Preseason rankings

Record: 36-14
Previous ranking: 2

The Ranger Suarez show continues after the southpaw allowed one run in seven innings with 10 strikeouts to beat the Rangers on Tuesday, running his record to 9-0 with a 1.35 ERA through his first 10 starts. Here’s the list of pitchers since 1920 to win at least nine of their first 10 starts with an ERA under 1.50: Suarez, Ubaldo Jimenez (2010), Juan Marichal (1966) and Sal Maglie (1952). Now the game has changed: While Suarez has pitched 66 innings, Marichal had thrown 92 innings through 10 starts, which was more than nine per start (including a 14-inning 1-0 shutout). Still, Suarez has been amazing, and those 10 strikeouts in a game matched a career high, set in September against the Marlins. — Schoenfield

Record: 33-19
Previous ranking: 1

The third start of Walker Buehler‘s return from a second Tommy John surgery was by far his most encouraging. He held the Reds scoreless through six innings on Saturday, striking out seven batters without issuing a walk and scattering only three hits. His fastball touched 97 mph. “I think I was pretty good at one point — I’ve started Game 1 of playoff series and Opening Day and things like that — and I want to be really good again,” Buehler said. If the Dodgers can get that Buehler … and pair him with Tyler Glasnow and Yoshinobu Yamamoto at the top of the rotation … to go with perhaps the most feared top half of a lineup in the sport — well, it might just be unfair. — Gonzalez

Record: 34-17
Previous ranking: 5

It finally happened: Clay Holmes gave up an earned run. The Yankees closer had not allowed one in 20 innings over 20 appearances to begin the season until Monday’s ninth inning, when some bad luck and two walks snowballed into four Mariners runs, a blown save and a loss to snap the Yankees’ seven-game winning streak. Holmes wasn’t going to keep a 0.00 ERA forever, but the collapse with a three-run lead was jarring nonetheless. The Yankees’ bullpen is still second across the majors in ERA and third in win probability added despite ranking 23rd in strikeout rate. More K’s would make their effectiveness more sustainable. — Castillo

Record: 29-18
Previous ranking: 4

Baltimore finished April second in the majors at 5.46 runs per game, but May has been a very different story for the offense. The Orioles are averaging four runs per game this month. They have been shut out twice and held to three or fewer runs 10 times in 18 games. And yet the Orioles have gone 10-8 in May behind a starting rotation with the second-best ERA in baseball since May 1. A lineup with Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman at the top won’t underperform for too long. Combine that with the standout starting rotation and the Orioles will remain one of the sport’s top five teams. — Castillo

Record: 28-18
Previous ranking: 3

Atlanta’s offensive woes are starting to go beyond just a slow start at this point — at least as compared to last season. The Braves do still rank sixth in the majors in OPS, but they had a three-game stretch against the Cubs and Padres where they scored just one run in each game. Ronald Acuna Jr. still can’t find his power stroke, Austin Riley has been out with an intercostal strain, Orlando Arcia has struggled and Jarred Kelenic has slowed down after a nice start. At least Chris Sale continues to dominate: He tossed seven scoreless innings to beat the Padres on Monday for his third straight scoreless start and sixth consecutive win (1.15 ERA over that span). — Schoenfield

Record: 33-17
Previous ranking: 6

The Guardians made a big statement with a weekend sweep of the Twins, as Jose Ramirez belted a go-ahead home run in the eighth inning on Friday and Will Brennan hit a walk-off three-run homer on Sunday — both off curveballs thrown by Twins reliever Jhoan Duran. Ramirez’s batting average and OBP are down, but he leads the American League in RBIs, as he has hit well with runners on base. He also is getting more RBI opportunities, as opponents are pitching to him more with Josh Naylor behind him. Ramirez was intentionally walked 22 times last season but just twice so far in 2024. — Schoenfield

Record: 28-21
Previous ranking: 7

Christian Yelich is putting together his best season since winning the MVP award in 2019. Just in the past week, he has stolen home and led his team to a win against his old team, the Marlins, with a two-run, eighth-inning double. Even missing time due to a back ailment hasn’t slowed Yelich down. Since returning earlier this month, he is hitting over .300 with an OPS well over .800 to go along with four stolen bases, including that one of home on a throw from catcher to pitcher. That kind of heads-up play is indicative of the Brewers this season and a reason they remain in first place. — Rogers

Record: 32-19
Previous ranking: 10

Those who were forecasting a nosedive after the quick start have to be disappointed about Kansas City’s recent surge. The Royals’ pace did slow during the last couple of weeks of April, but since then, they have reemerged as one of baseball’s hottest teams.

As the first important checkpoint on the season calendar approaches (Memorial Day), there is nothing on the Royals’ dossier that suggests a looming regression — other than the notion that, before the season, no one really thought they’d be this good. The team’s front office seems to be buying in, recently cutting bait with Rule 5 pitcher Matt Sauer, who was not big-league ready. Rather than enduring a nonproductive roster spot, as a noncontending team might, the Royals designated Sauer for assignment. The more they win, the more moves like this we’ll see on a roster that has a number of improvable slots. — Doolittle

Record: 27-23
Previous ranking: 8

Shota Imanaga continues to be the storyline for Chicago, and around baseball, as his ERA continues to lower. He has faced nine different teams this season, and none has been able to figure him out. And he’s doing it with mostly a two-pitch mix: a rising fastball and a splitter. That combo has stymied hitters throughout both leagues. He didn’t even have his best fastball his last time out against the Pirates — it averaged just 90.9 mph — yet it was as successful as ever; he threw seven shutout innings while striking out seven, including his final batter with two men on. Imanaga has been nothing short of dominant. — Rogers

Record: 27-23
Previous ranking: 11

The Mariners’ best player so far has probably been catcher Cal Raleigh, who has Gold Glove-worthy defensive metrics while leading Seattle in both homers and RBIs. That Raleigh can be described as their best player despite a .219 batting average underscores the paradox of Seattle’s roster, one devoid of star-level performances this season. And yet, the Mariners not only continue to lead the AL West but have added to that advantage despite not winning more than two games in a row during May.

There has been plenty of good on the Mariners — Raleigh, utility player Dylan Moore, closer Andres Munoz, the entire starting rotation — but very little great. Great, of course, is the tier on which Julio Rodriguez is supposed to reside. If the Mariners are going to continue to thread this needle, however, J-Rod can’t be the only one to break out at some point. — Doolittle

Record: 26-24
Previous ranking: 13

It’s nearly June and the Red Sox — despite a seemingly never-ending stream of injuries — are hanging in there, hovering right around .500. Rafael Devers helped power the offense with a home run in six consecutive games to set a Red Sox record, before the streak was snapped in a win over the Rays on Tuesday. The victory gave Boston its first series win at Tampa Bay since July 2019. The Red Sox began the series having lost 15 of their previous 16 games at Tropicana Field. Their pitching staff remains one of the best in baseball, ranking second in ERA; but it got bad news when manager Alex Cora announced Garrett Whitlock was diagnosed with ulnar collateral ligament damage in his right elbow and that Tommy John surgery is on the table. The hits keep on coming in Boston. — Castillo

Record: 24-26
Previous ranking: 12

The biggest reason the Rangers have been pegged as a second-half breakout team is the quality of the pitchers they have on the injured list, specifically Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, both of whom should return to action this season. Another indicator that might portend a resurgence is simply that two of their best hitters — Corey Seager and Adolis Garcia — have been more OK than outstanding.

Seager is slugging .404 and has just three doubles after leading the AL last season with 42. Garcia, meanwhile, has seen a regression in his walk rate at the plate and has surprisingly struggled in the field. Out in the grass, the Gold Glover has negative metrics in the various defensive systems, committed four errors and yet to record an outfield assist after registering 28 over the previous three campaigns. The good news for the Rangers: These things are not likely to last. — Doolittle

Record: 26-26
Previous ranking: 14

Joe Musgrove labored through three scoreless innings in his return from elbow inflammation on Tuesday. And though it was an unspectacular start — one that ended in a loss to the struggling Reds — the most important thing is that he’s back, returning to a starting rotation that has been performing quite well of late. Yu Darvish is on a run of 25 consecutive scoreless innings, Matt Waldron has limited the Dodgers and Braves to a combined three runs in 11 innings in back-to-back starts, and Dylan Cease, despite some recent struggles, has a 3.05 ERA in 10 outings this season. The rotation has been encouraging of late. What hasn’t been encouraging: Xander Bogaerts, who was OPS’ing .581 and will now be out at least two months with a shoulder fracture. — Gonzalez

Record: 26-23
Previous ranking: 9

After winning 17 of 19 games, the Twins’ rally sausage magic ended last week with a reality check. The club was swept by two of the American League’s three best teams — the Yankees and Guardians — and lost eight consecutive games. They rebounded Tuesday with a 10-0 win over the Nationals, but the AL Central is already looking like it’ll be the Guardians’ to lose. The impending return of Royce Lewis should greatly help the Twins’ pursuit. The third baseman ran the bases for the first time on Monday since straining his right quad on Opening Day. He is scheduled to go on rehab assignment soon. If all goes well, he should be back in the lineup some time in June, giving it a significant boost. — Castillo

Record: 25-26
Previous ranking: 17

The Rays are yet another team crushed by injuries this season. It was Zach Eflin‘s turn to land on the IL this week, with lower back inflammation. Otherwise, Tampa Bay actually has received reinforcements recently. Brandon Lowe, Josh Lowe and Jonathan Aranda have all come off the IL this month to bolster the lineup. Right-hander Ryan Pepiot was activated Wednesday after taking a 107 mph comebacker off his leg on May 5. Like the Red Sox, the Rays are staying afloat around .500. That won’t be good enough for long, though. — Castillo

Record: 24-26
Previous ranking: 15

Joc Pederson spent a good chunk of his pregame time in Los Angeles on Monday and Tuesday catching up with former Dodgers teammates and executives, before providing a crushing blow against the team he came up with, as his seventh-inning three-run homer pushed the Diamondbacks to a 7-3 victory on Tuesday (they went on to notch a series win with a 6-0 shutout on Wednesday). Pederson finished that game with a .989 OPS, fourth highest in the majors if he’d had enough plate appearances to qualify. Given the continued struggles of young stars Corbin Carroll and Gabriel Moreno — not to mention the injuries to starting pitchers Merrill Kelly and Eduardo Rodriguez — the D-backs would be in a really bad place if not for Pederson’s contributions. — Gonzalez

Record: 22-28
Previous ranking: 21

The Astros still haven’t caught fire, but little by little, they’ve started to climb out of their early 7-19 hole. Working to their advantage is that neither Seattle nor Texas has taken off and the AL West very much remains up for grabs, even for the sub-.500 Astros. As Houston very gradually builds momentum, the emergence of Kyle Tucker as a front-running MVP candidate continues to generate a brighter — and much-deserved — spotlight. With league-leading totals in homers, walks, OBP, slugging and OPS, a 9-for-9 showing on the basepaths and Tucker’s usual plus defense, this is the best version yet we’ve seen of the perennial All-Star. The “MVP!” chants have already begun at Minute Maid Park. — Doolittle

Record: 23-26
Previous ranking: 16

“Back” Flaherty? OK, so maybe it’s not good enough to put on a T-shirt, but the point stands: Jack Flaherty is so back. He pitched six innings of two-run ball against the D-backs on Saturday, and he has allowed just seven runs in 25⅓ innings over his past four starts. For the year, Flaherty has a 3.79 ERA with 72 strikeouts and only eight walks in 54⅔ innings, displaying a level of dominance we have not seen since he challenged for a Cy Young Award in 2019. With Flaherty, Tarik Skubal, Reese Olson and Casey Mize, the Tigers boast a really good rotation foursome. But they need more offense. — Gonzalez

Record: 24-26
Previous ranking: 24

The Giants’ outfield has been decimated by injuries of late, especially in center field, where Jung Hoo Lee, their big offseason signing, has been ruled out for the year because of a torn labrum in his left shoulder. That’s why Luis Matos‘ performance has been so reassuring. Matos, Lee’s replacement, went 10-for-26 with three home runs and 16 RBIs in his first six starts, earning the most recent NL Player of the Week honors. The 22-year-old Venezuelan totaled 11 RBIs in a stretch of just two games against the Rockies and became the youngest player in major league history with at least five RBIs in back-to-back games. “Man,” Giants manager Bob Melvin said, “that’s a lot of RBIs.” Sure is. — Gonzalez

Record: 22-26
Previous ranking: 18

Things are getting ugly in Toronto. The rumblings of a possible fire sale, one that could include Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, are growing louder and louder. Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins spoke to reporters over the weekend about his club’s disappointing start. He insisted “we believe in the talent” but acknowledged “there is a massive sense of urgency.” It comes down to the Blue Jays’ anemic offense. They rank in the bottom third of the majors in runs scored and wRC+. Guerrero has four home runs. Bichette is slashing .233/.289/.349. The Blue Jays aren’t going anywhere if those two All-Stars don’t level up their production. — Castillo

Record: 23-27
Previous ranking: 23

It’s all about Paul Skenes these days for the Pirates. His performance at Wrigley Field on Friday might be looked back upon as the beginning of a special career. More than 1,000 games have been played there between Chicago and Pittsburgh, but Skenes is the only Pirate to strike out at least 11 hitters in one contest. Oh, and he didn’t allow a hit while averaging over 99 mph on his fastball. His stuff, demeanor and presence are why he was the No.1 pick last summer and why he blew through the Cubs’ lineup in his second major league outing. — Rogers

Record: 21-28
Previous ranking: 19

We mentioned Edwin Diaz‘s home run problem in this space a couple of weeks ago — and it has only gotten worse, culminating in him allowing a three-run shot to tie Saturday’s game in the bottom of the ninth as the Marlins went on to win in 10 innings. For now, Diaz’s role as closer will be “fluid,” according to manager Carlos Mendoza. Reed Garrett picked up a save on Sunday. In other news: left-hander Brooks Raley elected to undergo elbow surgery, and he likely will miss the rest of the season; Drew Smith remains out with right shoulder soreness; Kodai Senga missed a bullpen session with triceps tightness; and top prospects Jett Williams and Drew Gilbert remain sidelined in the minors. — Schoenfield

Record: 21-27
Previous ranking: 20

It will be interesting to see how much more time the Nationals give top prospect James Wood in Triple-A, considering he’s hitting .358/.465/.600 with nine home runs. Sure, you don’t want to rush him, so maybe they give him another month or so. But the most impressive aspect of his season is that he has cut his strikeout rate from 32% last year in Single-A and Double-A all the way down to 19% in 2024 while also walking at a high rate (31 walks, 36 strikeouts). Considering the meager numbers from the likes of Joey Gallo, Joey Meneses and Eddie Rosario, it’s time to call up Wood. — Schoenfield

Record: 20-29
Previous ranking: 22

An awful 3-7 West Coast trip came to an end earlier this week after the Reds dropped their final three games against the Dodgers. The team is simply struggling on offense. Even with Elly De La Cruz doing his thing — especially on the basepaths — it hasn’t been nearly enough. The Reds rank in the bottom third of the majors in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. Yes, injuries have hurt them, but those in the lineup have no such excuse. Newcomer Jeimer Candelario is hitting .223, outfielder Spencer Steer is only slugging .376 and 2021 Rookie of the Year Jonathan India has been as quiet as anyone, producing just six extra-base hits. The Reds need to turn it around soon. — Rogers

Record: 23-26
Previous ranking: 26

St. Louis has climbed out of last place thanks to some struggles on the road by the Reds — and a recent series sweep of the Orioles — but the Cardinals won’t exactly be considered contenders until they get themselves over .500. That hasn’t happened since they won the NL Central in 2022. That feels like ages ago, but at least the team has played better baseball of late. Three series wins in a row have the Cardinals feeling like they can get back into an NL wild-card race that’s pretty wide open. Not one singular thing has propelled them lately; it’s simply been steady play at the plate, in the field and on the mound. Can it continue? — Rogers

Record: 20-30
Previous ranking: 27

No one ever denied Jo Adell‘s raw ability during his years as a prospect, when he drew elite grades in several skill categories. With a career slash line of .214/.259/.366 over 619 plate appearances (roughly a full season of opportunity) and a strikeout rate of 35.4% entering this season, he simply had not put the bat on the ball enough to translate those tools into big league production. Perhaps the best development in the Angels’ latest disappointing season has been Adell’s improvement. His approach remains below average, but it’s way better than it was, with a strikeout rate down to 25% and career-best walk rate. That has allowed him to get to his power more often, and voilà! He has a career-high nine homers already and is slugging .500. — Doolittle

Record: 20-31
Previous ranking: 25

The Athletics didn’t make any splashes in the offseason transaction market, but it did seem like they added some solid roster-stabilizing veterans to raise the floor of the club, if only a bit. But some of those vets have fallen off in a major way as the A’s current plunge back into a 100-loss spiral picks up steam. J.D. Davis dropped into Oakland’s lap during spring training — after the Giants set him adrift — but he has foundered. Davis has managed a 69 OPS+ to date and has driven in just three runs in 101 plate appearances — all on solo homers. He is 2-for-21 with runners in scoring position with zero RBIs. On the pitching side, Ross Stripling leads the AL in losses and hits allowed. After eight MLB seasons of better-than-average pitching, Stripling has an ERA+ of just 75. — Doolittle

Record: 16-32
Previous ranking: 28

Kris Bryant was activated off the IL and played in his first game in more than five weeks on Tuesday. In three years with the Rockies, he has played in just 135 of a potential 371 games. His slash line since the start of the 2023 season is a mere .220/.307/.346. And after this season, he’ll still have four years and $104 million remaining on his contract. Needless to say, the Rockies desperately need him to recapture some of his lost form. “This last month, or the last couple of years, sometimes you take for granted being on the field,” Bryant said. “Now that I am feeling good and on the field again, I’m just ready to have some fun and not take it for granted and see what happens.” — Gonzalez

Record: 17-34
Previous ranking: 30

The Marlins had their best week of the season last week, taking two of three in Detroit then two of three from the Mets at home, including three straight shutouts (two against the Tigers, one against the Mets). Ryan Weathers, Trevor Rogers and Jesus Luzardo started those three games. Weathers followed up his eight shutout innings against Detroit with another strong start Monday against Milwaukee, allowing just two hits and two runs (one earned) in seven innings. The Marlins won that game, tying it in the ninth and walking it off in the 10th on a single from Josh Bell. — Schoenfield

Record: 15-35
Previous ranking: 29

Andrew Benintendi is off to the worst start of his career, compiling the lowest OPS among all qualified hitters so far this season. Benintendi still has three years remaining on his contract after this year, so dealing him won’t be the easiest task for GM Chris Getz. The veteran signed the largest contract ($75 million) in team history before last season, and he is owed over $50 million on it through 2027. And it’s not like he’s coming off a great year. Benintendi had an OPS+ of just 88 last season, the lowest of his career, outside of 2020. And even though he’s playing at a power-friendly home park, he has managed just six home runs in 94 games at Guaranteed Rate Field. — Rogers

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Braves star Acuña out for season with torn ACL




Braves star Acuña out for season with torn ACL

Atlanta Braves star outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. will miss the rest of the season after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during Sunday’s 8-1 victory at Pittsburgh.

The reigning NL MVP led off the game with a double to right-center field off Martin Perez. With Marcell Ozuna at the plate, Acuña started toward third on a stolen base attempt and his left knee gave way. Acuña remained down for several minutes while being treated, pointing at his left leg before walking off under his own power.

The Braves’ initial diagnosis was left knee soreness. But the team announced Sunday night that an MRI showed a complete ACL tear that will require season-ending surgery.

Acuña tore his right ACL on July 20, 2021. Wearing a brace in the clubhouse after Sunday’s win, the 26-year-old outfielder said this injury felt less severe.

“(I) don’t feel that painful, any pop or anything. … Don’t think it’s that bad,” Acuña said.

Acuña said he was looking to take third when he anticipated a slow throw back to the mound from catcher Joey Bart. The toss came in harder than expected, leading to an abrupt pivot back to second with his knee twisting.

Acuña is batting .250 with four homers and 15 RBIs in 49 games. The four-time All-Star hit a career-best .337 last season with 41 homers and 106 RBIs.

Atlanta already was missing All-Star right-hander Spencer Strider, whose season ended on April 13 when he had internal brace surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. Third baseman Austin Riley is day to day with a left intercostal strain, and catcher Sean Murphy remains on the 10-day injured list with an oblique injury after he got hurt on opening day.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Reds extend Dodgers’ skid to 5; Ohtani at ‘90%’




Reds extend Dodgers' skid to 5; Ohtani at '90%'

The Los Angeles Dodgers are in the midst of their longest losing streak since 2019, but first baseman Freddie Freeman has no doubt that there’s no concern.

“It’s May, it’s baseball,” Freeman said. “Two weeks ago, we were winning every game. I don’t think anybody needs to question in our lineup. We’ll be fine.”

The Cincinnati Reds finished off a sweep of the Dodgers with a 4-1 victory Sunday, extending LA’s slide to five games — it’s longest since dropping six in a row April 8-13, 2019.

Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani went 3-for-12 in the series while dealing with a bruised right hamstring. He batted second Sunday and went 1-for-3 as the designated hitter, reaching on an infield single while scoring the Dodgers’ only run.

“It’s right around 90%,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Ohtani’s hamstring. “Assuming it will keep getting better, I feel confident that he can play smart and not push it. Talked to him about not trying to steal a base. Be smart. The value of having him in the lineup is everything.”

Los Angeles’ lineup has been hampered by inconsistency. The Dodgers scored six times in the series opener, and then scored two more over the next two games.They have been shut out twice this month while scoring two or fewer runs six times.

“When you’re not hitting, it certainly seems lifeless,” Roberts said. “Seems like we’re running cold. I know it’s not from care or preparation. Bottom line, it’s about results and we’re not getting them right now. They outplayed us this series and won three.”

Roberts hinted at a couple of changes to the lineup when the Dodgers begin a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citi Field.

“Some guys might be pressing a little bit,” Roberts said. “Every time I write the lineup, I feel good that we’re going to put up some runs. It’s not a big picture-type thing. It’s certainly been two weeks where it hasn’t been good.”

Jonathan India and Nick Martini each drove in two runs for the Reds, and Brent Suter, Nick Martinez, Carson Spiers and Alexis Diaz combined for a five-hitter.

Martinez (2-3) pitched 4⅓ innings of one-hit ball on a bullpen day for Cincinnati, and Díaz got two outs for his 10th save.

“It starts with our pitchers,” Reds manager David Bell said. “They’re ready to take the ball. Starting with Brent Suter, who did his job. That’s where it starts. Nick Martinez took over. Nick continues to show when he executes his pitches how good he is. To pitch so well against this team really says a lot.”

Freeman hit an RBI double in the ninth, stopping a 0-for-22 slide for the Dodgers with runners in scoring position. Freeman then advanced on defensive indifference, but Díaz struck out Teoscar Hernandez and Andy Pages swinging.

The start of the game was moved up from 1:40 p.m. EDT to 12:10 p.m. due to the threat of severe storms that arrived in the sixth inning. The teams then waited through a delay for just over an hour.

Cincinnati scored four times in the third off Yoshinobu Yamamoto (5-2). India had a bases-loaded single, and Martini’s bloop hit scored two more.

Yamamoto allowed six hits, struck out eight and walked two in five innings.

“They found a way to fight with two outs and find some outfield grass,” Roberts said. “They stayed inside the baseball. When you fight, you get those breaks sometimes. Outside of that, I thought Yoshi was fantastic. He was one hitter away from going five scoreless.”


Dodgers: Right-hander Gavin Stone (4-2, 3.60 ERA) will oppose Mets right-hander Tylor Megill (0-2, 3.00 ERA) on Monday in the opener of a three-game series.

Reds: Left-hander Nick Lodolo (3-2, 3.34 ERA) will come off the injured list to start the series opener against the Cardinals on Monday. Lance Lynn (2-2, 3.68 ERA) starts for St. Louis.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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