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by Buster Olney posted Jun 28 2017 2:28PM
Aaron Judge has been MLB's best player in the first three months of the 2017 season, stunning rival evaluators with his improvement since the end of the 2016 season. But he still has fewer than 100 games in the big leagues, which is why he isn't ranked here among the top 10 players in the big leagues.

2017 MLBRank Top 10s

ESPN experts and analysts provide their lists of the Top 10 players in the game today. 
» 2017 MLB Rank Index

June 26
• Buster Olney
• Jessica Mendoza
• Dave Flemming
• David Ross

June 27
• David Schoenfield
• Marly Rivera

June 28
• Jerry Crasnick
• Adnan Virk
As we have seen with Kyle Schwarber, adjustments are needed even by the most talented hitters, and in time, we'll know if pitchers can find a way to attack Judge's large strike zone.

For now, here's my list of the majors' top 10 players -- without the guy who currently leads the big leagues in WAR.

Note: All stats are as of Friday, June 23.

10. Corey Seager, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers

Seager, 23, has become the Dodgers' best position player already, after he scored 105 runs and compiling 26 homers last season. Only Kris Bryant rated higher in WAR in the NL last season.

9. Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds

A rival executive on Votto: "He is so good, and the crazy thing is he's actually gotten better."

Votto's .601 slugging percentage is the best of his career, and yet he has a strikeout rate of just 11.2 percent, an incredible combination in an era dominated by strikeouts. Keep in mind: He has usually been a better hitter in the second half than the first half.

8. Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore Orioles

Perhaps his 4-for-4 day against the Indians last week signaled the start of a 2017 turnaround for Machado, who has struggled this year. But the overall body of work in his career has been extraordinary, and he'll be well compensated for it when he reaches free agency at the end of next season.

Machado soon turns 25, and he has already had three top-10 finishes in the AL MVP race. He missed half a season with a knee injury in 2014, and only four players rank ahead of him in defensive runs saved since he broke into the big leagues.

7. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers

He has the best adjusted ERA+ among all starting pitchers all time, and over the past six seasons, he has won three Cy Young Awards and had a second-, third- and fifth-place finish. Kershaw has already given up more homers this season than in any other season in his career, and his ERA is his highest since 2010. But at a time when a lot of teams routinely pull their starters the third time through the opponents' batting order, Kershaw is among the MLB leaders in innings and strikeouts.

6. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies

Some of the next-level analytics aren't kind to the Rockies' third baseman, and like all Colorado players, he will forever swim upstream against the question of how much of his offensive production is created by the favorable hitting conditions at Coors Field. But evaluators have come to believe this about the multitalented and intense Arenado: He is a player who can be the anchor to a winning team. He is a significant difference-maker.

5. Max Scherzer, RHP, Washington Nationals

The Human No-Hit Alert has a chance to become the rarest of species: Scherzer is well on his way to fully justifying a long-term, big-money investment in a free-agent starting pitcher. In his first 78 starts with the Nationals, Scherzer has 705 strikeouts and 114 walks in 564 2/3 innings -- and an ERA of 2.73 while averaging about seven innings per start.

Going into last weekend, Scherzer led the NL in the pitcher's triple crown categories -- ERA, innings and strikeouts -- at the outset of what has been the best season of his career.

4. Chris Sale, LHP, Boston Red Sox

Remember Sale's quaint season of 2016, when he was all about pitch efficiency and generating ground balls? Well, forget that: Sale has struck out 12.2 batters per nine innings this season, which would rank among the 10 best ratios of all time if he can stay in the same range through the season. He has a 1.97 FIP, and the only active starting pitcher who has fared better in a season is Clayton Kershaw, at 1.811 in 2014. Sale has a chance to rack up something in the range of 330 strikeouts this season; he has never had more than 274. He's one of the best, and he's at his very best in 2017.

3. Mookie Betts, RF, Boston Red Sox

"When you guys have that conversation about who the best young player is -- [Mike] Trout, [Bryce] Harper or [Manny] Machado -- you had better damn well include Mookie Betts," one manager said.

Betts finished behind Trout for the AL MVP Award in 2016, but he is still building his offensive consistency. He is already regarded as one of the game's best baserunners, as well as the best defensive right fielder.

"He's best right fielder I've seen," one evaluator said.

"The best now?" I asked.

"No -- the best ever," he responded. "I've never seen anybody cover so much ground in front of him. Not even close."

2. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks

Arizona's first baseman has finished second in the NL MVP voting twice already, but this might be the season in which Goldschmidt will finally receive the personal acclaim that many of his peers believe is long overdue. He checks every box. Goldschmidt lead the majors in runs and RBIs; and his on-base percentage this season is close to .450, a career best. He ranks in the top five in this baserunning efficiency metric. And he is a superlative defender, perhaps the best among those at his position who throw right-handed.

1. Mike Trout, CF, Los Angeles Angels

He has missed about a month this season because of hamstring and thumb injuries, and yet the only players who ranked higher than Trout in WAR as of June 23 were Aaron Judge and Paul Goldschmidt. That's just one number among the many that demonstrate Trout's preeminence in the sport. Trout was having the best season in a career of unprecedented early success, with an OPS of 1.203, and he expects to be back around the All-Star break. He could collect career hit No. 1,000 and career homer No. 200 right around the time he turns 26 in August.

Toughest omissions: Buster Posey and Carlos Correa

The Giants' disastrous season obscures what has been a spectacular offensive season for Posey, who has a chance to join, again, the very short list of catchers who have won batting titles. Among the catchers who have at least 200 plate appearances this season, Posey leads in wRC+ at 159 -- and he is in a different universe than everybody else. Brian McCann is second at 124. The Giants have a lot of problems, but they have the preeminent player at a premium position.

Correa has taken a big step forward this year, in a season in which his attention to detail has grown. He worked diligently on his defense, especially on grounders hit to his right, and Correa has studied video on his baserunning, about secondary leads. Most obviously, he continues to learn about hitting in the big leagues. Still just 22 years old, Correa is hitting .303, with 14 homers heading into Friday's games.

"Everybody talked about him having a down year [in '16]," one evaluator said. "He had -- what? -- 20 bombs and 96 RBI at age 21? I'll take that."
by Chris Low posted Jun 28 2017 2:24PM
College football's grind has a way of catching up to even the stoutest of teams.

And depending on your conference and your schedule, in particular pockets of your schedule, it could be the difference in a memorable season and a forgettable one.

We've examined the toughest three-game grinds in college football for the 2017 season among Power 5 teams -- three games in three weeks without any byes -- and ranked the 12 toughest. Only four of the teams in our top 12 made it into Mark Schlabach's latest Way-Too-Early Top 25 -- Oklahoma State, Penn State, Texas and West Virginia -- which means the Cowboys, Nittany Lions, Longhorns and Mountaineers could have a hard time crashing the College Football Playoff party for 2017.

Here's what we came up with, keeping in mind that tough road games were weighted more heavily as well as three-game stretches preceded or followed by difficult tests:

Note: All rankings referenced come from Schlabach's too-early Top 25.

1. Mississippi State
Sept. 16 vs. LSU, Sept. 23 at Georgia, Sept. 30 at Auburn

It was only three years ago that Dan Mullen blew the top off the supposed ceiling at Mississippi State by leading the Bulldogs to a No. 1 ranking in November. Once again, there's considerable buzz in Starkville, especially with versatile quarterback Nick Fitzgerald returning, but the Bulldogs have to find a way to survive a brutal September. They get three teams in the top 13 in three weeks. After what's sure to be a black-and-blue, physical matchup with LSU at home, they go on the road to take on Georgia and Auburn in back-to-back weeks. Good luck finding a tougher or more taxing three-game stretch (without a break) -- at least through our June lenses.

2. Penn State
Oct. 21 vs. Michigan, Oct. 28 at Ohio State, Nov. 4 at Michigan State

Perhaps it's some relief for the Nittany Lions that they have a bye week before tackling this gauntlet. They're going to need it. No. 14 Michigan, which handed Penn State its only Big Ten loss a year ago -- a 49-10 rout -- comes to Happy Valley the third week of October. That's followed by back-to-back Big Ten road trips, the first one to No. 1 Ohio State and then to Michigan State. The Spartans were down last season, but it's never easy to win in East Lansing, especially a week removed from playing in the Horseshoe.

3. Vanderbilt
Sept. 16 vs. Kansas State, Sept. 23 vs. Alabama, Sept. 30 at Florida

A year after making a bowl game, Derek Mason and the Commodores will find out pretty quickly in 2017 what kind of team they have. They face a grueling September stretch that starts out of conference with a home date against No. 18 Kansas State, then another home date against No. 2 Alabama followed by a trip to No. 21 Florida. If that's not enough, the very next week, they open the month of October by returning home to take on No. 13 Georgia. Whew!

4. Pittsburgh
Sept. 9 at Penn State, Sept. 16 vs. Oklahoma State, Sept. 23 at Georgia Tech

There won't be any easing into the 2017 schedule for Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers. In Week 2, they hit the road to face No. 5 Penn State. You think the Nittany Lions will be motivated after losing at Pitt a year ago? Then comes a home game against No. 6 Oklahoma State, which throws the ball all over the park with the returning combo of quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington, and the Panthers open ACC play a week later by going on the road and having to deal with Georgia Tech's triple-option attack.

5. Kansas
Nov. 11 at Texas, Nov. 18 vs. Oklahoma, Nov. 25 at Oklahoma State

David Beaty already has a hard enough job trying to pump some life into a Kansas program that hasn't won more than three games in a season since 2009, when the Jayhawks won five. But he enters 2017, albeit on the heels of a raise and a contract extension, with what looks to be the toughest stretch to end the season in the Big 12. How is that fair? Well, college football isn't supposed to be fair. The Jayhawks had better load up on some wins early because they close with three straight preseason Top 25 teams, including the Oklahoma double-whammy: No. 8 Oklahoma at home and No. 6 Oklahoma State on the road.

6. Oregon State
Sept. 30 vs. Washington, Oct. 7 at USC, Oct. 14 vs. Colorado

Talk about a defensive coordinator's nightmare. The Beavers, who were 82nd nationally last season in scoring defense (30.5 points per game), will go from Washington quarterback Jake Browning to USC quarterback Sam Darnold (on the road) to Colorado do-it-all running back Phillip Lindsay in three successive weeks. And all three of those offenses are anything but one-man shows. Among them, Washington, USC and Colorado won 32 games last season, and the Huskies and Trojans are both preseason top-10 teams.

7. West Virginia
Nov. 11 at Kansas State, Nov. 18 vs. Texas, Nov. 25 at Oklahoma

The good news for West Virginia is that quarterback transfer Will Grier is eligible for the 2017 season. But when you look at the Mountaineers' schedule to close the regular season, those last few weeks of November could be treacherous. Two of their final three games are on the road, against No. 18 Kansas State and No. 8 Oklahoma, and sandwiched in between is a home matchup with No. 23 Texas. Dana Holgorsen's club could be a sleeper in the Big 12 race, but how the Mountaineers navigate those last three weeks will go a long way toward defining their season.

8. Oklahoma State
Oct. 21 at Texas, Oct. 28 at West Virginia, Nov. 4 vs. Oklahoma

This has a chance to be one of Mike Gundy's best teams since he took over as head coach at his alma mater in 2005, when Les Miles left for LSU. The Cowboys will need to be at their best to kick off the pivotal second half of the season because they face three preseason Top 25 conference foes in three weeks. The first two are on the road, too, against No. 23 Texas and No. 20 West Virginia, and then to open the month of November, the Cowboys take on in-state rival Oklahoma at home. Making this stretch even more daunting for the Pokes is the fact that they've won only twice since 2003 in the Bedlam series.

9. Cal
Sept. 23 vs. USC, Sept. 30 at Oregon, Oct. 7 at Washington

First-year Cal coach Justin Wilcox has a long and impressive defensive background, and he'll have his work cut out improving a Bears defense that was next-to-last nationally a year ago in scoring defense (42.6 points per game). Then again, a three-game stretch of USC, Oregon and Washington -- the last two of those on the road -- would test any coach. A year ago, the Trojans, Ducks and Huskies combined to score 160 points against the Bears. And on the back end of this three-game stretch, Cal has to return home on a short week to face No. 25 Washington State on a Friday night.

10. Arkansas
Oct. 7 at South Carolina, Oct. 14 at Alabama, Oct. 21 vs. Auburn

The road in the SEC can get ugly, and the Hogs will spend just about all of October away from their home turf. Their three-game grind will start against what should be an improved South Carolina team on the road. The Gamecocks are always a tough out at home. Then comes another road trip to No. 2 Alabama and a home date with No. 10 Auburn. And just for good measure, it's back to the airport the very next week to face Ole Miss in Oxford.

11. Texas
Oct. 7 vs. Kansas State, Oct. 14 vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 21 vs. Oklahoma State

There are more than a few three-game stretches in the Big 12 this season that look anything but inviting. First-year coach Tom Herman gets a taste of the grind in October when the Longhorns square off with three preseason top-20 teams in three weeks. The Longhorns don't have to leave the state of Texas for any of the three, with the Oklahoma game being played annually in Dallas, but it's still the kind of gauntlet that could add up to three straight losses for any team not playing its best football.

12. Virginia
Nov. 4 vs. Georgia Tech, Nov. 11 at Louisville, Nov. 18 at Miami

Sometimes, simply getting to November with some semblance of health is difficult for a football team. For the Cavaliers, the stakes are only raised this season when they get to that final month, a three-game stretch that begins with Georgia Tech and its maddening triple-option offense. From there, UVa goes on the road and gets to deal with 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville followed by another trip to Miami and a Hurricanes front seven on defense that might be their most imposing in years.
by David Newton posted Jun 13 2017 9:23AM
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The past two months have been anything but a vacation for Carolina Panthers first-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey because of an NFL rule that prohibits him from joining the team until Stanford’s school year ends.

The former Stanford running back has spent three hours every morning training and undergoing treatment from his hometown of Denver, and the rest of his day watching film and talking on the phone with running backs coach Jim Skipper.

He insists he hasn’t done anything fun, outside of going to a Rockies baseball game, while his teammates have been in voluntary offseason workouts.

“I figure the guys on my team aren’t doing anything fun, so I’m trying to walk in and stay on their schedule,” McCaffrey told “I’m trying to put myself as much in a situation as they’re in as possible.”

McCaffrey arrived in Charlotte on Sunday to get acclimated to his new home. He’ll begin working out with the team on Wednesday, the second day of a mandatory three-day minicamp.

“I won’t be behind as far as the plays go in practice,” McCaffrey said. “Getting acclimated and comfortable with the team, I’ll be a little bit behind. But that will come.”

McCaffrey would like to see a change in the rule Carolina coach Ron Rivera said unnecessarily punishes players like McCaffrey. Tight end Greg Olsen said the rule is backward.

McCaffrey repeatedly said it’s been a “bummer” having to stay away since a rookie minicamp in early May, especially because he wasn’t enrolled in classes at Stanford this quarter.

“I understand the concept of the rule,” said McCaffrey, referring to the language in the collective bargaining agreement designed to allow college players to finish the school year and work toward a degree without the pressure of football.

“But at the same time, for a guy like me that is just trying to get out there and get acclimated to the team and compete, it’s tough.”

Outside of quarterback Cam Newton possibly throwing for the first time since March 30 shoulder surgery and an appearance from tackle Michael Oher, who hasn’t participated in the voluntary workouts and remains in the concussion protocol, McCaffrey’s arrival will be the biggest news of this minicamp.

McCaffrey, who lives and breathes football the same way that Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly does, can’t wait.

“It’s tough being away from a competitive atmosphere for that long, but I still push myself every day in my training and studies,” McCaffrey said.

What McCaffrey has missed the most is the opportunity to bond with his new teammates. That’s something he can’t really do on the phone or in text messages.

“It’s definitely a major factor,” McCaffrey said. “Everyone wants to be close to your team. You don’t want to have guys that don’t feel comfortable in the locker room.

“But they’ve been so welcoming to me. The times I have been there, the vets have been so great to me, reaching out to me, texting me, giving me advice. So I know I’m not there, but I definitely feel very comfortable.”

McCaffrey also is comfortable with sharing the backfield with veteran Jonathan Stewart, 30, who said last week he wasn’t worried about losing carries to the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up.

“He said it best; we’re trying to win a Super Bowl,” said McCaffrey, referring to the quote from Stewart. “I don’t care if I get no carries and just play special teams. I’m there to try to win football games and help that team win.

“Every great team has multiple backs. Very few times do you have just one back. To be able to share the backfield with him and the other guys is going to be a lot of fun.”

McCaffrey will be fun to watch. He’ll help the Panthers as a runner, receiver out of the backfield, slot receiver and kick returner. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to make plays even when on the field at the same time as Stewart.

Countless hours of film study have only whetted his appetite to get started.

“It’s an unbelievable football team across the board,” McCaffrey said. “It’s exciting for me, because coming in as a rookie, just being able to pick these guys’ brains and learn from them, compete with them every day, is going to be a lot of fun.”

McCaffrey’s father, former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, has done all he can to help his son prepare for this moment.

So has Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson, who went through what Christian McCaffrey has with the rule when the Panthers selected him out of Washington in the first round two years ago.

“He just told me to enjoy the time at home and I’ll be fine when I get back,” McCaffrey said. “It does suck [not being there], but at the same time I’ve enjoyed being at my home with my family for the last time in a while.”
by Chris Low posted Jun 13 2017 8:57AM
There was a lot of anticipation among scouts for Greg Holland's first spring training outing in a Colorado Rockies uniform, and there was a lot of mystery. Holland had thrown for scouts in November, as he neared the end of his summer of rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery, and in the opinion of many who were there, he did not look good. His fastball velocity was way down from his days with the Kansas City Royals, with some teams clocking him in the mid-80s.

As such, there was some surprise when the Rockies signed Holland before he hosted another army of scouts, and the incentive-laden contract had more earning power than expected by some rival executives. In the mind of some in the industry, Colorado had bet heavily on a pitcher, far more than others would have based on that workout.

But Holland looked good in that first spring training outing, and through the first 40 percent of the 2017 season, Holland has pitched exceptionally -- so good that he seems to be a shoe-in for the National League All-Star team and could be considered the best signing of the winter free-agent class (other nominees are listed below).

Holland has allowed one home run among just 10 hits in 23 2/3 innings, and he is 23-for-23 in save chances, the sort of performance that Rockies evaluators have only dreamed about through the team's tepid history of pitching.

"At the end of the day, it was a calculated risk," Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich said in a phone conversation Saturday. "A calculated risk we needed to take."

Holland's agent, Scott Boras, assumed that the best offers for his client would develop after the big three free-agent closers came off the board -- Mark Melancon, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. As the game of free-agent musical chairs played out and the big three signed, the Washington Nationals and the Rockies were the teams with the greatest need for a closer. Washington's ownership wasn’t ready to commit the kind of money that Boras discussed.

The Rockies, on the other hand, went all-in learning about Holland as a person. Steve Foster, the Rockies' pitching coach, knew Holland from when both were in the Royals’ organization and vouched for both the pitcher’s character and his competitiveness. That Holland emerged as the closer at the back end of a bullpen that included the talented Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera said a lot about Holland, Bridich thought. The Rockies were aware that Holland even tried to pitch through a torn elbow ligament in 2015, as Kansas City worked to get back to the World Series.

The Rockies also had a unique evaluation weapon in bullpen coach Darren Holmes, who, like Holland, lived in Asheville, North Carolina. Holmes’ pitching personality during his career was very similar to Holland's: no messing around, all business, attack the hitters. Plus, Holmes could relate to the particular challenges of pitching at Coors Field. Holmes and Holland talked and texted, and their communication served as another layer of understanding about Holland.

"He’s a regular, hard-working Asheville, North Carolina, baseball player," Bridich said. "I know he's got the trust of everybody -- and he's got the trust in spades. This is a man who is hell-bent on getting back to where he was before he was hurt."

The Rockies saw Holland in a long-toss session in January, confirmation for them that he was healthy. Boras and Bridich negotiated an unusual deal that provided the Rockies some protection in the event that Holland got hurt but also gave Holland a chance to be paid well. Holland got $6 million in base salary and $1 million guaranteed in a possible buyout of his 2018 deal, but if Holland accumulated 30 games finished or pitched in 50 games, the 2018 contract would vest into a 2017 player option for $15 million.

Holland already has 25 games finished, and his 2018 player option should vest by the end of the month. On May 21, he picked up an extra $1 million for his 20th game finished. There is an $8 million maximum for performance bonus this year, which he could build two ways. He gets $500,000 each for 30, 35, 40, 45, 50 and 55 pitching appearances. For games finished, he gets $1 million apiece for 20 and 30 and $2 million each for 40, 50 and 60.

It’s possible that he’ll make $35 million in his two-year deal with the Rockies, and with Colorado in first place and Holland serving as "shade" -- to use Boras' word -- over the rest of what is a young pitching staff, the team ranks 10th in ERA.

Here are some other nominees for best free-agent signing of the winter:

2. Ivan Nova, Pittsburgh Pirates

Three years, $26 million

In 12 starts, he has a 3.04 ERA with only seven walks in 83 innings.

3. Logan Morrison, Tampa Bay Rays

One year, $2.5 million

Because of his command of the strike zone and his willingness to take a walk, Morrison has long been seen as a hitter with untapped potential. But this year, the 29-year-old Morrison seems to be putting it all together: He has 10 doubles and 17 homers, an .893 OPS and an adjusted OPS+ of 143. The high volume of first base/corner outfield/DH types greatly depressed the prices on this group of players during the winter, and it might be that the Rays got the best bargain of the lot.

4. Mitch Moreland, Boston Red Sox

One year, $5.5 million

He has given Boston just about everything it hoped for with the signing: some left-handed thump (an OPS of .858) and good defense at first base. He’s on pace for 46 doubles and 84 runs.

5. Koji Uehara, Chicago Cubs

One year, $6 million

Nobody can give a sound explanation for how the 42-year-old Uehara can pass his mediocre fastball through the middle of the strike zone without it being obliterated. But he keeps doing it over and over. He has 25 strikeouts and only five walks in 20 1/3 innings.

6. Matt Holliday, New York Yankees

One year, $13 million

He has been very productive for the Yankees, with 23 extra-base hits and 27 walks so far. For Aaron Judge, Holliday’s arrival was perfectly timed to provide a big-bodied teammate who is very serious about hitting to act as a sounding board on mechanics and approach. The Yankees are so loaded with outfield/DH options in the big leagues and in their farm system that it seems unlikely they’ll bring Holliday back -- certainly not at the current rate -- but for 2017, the investment in him has been spectacular.

7. Matt Wieters, Washington Nationals

One year, $10.5 million, with a $10.5 million player option for 2018

He has stepped into the vacancy created by the departure of Wilson Ramos and has contributed offensively and defensively.

8. Charlie Morton, Houston Astros

Two years, $14 million

Morton is currently on the disabled list, but he started well, with his fastball velocity at a career high. The Astros encouraged Morton to throw really hard early in the game, with less concern about pitching deep into his outings, and this sprinter’s approach has worked for Morton: He’s 5-3 with a 4.06 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings.

9. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

Five years, $80 million

This signing is different than some of the others on the list in its enormity, and after the Dodgers’ agreements with Rich Hill and Justin Turner, there was surprise that L.A. would extend itself to this level. But Jansen has been incredible so far this season, with 41 strikeouts, no walks and just one homer (Justin Bour of the Marlins) in 24 1/3 innings.
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