5 winter meetings thoughts: Phillies/Tyson Ross; McCutchen; Benoit

5 winter meetings thoughts: Phillies/Tyson Ross; McCutchen; Benoit

Five thoughts on the early happenings at the winter meetings:

1. McCutchen rumors
The most mentioned player right now is Andrew McCutchen, who is likely to be traded by the Pirates. McCutchen is by far Pittsburgh's most popular player, the one credited with leading the Bucs out of their lengthy playoff slump. He's won an MVP and led the league in hits, on-base percentage and OPS at one point. 

I don't think McCutchen is finished as a star player. From 2012 to 2015, he hit .313/.404/.523 and averaged 65 extra-base hits (25 HR), 82 walks and 120 strikeouts. Last season, he hit .256/.336/.430 with 53 extra-base hits (24 HR), 69 walks and 143 strikeouts.

McCutchen's bat and legs looked a bit slower last season. His numbers with two strikes plummeted. But I still think he's going to hit around .290 with a .400-plus OBP in 2017. The guy's 30, not 36. 

The Nationals have been the team connected to McCutchen the most, but reports indicate they're unwilling to part with their top, top prospects. There's demand for McCutchen, but I still don't see the Pirates getting full value based on McCutchen's lackluster 2016 and the $28.75M owed to him the next two seasons.

2. Benoit a good idea for Phillies
The Phillies haven't officially signed Joaquin Benoit, but my early take on the move, if it happens, would be that such a deal is rarely a bad idea. Benoit will turn 40 in July, but he's maintained his effectiveness throughout his late-30s. Since 2010, a span of seven seasons, Benoit has a 2.40 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and a .189 opponents' batting average. Those are elite numbers. 

Benoit's fastball last season averaged 94.2 mph, a higher mark than he had seven seasons ago.

3. Tyson Ross a fit for Phils?
The most surprising non-tender last Friday was Padres right-handed starting pitcher Tyson Ross. The 29-year-old had a 3.03 ERA in 64 starts in 2014 and 2015 and was San Diego's opening day starter in 2016, but that was the only start he made. Ross hurt his right shoulder, had several setbacks and then underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in October. The recovery time is believed to be 4 to 6 months, putting him on pace to potentially be ready to pitch early next season.

A lot of teams will show interest in Ross, who was projected to make about $9.5 million in 2017, his final year before free agency. The Phillies should be one of the teams to examine Ross' health, and if they feel he has a real shot to return early next season, they should be aggressive to try to sign him. 

It's highly unlikely a pitcher with Ross' current bill of health will get a long-term contract. The Phillies, who have a ton of money to spend, could offer him a high one-year salary, allowing him a chance to make some money and reestablish his value. If he pitches well, they could try to keep him in the fold or trade him. 

Many teams will be connected to Ross because he's an intriguing name in a thin starting pitching market. But he makes as much sense for the Phillies as any other team — they have the payroll space, and they're at the juncture in their rebuild when it makes sense to take chances.

4. Closer market gone wild
The expected massive contracts for closers Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen reflect the growing importance of star relievers. They also reflect the precedent set by the Phillies with Jonathan Papelbon's contract in 2012. Papelbon's $50 million deal was the most expensive ever for a closer at the time. These deals will exceed it by about $30 million, if not more. And they'll be logical contracts for the teams that sign them. The Marlins are thought to be aggressively pursuing one of them.

Mark Melancon reportedly agreed to a four-year, $62 million deal with the Giants, who badly needed a closer. Melancon's ERAs and saves totals have been comparable to Chapman's and Jansen's in recent years, but his stuff isn't. Melancon is much more reliant on command, and of the three closers I'd bet on his results declining first.

5. Typical Theo
The Cubs' addition of Jon Jay was such an under-the-radar, Theo Epstein move. I bet it pays off. Jay, a left-handed hitter who can play all three outfield positions, has been dogged by injuries the last two years but is still a heck of a hitter. He's hit .287 with a .352 OBP in 3,000 plate appearances, and is a player I always thought the Phillies should have pursued. 

Jay has underrated skills. He's not blazing fast and he doesn't have double-digit home run power, but if he's healthy he's going to hit .290 to .300 for your team with solid defense. He's like Martin Prado with better speed, defense and plate discipline. Wise way to protect against losing Dexter Fowler and do it in an inexpensive way.

Best of MLB: Indians pick up 27th win in last 28 games

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Best of MLB: Indians pick up 27th win in last 28 games

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It's time for the 2017 Cleveland Indians to be introduced to the one and only 1884 Providence Grays.

They share some unlikely history, the two teams, which played a mere 141 years apart, are the only two clubs to have ever won 27 out of 28 games.

The Indians joined the Grays on Thursday when Francisco Lindor's three-run homer led Cleveland to a 4-1 victory and three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels.

The Grays ended up winning 28 of 29, leaving the Indians one game shy of matching the record (see full recap).

Cubs rally in 9th, beat Brewers to open big series
MILWAUKEE -- Javier Baez grounded a tying single with two outs in the ninth inning, Kris Bryant hit a two-run homer in the 10th and the Chicago Cubs widened their NL Central lead over Milwaukee, beating the Brewers 5-3 Thursday night.

The Cubs now are 4 1/2 games ahead of the Brewers after winning the opener of a four-game series.

Milwaukee was in position to win it in the bottom of the ninth, loading the bases with one out. But Wade Davis (4-1) struck out Domingo Santana and then, after falling behind 3-1 in the count to Orlando Arcia, came back to retire him on an easy comebacker on a full-count pitch.

The Cubs trailed 3-2 when Ian Happ led off the ninth by hitting a grounder that first baseman Neil Walker fielded wide of the bag. Reliever Jeremy Jeffress covered first and Happ was called safe in a close play, a ruling upheld on replay (see full recap).

Twins rout Tigers, lead AL wild card by 2½ games
DETROIT -- With a postseason berth tantalizingly close, the Minnesota Twins snapped out of their mini-slump in emphatic fashion.

Joe Mauer and Jorge Polanco had three hits each, and the Twins extended their lead for the American League's second wild card by beating the Detroit Tigers 12-1 on Thursday night. Minnesota is 2 games ahead of the Angels in the race for the AL's final postseason spot. Los Angeles lost earlier in the day to Cleveland .

The Twins had lost five of six coming into the night, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the New York Yankees, but they routed a depleted Detroit team that is 4-17 in September after trading Justin Verlander and Justin Upton.

"As a whole in this season, it's been pretty impressive," Minnesota manager Paul Molitor said. "Staying away from the long losing streaks, coming back from some tough losses and some tough stretches and getting back to playing winning baseball, for the most part,” (see full recap).

Fowler delivers again as Cardinals beat Reds
CINCINNATI -- The St. Louis Cardinals rinsed the bad taste of being swept by the Chicago Cubs the best way they could -- sweeping the Cincinnati Reds.

Dexter Fowler delivered again, hitting two doubles and a single as St. Louis overcame Scott Schebler's two home runs to beat the Reds 8-5 Thursday night.

The Cardinals began the day 2 games behind Colorado for the second NL wild-card spot and five games behind the Central-leading Cubs.

Fowler drove in two runs. He went 7 for 13 with two home runs and six RBIs in the three-game series (see full recap).

Despite series finale loss to Dodgers, Phillies show they can 'compete with the best teams in the league'

Despite series finale loss to Dodgers, Phillies show they can 'compete with the best teams in the league'

BOX SCORE

In the end, things reverted to form: The Dodgers won and the Phillies lost.

The Dodgers are headed to the playoffs, the Phillies to who-knows-where.

Los Angeles scored twice in the seventh inning Thursday afternoon to beat the Phils, 5-4, and salvage the finale of a four-game series (see observations).

The Dodgers, the majors’ best team at 97-56, lowered their magic number to one for clinching a fifth straight NL West championship. The Phils, baseball’s second-worst team at 61-92, were left with a lovely parting gift: hope.

“I think it’s a good lesson,” J.P. Crawford, the rookie shortstop-turned-third baseman, said of the series as a whole. “It showed us, or showed me, we can compete with the best teams in the league. Just can’t wait to see what next year has in store for us.”

Crawford, the 16th overall pick in 2013, drew three walks in four plate appearances and fielded eight chances flawlessly, at least four of which could be described as moderately difficult.

In addition, Mark Leiter Jr. pitched six strong innings, Rhys Hoskins did another Rhys Hoskins thing — i.e., hit a two-run double in the fifth — and Nick Williams launched a two-run homer.

So it was that the Phillies finished the homestand with a 7-3 record. They have won eight of their last 12, and are 32-34 since the All-Star break, after going 29-58 beforehand.

There are those who question how much it means for an also-ran to excel in September, when the pressure is off. It would appear that Phillies manager Pete Mackanin is not among those people. He mentioned in particular how valuable it is for his young relievers to face teams in the thick of the race.

“To get this kind of experience is worth a lot,” he said. “It’s a big part of this year.”

One of those relievers, Ricardo Pinto, faltered Thursday, allowing those two seventh-inning runs to take the loss. But Leiter, who had pitched to a 9.39 ERA in three previous September starts, allowed just one earned run on five hits over his six innings of work. He struck out three and walked one.

So it’s one for his résumé going forward. And he said a strong finish to the season — the Phils have nine games left — is “important for everybody.”

“I don't know if it's more important for us than other teams,” he said, “but you want to finish strong and start strong. Those are the goals. That's baseball. You're going to have some ups and downs, and to take a series is a good thing.”

Crawford, called up from Triple A Lehigh Valley on Sept. 5, hit .200 without a walk in his first six major-league games. In his last nine, he is slashing .296/.474/.481, with 10 walks and seven strikeouts in 38 plate appearances.

“Just a matter of getting my feet settled down,” he said, “and just being comfortable in the box.”

“It’s good to see,” Mackanin said. “He was advertised as someone who controls the strike zone and he’s proven that he can do that. Walk’s as good as a hit — the old saying. He keeps innings alive and he doesn’t expand the strike zone, he makes the pitcher get him out and he’ll take a walk, which is important.”

Speaking generally about such an approach (and not about Crawford in particular), Mackanin had only one small reservation.

“One of the problems with a guy who walks too often is you’d like him to be a little more aggressive at times,” he said, “but in general it’s good to see.”

Crawford made his eighth start at third base, and while he doesn’t possess the power bat normally required of someone who plays the position, he certainly looks like he can hold his own with the glove.

“There’s not really much transition,” he said. “I’m just going over there, reacting, catching the ball, throwing the ball.”

If nothing else, he gives the Phillies a possible alternative to Maikel Franco, who has struggled all year.

And if nothing else, the team as a whole has shown there is some reason for hope.