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HC3 Cold Hard Sports

Entering play on Monday, the Chicago Cubs were the best team in baseball. They had the best record -- they are MLB's only team with a .600 winning percentage -- two elite sluggers in Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo who are both front-runners for the NL MVP award and a durable, experienced starting rotation with all five guys sporting ERAs below 3.80.

If they had a weakness, it was their bullpen. And even that is a liberal use of the word "weakness."

So, not surprisingly, Theo Epstein chose to address that very aspect one week away from the August 1 Trade Deadline. He did it in dramatic fashion, extracting one of the biggest fish on the trade market away from the New York Yankees in the form of closer Aroldis Chapman.

"I am excited about today's trade and look forward to joining the Chicago Cubs and meeting my new teammates," Chapman said in a statement. "It is a privilege to wear the Cubs uniform and to play for the fans of Chicago."

Entering play Tuesday, the Cubs still have the best team in baseball and a dynamic core of young talent. Now, though, they also have the best closer in baseball. No longer are the Cubs the favorites to win the World Series. They are the overwhelming favorites. 

As the saying goes, the rich get richer.

The fact that the Cubs were already the favorites to win the World Series didn't matter. Epstein was still willing to trade an enormous package consisting of four players-- including their top prospect, shortstop Gleyber Torres, and No. 5 prospect, outfielder Billy McKinney -- for a few months of a closer who will be a free agent after this season.

But not all closers are created equal; for a player of Chapman's caliber, it is not at all surprising that his price was so high. There's simply no other way to put it: Chapman is a freak of nature. The 28-year-old Cuban lefty has thrown 1,513 pitches that have been clocked at 100 mph or more since 2010. Not only is that the most in baseball, it is more than the next 18 on the list combined. 

His arm has been even more electric this season. His average fastball velocity so far in 2016? 100 mph. That's a full two mph faster than the next-closest player. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he has already thrown 44 pitches that have been recorded at 103 mph or faster, which is 16 more than he has thrown in any of his previous seasons.

Chapman has also translated that blistering velocity into incredible dominance. His career K/9 of 15.2 is the highest in MLB history of anyone with a minimum of 250 innings pitched, and he has been one of the best closers in the game since he saved 38 games for the Cincinnati Reds in 2012.

That long track record of excellence is likely a big reason why the Cubs chose to overlook Chapman's off-field troubles in the past. Last October he allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired eight gunshots in his garage, which earned him a 30-game suspension for violating MLB's domestic violence policy. 

"We understand there will be lots of different perspectives on this, but we have strong feelings about this," Epstein told reporters Monday after the trade was consummated, via Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune. "People will feel differently about that. We understand that and respect it.

"But in the end ... we decided it was appropriate to trade for a player who has accepted his discipline, already has been disciplined by MLB, has expressed his sorrow and regret for the incident."

Said Chapman, "I regret that I did not exercise better judgment and for that I am truly sorry. Looking back, I feel I have learned from this matter and have grown as a person. My girlfriend and I have worked hard to strengthen our relationship, to raise our daughter together, and would appreciate the opportunity to move forward without revisiting an event we consider part of our past."

So, we know that Chapman is an awesome pitcher and we have also been told why the Cubs believe in him despite his checkered past. But the bigger question is: how will he help the Cubs and why did they think they needed him? 

Chapman is a four-time All-Star, and he had a 2.01 ERA and 20 saves as a Yankee in 2016.
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

First and foremost, he bolsters a bullpen that has struggled of late. Chicago's bullpen has been less effective with each passing month. In July, it has pitched to the tune of a 4.64 ERA -- 24th in MLB -- and blown three saves. It seems that every team that plays deep into October has a solid back-end of the bullpen, which is why the Cubs felt they had to upgrade.

Now, Pedro Strop (2.87 ERA) or Carl Edwards (1.93) can pitch the seventh inning, former closer Hector Rondon (1.95 ERA, 18 saves) can pitch the eighth and Chapman can pitch the ninth. Maybe not quite as lethal as the three-headed monster the Yankees had in their bullpen for the first-half of this year (Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Chapman), but certainly good enough to hold its own.

The Cubs have also been playing plenty of one-run games this season and, per ESPN Stats & Info, they haven't had near as much success as last year. Once the postseason comes around, it is a given that they will play in close games, and the addition of Chapman can only help.

Chapman also adds a component to the Cubs' bullpen that it sorely needed: another left-handed reliever. Left-handed batters are hitting .412 against Clayton Richard and .304 against Justin Grimm. Travis Wood, another southpaw, has been the only middle reliever effective against lefties, and he has already pitched in 49 games, the fourth-most appearances in the league. All told, the Cubs left-handed relievers have allowed a .986 OPS in July.

Add Chapman to the mix, and manager Joe Maddon has yet another weapon at his disposal to get out tough lefties such as Bryce Harper, Brandon Belt and Daniel Murphy in October when all outs are crucial.

All told, trading for Chapman does not promise the Cubs a championship. Nothing in the postseason is guaranteed, after all. But what the acquisition of an elite closer does do is give them another tool in the tool box, bolster the team's only resemblance of a weakness and add someone to the roster with the capability to record the toughest outs in the late innings of the games that matter most.

Chapman cannot singlehandedly put an end to the infamous Curse of the Billy Goat, but you can bet that he will be a vital part of the Cubs' quest to bring a championship home to the north side of Chicago for the first time since 1908. And if that does happen, don't be surprised if their big deadline acquisition is the one to record the final three outs.

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"Everyone will see the real me this year. I just have to stay healthy."

Those words were spoken by Robinson Cano during Spring Training, via Bob Nightengale of USA Today, and oh my have they proven to be true. To fully understand just how much better he has been this year than last, look no further than his first-half stats from each season.

2015: .251 AVG, 6 HR, 30 RBI, 38 runs scored, 86 OPS+

2016: .313 AVG, 21 HR, 58 RBI, 64 runs scored, 146 OPS+

Literally opposite ends of the spectrum. First-half of last year, Cano was relegated to a singles hitter who didn't even hit enough singles to be effective. It was later revealed that he had a double hernia that required offseason surgery.

This time around he is fully healthy, hitting inside pitches with authority and looking like the dominant second baseman who finished in the top six in the MVP voting four years in a row as a member of the New York Yankees. The 33-year-old Cano, who played in his seventh All-Star Game earlier this month and also participated in the Home Run Derby, notices the difference.

"It's a big difference now," he told Bleacher Report's Scott Miller. "Last year, I had to figure out how to play with it. Now, I can look at each pitch [and decide whether or not to pull the trigger]."

There might not be a prettier swing in the game than Cano's.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

He finished on a high note last season -- slashing .331/.387/.540 with 15 home runs in the second half -- but still the most impressive stat from last year came in the most mundane category: games played. Despite the injuries and ineffectiveness, he refused to ask manager Lloyd McClendon for rest.

It would have been very easy for a player of Cano's caliber to shut it down. The team wasn't winning, had no chance of making the postseason and he was obviously struggling physically, but he still went to the office each day down the stretch and only missed six games all season.

In 2016, Cano has played all 95 games, and he is making them count as well. He leads all second basemen in home runs and is second in both RBI and runs scored. He is tied for second in all of baseball in total bases and has also nearly doubled his WAR total from last season, according to FanGraphs. 

"I've seen him a lot over the years," teammate Adam Lind said, per Nightengale, "and this might be the best I've seen him look. It's been amazing."

Cano has also made an impact defensively, where he is tied with Dustin Pedroia for the MLB-lead in defensive runs saved among second basemen. 

In addition to his return to stardom in the batter's box, he is back to being an elite defender as well.
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

“Now, I just feel so good,’’ Cano told Nightengale. “I have my confidence back. Now I can hit like I want to hit, and make the plays I want to make. I can move to my left, to my right, everything."

In the batter's box, he has also evolved. He is hitting significantly more fly balls and fewer ground balls and, with his increased bat speed, he has translated those fly balls into home runs at an increased clip. 

His home run percentage is at a career-high, courtesy of Baseball-Reference:

Add it all up, and it looks like Cano has returned to being the MVP-caliber superstar that he was when the Mariners signed him to a massive 10-year, $240 million contract back in 2013. He is finally healthy, knocking the cover off the ball and holding up his end of the club's 1-2 power punch with Nelson Cruz

Since the Mariners were picked as World Series favorites by some prior to the start of the 2015 season, they haven't enjoyed a whole lot of success. They haven't made the playoffs since 2001 and are an even 47-47 this year, but maybe Cano's resurgence can change their luck.

After going 1-for-4 with a home run Tuesday against the White Sox, Cano's batting average sits at .305. He is on pace to smash 38 home runs, drive in 102 runs and cross the plate 113 times. The home runs and runs scored would both be career highs, while the RBI output would be the fourth-best of his 11-year career.

Even though he started terribly in 2015, Cano still managed to save the season by heating up in the second half. This year, Cano's task involves following up his terrific first half with an encore of similar production. Considering that he is fully healthy and seemingly himself again in the batter's box and in the field, there is no reason that we shouldn't see the All-Star production continue as the calendar flips to August and September.  

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MLB

HC3's MLB First-Half Awards

With the All-Star Game festivities in San Diego's PETCO Park now complete and the beginning of the second half right around the corner, it is time to reveal my first-half awards. With home runs clearing fences at an astonishing rate but also several ace pitchers continuing to do their thing, there were some close calls, yet in my opinion, all the winners are certainly deserving.

Here goes:

National League Most Valuable Player: Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If you believe in the infamous "sophomore slump" that so many young stars tend to go through, the 24-year-old third baseman is doing his best to eradicate that idea. Bryant has been the best and most consistent hitter on his team, which is incredible considering the star-studded lineup he hits in as well as the fact that teammate Anthony Rizzo had a stellar first half as well. 

Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw also got strong consideration -- after all, the Dodgers are a pretty formidable team when he is on the mound and a very mediocre one when he isn't -- but I have always been of the mindset that a player had to be on the field everyday to be considered the "most valuable."

So Bryant is the obvious choice. He leads all National Leaguers in FanGraphs' WAR, home runs and runs scored and is second in wRC+. The former University of San Diego standout also sports a .286 batting average to go along with a .578 slugging percentage.

Also considered: Kershaw, Rizzo, Nolan Arenado, Matt Carpenter

American League Most Valuable Player: Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

This selection was not nearly as clear-cut as the NL. Donaldson and Mike Trouts boast nearly identical statlines and Jose Altuve has been terrific for the red-hot Astros, but in the end, Donaldson gets the nod. It came down to him and Trout, who is revered by most as the best player in the game.

And while he might be, Donaldson had a better first half. He hit more home runs, scored more runs and drove in more runs that Trout and while the Angels outfielder does have more steals and better batting average, Donaldson has a higher OPS and is the better defender.

In addition, Donaldson became only the sixth player in American League history to hit 20+ homers and score 80+ runs at the All-Star Break. The Auburn product has cemented himself as one of the best all-around players in Major League Baseball, and it seems as if he is only getting better.

Also considered: Trout, Altuve, Manny Machado, Ian Desmond

NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers 

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Even with Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and several other premier starters having excellent seasons, Kershaw reigns supreme. 2016 has been just another Kershaw year, as the Dodgers southpaw sits at 11-2 with a sparkling 1.74 ERA and 145 strikeouts in 121 innings. 

In 16 starts, Kershaw has only allowed more than two runs on two occasions, and the Dodgers have won 14 of those games. His 0.73 WHIP is the lowest first-half total since 1913, according to Baseball-Reference. But even more impressive than that is his ridiculous strikeout-to-walk ratio of 16.1:1. Six times he has struck out at least ten batters in a game without issuing a single walk.

It's absurd how good Kershaw is, and I don't envision anyone seizing control of the "Best Pitcher on the Planet" sobriquet from him in the near future.

Also Considered: Bumgarner, Jose Fernandez, Cueto, Scherzer, Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard

AL Cy Young: Danny Salazar, Cleveland Indians

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

This one was unquestionably the toughest pick to make. I thought about Chris Sale, who started for the AL in the All-Star Game. I considered Corey Kluber, who leads the league in fielding independent pitchip (FIP), per FanGraphs, which is an advanced metric that eliminates variables that are out of the pitchers' control like luck and fielding. I even gave some thought to Boston's knuckleball sensation Steven Wright, who has been superb this season.

But in the end, Salazar got the nod by a sliver over his teammate, Kluber. He has been brilliant all year, and his 10-3 record, 2.75 ERA and 10.1 K/9 reflect that dominance. He is the only pitcher in the league who ranks in the top-three of the AL in ERA, K/9, ERA+ and FIP. 

Sale's 14-3 record looks impressive on paper, but not when you add in the fact that he has pitched to the tune of a 4.46 ERA since May 12. Salazar throws extremely hard -- his heater has averaged 95 mph -- and also possesses a devastating changeup as well as a solid slider and breaking ball. He is a nightmare for opposing hitters, and if he can continue pitching at this rate he might be able to bring home the first Cy Young of his career.

Also considered: Sale, Kluber, Wright, Marco Estrada

NL Rookie of the Year: Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers

Seager participated in Monday's Home Run Derby at Petco Park in San Diego.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

There has been an emergence of young, talented shortstops that have overtaken MLB, and Seager has made a solid case as one of the best. After a cup of coffee late last season and postseason, the Dodgers' first-round pick in 2012 has broken out in a big way in 2016.

He leads all NL rookies in WAR -- offensive and defensive -- as well as runs scored, and 17 home runs, a .297 batting average and a .879 OPS to boot. The 22-year-old is on pace to hit 30 home runs with 75 RBI, 107 runs scored, 39 doubles and five triples. That would be the most homers and most extra-base hits ever by an NL rookie shortstop.

Seager's tremendous production has allowed him to shine brightly even in a year when fellow NL shortstops Trevor Story (21 homers) and Aledmys Diaz (.315 batting average) have had breakout seasons of their own. 

Also considered: Story, Diaz, Steven Matz

AL Rookie of the Year: Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As I stated earlier, I generally give hitters more consideration for these type of awards because they impact the game more often, but in this case, there simply wasn't a better option than Fulmer. He had a superb first half, especially recently -- he allowed only four earned runs in the past seven weeks.

In all, his first-half stats look like this: 9-2, 2.11 ERA, 76.1 innings. There isn't another AL rookie who can match those numbers. The Rangers' Nomar Mazara has superstar potential, but going by wRC+ he has been a below league-average hitter. Tyler Naquin has been spectacular for the first-place Indians -- he leads AL hitters in WAR despite playing in only 58 games -- but he hasn't proven yet that he can sustain that success and Fulmer has been downright filthy of late.

His fastball-slider combo is electric and he also mixes in a sinker and changeup to keep hitters off balance. Fulmer probably won't be able to maintain the pace he has been pitching at recently, but he looks like he has all the makings of a successful big league pitcher.

Also considered: Naquin, Mazara, Whit Merrifield

NL Manager of the Year: Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Maddon is, in my opinion, the best manager in baseball, but he is winning with a loaded squad at his disposal. Bochy, on the other hand, is winning at a better rate with a less-talented roster. His starting rotation after Bumgarner and Cueto has been a bit suspect, but Bochy has proven once again that he is the master at handling a bullpen and maximizing talent.

Offensively, the Giants have only one batter hitting over .300, and the team doesn't have a lot of power either. Buster Posey leads the team with only 11 home runs. But San Francisco, as always, wins with great defense and timely hitting, and they are winning a lot this year. They have the most wins in all of baseball and are 6.5 games ahead of the Dodgers in the NL West. 

It is, after all, an even year, so don't be surprised if the Giants make another deep run in the postseason. If that happens, Bochy will undoubtedly be a big reason why.

Also considered: Maddon and Dusty Baker

AL Manager of the Year: Buck Showalter, Baltimore Orioles

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Who would have ever thought the O's would be leading the AL East after the first half? Not many, considering the Blue Jays were coming off of a spectacular 2015 season and the Red Sox were aggressive in the offseason, acquiring David Price to anchor their starting rotation.

Showalter's rotation has no such anchor, which is a big reason why it has the third-highest ERA of any rotation in the majors. Even with Adam Jones getting off to an ultra-slow start, Showalter has the Orioles atop the standings heading into the second half. Since moving Jones to the leadoff spot in the order, he has started hitting, and with a lineup consisting of Manny Machado, Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo, the Orioles are in good hands offensively moving forward. 

Also considered: A.J. Hinch and Terry Francona

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