July 2011

The Legend of Jose Altuve

By R.J. Anderson //

On Tuesday night, the Astros traded Jeff Keppinger to the Giants for two relief prospects. While the move looks more significant for the Giants, in Houston it opens the door for Jose Altuve. It’s possible you’ve never heard of the 21-year-old Altuve, as he isn’t a top prospect—not even within Houston’s system—but you probably will remember his sight for years to come, as he stands just 5-foot-7.

Altuve, who started the season in High-A, is jumping to the majors from Double-A because all he has done in the minors is hit. He hit .408/.451/.606 with High-A Lancaster, then .361/.388/.569 with Double-A Corpus Christi. Double-A is often said to be the level of the minors where the men are separated from the boys, and Altuve has played like a man, even if he looks like a boy. Therein lies the tricky part of analyzing whether or not to add Altuve to your fantasy team: there aren’t many comparables or precedents for a player of his size making the majors.

If Altuve is to find success in the majors it will come with his bat. His fielding is okay, but nothing special, and he is just 24 for 38 in steal attempts this season, which leaves a lot to be desired. Brad Mills has said Altuve is his second baseman, though, so the playing time should be ample down the stretch. For that reason, Altuve might be worth the add, if only to avoid feeling regret should he really take the league by storm. Otherwise, if you just must have Altuve and have a free bench spot, take a conservative approach to plugging him into your lineup. It’s difficult to say just how he will perform in the early goings, but if his past is any indication, the guy will hit a little.

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Stephen Strasburg On the Mend (MLB Injury Updates)

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The Injury Report:

 

Stephen Strasburg, SP, Nationals

Guess who’s back!  The man who routinely hit 100 MPH on the radar gun as a starter last season is on his way back and is already up to 95 MPH following Tommy John surgery.  Strasburg is apparently in mid-spring training mode, as far as his recovery.  That puts him about a month and a half away from the Major Leagues assuming all goes well.  That, of course, is a wide assumption considering how serious this injury was.  Nonetheless, if you have the roster space and could use an arm for the playoff run, Strasburg could play a role this season.

 

Chien-Ming Wang, SP, Nationals

Once the ace of the New York Yankees, this Taiwan native enjoyed back-to-back 19-win seasons in 2006 and 2007.  Injuries have since limited Wang to just 27 appearances.  His last outing actually came more than two years ago on July 4, 2009.  The 31-year old right-hander hopes that there is still something left in the tank.  He is currently in the midst of a rehab start and Davey Johnson hinted that he is just a start away from joining the Major League club.  Even in his prime, Wang’s value was limited because he pitches to contact, however, in the National League his ERA can dip to a respectable level so keep an eye on his progress.

 

Brett Lawrie, 3B, Blue Jays

The top prospect in the Blue Jays system was supposed to make his Major League debut more than a month ago, but then an injury forced him to the bench.  The Blue Jays have made it clear that they will take the cautious route with Lawrie, who is dominating at Las Vegas despite learning a new position (third base).  Look for Lawrie to spend at least the next two weeks in the Minor Leagues.  Some good news is that current third baseman Edwin Encarnacion has heated up over the last month, even though he is clearly a short-term solution.

 

Jason Heyward, OF, Braves / Chipper Jones, 3B, Braves

The Braves are very much in contention in spite of the awful play of Jason Heyward this season.  For a second straight season the much-heralded prospect has dealt with some injuries, and it’s an ankle injury that has forced Heyward to miss out on the friendly confines of Coors Field.  It’s been a power outage for Heyward this season, as his slugging is currently under .400.  Before the panic sets in remember, this talent is just 21-years old.  He is listed as day-to-day because of an ankle injury, but he is expected to play tonight.

 

Chipper Jones has been plagued by injuries for what seems like a decade now.  The 38-year old remains one of the better power options in the Braves lineup, even though the career .304 hitter has been a .260 hitter the last three seasons.  Recovering from minor knee surgery, Jones is still a few weeks away from returning to the Braves lineup, but he has taken some live batting practice and believes he may be a bit ahead of schedule.

 

David Wright, 3B Mets / Ike Davis, 3B, Mets

The big question for Mets fans is whether we will ever see Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, and David Wright in the lineup together again.  While Wright is enjoying a rehab stint, Carlos Beltran can be traded any day now.  Wright is recovering from a stress fracture in his lower back.  The 28-year old has been raking at Class-A, and has set this weekend as a possible return date.

 

Such progress has not come to Ike Davis, the Mets young first baseman who appeared on his way to breakout season before injuring his ankle.  While the New York tabloids have gone back and forth on rumors surrounding whether he will be shut down this season, Davis himself has said that if he does not make serious progress in the next three weeks, the season will be lost.  The Mets have been thrilled with the play of replacements Daniel Murphy and Lucas Duda.  In fact, when Wright does return it may make the most sense to alternate  Murphy and Duda at first, while also playing Murphy a bit at second base.

Why You Should Buy, Not Sell, Jeremy Hellickson

by Eno Sarris //

We can get a little smart for our britches sometimes. We’ll take a pitcher, look at his peripherals and declare him over-rated. Then that pitcher goes and improves his peripherals and retains his ERA and WHIP and we look silly. This explains much of Trevor Cahill‘s last two years. Are we seeing it again this year in Tampa?

Take a look at Jeremy Hellickson‘s underlying statistics and he seems like a perfect sell-high. Despite a sweet ERA (3.17 ERA), he’s not striking out a ton of batters (6.1 K/9), is walking batters at about an average rate (3.25 BB/9, average is 3.14 BB/9), and is getting ground balls at a below-average rate (33.9% GB, 44% is average). To recap: that’s below average, average and below average. He’s managing the ERA mostly on the back of a lucky batting average on balls in play (.224 BABIP) and a lucky strand rate (79% left on base, 70% is league average).

Put it all together and you get a 4.27 FIP, or fielding independent pitching, a number on the ERA scale that strips out batted ball luck. An average FIP this year is 3.84. He’s been below average, which is a strange thing to say about a guy with a low-threes ERA and nine wins.

But here’s something even stranger to say: He could be just as good going forward, and maybe even fundamentally better. Well, that’s not really that strange, but given his rate stats, you might frown for a moment.

The reasoning behind the statement is simple. Like Trevor Cahill before him, Hellickson is a young pitcher. He has fewer than 150 innings pitched at the major league level. We can’t really assume that the strikeout and walk rates that we currently see are his true talent rates. In 2010, Cahill showed a 5.4 K/9 and the book was that he couldn’t sustain his results with that level of strikeouts. But Cahill had also had a 9.9 K/9 in the minor leagues. He just needed to figure it out on the major league level, and lo and behold, he now has a 6.65 K/9 and has bettered his FIP a quarter of a run.

Hellickson? He had a 9.8 K/9 in the minor leagues. He was a control artist, with a 2.1 BB/9 on the farm and no season where he walked more than three per nine. He never got a ton of ground balls, but he did get much closer to 40%. These numbers were accrued against inferior talent, but they are also relevant. We can’t just assume that Hellickson will continue to strike out six per nine and say he’s over-rated. Small sample sizes are the bane of the saber-friendly analyst, but in his last three starts, Hellickson has 18 strikeouts against three walks in 20 1/3 innings. That’s the sort of work he did in the minor leagues.

Particularly when we evaluate young pitchers, we cannot forget their minor league work. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and a young pitcher is an adjustment away from improving his underlying rates and ‘deserving’ his good fortune. Even in baseball’s toughest division, Hell Boy has great stuff, dominant control, and the ability to continue putting up an ERA in the low threes.

For the best fantasy baseball analysis and insight please visit BloombergSports.com

The Next Batch of Rookies: Kipnis, Turner, Goldschmidt, Jennings, and Gibson

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Rookies On the Way:

Jason Kipnis, 2B, Indians

A second round pick out of Arizona State, this 24-year old is bound for a late call-up by the contending Indians.  A .300 hitter in the Minor Leagues, Kipnis has deployed a nice combination of power and speed at Triple-A this season.  Considering second base is currently being help by Orlando Cabrera, who is batting just .244, it seems like promoting Kipnis would actually be an upgrade at the Major League level.

Jacob Turner, SP, Tigers

Just 20-years old, Turner was the ninth overall pick of the 2009 draft and his ability to throw strikes may be enough to earn a call-up to the Big League level.  The Tigers are not afraid to bring a young hurler to the Majors, after all, they did with the 20-year old Rick Porcello just three years ago.  Turner is able to miss bats more effectively than Porcello, so in other words he has greater potential.

Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks seem afraid to let their young players contribute.  Heck it took long enough for Brandon Allen to earn the call up to the Majors this season despite blasting 25 home runs last season at Triple-A.  The problem here is that Allen, who hit 18 home runs with a .306 average at Triple-A before recently earning a promotion.  Then there’s Paul Goldschmidt, a former 8th round pick with 80 home runs through three Minor League seasons.  It might make sense to trade one of these two boppers, but with a .424 OBP and a .616 slugging, it looks like Goldschmidt is the one they want to keep.

Desmond Jennings, OF, Rays

The Rays have come to realize that they called upon Desmond Jennings to contribute a bit too early last season.  They also are doing a great job of alleviating the pressure of replacing Carl Crawford from Jennings this season by keeping him in the Minors for an extended period.  However, do not be confused, Jennings is very much a long-term solution for the Rays.  After a mediocre start to the season, Jennings has come on as of late with 12 home runs, 17 steals, and now a .280 average.  He still fans a bit too often, but Jennings has all five tools and will make his return to the Big Leagues in the coming weeks.

Kyle Gibson, SP, Twins

The 22nd pick of the 2009 draft, Gibson is a 6’6 right-hander with front of the rotation potential.  He hasn’t had the best season so far at Triple-A, as his record is just 3-8 with a 4.68 ERA.  However, the number to pay attention to is the 22 walks in 90.1 innings.  While his stuff is solid, as suggested by his average of a strikeout per inning, what’s more impressive is his ability to control his entire arsenal of pitches.  Improved game-calling by Major League catchers should help Gibson out, but based on his stuff and control, he could be a surprise contributor in the pennant race.

Niemann’s Strong Return To Rotation

By Tommy Rancel //

A second-half shoulder injury along with some heavy regression to the mean, slowed Jeff Niemann’s progress in 2010. Still, the former first-round pick went 12-8 in 30 games pitched. Deemed healthy in the spring, the beginning of his 2011 campaign looked a lot like the end of last season’s. In the first six starts of the year, Niemann went 1-4 with an ERA near 6.00.  A sore back in early May put him back on the disabled list for nearly six weeks.

Upon return from the DL, Niemann has been much improved. His overall record stands at 4-4 with a respectable 3.94 ERA. Even defensive independent metrics like FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) – two metrics that strip away defense and luck from a pitchers performance – peg him in the 3.90-4.00 range. Considering the first six starts, it has taken some fine work by Niemann since returning to get his overall numbers in line. He has made five starts since being activated going 3-0 with an ERA right around 2.00. His defensive independent marks have him closer to 3.00; however, that’s a above-average peformance regardless.

Before his May vacation, Niemann – who stands 6-foot-9 – was having trouble keeping the ball down and achieving a downward plane in his motion. A slight groundball pitcher throughout his career, he had allowed more flyballs than grounders through six starts. In his five starts since, Niemann’s groundball rate has spiked over 50% thanks to the return of that downward tilt and movement.

In a 16-inning epic on Sunday that ended in a 1-0 loss for his team, the big right-hander had one of his best starts ever. Facing the league’s top offense in the Boston Red Sox, Niemann tossed eight scoreless innings allowing just two walks and two hits while striking out a career-high 10 batters. In his previous start, Niemann allowed just one run in 7.1 innings against another powerful lineup – the New York Yankees – in a notorious hitter’s park – Yankee Stadium.

In addition to his two-seam fastball being effective against the Red Sox, Niemann featured a solid curveball. He threw 31 breaking balls with 21 of them strikes. This year, Niemann’s teammate – James Shields – has had success pitching backwards or throwing off-speed pitches and breaking balls in traditional fastball counts. In an effort to keep the Boston hitters off balance, Niemann threw 10 first-pitch curveballs or changeups on Sunday. Rays’ manager Joe Maddon has dubbed this style of pitching backwards “pitching 2.0.”

Because of his .500 record, the ERA near 4.00, and his time on the DL, Niemann should readily be available in most leagues either on waivers or as a buy-low trade candidate. While he doesn’t project to be much better than the 3.94 ERA he currently has, he could top double-digit wins for a third consecutive season. Also consider the Rays above-average defense behind him; especially if he continues to rack up groundballs in bunches. David Price, James Shields, and Jeremy Hellickson are the most talked about Rays’ starters and with good reason. Meanwhile, Niemann might be the most attractive Tampa Bay starter to acquire in your league right now.

Fantasy Baseball Average Joes

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Daniel Murphy, Utility, Mets

I am not sure what the Mets will do once Ike Davis returns to the lineup be it this year or next.  Daniel Murphy is simply a hired bat who can offer some serious offense.  The problem is on the defensive side, as Murphy is at his best at third base, which happens to be the home for Mr. David Wright. 

 

Murphy has his average up to .315 this season, with line drive power: 6 HR, 21 doubles and 2 triples.  Murphy has hit .385 this month after hitting .330 in June. 

 

Murphy is just 26 years old and bats left-handed, so this is a nice problem to have for the Mets.

 

Alex Gordon, OF, Royals

The second overall pick of the 2005 draft, Gordon has long been considered a bust due to the slow start to his career, but this season he has finally met expectations. 

 

The 27-year old boasts 11 home runs with 24 doubles and 8 swipes.  His average is up to .296 after batting just .215 last season.  His plate discipline has been so impressive that the team opted to have him leadoff before pushing him down in the order to take advantage of his power. 

 

Gordon is now considered a potential trade target for teams in need of offense.

 

Jeff Francoeur, OF, Royals

You would think Jeff Francoeur is 40 years old since he’s played for three teams over the last year.  Though he has not been able to sustain the hot start to the season (after batting .316 in April, Francoeur hit just .233 and .235 the next two months), he has found a way to contribute to a fantasy roster.  He’s doing this on the basepaths, as he has already swiped 15 bases, nearly double his previous high. 

 

The .266 average still leaves something to be desired, but his 13 home runs and 58 RBI may be enough to force yet another trade.

 

Michael Morse, OF, Nationals

At 29 years old, Morse is a late bloomer, but he is also one of the better hitters in baseball right now with an even .300 average and 15 home runs.  Morse has already matched his previous career-high in home runs, set last season.  His OBP is a healthy .348 and while walks are hard to come by, Morse makes up for it with a .523 slugging percentage. 

 

Jon Jay, OF, Cardinals

This 26-year old left-handed hitter was drafted in the second round of the 2006 draft out of Miami.  However, Jay never quite earned top prospect status, and this year he has surprised people as a solid platoon option. 

 

Jay is hurt by a lack of patience at the plate and limited power, but you can’t argue with the .310 average, which comes a season after hitting .300.  In total, Jay boasts a .304 career average with 11 home runs in 516 at bats. 

 

Jay has made a case to get regular at bats, considering he hits both lefties and righties for at least a .300 average throughout his career.  However, with Lance Berkman leading the league in homers, Jay’s playing time will continue to be limited for the remainder of the season. 

 

Five Shocking Player Performances In the 2011 Season So Far

By E. Gardner //

Every season has its surprises. But not all unpredictable events are alike.

Take Matt Kemp. The LA Dodgers outfielder is on pace at the moment for 41 HRs and 46 SBs, totals that surpass the most aggressive, optimistic projections coming into the season. Still, it’s hard to flag Kemp’s superlative production this year as a shocking surprise. Such a season seemed to be within Kemp’s reach given all the right turn of events. Scouts had long viewed Kemp as being a potential 40/40 player. And though Kemp had a disappointing 2010 campaign, the guy who was once touted as the next Manny Ramirez is still only 26 years old.

Let’s take a look at true curveballs.  Here’s five player performances to date we’re pretty confident that nobody saw coming:

  1. Jeff Francoeur’s stolen bases: He’s currently got 15 steals, which ties him with Hanley Ramirez, Juan Pierre, Andrew McCutchen, and Carlos Gonzalez. Frenchie never had more than 8 steals in a full season before this one. What happened? As we pointed out early this season, the Royals are certainly being more aggressive on the basepaths, which has gone a long way. We also have to imagine that Francoeur is tired of the reputation of being a former top prospect who amounted to a good-for-nothing. Otherwise, there’s not much else to explain Francoeur’s new-found burst of speed. His strikeouts, walks, and on-base rate are all about on par with previous years. He just has the green light now.
  2. Asdrubal Cabrera’s home runs: Cabrera’s currently got 16 HRs, already more than his total from 2008-2010.  Perhaps just as impressively, his slugging ability has remained pretty consistent throughout the season. In April, he hit 5 HRs, more than any other month, but April is the only month this season where Cabrera’s OPS was below .800. His HR/FB rate has jumped from a terrible 3% last season to nearly 15% this year, but even adjusting for some luck, he’s showing legitimate 20 HR ability — which this year, thanks to a strong start, could mean he’ll finish with 25 HRs or more.
  3. Jacoby Ellsbury’s home runs: Similar to Cabrera above, Ellsbury is flashing power like never before. The Red Sox outfielder has long been known for his speed — he’s got 28 steals so far — but he’s shocking those who watch him by knocking balls out of the park regularly. He’s up to 13 HRs now — the same total as his teammate Kevin Youkilis — after never hitting double-digits in HR totals in the five seasons prior to this one in both the minors and majors. Oddly, his fly-ball percentage is actually down from the past two seasons, meaning he’s either gotten way more powerful or way more lucky.
  4. Anibal Sanchez’ strikeouts and walks: Hard to believe but the best player that the Marlins got in the famous Josh Beckett trade of 2005 isn’t Hanley Ramirez this year. Instead, as Hanley struggles, Sanchez is showing signs of being a true ace. He’s currently got 123 strikeouts, which ranks him 13th in the majors and puts him on pace for 214 for the season. His 9.28 K/9 rate is certainly the best of his career, but not a huge leap over the 8.71 K/9 rate shown in the 2008 season. No, what’s really impressive is that he’s upped his strikeouts just as he’s managed to cut his walks. He’s allowing less than 3 walks per 9 innings this year. Put that together with the ability to induce more groundballs than flyballs, and we’re looking at one of the best pitchers in baseball.
  5. Josh Tomlin’s wins: Is it possible we’ll see a 20-game winner from a pitcher who wasn’t even drafted in many deep AL-only leagues? Sure, there’s certainly a good amount of luck that goes into win totals, and Tomlin’s success also corresponds to the surprising success of the Cleveland Indians at large this season . Nevertheless, Tomlin is doing something (besides winning) better than almost everyone else. That something would be showing elite control. His 1.07 BB/9 is second best among all qualifying pitchers in the majors. Only Roy Halladay is walking fewer batters in a typical start. Tomlin barely has a strikeout rate over 5 per 9 IP so he’ll never be a fantasy darling, and maybe hitters will catch on here, but at the moment, Tomlin is doing his best  Mark Buehrle impression.

We’d have a hard time putting too much stock in these new demonstrated skills in terms of sorting out rankings going into the 2012 season. At some point, regression is extremely likely.

But for now, all bets are off.

We’re surprised at what we’re seeing from these five players so far, but if Francoeur steals 25 bags this year, if Cabrera and Ellsbury each manage 25 home runs this year, if Anibal Sanchez finishes the year as a top 10 pitcher, and if Tomlin comes close to 20 wins, it won’t come as truly stunning anymore.

For the best fantasy baseball analysis and insight please visit BloombergSports.com

Mr. One Dimensional: Pitchers

Strikeouts: Tyler Clippard, RP, Nationals (Owned in 42% of Yahoo Leagues)

Clippard is an All-Star for a good reason with 63 K’s and a 1.75 ERA this season. Though he is cast to the wayside by many fantasy managers because of his lack of saves, Clippard is a solid arm and a fine option to improve your strikeout total, as his 90-plus innings are a large total for a reliever.

Saves: Bobby Parnell, RP, Mets (Owned in 26% of Yahoo Leagues)

We are at a crucial point this season when it comes to reaping saves because  there will be a lot of trades to send closers from the losing teams to the contenders, resulting in new closers in the struggling franchises. On that note, the Mets have dealt Fancisko Rodriguez and the guys to know now are Bobby Parnell, Jason Isringhausen, and Pedro BEato. Parnell is my top pick because of his stellar 30:9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, as well as his 2.92 ERA. Plus, at 26-years old the closer’s role could stick for this flame thrower.

ERA/WHIP: Paul Maholm, SP, Pirates (Owned in 19% of Yahoo Leagues)

The 8th pick of the 2003 draft, Paul Maholm is thriving this season with a 2.96 ERA and 1.18 WHIP this season. The problem is that his contributions are limited in the fantasy world thanks to a 6-9 record and just 75 K’s. Nonetheless, there is value in his ERA and WHIP, as the 29-year old has found a groove.

Wins: Rick Porcello, SP, Tigers (Owned in 10% of Yahoo Leagues)

A winner of two in a row, Rick Porcello is looking for his third straight season of 10 or more wins. That’s not a bad feat for a 22-year old hurler. Porcello is currently 8-6, despite a 4.78 ERA. Porcello is a control pitcher who does not get many strikeouts, so in fantasy terms; this winner is a one-hit wonder.

For the best fantasy baseball analysis and insight please visit BloombergSports.com

Mr. One Dimensional: Hitters

Speed: Ian Desmond, SS, Nationals (Owned in 58% of Yahoo Leagues)

His average is just .233 and he’s got a mediocre 34 runs scored, and that power we saw in the second half of last season is not existent (only 3 home runs on the year). However, Desmond does have 20 steals this season, and with promise of improvement in all other categories, the second year shortstop may have a little something to offer.

Power: J.P. Arencibia, C, Blue Jays (Owned in 45% of Yahoo Leagues)

The Blue Jays rookie backstop is batting just .221, but he’s still fantasy relevant. Why, because he has 12 home runs with 40 RBI. The 2007 first round pick is a bonafide slugger who can reach 25 home runs by the season’s end.

Runs: Michael Brantley, OF, Indians (Owned in 39% of Yahoo Leagues)

One of the key reasons for the Indians success this season has been the play of 24-year old outfielder Michael Brantley. While his power is limited (only 6 homers on the season), and his speed hasn’t been a game-changer (12 steals), the one saving grace for Cleveland’s leadoff man is his ability to reach base and score runs. He has 51 runs on the season, including the two he added last night.

Average: Nate Schierholtz, OF, Giants (Owned in 11% of Yahoo Leagues)

Though he is killed by his home ballpark, Giants outfielder Nate Schierholtz has been a line drive machine this season, which explains why his average has soared to .289. With 7 homers and 5 swipes, Schierholtz can contribute in other categories, but he shines brightest when it comes to Batting Average.

For the best fantasy baseball analysis and insight please visit BloombergSports.com

Sell On Alex Gordon

By R.J. Anderson //

Alex Gordon has been one of the better stories in baseball this season. The former second-overall pick is 27 now, and if he can sustain his first half production, will finish with career-highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, runs batted in, and runs scored. Not too shabby for a guy who looked to be on his way out of the organization as recently as last season. Don’t get too caught up, though, as there are some warning signs in Gordon’s peripherals.

Anytime a player raises his batting average significantly, an inflated batting average on balls in play is sure to follow. Gordon is no different. Entering this season, he recorded hits on roughly 29 percent of the balls he put into play, yet in 2011 that conversion rate is more than 34 percent. That’s not necessarily a sign that Gordon is all smoke and mirrors, but it doesn’t mean he is hitting the ball better—or at least harder—either.

Gordon had 39 percent of his hits prior to this season go for extra bases, and that number is actually down this season, at 37 percent. His plate appearances aren’t ending in more home runs than normal either. Gordon is seeing a higher percentage of his plate appearances end in extra bases, though, as he has cut into his strikeout and walk rates respectively. That means, while Gordon is hitting more extra base hits on a counting basis, as a rate of his total hits, he has roughly maintained his past rate.

A lot of Gordon’s improvement has come due to singles, which is risky. Gordon’s skill set has not been that of a high-average player in the majors, so be very, very careful moving forward, as he could be in line for some regression.

For the best fantasy baseball analysis and insight please visit BloombergSports.com

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