RED SOX

RED SOX: Making Sense of Trading Away Mookie Betts and David Price

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Rambling, incoherent bullet-point thoughts on the Red Sox’s not-shocking-but-still-shocking decision to trade franchise cornerstone Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers:

    • The rumblings about a Betts trade picked up over the last few weeks, with Chaim Bloom creating a market for such a trade by playing NL West rivals the Dodgers and Padres off each other. The last few days made the trade seem like a fait accompli, with the Dodgers emerging as the frontrunner only real question being if Price’s salary was going to be included in the trade. I was afraid including Price would dilute the return for the Red Sox, and while we don’t know yet exactly how much salary they’re eating, it did reduce the overall number of players the Red Sox got back but didn’t necessarily lower the quality of talent. I’ll get to the two newest members of the Red Sox shortly.

 

    • I was across the street from Fenway when the deal went down, at a Rex Orange County show at the House of Blues. The show was excellent, but it was a bit hard to be torn away from my phone while it was happening. Sorry, Rex.

 

    • So, needless to say, this sucks. Mookie is one of the Red Sox best position players in the last 50 years. I loved watching him play. I remember first hearing his name early in his minors career, and following the Alex Speier-inspired hashtag #featsofmookie as this smallish kid started putting up completely absurd, out-of-nowhere numbers. It was a joy to follow him all these years, and he brought every kind of tool to the table as a player. He played RF better at Fenway than anyone in my lifetime. His 2018 season is probably my favorite for any Red Sox player in recent history, with his grand slam against JA Happ representing a turning point for the year one of the greatest regular season moments in franchise history. It really pisses me off he won’t be here this year.

 

    • As for Price, I genuinely hope he finds in LA whatever will make happy, because he was pretty miserable the entire time he was in Boston. He gladly took the Red Sox $217 million and opted into the rest of the deal after shedding the October bugaboo after a glorious 2018 postseason run, one where he should have been World Series MVP. But, Price was never comfortable here and his on-again, off-again feuds with Dennis Eckersley and some other media members were bewildering, pointless and mostly infuriating. I don’t think Price is a bad guy, he had his moments here and by all accounts he’s beloved as a teammate. But Boston was never a fit, and with three straight years of arm injuries this was the right time to get off his money, even if it means paying down half the $96 million he’s owed the next three years.

 

    • Perhaps the biggest thing I don’t like about the trade is the fact that the Red Sox decided to effectively punt the 2020 season in the name of being successful beyond that. Had Bloom and others decided to keep this team together there’s no reason they couldn’t compete with the Yankees and Rays for the division title, especially if the pitching returns to its 2018 level. When you have this much talent, it is really tough to punt on being competitive. But in the aftermath of Alex Cora’s firing, I do wonder if the Red Sox decided this would be a good time to move on and transition to the future. The Red Sox still don’t have a manager, by the way.

 

    • None of us know if the two players the Red Sox got back will pan out. But, they are the types of guys this current farm system has failed to pump out in recent years, and I have hopes they’ll produce for the big league club this year. Alex Verdugo is in the unenviable position of filling Mookie Betts’ shoes, but going into last year he was a consensus top-30 prospect in the game and acquitted himself very well as an everyday contributor on a 106-win team before getting hurt and missing the final two months. He has tools galore and a fabulous lefty stroke that should play well at Fenway. In Brusdar Graterol, the Sox have a top-60 prospect going into the year and the precise kind of pitcher that seemingly every team except Boston has been producing: a flamethrower with the ability to be either a long-term starter or closer. He has a 100 mph two-seamer and I have every expectation the Red Sox will find a way for him to contribute, fast. In total, the Red Sox used their position to acquire 11 years of big-league control for two guys who are locks to be MLB regulars right away. In a vacuum, that is an objectively great move for one year of an elite OF and three years of a distressed asset pitcher. But, this is not a vacuum.

 

    • So, why did this happen? For several years now, Mookie has given every indication he would test the free agency waters after the 2020 season. We don’t know the specific details of extension talks between the club and the player, but at least three times Mookie has declined such overtures. A local radio host recently said that last winter the Sox offered 10 years and $300 million and were countered with a 12-year, $420 million proposal that would put Mookie in league with Mike Trout and basically no one else. That report hasn’t been corroborated by any other reporting, but it’s in league with how far apart the sides were in previous discussions (we don’t know any details on how those discussions went this winter either). Mookie also knows how important he is to the players union and likely wants to get the biggest free agent contract ever handed out. You can only do so much as a team to get a player to sign. His agent may have told the Red Sox that no number from the Red Sox would be high enough, and that he wanted to go to the market regardless. If that’s the case, you cannot blame Bloom and the Red Sox for making this move. While their AL East rivals are pleased for what this trade will mean for their chances in 2020, I am positive Brian Cashman and Erik Neander and Ross Atkins are not pleased the Red Sox picked up those aforementioned 11 years of big league control for quality young talent they would not have otherwise gotten had they let Mookie walk and held onto Price.

 

    • The takes, they are hot. One of the most incorrect hot takes I’ve seen so far is this deal is a straight-up salary dump. Had the Red Sox not included Price’s deal in this transaction, I don’t know if people would feel that way. I think it’s basically a half-salary dump, with Price as the part getting dumped. CBT concerns were not why Mookie was traded. If the Red Sox goal in 2020 was to get under the $208 million CBT threshold, they could have done that anytime between now and the end of the regular season, and they did not need to trade Mookie to do it. They could have seen if Price was going to be healthy and traded him midseason, or moved on from expiring deals such as Jackie Bradley Jr. and others. They traded Mookie because they didn’t want to see him go elsewhere for nothing after 2020, with the moving of his and Price’s salaries a bonus to get under the CBT.  But the idea the Red Sox traded away Mookie Betts for the sole purpose of getting under the CBT is absurd and anyone who tells you different doesn’t know what they are talking about. I do worry that the longer this goes on before an official announcement takes place, the Red Sox risk losing control of the narrative for why this happened. They owe the fans an explanation for why their best player was just dealt with a year left on his deal, the kind of thing a team like the Royals or Pirates might do but seldom ever the Red Sox.

 

    • I also saw the take that the Red Sox should have just given Mookie a deal with a $37M AAV and that would have taken care of everything. Well, we don’t know if that was offered or not, or if Mookie would have taken it. But that $37M AAV number is exactly what Mike Trout is going to make until he turns 38. Just for the sake of comparison, over roughly the same number of games in their first six seasons (which is well before Trout signed his current deal), Mookie’s quadruple slash was .301/.374/.519/.893 with a 134 OPS+, while Trout was .306/.405/.557/.963 with a 170 OPS+. Also, why would the Red Sox give out that size of a contract to someone who hasn’t proven themselves at that level when they’d only be bidding against themselves? I don’t think that is how most smart teams operate. If you don’t believe me, look at the Dodgers’ contracts on Spotrac for 2021.

 

  • Interestingly enough, the Red Sox will find themselves next offseason much better prepared to acquire someone like Mookie in the free agent market, and I would be surprised if the two sides have shut the door completely on that possibility. As long as the sides operated in good faith, and there were no hard feelings involved in the negotiations, I don’t see why a deal couldn’t be revisited. The timing, right before spring training, isn’t great for anyone involved, but I can’t imagine getting to live in LA and be on probably baseball’s best team is going to make Mookie terribly upset the same way Jon Lester wasn’t thrilled to go to Oakland in the middle of the 2014 season. The Red Sox tried, and failed, to bring Lester back. But other teams have been successful in similar circumstances, including the Phillies bringing back Cliff Lee and the Yankees doing the same for Aroldis Chapman.

All the best to Mookie and David in LA. What comes next for the Red Sox is a mystery. This is a sad day. That’s all I got.

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RED SOX

RED SOX: A Team at a Crossroads

Earlier today the Red Sox season came to an end after a fun, tense but ultimately disappointing ALDS Game 4 at a rainy Fenway.

I have a lot of thoughts about how the 2017 season went down and what’s to come next, so here we go:

IT WAS FUN. REALLY.

This particular incarnation of the Red Sox was a study in interesting contrasts. There were a lot of young players making their first impression in MLB playing alongside numerous longtime veterans. They only equaled their win total from 2016 but managed to win (and generally play in) an absurd number of close games, including going an unimaginable 15-3 in extra inning games.

And, for the first time in recent memory, the Red Sox saw consistency in their pitching staff while failing to join the MLB-wide trend of increased power, finishing dead last in the AL in home runs (168).

But I never understood how people could call this first post-David Ortiz Red Sox team boring or “unlikable” as was the narrative after the David Price/Dennis Eckersley kerfuffle.

The young core of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley, Jr. was joined this year by Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers, plus Christian Vazquez finally came into his own as an everyday MLB catcher. That’s six guys 27 years old or younger who will be starters on this team going forward barring any trades.

Chris Sale was either the best or 2nd-best starter in the AL this year and Drew Pomeranz came out of nowhere to finish 10th in the AL in fWAR (3.1). Craig Kimbrel genuinely had one of the best years for any closer in baseball history, striking out just shy of 50 percent of all batters he faced.

And Price, who dealt with a significant elbow injury and a major PR disaster, was redeemed by returning healthy and pitching extremely well in relief late in the season and into the playoffs. Hopefully he can put what happened this past year behind him as 2018 presents a quasi-walk year for him.

But there was much to celebrate this season when it came to individual moments and performances.

I got to be in the park Aug. 1 for one of the craziest games I’ve ever seen, the one that included Austin Jackson’s unbelievable catch. I saw Vazquez hit a walkoff and I can recall few times ever hearing Fenway that loud.

Devers hitting that home run off Aroldis Chapman in Yankee Stadium to silence that crowd is something I won’t soon forget. Nor will I forget that catch by Bradley in the triangle to rob Aaron Judge.

Dustin Pedroia had a tough year injury-wise but he turned in the signature defensive play of his career with this play in Texas in July.

Benintendi showed us this year I believe a fraction of how good he can truly be. Sale wowed us every start and became the first appointment-viewing starter for the Red Sox since Pedro’s heyday. The bullpen, constantly tested by long and close games, came up big game after game this year.

I know this season didn’t end the way we wanted. But for those of us who watched night in and night out, it was memorable. And I’ll miss not watching this team every night. They were fun, and good. They just were.

WHAT WENT WRONG, AND WHAT’S NEXT

As I touched on above, the team’s biggest weakness was on offense and in particular a lack of power (they still finished 5th in team OBP and 6th in runs in the AL).

It’s easy to say this was because of losing David Ortiz, but it was more than that. Take a look at the OPS+ figures for these Red Sox hitters from 2016 and 2017:

Hanley Ramirez – 2016: 126 2017: 95 (-31)

Jackie Bradley, Jr. – 2016: 118 2017: 89 (-29)

Mookie Betts – 2016: 133 2017: 108 (-25)

Dustin Pedroia – 2016: 117 2017: 101 (-16)

Xander Bogaerts – 2016: 111 2017: 95 (-16)

You can blame some of this on these guys getting pitched tougher now without Ortiz in the lineup, but I don’t have empirical data to back that up. The bottom line is these five guys significantly underperformed in 2017 to their 2016 levels and that had a real impact on wins and losses and their ability to hang with the Astros in this ALDS.

Much has been made about the Red Sox refusal last winter to delve into the free agent hitting market beyond Mitch Moreland. Edwin Encarnacion signed for a pittance (3 years, $60 million) compared to his expected contract. I was OK with not going that route because I expected the remaining hitters could maintain or improve on their 2016 performances to make up for Ortiz’s absence.

The opposite happened and adding Eduardo Nunez at the deadline, while an effective move for about a month until he got injured, and turning over 3B to Devers didn’t do nearly enough to make up the gap.

So, with luxury tax penalties lessened for 2018 since the Red Sox managed to stay under it this year, I fully expect them to add at least one power hitter to this lineup, most likely at 1B. They are most likely stuck with the final guaranteed year on Ramirez’s contract at $22.75M (his 2019 option at $22M would vest based on plate appearances). Depending on who the Red Sox get, it could be a DH/1B timeshare between Ramirez and a new counterpart.

I don’t personally think the winter’s big free agent 1B, Eric Hosmer, really fits the bill of what the club would be looking for (he doesn’t really hit for enough power and would be very expensive). JD Martinez makes a ton of sense from a hitting perspective but it’s hard to see where he’d fit in besides as a full-time DH (with Ramirez then as a full-time 1B, which presents a lot of issues). Logan Morrison, who just hit 38 HRs for Tampa, would be a great fit but he’s only 30 and may be more expensive than the Red Sox would like.

They could explore a trade for someone like Joey Votto, the hitting savant who’d be loved here after years of being unappreciated in Cincinnati. His $25M annual salary isn’t an albatross, but he’s guaranteed for six more years and may not be as great of a player at the end. Plus, who knows if the Reds would even entertain trading him.

You’re likely to hear a lot about a potential Giancarlo Stanton trade this winter with the Red Sox likely prime members of that rumor mill. I don’t see it for a lot of reasons, namely that the Red Sox and every other team could’ve taken his massive contract for nothing in August and no one bit. As good as Stanton is and as amazing as his LF pull power would play at Fenway, he always gets hurt, his contract is way too long and by all accounts he’s kind of a jerk. Pass.

I doubt very much the Red Sox will add much on the pitching staff this offseason, barring trades of the current guys. The health of Price, Steven Wright, Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg will play a role in what happens there. I do wonder if Dombrowski starts to think a little more about the long-term with Pomeranz, Kimbrel and (potentially) Price all in walk years in 2018.

OK, LET’S TALK ABOUT FARRELL

I’ve come to believe there is no more thankless job in the world of sports than being the manager of the Boston Red Sox. Even the most successful Red Sox manager of my lifetime, Terry Francona, was called “Francoma” by parts of the fanbase.

When it comes to John Farrell, I made my feelings known last year that I think the vitriol toward him is almost entirely unfounded. Do I think he’s a great manager? No. I think right now there are only two managers in all of MLB I’d call “great”: Francona and Joe Maddon.

But Farrell is at best good and at worst competent. The idea he should be fired for merely being good is one that only exists in Boston where every nanosecond of action for any of our teams is overanalyzed by radio blowhards and social media crazies among others.

These are the facts about Farrell: he won back-to-back AL East titles, taking 93 wins both years. He manages personalities in the clubhouse well by all accounts. He’s very good at his media responsibilities which is a big part of the job. The players like him, for the most part (there were some rumblings this year about his difficulty connecting with the younger players on the team). He’s accountable when things go wrong. He appears to have a good relationship with his direct boss, Dave Dombrowski, and the rest of the front office and ownership.

But, still, he’s not remotely safe in the eyes of many. It’s fair to wonder if Farrell has taken this group of players as far as he can go and if another manager could do better. It’s hard to say sitting here, not being there everyday, if that’s true.

Part of me wants the team to can Farrell just because I’m getting extremely sick of this storyline. He’d be fine. He’d get paid for the last year on his deal and would almost certainly get another managerial job as soon as he wants it. Red Sox fans are crazy if they think a team like the Mets or Tigers wouldn’t take him in a second.

If Farrell is let go, I don’t know who’s out there that would be better. For in-house candidates I’m sure the players would love to see Brian Butterfield get a shot. As much as he should be a big league manager, he’s also 59 and would likely just be a stopgap. If I’m the Red Sox, and the rift between Farrell and the younger players is actually an issue, I’d rather find a younger, analytically-driven manager who can connect and grow with those guys.

I’m not up on a lot of the possibilities that fit that description, but two former Red Sox World Champions come to mind. One is Alex Cora, current Astros bench coach, who is 41, has extensive experience running teams in Puerto Rico and as a player was someone I was certain would manage in the big leagues some day. The other is Gabe Kapler, 42, who was runner-up for the Dodgers managerial position heading into 2016. He’s managed in the minors and has a strong player development background.

I have no idea if either of those guys would be a better manager than Farrell. No one does. But if the team does decide to move on I hope it’s because they genuinely think they’d be better without him.

I think Red Sox fans should be prepared for news to break this week about a contract extension for Farrell. In the aggregate, it’s hard to say he doesn’t deserve it.

LAST THOUGHTS

As excited as I am for the future of this team, and as much as I’ll miss watching this group, I do have a twinge of uncertainty about them. It’s very clear both Houston and Cleveland are better than the Red Sox right now. Also the Yankees have a team on the rise and will have boatloads of money to play with over the next couple winters.

This Red Sox team is good. But will they be good enough to overtake those clubs the next few years? Dombrowski finds his team in a very similar situation to what Danny Ainge and the Celtics found themselves in this past summer. Sure, they had a good team that had just gone to the Eastern Conference Finals. But, were they great? Could they get over the hump to compete for a title?

Ainge decided to effectively blow up his entire roster in the name of putting together a great team. It remains to be seen if it will work, but he’s decided to take a risk.

The Red Sox have the aforementioned six young position players to build around. They have stars atop their rotation and an all-world closer. They have veterans in Pedroia and Ramirez who may be declining but aren’t necessarily albatrosses. All these things are good.

But what if Dombrowski decides that having a “good” team isn’t good enough? Then, once again, the Red Sox will steal winter headlines away from the teams actually playing.

I can’t wait to see what happens.

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RED SOX

RED SOX: Why Fire Farrell?

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Up until the last six or eight months, I listened to Boston sports talk radio pretty regularly dating back to when I first moved to an area where I could easily pick up the signals of WEEI and the Sports Hub in my car. But, I gave it up and went back to music and podcasts for one, simple reason:

I refuse to be a sucker for bullshit, easily-disproven narratives meant to whip the already-rabid local sports fanbase into a frenzy.

Because that’s what virtually all of these shows do. They aren’t there to inform or enlighten. There’s no place for in-depth discussions like the one Bill Simmons recently had on his new show with Mark Cuban and Malcolm Gladwell about the business of basketball. Sports talk radio exists solely to get people like you and me to listen by taking an “everyone and everything sucks” position to get people talking and drive up ratings. That’s it.

In Boston, this attitude feeds into a sense of entitlement that, like it or not, makes the fans in nearly every other city in America hate our guts. Most of them think we should not be allowed to complain about anything for the next 50 years.

And I get very disappointed when people who I know are smart buy into these hot take narratives instead of thinking critically.

Just yesterday, several of these blowhards were discussing the Red Sox’ decision to utilize former big league pitcher Brian Bannister, who has served in the front office doing pitching analysis, in more of an on-field role. They railed against this move, calling Bannister a “nerd” and saying the pitchers don’t need more “numbers” to help them. This is the kind of anti-intellectual dreck that we do not accept in analysis of other mediums (like politics and business, for example) but seems perfectly acceptable when it comes to sports.

I still listen to Toucher & Rich most every morning because those guys are in on the joke. You can tell that neither of them take any of this stuff seriously. Hell, they even have a segment called “The Hot Take Police” where they mercilessly destroy professional and well-paid bloviators (like the ones who work at their station) for their absurdness.

On the rare occasion lately when I’ve unfortunately listened to non-T&R local sports radio, I’ve been bombarded with call after call after call for Red Sox manager John Farrell to be fired. To which I ask: why? And what purpose would it serve?

If the season were to end today, the Red Sox would make the postseason and appear in the Wild Card game. I know since June 1 the team hasn’t played well, going 13-18 in that time.

But given the low expectations of their pitching staff coming into the year, and the injuries they’ve dealt with that have mostly depleted their depth, doesn’t this feel like where you’d expect them to be right now? Within striking distance in the AL East and, at worst, in the postseason?

This isn’t to say everything is wonderful. While his peripheral numbers appear fine, on the whole David Price hasn’t delivered. Besides the surprising performance of Steven Wright and the decent, workman-like job by Rick Porcello, every other starting pitcher has been a flat-out disaster. Not one member of the bullpen, including Craig Kimbrel, has been consistent with the possible exception of Heath Hembree.

And while the Red Sox offense remains first in the AL in hits, runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, it has disappeared for stretches and undoubtedly has cost them games. Not to sound too much like Nick Cafardo, but it appears this Red Sox lineup “can be pitched to” and taken out of commission.

At times, Farrell has had to turn to the likes of Bryce Brentz, Ryan LaMarre, Deven Marrero and Mike Miller (not THAT Mike Miller) in key situations due to a constant stream of injuries to position players, primarily to left fielders. The devastating injury to Carson Smith, lost for the year and probably most of next to Tommy John surgery, left Farrell with few options he can consistently rely on in the bullpen. Plus, he’s had to parade out Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, Eduardo Rodriguez, Roenis Elias, Sean O’Sullivan and various other assorted flotsam and jetsam as starting pitchers, all with varying degrees of ineptitude.

All of this is to say that I fail to see where any of the club’s struggles this year are directly the fault of the manager. He has done his best with the team he was given. It is not his fault his bench is almost always made up of guys who belong in AAA. It’s not his fault two-fifths of the starting rotation he’s been handed can’t get out of the 5th inning most nights. In turn, it’s not his fault his bullpen is so constantly taxed that he must option pitchers back and forth to AAA just to get fresh arms. William Cuevas, anyone?

The manager is always an easy target when a team struggles (again, the Red Sox are in the playoffs if the season ended today). But at what point do we pin blame on the actual big-league ballplayers themselves who aren’t performing, and the front office who didn’t identify these problems in the first place?

Sure, Smith’s injury was a surprise since he was apparently given a clean bill of health at the time of that trade. That injury fundamentally changed the bullpen’s structure, and Dave Dombrowski and Mike Hazen are still yet to address that change with help from outside the organization (although I have little doubt they will once the market settles).

However, in the offseason the front office seemed completely OK with going into the year with Buchholz, Kelly and Rodriguez in the rotation. Only an injury to Rodriguez in spring training opened the door for Wright’s unbelievably great season to date.

After signing Price, I’m not sure how serious the team was about adding more pitching either through free agency or trades. At best, this now appears to be a miscalculation by the front office, that the team didn’t put in an effort to sign Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija or even Scott Kazmir or Doug Fister to complement Price and Porcello.

Now, none of this is to say John Farrell is the second coming of Earl Weaver or Casey Stengel. Nobody is above criticism. His usage of bullpen arms is often questionable (although some of his odd moves are out of necessity, as noted above) and in the past he’s stuck with veterans/players with big contracts too long when they’ve under-performed (although that hasn’t been the case as much this year, with Travis Shaw winning the 3B job over Pablo Sandoval an example).

I just don’t see how firing him is going to make the team play better. I’m guessing everyone would want bench coach Torey Lovullo to take over, since he did so well when Farrell was receiving cancer treatments last year. Yes, Lovullo did a great job when the team was well out of contention and there was no pressure on him to perform. Nonetheless, he did so well the Red Sox reportedly rewarded him with a contract for this year on par with that of first-year managers to keep him in Boston.

So that should make this decision all the more easy: fire Farrell, elevate Lovullo and we’ll all be happy, right?

Well, I hate to put in a pin in that particular hot-take-filled hot air balloon, but here’s a newsflash for you: in baseball, the bench coach’s job is to act as an in-game consultant for the manager. If a manager is smart, he bounces his decisions off the bench coach and they come to a consensus on what to do. In addition the bench coach often acts a conduit to the players regarding day-to-day decisions by the manager. So whatever decisions are being made by Farrell, and whatever messages he’s sending the players, are going through Lovullo as well. If they weren’t on the same wavelength, Lovullo would not be here. They’re basically bookends.

So if you’re going to fire Farrell, you might as well fire Lovullo too and start over completely. You’ll have to go outside the organization to find a new manager. And what you’ll have is a cadre of angry Red Sox players who’ll have to learn the tendencies of someone completely new in the middle of their season.

And besides, the history of firing the manager mid-season for a team expecting to make the playoffs isn’t pretty. Only one team since 1980 that’s done that has won the World Series: the 2003 Marlins. From what I can tell no other team who replaced their manager mid-season in that stretch has won a league pennant.

Firing Farrell won’t make the pitchers better. It won’t make the bench longer. It won’t make the offense more consistent. Dombrowski has to make make moves to fix what ails this team. Based on his history, I believe he’ll do just that. Addressing the bullpen and bench won’t be overly difficult. The starting rotation, however? He may have to get creative, with a total lack of arms available.

The failure or success of the 2016 Red Sox should not fall on the shoulders of the manager alone. He does not deserve to lose his job over it. It’s up to the front office to make the right moves, and the players to play up to their capabilities.

That’s my hot take.

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