MLB: Mike Leake is the first major leaguer to opt out of playing the season

After Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley declined to participate in what remains of the NBA season, it was expected that at least a group of MLB players would do the same when the action returns on July 23rd for the 2020 season. COVID-19 cases are spiking again in some states and it figures to be an ever-present threat to public health. Not only are players at risk, but also their families.

According to Steve Gilbert of MLB.com, Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Mike Leake is the first MLB player that has publicly declined to play in the season, effectively electing not to take the field.

The Diamondbacks have since confirmed the report on Monday afternoon. According to what MLB stated recently when trying to structure the season, “players who are considered ‘high risk’ will still get paid and receive service time.”

The aforementioned scenario, per Rotoworld, does not apply to a player that has a high-risk situation with a family member at home.

It’s hard to blame players who decide not to play this season, as some of them are sure prioritizing their health and that of their close ones.

With the development in the D-backs roster, Merrill Kelly and Alex Young will likely compete for the fifth starter spot in the rotation, and Zac Gallen is now firmly entrenched as a member of the group, as well.

Other MLB stars may follow his steps

Other MLB players may follow Leake’s footsteps in the not so distant future.

In fact, we might see more cases like that in the next few days given that teams just released their 60-man player pools on Sunday.

Leake, 32, has a 4.05 career ERA in 301 games (296 starts) and 1829.0 frames. He has a 105-98 record. He is an experienced veteran who has pitched with several MLB organizations in his major league tenure.

New York Giants: How Xavier McKinney and Oshane Ximines can transform the defense

New York Giants, Xavier McKinney

The New York Giants have adopted a one-word mantra, that being “youth.” Establishing a foundation of young and hungry players is an essential part of building an NFL roster capable of winning at a high-level. As we saw several years ago with Jerry Reese, spending millions of dollars on overextended veterans can be a short-term fix but ultimately does not promote success in the long run.

While Dave Gettleman hasn’t perfected the art of the rebuild, he has established a young group at multiple positions, including in the secondary, outside linebacker, offensive line, and a quarterback/running back.

This team is completely different than it was just a few with years ago, and that is a great thing considering the bad contracts that were plastered across the board. In addition, Gettleman began to take a different approach toward the draft as the previous regimen focused on skill position players. Some may argue that Saquon Barkley fits the mold of the Reese-era, but spending the fourth overall pick on a left tackle changes the narrative.

There are two players that could transform the defense moving forward, and they follow the youth agenda that Gettleman has instituted since his tenure began in 2018.

Xavier McKinney and Oshane Ximines represent what the Giants’ defense could look like in the future. Fast, versatile, strong, and efficient. Both players have the tangible traits to develop into premium level players in the NFL, but the intangibles also stand out among the rest.

McKinney is a diverse safety that can move up close to the line of scrimmage and drop back into the defensive secondary to act as a ball hawk. He’s a steal at the top of the second round. If the draft hadn’t been so stacked in the first round, McKinney would have easily went earlier. The Giants were blessed with his availability, and they are gaining a surefire tackler, a turnover machine, and an intelligent player to add to their secondary. Now, he must adapt to the NFL game, which promotes a more physical and aggressive style.

Ximines, on the other hand, played in 45% of defensive snaps last year, recording 4.5 sacks and 9 quarterback hits. He didn’t miss a single tackle and showed impressive pass rush moves coming out of a smaller school in Old Dominion.

Oshane displayed an ability to bull-rush, use chops and stab shoulders with strong hands last season. If he can improve upon his already existing pass rush moves, he could establish himself as one of the top options at outside linebacker for the Giants.

In a new defensive scheme, set forth by Patrick Graham, we can expect the pass rush to be schemed to a degree. I anticipate a mesh of 3-4/4-3 base sets with rotating OLBs and delayed blitzes. It’s important to mention Graham played 50% man-coverage last year and blitzed 41% of the time on third-down.

They will also rely heavily on the interior defense to apply pressure in the trenches and collapse the pocket, forcing opposing quarterbacks to move and, hopefully, end up in the grasps of players like Ximines.

The New York Mets sign Gordon Beckham, re-sign Erasmo Ramirez

The New York Mets keep prioritizing veteran depth after MLB started allowing free agent signings and transactions. A few hours ago, they announced the signing of experienced right-handed reliever Hunter Strickland to a minor league deal, and now, they inked infielder Gordon Beckham, also to a minor league pact.

In addition, the Mets re-signed right-hander Erasmo Ramirez, who pitched the original spring training with them.

With the two players in the fold, the New York Mets have now made four additions to the 60-man player pool since the initial roster came to light on Sunday evening, the other ones being Strickland and outfielder Ryan Cordell, who was released at some point in the last few months but is now back with the club.

Beckham, once a top prospect who failed to live up to the hype, is now 33 years old. He was let go by the San Diego Padres back in March after failing to make a good impression. He hit .215/.271/.372 in his 340 plate appearances with the Tigers last season. That’s why expectations regarding Beckham should not be high, but of course, since it is a low-risk move, the Mets are hoping he can at least provide depth.

The Mets bring back Ramirez

With Ramirez, the Mets bring back a useful right-handed arm that can serve a variety of roles out of the bullpen, from a long man to a middle reliever or even a spot starter, if needed. He was with the team during the abbreviated spring training, but he spent the majority of the 2019 season in Triple-A.

The New York Mets have some of the best young stars in the game, including Jeff McNeil, Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto. However, when looking for depth, they are seeking the free agent market and made a couple of interesting signings.

New York Mets sign Hunter Strickland and will add him to player pool

Simeon Woods-Richardson

The New York Mets made a depth signing on Monday morning, as they look to solidify their bullpen with an eye on the MLB 2020 season that will start on July 23rd. The team inked right-handed pitcher Hunter Strickland to a minor league contract.

The Mets announced the move on their official Twitter account. The hurler, known for his stints with the San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners and Washington Nationals, has been added to the club’s 60-man player pool, which means he is eligible to play this season if they so decide.

Strickland was let go by the Nats in March after posting some ugly numbers in the abbreviated spring training. He wasn’t effective last season, either, with a 5.55 ERA in 28 relief appearances and 24.1 frames between the M’s and the World Champions.

The Mets are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle

He is not expected to have a prominent role in the New York Mets’ relief corps unless his performance dictates it. After all, the team’s bullpen is fairly set, with Dellin Betances, Edwin Diaz, Brad Brach, Justin Wilson, Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo and company.

The 31-year-old hasn’t been good since 2018, when he had a 3.97 ERA and a 4.42 FIP in 45.1 innings with the Giants. He served as the team closer for a spell that year, saving 14 games.

For his career, the new Mets’ signee has a 16-15 record with 21 saves in 281 games and 250.1 frames. He accumulates a 8.23 K/9 (which has been declining for a few years now) and a 3.13 BB/9. He holds a very good 3.16 career ERA and a 3.68 FIP.

The Mets are hoping that the experienced Strickland can recapture the form that made him one of the best middle relievers in the National League West division from 2015 to 2018. During that period, he even had a couple of sub-3.00s ERA seasons.

Did the Yankees find their next Gio Urshela in new signing Matt Duffy?

New York Yankees, Matt duffy

The Yankees made a low-key move over the weekend, signing former Tampa Bay Rays infielder, Matt Duffy. Duffy, who played in 46 games in 2019, logged a .252 batting average with one home run over 147 at-bats.

The defensive player is not a slugger by any means, but he does hit for contact and has a solid OBS (.343 last season). He also draws a respectable number of walks and doesn’t strike out too frequently. The last time he played over 130 games was in 2018 when he hit .294 and played predominantly at third base.

What this tells me is that the Yankees don’t feel comfortable relying on Miguel Andujar at third base in case Gio Urshela needs to be substituted. Having a solid depth piece like Duffy, who can fill the void, is essential, especially at a position as difficult as the hot corner. At third base in 2018, he played 125 games, allowing 13 errors and logging a .963 fielding percentage.

Compared to Urshela, who played in 123 games at the position last year, he logged a .954 fielding percentage with 13 errors. It seems as if Duffy has the ability to perform even better defensively than Urshela, despite his dip in efficiency last year.

If Duffy can bounce back in a big way, the Yankees could find more reps for him, especially since Urshela is only a one-season wonder, so far. Depending on him to back up his stellar 2019 performance with another incredible outing is optimistic. It was the first time Gio hit over .233 and reached double-digit numbers in the home run category.

I really like this move by the Yankees, bringing in a veteran infielder to fill one of the most important positions on defense. It also makes me aware that Andujar will probably stick in the outfield for the foreseeable future. Expect to see Duffy earn playing time during the shortened season, as mitigating fatigue will be a priority.

UFC: What’s next for Nate Diaz?

There might not be a bigger anomaly in MMA than the UFC‘s Nate Diaz (20-12). Diaz has blossomed into a superstar over the last couple of years after his two fights with Conor McGregor. Diaz marches to the beat of his own drum, and he’s uncensored at all times. He’s even been awarded the chance to slap UFC President, Dana White. The last time we saw Diaz, his fight with Jorge Masivdal was getting called off due to a cut. Since then, we haven’t heard much. So what is next for the 35-year-old from Stockton?

UFC’s next steps with Diaz

Diaz is on the shortlist for the biggest stars in the sport. However, he’s notoriously difficult to make a deal with from the UFC‘s side of things. Diaz knows what he’s worth, and he’s not afraid to just walk away from the table if he’s not paid. Most of the time, they find some middle ground, but if it favors anyone over the last couple of years, it favors Diaz.

Diaz has said that he would prefer to stay at 170 pounds if he does fight again. He said that he wasn’t interested in cutting the extra weight to lightweight. However, there is one fight on this shortlist of matchups I have that would have him return to lightweight, and I think it’s one fans would love to see.

Tony Ferguson

This one is a little outside the box, but how much fun would this be? This is a matchup that many in the media have floated around for the last couple of years. Both are two of the most entertaining fighters in the business with endless cardio. Ferguson (25-4) is coming off of a UFC interim title loss to Justin Gaethje, and he needs another opponent when he’s ready. Some have suggested Dustin Poirier, but I’m thinking of someone with a little more star power.

This fight would such a fun fight to promote. Two extremely interesting personalities, and two guys who are not opposed to going to war with the other. Again, Diaz has said he doesn’t want to cut back down to lightweight which makes this one less likely, but I think Ferguson is the type of opponent that he would do it for.

Jorge Masvidal

It’s no secret that there’s a contract dispute with Jorge Masvidal and the UFC. Masvidal (35-13) was supposed to fight for the title, but contract negotiations have nixed that. Masvidal beat Diaz last November for the BMF title, but fans were robbed of a definitive ending when a doctor called the fight off due to a cut over Diaz’s eye. Prior to the fight being called off, Diaz had some of his better moments in the fight.

A fight with Diaz would pay Masvidal what he wants. A fight with Masvidal would also get Diaz motivated to get back into the cage. If the UFC wants to make a big-time fight later in the fall, I think they could run back the BMF title fight. Hopefully a rogue doctor at ringside wouldn’t call this one off before the fans could get the ending that they deserve.

Conor McGregor

If you want a fight that makes 100% sense on all sides, look no further than this one. Conor McGregor (22-4) and Diaz have fought twice with each fighter gaining a victory. Diaz shocked the world back at UFC 196 when he submitted McGregor in the second round. McGregor won the rematch by majority decision at UFC 202 later that year.

The two men are two of the biggest stars in the sport. They are 1-1 in their head-to-head matchups, and they need a conclusion to the rivalry. McGregor has “Retired” for now due to the lack of fights that were being offered to him. Let’s be clear, McGregor is not actually retired, but more frustrated with the current situation. Diaz is just waiting on the UFC to call him and offer him something worth fighting for.

An easy fix to everything would be pairing the two men up for the fall. Will it happen? I personally don’t think so. I think it’s more likely that Diaz and Masvidal fight again before McGregor and Diaz. The reasoning is that I think the UFC is likely going to give McGregor the winner of Khabib/Gaethje for the lightweight title near the end of the year. If Diaz still hasn’t fought by the time McGregor gets his shot, I think the trilogy fight likely becomes his next fight.

Imagine if McGregor wins the title back in late 2020. If he does it against Khabib, the UFC could either conclude that trilogy, or the UFC could give Diaz a title shot concluding the McGregor/Diaz trilogy. All of these are fun possibilities to think about. I’m not sure who Diaz is going to fight next, but I know for a fact it’s going to be someone with some name recognition.

NASCAR: Michael McDowell set a record no one wants to beat

An early crash in Sunday’s Pocono 350 earned McDowell and the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford a place in NASCAR Cup Series infamy.

History was made from each of the most extreme sides of Pocono Raceway’s Sunday scoring monitors.

Denny Hamlin’s win in the NASCAR Cup Series’ Pocono 350 not only put him in sole possession of 19th-place on the premier circuit’s all-time wins list, but also tied him with Jeff Gordon for the most wins at the 2.5-mile triangle. Conversely, the 40th and final car in the running order, that of Michael McDowell, set a Cup Series record for the most last-place finishes.

McDowell, driver of the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford, ironically came in the final position for the 34th time, breaking a tie with Joe Nemechek. He was running 25th on the 15th of 140 laps when his right rear tire went down, putting him into the wall. McDowell had previously scraped the wall while battling the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Chase Elliott for position. The Front Row team immediately determined the damage was too great to carry on, relegating McDowell to the fateful finish.

The timing of the historic accident couldn’t be more unfortunate for McDowell and the underfunded No. 34. Save for a surprise playoff appearance in 2016 (brought upon by a weather-induced win by Chris Buescher in the No. 34), FRM has not placed a car within the top 20 in owners’ points since joining the series on a full-time basis in 2009. McDowell and rookie teammate John Hunter Nemechek (Joe’s son and driver of the No. 38 car) have placed their Fords in respective 22nd and 23rd positions in the current postings.

Saturday’s first half of Pocono’s Cup Series doubleheader was historic in a brighter sense for McDowell. He drove the No. 34 to an eighth-place finish, earning his career-best result at a track other than Daytona or Talladega. Consistency has been the name of the game for McDowell and the No. 34 team in 2020. Prior to the crash, the car had posted top 20 finishes in four consecutive events, as well as seven of the past nine. McDowell is currently on pace to set a career-best finish in the Cup Series standings, having previously come home 26th in 2016 and 2017 (doing so with FRM in the latter).

Though his name is etched in NASCAR infamy (a history eloquently documented by a website known as LASTCAR), McDowell has had his share of auto racing accomplishments. He took home 2004’s championship honors in the open-wheel Star Mazda Championship (now known as the Indy Pro 2000 Championship), one year after scoring Rookie of the Year honors in the ARCA series. McDowell also earned a win at the NASCAR Xfinity Series level in 2016.

Fortunately for McDowell, he has a long way to go to set the all-time record for last-placements across NASCAR’s three national series. According to LASTCAR, that dubious mark is held by former Xfinity Series champion Jeff Green, who has been relegated to 121 such finishes.

McDowell and the Cup Series returns to action next Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Big Machine Vodka 400 Powered by Florida Georgia Line (4 p.m. ET, NBC).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Knicks: Kenny Wooten Earns All-Defensive Team Award

New York Knicks, Kenny Wooten

Kenny Wooten Jr. who is currently on the New York Knicks affiliate squad, Westchester Knicks recently earned the All-Defensive Team Award. Wooten is a master when it comes to blocking shots and applying pressure to opposing rim attacks.

The 6’9″ 220-pound pogo stick in Kenny Wooten is making it easy for the Knicks due to his hard nose style of play. Current main team teammate, Mitchell Robinson believes Kenny Wooten is actually the highest leaper on the entire team, both New York and its Westchester affiliate combined.

Kenny Wooten who is fully healed from his thumb injury is looking to earn a spot on the New York Knicks main team this offseason under new Knicks front office led by Leon Rose and William Wesley also known as “World Wide Wes”.

The Knicks are currently in need of a backup center and if Kenny Wooten continues to improve and gain accolades especially due to his defensive disruption, there might be a spot on the main Knicks squad behind Mitchell Robinson. If LaMelo Ball falls unto the New York Knicks lap on draft night, then there’ll be two bigs who’ll make LaMelo’s life super easy when it comes to the pick and roll and lob attacks.

The front office for the New York Knicks seems to be playing chess instead of checkers under Leon Rose. Many fans disagreed with the recent waiving of Allonzo Trier, however, that decision seemed more like a financial one.

Overall, Kenny Wooten is already loved by Knick fans and he hasn’t even played a single game for the New York Knicks under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. He’ll get his opportunity whenever the time is right. Wooten’s hard work and humility are not going unnoticed.

NASCAR: Erik Jones impresses on the playoff brink

On the cusp of the NASCAR playoff picture and facing an uncertain future, Erik Jones came up big after facing disaster at Pocono.

Summer often affords the opportunity for sports fans to relax and divert their eyes away from the playoff picture and enjoy the games for what they are during the supposed “dog days”, allowing the insanity to fully reign in September.

But with NASCAR racing serving as the only sport in town, fans will take whatever sort of postseason discussion they can get.

Now is as good a time as any to talk about the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoff picture. Against big odds, the series has entered the second half of its 26-race regular season and suddenly only 11 races remain until the postseason begins at Darlington Raceway. Winning more or less assures a driver’s playoff participation, while those who go without must rely on the mercy of points.

Erik Jones, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is currently the 16th and final name on the guest list as the postseason preparty rolls on. After this weekend’s historic Cup Series doubleheader at Pocono Raceway, Jones is up 14 points on Austin Dillon, his closest competitor for the slot. This posting comes after Jones finished a season-best third at the Pocono 350 event on Sunday afternoon.

Jones reflected on his playoff quest during a postrace conference call hosted on Zoom.

I think we’re so much better than (16th) that it doesn’t really even play into my mind I know if we just kind of do what we need to do, things will kind of work out,” Jones said when asked if he or his No. 20 squad looks at the standings at a time like this. “It’s not really even a question in my mind at this point, making the Playoffs or not.  I feel like we’ll be strong enough here to get a win at a race here in the next month or two somewhere.  I don’t think that’s really in my mind.  We just have a good enough car, a good enough team.  We just got to clean some things up, have some things go our way.  I don’t really believe in luck that much.  You keep chugging along, things will go your way eventually.”

All things considered, it’s actually a solid position for Jones to be in. The weekend began with him on the outside looking in, a mere point behind rookie Tyler Reddick for the final spot. Those who crave playoff drama were no doubt intrigued by an incident that befell Jones, as he ironically crashed with Reddick on the 70th of 130 laps during Saturday’s Pocono Organics 325 in partnership with Rodale Institute. While Reddick was able to muster a 30th-place finish running four laps off the pace, Jones’ Toyota was damaged beyond repair, relegating him to 38th.

When Reddick endured mechanical problems at the start of the second part, a 350-mile event on Sunday, he took full advantage.

His Toyota wasn’t fast enough to run with his teammate, race-winner Denny Hamlin, but Jones kept a wave of decent momentum going with a relative bronze medal at the 2.5-mile track’s 2020 finale. It’s his second top-five finish over the last three races, having managed a fifth-place showing after being involved in the topsy-turvy ending at Talladega.

“I think we’ve been pretty fast every week,” he said. “I can’t think of a race other than Martinsville where we didn’t have good speed. It’s unfortunate we haven’t finished as good as we’ve ran at some races. I think that’s going to come around. You can’t have things go wrong every single week.”

“It was a good day today. The Craftsman Camry was pretty quick. It’s good to get a good finish. …I wish we could get some more finishes. I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

Jones is in his third season of Cup Series racing with Gibbs. He’s looking for a third playoff berth that would match his seasons in the No. 20…one that would certainly come in handy during contract negotiations.

The 2015 NASCAR Camping World (now Gander RT & Outdoor) Truck Series champion is slated to be a free agent at the end of the 2020 season. If Jones hits the market, he could get lost in a crowded picture that might also include former series champion Brad Keselowski, as well as fellow playoff participants Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney. After his second top-five run in the span of a calendar week, Jones expressed confidence that a new deal could be done and he would remain in the No. 20 stable.

We started talking to them about next year, what we’re going to do moving forward,” Jones reported. “I feel like right now that’s kind of the plan, is working with them. We’ll see what happens. But I feel good about it right now moving forward.”

Jones and the Cup Series stars return to action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway next Sunday afternoon for the Big Machine Vodka 400 Powered by Florida Georgia Line (4 p.m. ET, NBC). He owns a runner-up finish at IMS, coming home second to Keselowski in the 2018 event.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

The New York Giants are taking a risky approach at linebacker

New York Giants, Ryan Connelly

The New York Giants are taking a risk at linebacker in 2020, but the rebuild makes it necessary: 

The New York Giants are still in the middle of a full roster rebuild, and expecting every unit to play at a high-level is unrealistic. With a second-year quarterback and an entirely new secondary, Big Blue will face its fair share of troubles in 2020, but improvement is all we are asking for.

While some positions theoretically got better, the linebacker corps is still very unpredictable and lacks elite talent. The Giants went out and signed former Green Bay Packers linebacker Blake Martinez, who brings experience as the MIKE linebacker who can stop the run and contain big plays. Martinez was often utilized in a vilifying scheme, noting that Green Bay didn’t value the middle linebacker position too much. He was forced to play zone coverage, Which affected his pass protection grades and efficiency.

The veteran defender will hopefully be an improvement over Alec Ogletree, but we won’t know until the regular season comes around, and we see his fit in the new defensive scheme, orchestrated by Patrick Graham.

The riskier spot is next to Martinez, where Ryan Connelly and a bevy of other players will compete for starting reps. The Giants seem optimistic that Connelly will return from a torn ACL in 2019 and play at a high-level. In four games, he posted 20 combine tackles, 1.0 sack, 2 passes offended, and 2 interceptions. He looked fantastic in a limited sample size, and if he can return to full health, Connelly will be the favorite to pair with Martinez at weakside linebacker.

Behind Connelly and Martinez is David Mayo, who signed a three year, $8.4 million deal this offseason. Mayo is a solid depth piece who can stop the run efficiently, but he is poor in coverage. Mayo played in 16 games for the Giants last year, tallying 52 solo tackles, 82 combined, 2.0 sacks, and allowed 19 completions on 29 targets, compiling a 65.5% completion rate against. One category he improved significantly in was his missed tackles. In 2018, he missed 26.3% of his tackles, which decreased more than 15% to 10.9% in 2019.

The Giants don’t have elite talent at linebacker — they have serviceable players that can hold down the fort while they continue to rebuild the roster. I anticipate they will look to bring in another player next year in the middle rounds of the draft or free agency, depending on how Connelly turns out. For now, we can expect them to enjoy some improvement after the replacement of Ogletree.