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Quest for 100 steals, the top trade prize, and 7 more items

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Starting Lineup is a biweekly collection of reporting, observations, and insights from the baseball beat, published every other week during the regular season.

Leading off …

CINCINNATI - No major-league player has swiped 100 bases in a season since Vince Coleman stole 109 in 1987.

Even with the new rule changes implemented last season, reaching that round number remains a monumental challenge. It requires speed, instincts, knowledge of opposing pitchers, durability, and a willingness to continue throwing one's body to the infield dirt on belly-flopping slides. It also demands a player's on base often.

There are only eight seasons of 100 steals in the modern era: Rickey Henderson (1980, 1982, and 1983) and Coleman (1985-87) reached the mark three times, and Lou Brock (1974) and Maury Wills (1962) once. (Henderson stole a modern-era record 130 in 1982.)

For a while early this season, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Elly De La Cruz was on pace to join them. He still can if he can make the math work.

A big steals number was on his mind entering the season after swiping 35 bases in 98 games as a rookie. De La Cruz cited 80 steals as a goal at spring training. No one's reached 80 since Coleman stole 81 in 1988. Ronald Acuña Jr. stole 73 last season.

"We have a lot of team speed. We're going to have a lot of attempts," Reds manager David Bell said. "Where he can make a difference is just the percentage how successful you can be."

While De La Cruz told reporters earlier this month he's not consciously thinking about reaching a mark when he's on base, he said he's always "thinking about taking the next base."

He's still on pace for a monster number - 84 steals - but his pace slowed in recent weeks, demonstrating the difficulty of reaching 100. What would it require to get there? Let's explore.

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The MLB average rate in which a player attempts to steal when second or third base is unoccupied is 7% this season.

Last year, De La Cruz attempted to steal an open base 41% of the time, and this season he's ramped that rate up to 69% through play Thursday, which is 13 percentage points greater than the second most aggressive base stealer, Oakland's Esteury Ruiz.

That's a remarkable rate for De La Cruz, but it was 81% in mid May.

Stealing all the time takes a physical toll. And to reach 100, a baserunner must also be efficient. So far, De La Cruz has an 84% success rate compared to 81% a year ago. With that efficiency, he should be running often.

"Before the game, we study pitchers. What's their first movement? What are they doing normally?" De La Cruz said through an interpreter in late May when the Reds swept the Dodgers. "Studying that before the game, each and every pitcher we know we are going to face."

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Dodgers manager Dave Roberts believes De La Cruz is just tapping into these finer points of base stealing. Roberts thinks De La Cruz is mostly getting by with his 99th-percentile sprint speed.

"It'll be scary if he can start to get better jumps, start to learn pitchers' tendencies. He just outruns the baseball," said Roberts, who stole 243 bases with an 81% success rate in his 10 years as a major leaguer. "I think there's a desire, a fearlessness - but just sheer speed.

"It'll be scary if some base-stealing coach tutors him on the little finer points. With the way he can run, it'll be scary for opponents. Like Maury Wills for me."

More than anything, De La Cruz must do a better job getting on base.

His pace has slowed in part because his on-base percentage fell from .395 in April to .298 in May.

He owns a career .313 OBP through his first 160 games, which is right around league average. Most of the 100-plus steal artists produced .360 or better on-base clips in their campaigns.

Baseball Reference keeps a statistic called "stolen-base opportunities." It tracks the number of times a player reaches base with second or third base vacant before them.

De La Cruz is on pace for 144 stolen-base opportunities. That's likely not enough to reach 100.

When Coleman stole 109 bases in 1987, he had 245 stolen-base opportunities. He posted a .363 on-base mark for the season. He stole 53.5% of the time when he had an opportunity with an 83% success rate.

When Henderson stole 130 bases in 1982, he had 225 opportunities, stealing 76.4% of the time when there was a vacant base. He posted a .398 on-base mark.

Jeff Carlick / Getty Images

De La Cruz owns a 50% career stolen-base rate and 160 stolen-base opportunities. He's stolen 67 bases in his first 160 games.

"For me, it's just trying to get on base any way possible," De La Cruz said. "Right now, it's getting on base as much as possible and be given an opportunity to do something."

Getting to 100 is difficult. It's a test of speed, instincts, endurance, and math. And it begins with step one: reaching base safely.

2. NBA jumps MLB

With the NBA close to securing a $76-billion, 11-year deal for its national TV rights, according to The Wall Street Journal and other media reports, the league will surpass MLB as the No. 2-ranked revenue sport in North America.

MLB was once the No. 1 team sport in North America. But the NFL took over the top spot some time ago, and now the NBA will leapfrog MLB next season.

The NBA's new national TV rights alone will earn the league $6.9 billion per year. The MLB's national TV rights account for about $1.9 billion per year.

Garrett Ellwood / Getty Images

While the NBA's new TV deals nearly triple the value of their former agreements, MLB's recent deals with ESPN, AppleTV, and Peacock were flat in revenue growth. (The Peacock deal, worth $30 million, expired this spring and MLB took a cut in agreeing to assign those rights to Roku for $10 million per year.)

Entering this year, the NBA was taking in just under $11 billion per year in revenue, with MLB just over that number. Now, the NBA will have a sizeable lead.

While MLB takes in more revenue from local TV than the NBA, the NBA's combined national and local TV rights will now dwarf baseball's. Moreover, the embattled RSN ecosystem is more of a problem for MLB than it is for the NBA. These expected deals position the NBA as more of a national TV business, like the NFL, than a local one.

Navigating the new live-TV sports landscape is arguably MLB's greatest challenge. The sport must build a greater audience for its product to either attract stronger offers from media companies, or make it worthwhile to build out its own direct-to-consumer TV products. Big media companies want big, national entertainment - not local.

3. Summer's biggest prize

The player on the trade market who can provide the most impact isn't likely Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Bo Bichette - should they become available. It's White Sox ace Garrett Crochet.

In a remarkable player development story, Crochet is one of the most dominant pitchers this season. He's second in K-BB% with a Jacob deGrom-like 28% mark. He has a 0.93 WHIP. Not bad for a pitcher who posted a 6.48 ERA in the White Sox bullpen last season.

Lefties with a fastball that averages 97 mph, a wipeout breaking ball, and command of both are rare - especially when they're 24 and under club control through 2026.

A funky leg kick can't hurt in producing deception, either:

Trading Crochet makes sense for the White Sox given they are years away from contention. Another reason to sell high is the injury risk for hard-throwing pitchers.

When the Guardians traded pitcher Mike Clevinger with two-plus years of control to the Padres in 2020, they received three top-10 prospects from a deep Padres system, including Josh Naylor. According to reports, the Padres are also interested in Crochet. Most contenders should be.

4. A new way to find pitchers

Crochet's success story is also part of a larger trend: relievers making successful transitions to the rotation.

We're seeing it with Jordan Hicks in San Francisco, Zack Littell and Jeffrey Springs (last season) in Tampa Bay, Reynaldo López in Atlanta, Cristopher Sanchez in Philadelphia, and Seth Lugo in Kansas City, among others.

Tony Avelar / Getty Images

It might not be as surprising as it seems. One reason pitchers are moved to the bullpen is they lack a third pitch. But it's easier to develop a new pitch with the training technology available today. Couple that with smart pitching instructors like Brian Bannister and Ethan Katz in Chicago, who help pitchers get the most out of their talent, and it's never been easier for a pitcher to move against the grain from the bullpen to the rotation.

5. Modest proposal: MLB Regionals

An underappreciated sporting event, at least in my view, is the NCAA baseball tournament - particularly its opening round.

If you're unfamiliar with the format, the 64-team field is divided into 16 regional sites where four teams compete in a double-elimination bracket that sends one team to this weekend's Super Regional round.

While it would ideally require yet another playoff berth, a four-team, double-elimination opening round for the wild-card teams - all played at one site - would be great TV.

Imagine such a scenario last year: the Rays, Blue Jays, Rangers, and Mariners playing at one site (the Rays had the best record of the four) needing to avoid two losses in a three-day period to advance to ALDS play. (In the NL, the Phillies, Marlins, Cubs, and Diamondbacks would have competed at the Philadelphia regional.)

Beyond the first game, teams wouldn't know their next day's opponent in advance and would have to decide which pitchers to save and which to use.

Rostering Paul Skenes is always an advantage to enjoy in regional-style play. Jamie Schwaberow / Getty Images

For MLB, there would be four games per day over a three-day period (the team that emerges from the losers' bracket would face a doubleheader on the final day and the winner of the final game would advance even if the one-loss team beat the no-loss team - got it?).

But there would be an energy and NCAA Tournament-like feel to the opening round. It would be great theatre. And it would add an incentive to push for the division title.

6. He who hesitates … wins?

Angels shortstop Zach Neto owns a pronounced leg kick in his batting stance, and Mariners starting pitcher Bryce Miller decided to disrupt it Saturday:

Major League Baseball

Hitters have incorporated a leg kick more in recent years as timing mechanisms. Can hesitation deliveries make a comeback?

7. Mystery ball

Aroldis Chapman thought he allowed a go-ahead home run Tuesday against the Dodgers.

In trying to preserve a 1-0 lead, the Pirates reliever thought Teoscar Hernández slugged a three-run homer when the ball left the bat.

Chapman was so convinced, he threw his glove to the mound in disgust.

He was right to believe the ball was leaving PNC Park. In the Statcast era, 177 balls have been hit with a 107-mph exit velocity and 29 degrees of launch like Hernández's; 169 were home runs.

But Hernández's was one of the eight that fell short, and was the fourth shortest by projected distance (378 feet).

The wind was gently blowing in from center field, so that likely wasn't the cause. We don't have access to spin metrics for batted balls, which could affect flight distance. It sure seemed like the ball was going to leave the yard. Only it didn't. Topspin? A mystery ball. A dead ball?

8. End to the waiting game?

Montgomery was booed off the mound Wednesday after a poor start. Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images

A couple of high-profile clients of agent Scott Boras - Jordan Montgomery and Blake Snell - were willing to play the waiting game this offseason as free agents.

Not only did their contracts fall short of expectations after they missed nearly all of spring training, but they've also pitched poorly. In Snell's case, he's suffered several minor injuries. Montgomery's now a former Boras client.

Both admitted recently they believe the lack of spring training has affected them this season.

Their cases are going to work against players who try and wait out the market. There's a reason pitchers report to camps in mid-February.

9. I'm not saying, I'm just saying

I'll begin and end with De La Cruz. Yes, his bat has run hot-and-cold as a major leaguer. But when we zoom out, his total body of work to date is remarkable for a 22-year-old.

De La Cruz's first 160 games: 23 homers, 106 runs, 70 RBIs, 67 stolen bases, and a .237/.313/.417 slash line.

Barry Bonds' first 160 games (at about the same age): 22 homers, 108 runs, 70 RBIs, 48 steals, and a .235/.335/.433 slash line.

The chances are minuscule any player follows a Bonds-like arc, even his pre-PED one. Nonetheless, it's interesting to consider where De La Cruz can go from here.

Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.

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