A Team Tailored for the Playoffs

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As the Kansas City Royals inch closer and closer to their first postseason berth since  1985, it becomes harder and harder to not play out scenario’s in your head. What if they win a Wild Card spot? What will the starting rotation look like? Who do you leave off the playoff roster? These might all seem like minor details, but for us Royals fans it is foreign territory. Hey, we’ve spent close to 30 years just asking for a game that really matters; these questions seem to matter more to us than they should. With all that said there are a few things that not only make me feel confident that we could not only be witnessing a number of playoff games but that this team could be a great fit for what is headed their way.

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Obviously the preference for most of us is for Kansas City to win the American League Central, as the Royals would avoid the one game playoff that is the wild card. Winning a wild card is still playoffs, but there is always the possibility that the Royals have an off night and that would leave them one and done. Also, unless the Royals finish above or tied with Oakland in the Wild Card race they will be playing that game on the road. The thought of only getting one playoff game and not getting October baseball at ‘The K’ saddens me in ways you don’t even know. Like watching the end of Toy Story 3. I’m not alone on that, right? Anyway, there has been lots of discussion on whether the Royals playing in one game would be satisfying enough, and I can easily see why one game would not be enough. Either way, playoffs are playoffs, whether you play 1 game or 21. Bottom line is that the Royals need to reach the Division Series for any of the following points to even matter.

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There are normally three key things stressed for a team to go deep into the playoffs: pitching, defense and timely hitting. The good thing is the Royals are good for at least two of those, with the third coming and going. Let’s start with the pitching. This has been one of the bigger factors in the Royals success this year and without it we probably aren’t even talking playoffs right now. It will be interesting to see if the Royals will go with a 3 or a 4 man rotation to start out. I would imagine the top three goes James Shields, Danny Duffy, and Jeremy Guthrie. I would like to think Yordano Ventura would be the third rather than Guthrie, but my gut tells me they won’t want to push him real hard, as he has already pitched the most innings in one season of his career(179.0 as we speak). You also have to wonder where Jason Vargas is in this conversation, as he has had a really good season but in his last 7 starts he has a 5.89 ERA/1.66 WHIP and Kansas City has lost 6 of his those starts. Since I can’t see either Guthrie or Vargas being a part of the bullpen(unless they are a long reliever, and sweet baby Jesus, let’s hope we don’t need one of those) they will probably either start or not be on the playoff roster. This will lead to some interesting dilemmas for Royals management, as they will want to get the most out of their rotation without killing Ventura’s arm or using a starter who is regressing(I’m staring at you, Vargas!).

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But it’s not just the starters that will guide this team in October. The Royals bullpen has been a major force over the last few years and this year has added an element of dominance to the late innings. With Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland you are seeing a back portion of the pen who will slow down the best of offenses. Three guys with upper 90’s heat, nasty off-speed pitches and the ability to make a Royals game be over if they are leading after 6 innings. Add in the likes of Jason Frasor, Brandon Finnegan(who was drafted by Kansas City this summer) and just for the hell of it Francisley Bueno and Louis Coleman and you have the making of a playoff caliber pen. It will be interesting to see if Aaron Crow makes this squad, as obviously manager Ned Yost still thinks fondly of him, despite his disappointing season where inherited runners abound and velocity decreases. Add in the possibility of Ventura being in the bullpen and you could make the case that Kansas City will make opposing teams want to strike early or pay for it when HDH enter the game.

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians

Defense is also a major plus for Kansas City and something that will help them in their hunt for gold. This has been about a solid of a unit as the Royals have had in a very long time, although there have been a few hiccups these last few weeks. For the Royals to play deep into October they need the ‘D’ to step up and return to their earlier levels of excellence. It shouldn’t be hard to muster, but this team has also showed the penchant to let pressure affect their play on the field.

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The timely hitting is the only thing that could be a worry. The Royals are hitting at a .270 with runners in scoring position, which is in the top 5 in baseball this season. It does drop to .214 with 2 outs in the inning, which lowers them to the middle of the pack in both leagues. They are also doing well when they get past the 7th inning, hitting at a .252 clip which is good enough for 6th in all of baseball. So this is a team that can hit and hit in the clutch if needed. But if you are a Royals fan you know how streaky they can be as well. One minute this team looks like an offensive juggernaut, the next you wonder if even Kent Murphy or Domingo Ayala(Google them; go ahead) could hit better than Kansas City’s hitters. They also aren’t a team that takes a lot of pitchers, so it is rare when you see them work a count and attempt to wear a pitcher down. Surprisingly they don’t strike out much either, although this means a lot of ground balls that don’t get past the infield. There is also a reliance on bunting when they start to struggle, which can be both good and bad. Letting a speedy player bunt early in the game for a hit? Fine by me, although I would prefer they hit. Sacrifice in the first 6 innings? Awful and something the Royals are notorious for doing. More than anything this team needs to hit in the clutch and attempt to be moderately consistent to reach the next level. I hope this can happen, but if there is anything I worry about it is this very issue that has hampering the team for the last couple seasons. Bottom line, this is a team of hackers who have both good and bad nights.

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Oh, there is one more positive that will be amplified in October; speed. The Royals are almost a team that harkens back to the 80’s, one built on speed, defense and pitching. The Royals like to flaunt this speed whenever possible, especially with both Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore on the bench for late inning heroics. This is a team that needs to use that speed to their advantage when they get to the postseason, if for no reason than that it is a plus for the team. This is a team full of speedy guys(Dyson, Gore, Cain, Aoki) and guys who are good base runners(Gordon, Escobar). If the offense is struggling? Use your speed by stealing bases and utilize the hit and run. The Royals aren’t a team that can bunch up a few hits and then expect a big three run bomb, so causing some damage on the basepaths would seem to be a solid game plan. I’m not saying do this all the time, and obviously I think they need to be smart about when they do take advantage of the speed, but there are times that this team strands runners on base, runners that could be in motion. Making opposing pitchers and defenses feel uneasy should be a regular part of Kansas City’s offense this October and one that could gain them a slight advantage.

White Sox Royals Baseball

Look, there are areas of concern when it comes to this Royals team, like the much maligned offense, a non-threatening bench or Ned Yost’s tactical decisions. All could cost this team in the playoffs. In fact the ideal scenario for the Royals would be for them to get a lead by the 6th inning and then let Yost throw HDH out there for the last 3 innings. The less Yost has to manage, the better. But putting that aside, there are many teams in the American League who have already said they don’t want to play Kansas City in postseason play because of the way they are built. This is a Royals team that is used to playing in low scoring affairs and have shown a penchant to be a team that doesn’t give up late in the contest. So as much as this Royals team isn’t the team you or I would have built and despite logic telling us they shouldn’t have gotten this far with what they have, they are here. Watch out American League playoff teams; the Kansas City Royals are coming no matter how unorthodox or old school their game plan is.             

 

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Winning the Arms Race

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With the Royals continuing their winning ways and stretching their lead in the American League Central(2.0 games ahead of the Tigers) there has been some talk of plans for the team come September, preparing themselves for a stretch run to the playoffs. One of the most discussed ideas has been that of calling up some of their top arms in the minors and using them to help in the last month of the season. Think about that for a minute; a team that prides themselves on having one of the best bullpens in baseball is talking about adding more arms. You might be asking yourselves right now ‘why?’ and that is a valid question. But what Kansas City is considering is not a new concept.

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Let’s start with the two main arms that have been mentioned to be part of the Royals pen come September. Brandon Finnegan is the Royals #1 Draft Pick this year but has been progressing through the Royals farm system this summer, currently at Double AA Northwest Arkansas, where he has been pitching out of the pen, working 2 innings at the most in those games. The initial thought when he was drafted from TCU was that his future might be in the bullpen, the thinking that his size would hold him back from being a consistent major league starter. Finnegan has a plus fastball, plus slider and a good changeup to boot. He seems to be in the vein of a Billy Wagner type pitcher, small stature with some high heat. Finnegan even throws across his body like Wagner. The 21 year old isn’t even a year removed from college but has a chance to be pitching in games that matter come September for Kansas City.

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The other prospect that has been discussed for bullpen work this September is Christian Binford. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because I discussed him earlier this season. In fact, out of the current crop of minor league arms in the Royals system, the only other pitcher that has me as excited as Binford is Miguel Almonte. Binford started the year in Wilmington, moved up to Double AA Northwest Arkansas after 14 starts, pitching in 8 games there before being called up to Triple AAA Omaha this past week. Binford isn’t a guy who will light up radar guns, but he has tremendous command of his pitches and a superb walk ratio. Binford has mainly been a starter since the Royals drafted him, and I’m pretty sure he takes the place of Jason Adam, who the Royals had shifted to the pen awhile back before trading him to Minnesota in the Josh Willingham trade. I’m not entirely sure how Kansas City would use him out of the pen(long reliever if needed? Help rest the other relievers?) but he would be different after seeing the smoke thrown by guys like Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. I don’t think this role is really in Binford’s long term future, but for this year he might be just what the Royals need.

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So what about Kyle Zimmer? Most of us are aware of how 2014 has been a wasted season for Zimmer, as he has been battling a lat injury these last few months. Before that the Royals were taking their time with him, as he has dealt with injuries since the Royals drafted him in 2012. At this point, Zimmer has appeared in one game this season for Idaho Falls in the Rookie League. At one time there was some talk that we could see him in September, but that was before the lat injury stripped him of playing time this season. At this point, the best thing is for Kansas City to let him get some innings in the minors the rest of the year and chalk up this year to a lost cause. We will see Zimmer soon enough, just not this year.

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Earlier I mentioned that the concept of using youngsters in your farm system to help out the relief corp in September wasn’t a new idea. Off the top of my head I can think of two times it has helped a team further their chances in the postseason. The first is the Los Angeles Angels using Francisco ‘K-Rod’ Rodriguez to help them gain a World Series title in 2002. Rodriguez only appeared in 5 games that season, but was a key part of their bullpen come October. K-Rod would appear in 11 games for the Angels that fall, giving up only 4 earned runs in 18.2 innings. It had to be hard for teams that year to really get a scouting report on this kid that the Angels had barely used in the season. The other instance I can think of is the St. Louis Cardinals using their young arms these last few years in the playoffs. Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, and Carlos Martinez all were used off and on during the postseason and were live arms that could go out there and just throw heat in short outings for the Cardinals. More than anything it helped the team in 2011, as the Cardinals were able to come away with a World Series title in Tony LaRussa’s final season. These are both prime examples of teams that used young arms in their farm system to help their bullpen in postseason play and use them to help gain the richest prize of them all.

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So with just over 5 weeks left in the season it appears as if the Royals are making plans to make the team the best they can be if they are headed to October. Adding a couple of young arms to the pen might not seem like the most obvious paths to take for guys like Finnegan and Binford, but it would give them the opportunity to experience a pennant race(and possibly postseason) while getting big league experience. It’s not a guarantee we will see these two youngsters next month but I would bet money we see at the very least one of them, if not both. The Royals bullpen is a juggernaut and has been the last few years, but adding these two could make it even stronger. With all of us hoping for a “Blue October”, I love the out of the box thinking, especially with some of the struggles as of late for Aaron Crow, Francisley Bueno and Bruce Chen. Finnegan and Binford might be future rotation mainstays for Kansas City, but for now their value might be pitching late in the game during the most exciting September Royals fans have seen in three decades.

What is Working(and Not Working) for the 2014 Royals

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Well, it’s been eight games now. The Royals are 4-4. We’ve seen some good baseball so far. We’ve seen some bad baseball. Some things are working, some are not. Let’s go ahead and take a look at what we can take away from the first week of the 2014 season. First, let’s look at what is working:

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Patience  at the Plate

Over the years, it has driven me nuts that the Royals are just not a team who accumulates a lot of walks. This really isn’t anything new; this has been going on since the 90’s. Outside of Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, this team has been one that doesn’t take a lot of pitches and is always at the bottom of the league in bases on balls. But so far this year, we are seeing a different team. A team that has been seeing more pitches and taking more walks. Even a guy like Mike Moustakas, who didn’t get his first hit until last night, has shown a great amount of patience and has been able to take a few bases so far this year. This is a major improvement for this team and I really hope the patience is here to stay and isn’t fleeting. They are currently tied for 8th in the league in walks, which is way above where they have been in the past. In fact, they are currently way ahead of Detroit, who sits at the bottom of the league. If they can get some extra-base hits(more on that later), this team can make a big improvement on their ability to score runs from last year.

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The Starting Pitching is Still Great

I’ve been saying for awhile that the likelihood that the Royals would be able to put up the numbers the starting pitching had last year would be very small. Percentages say that it was just not realistic for that to happen, not with Ervin Santana gone and Bruce Chen and his clone(Jason Vargas) in the rotation. But so far, they are trying to prove me wrong. The Royals starting pitching is third in walks allowed, third in opponents batting average and second in WHIP. Jason Vargas has been the biggest surprise, as he has gone out there in two starts and has only given up two runs in 15 innings while compiling a 1.20 ERA and a WHIP of 0.73. Opponents are hitting a paltry .167 against Vargas. If he keeps this up(and I still believe he will be more in the middle and closer to his career stats this year), he will make Dayton Moore look like a genius for signing him. The rest of the rotation has been stellar, whether it be James Shields being, well, James Shields or Jeremy Guthrie continuing his magic tricks. Add in rookie Yordano Ventura, who made his season debut last night and made the Rays look awful(PLEASE, go check out these Gifs. They are worth it!), and you have a group of guys that might be able to challenge last year’s numbers. I hope it keeps up, as so far they have pitched above and beyond my expectations.

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Defensive Gold

This is no big surprise: the Royals defense is amazing. Anyone who has watched this team the last couple of years realize why they had 3 Gold Glove winners last year. It hasn’t slowed down, and might have gotten a bit better with the additions of Nor Aoki in right and Omar Infante at 2B. I don’t really see this changing and should continue throughout the year. The defense is working, oh yes, it is.

Now, onto the things that aren’t working:

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Royals Offense: MIA

This has probably been the biggest issue early on in the season for Kansas City. The Royals have struggled the last few years offensively, but the thought was with the additions of Aoki and Infante to the top of the lineup(and Alex Gordon moving down into the middle of the order)the Royals would see their offense flourish. So far, that has not happened. Sure, Aoki and Infante have hit, and so has Salvador Perez. Everyone else? Not so much. As a team, the Royals are 13th in runs scored, 14th in doubles, last in home runs, 13th in RBI, last in Slugging Percentage and next to last in OPS. Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon haven’t been horrible, but they haven’t been great. Billy Butler is struggling and Mike Moustakas, who tore it up this spring, just got his first hit of the year yesterday(in game 7!). I mentioned earlier that the team was doing a good job of taking some bases on balls, and it’s a good thing because they aren’t doing much else. I’ve had to remind myself numerous times so far that it is just eight games and is a very small sample size. But with the struggles the offense has had(especially scoring runs) the last few years, you hope this isn’t a regular thing and that the team can produce offensively the way management keeps thinking they should.

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Bullpen in Shambles 

I’ve been saying the last few years that bullpens have a very small shelf life. Normally, if a team can keep a solid group of guys together for 2-3 years then they are doing a good job. The Royals bullpen has been one of the best in baseball the last few years, and with their performance so far this year they might be drawing very close to a major shakeup. Tim Collins and Francisley Bueno have been roughed up, Greg Holland has looked human, and Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera have already had minor blips. What was once the most reliable thing on the team has become a big question mark. Louis Coleman has returned while Collins and Bueno have ended up on the disabled list for the time being. This is still a very solid group and will probably continue to put up solid numbers. But the days of them being locked down might be over. If there isn’t a shakeup this season, there very well could be in the offseason. Luckily for Kansas City, relievers are easy to accumulate and acquire.

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Seven Relievers and No Backup Infielder?   

One of the biggest deciding factors on whether or not a team makes it deep into the postseason is roster structure. If you are lacking in any area to compensate for another, there is a good chance you won’t even make it into the playoffs. With that said, it has been downright maddening to know that Royals management would rather carry seven relievers than ditch one and add a backup infielder to the roster. Pedro Ciriaco started the year on the team but was quickly jettisoned to Omaha to add to their collection of infielders. Christian Colon and Johnny Giavotella have seen regular time in AAA, as has journeyman Jason Donald. You would think with the amount of time both Alcides Escobar and Omar Infante missed this spring that it would be wise to keep an extra around in case one gets hurt. Hell, you might keep one around just because you might be tempting fate if you don’t. The Royals tempted, and what happened? Omar Infante was hit in the face the other night and had to be replaced by Danny Valencia. Yes, the Danny Valencia that had never played second base before Spring Training. The Danny Valencia who is a corner infielder and doesn’t play in the middle of the diamond. So in other words, he was out of place on Tuesday night when a ball was hit near him in the ninth inning that got past him and helped win the game for Tampa Bay. I’m not throwing this at Valencia’s feet; it wasn’t his fault. He just went out and did what was asked of him. But it makes no sense to not have a backup infielder on the team. They finally called one up for Wednesday’s game, as Giavotella made it to Kansas City and got a hit and a sac fly. This might seem like a minor thing, but it’s the difference between a contender and a pretender. For a team like Kansas City, there is no room for mental mistakes by management.

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So there it is, a breakdown of the first eight games and what the Kansas City Royals are doing right and what needs improvement. Look, it’s only been eight games so far; there is a lot of baseball yet to be played. I’m not too worried yet, but check back again with me in May. This team still has the potential and could be very special. As long as they continue to improve and don’t press too hard, we very well could be in a pennant chase this year. If not, we have this:

 

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Ahhh, it’s already warming my heart!

Luke Hochevar Meets Tommy John

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Tommy John has struck again. This time the famed surgery has claimed Kansas City Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar, as he will miss the entire 2014 season. It’s amazing to think this way, but this is actually a blow to the Royals, as Hochevar was an important part of the teams success in 2013 and looked to continue that this year. It seems weird to say that, since Hochevar for years was an unreliable starter who put up some of the worst numbers in baseball history. The Royals were contemplating giving Hoch another run in the rotation this year as the fifth starter, but obviously those plans have now changed. So where are the Royals at now without Luke Hochevar?

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For one, the fifth starters job is now down to two. Brad Penny was released earlier this week and Wade Davis has been officially moved to the bullpen. That leaves the competition to young flamethrower Yordano Ventura and Twitter’s favorite son Danny Duffy. In my eyes this is the best thing for the future of this team, as Penny seemed like a long-shot and Davis failed miserably last year at the back of the Royals rotation. As much as I love Ventura(and think in the long run he will be a top of the rotation starter), it might be best to start out the year with Duffy at the back end of the rotation. This saves some of Ventura’s service time(June seems like a good guess as to when he would join Kansas City, barring an injury) and allows Duffy some time to prove he can be the pitcher that many feel he is capable of being. So far in his young career, Duffy has been hit with a mixture of injuries and lack of control.  But at times Duffy has looked electric with a fastball that can reach the high 90’s and a curveball that is close to being a 12-to-6 downer with varying speeds. His change up is also above average, so Duffy has all the makings to be a number 2 or 3 starter…if he can learn some control. The biggest obstacle he has faced so far(outside of injuries) is a lack of control that makes it hard for him to go much past 5 innings in any of his starts. If Duffy can learn to be more efficient and avoid the injury bug, it’s conceivable that both him and Ventura could be in the Royals rotation by the end of the year.

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Hochevar’s injury also forced Wade Davis to the Royals bullpen, which is also a major plus for Kansas City. Manager Ned Yost felt that with Hoch out, the Royals needed more of a veteran presence in the pen. Insert Davis, a pitcher who over his career has been a questionable starter(at best) and a solid reliever. Davis was a starter in 2010-2011 for Tampa Bay and last year for Kansas City. 2012 was spent out of the pen. Compare:

Wade Davis Statistics and History – Baseball-Reference.com: Standard Pitching

His numbers in relief are very solid, especially his strike out rate(jumping to 11.1 in 2012) and his ERA+(a full 63 points higher than his best season in the rotation). Davis could easily slide into Hochevar’s 2013 role and put up very similar numbers, while also elevating his value(as the Royals hold his option for the 2015 season). The Royals really wanted Davis to be a starter when he was acquired, but it appears he is better suited for the pen, especially if the team is serious about contending.

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The last way in which Hochevar’s injury affects the Royals is that it opens up another spot in the bullpen. Right now six pitchers seem a lock for the pen: Greg Holland, Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera, Davis and Louis Coleman. That leaves a spot for either a lefty(Franciscley Bueno, Donnie Joseph), a long reliever(Everett Teaford, P.J. Walters) or the pitcher that loses out in the fifth starter spot. With the Royals talking about Davis being a 2 inning reliever, that lessens the need for a long reliever. Kansas City GM Dayton Moore would prefer that the loser of the starters spot go to AAA Omaha,  as the club wants insurance in case a starter suffers an injury. That would leave a battle between lefties Bueno and Joseph. Bueno is coming off of a rough outing yesterday against Milwaukee, one in which he looked very hittable while Joseph has yet to give up a run this spring. Joseph meanwhile is younger and is more of a strikeout pitcher(he has a career 12.3 SO/9 in the minors) although his walk rate is high as well(4.5 BB/9 in the minors). The Royals have used Bueno over the past couple seasons and seem to like his ability to get lefties out. Either could make the team and there is a good chance both will see time with Kansas City at some point this season.

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I’ve never been a big fan of Luke Hochevar but he was a major part of the Royals bullpen last year and seemed to have breathed life into a flailing career. It’s unfortunate that as he seemed to have turned a corner(thanks for that, Ned) he is now out for 2014 and his career is now in question going forward. Hoch’s injury has given us an even better view of what the Royals Opening Day roster is going to look like. As valuable as Hochevar has become, he seemed overpriced(he is scheduled to make $5.21 million this year) for someone coming out of the bullpen. Moore has said they would like to bring Hochevar back in the future, but at this point it is possible we have seen the last of Luke in a Royals uniform. The Royals were lucky and weren’t really hit with any major injuries last year. Hopefully this is the last of them for this year.

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