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December 3, 2008

GM for a Day

Mariners

by Joe Sheehan

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SEATTLE MARINERS
Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart

Wow. There are a lot of opinions about which teams should be covered as we lead up to the Winter Meetings. I doubt I'll be able to get to them all by next Monday, or even next Tuesday, but I'll do my best. I'm still sifting through the feedback, but the Mets, Tigers, Cardinals, and Reds all had significant support. No one seems to want me to write about the Nationals or Royals.

Today, I want to take a run at the Mariners, a somewhat more difficult project than the Dodgers. A year ago, the Mariners built up their 2008 roster at the expense of future seasons, and over the objections of performance analysts. The Mariners were fooled by their 2007 success, when a strong won-lost record had been built on a bullpen whose run prevention didn't quite match the underlying skill sets, and which got a bit lucky beyond even that. In the same way that the 2008 Mariners weren't as good as the 2007 ones would have led you to believe, the 2009 Mariners are better than the '08 version indicates. The '08 Mariners lost a ton of value to the DL, as J.J. Putz and Erik Bedard, good for 17.0 WARP in 2007, produced 6.7. Those two guys repeating their 2007 seasons still wouldn't have put the team in contention, but it would have lessened the perception that it was a disaster going nowhere.

Even so, I am much more optimistic about next year's Mariners, in the short term, than I was about last year's. Last year's Mariners were going to be terrible offensively, and not have nearly enough pitching or defense to make up for it. The '09 version is going to have good, and possibly excellent, run prevention, and has enough time and money to possibly put a representative offense on the field. The AL West could very well be won with 87 games next season, and I'm not convinced that the 2009 Mariners couldn't get there, and without making the kind of decisions they did a year ago.

The Mariners have Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard, Brandon Morrow, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Carlos Silva, and Jarrod Washburn. Forget that the last two are overpaid fodder; how many AL rotations would you trade, straight up, for the top four guys? Eleven? Twelve? I'd certainly take the Red Sox, and probably the Rays just because of David Price. The Twins? It's close; they don't have anyone with the upside of Hernandez or Morrow. I'd take the Mariners' rotation over the Angels, the Yankees, the Blue Jays, the White Sox... this has the potential to be a fantastic set of pitchers. Bedard has to return from his shoulder issues, of course, and both Rowland-Smith and Morrow have to continue their transition back to starting, which is where the innings-eating qualities of Silva and Washburn may actually be a benefit. Hernandez, Bedard, and Morrow all had Stuff scores of at least 19 last year. Rowland-Smith's mark was -1, and he wasn't great as a starter (35/23 K/BB in 63 1/3 innings, nine home runs allowed), but the skills he showed in the transition should lead to better performance in '09.

The 2009 Seattle Mariners will have one of the five best rotations in the American League, and if you start there, you can get to a lot of places. So if this were my team, I would do everything I could to back up that rotation, with a couple of developing arms and a couple of ball-in-play guys, and with the best defense possible. This is where the Mariners have been going backwards; their defense, as measured by Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, slipped to 26th in MLB last year, 27th the year prior, and has been going backwards since the early years of the decade, when they had some of the best defensive teams in franchise history in 2001 and 2003.

As much as Raul Ibanez is praised as a clutch player, his diminished range is a big part of the declining defensive performance of late. Yuniesky Betancourt hasn't followed up on his excellent rookie season, and Jose Lopez has struggled. Ichiro Suzuki, in terrific shape, is nevertheless 34, and 34-year-olds need to move from center field to a corner spot just as he did at midseason. To help the Mariners, I would try to have as many above-average defensive players on the field-no, more specifically, in the outfield-as is reasonable. Fixing the offense will have to happen, but with enough run prevention-generally cheaper to purchase or acquire-you can get away with an average or slightly-below offense, and there are a lot of cheap bats out there this year.

Ibanez was simply terrible, with a -18 in John Dewan's Plus/Minus system last year, and -25 in 2007. That's plays, which for outfielders translates to singles, as well as doubles and some triples. Upgrade from that to an average left fielder, and you save 10 to 15 runs. Upgrade to a plus outfielder and save 20 to 30 runs. Two candidates are Eric Byrnes, who does play very good defense and who may be available cheaply from the Diamondbacks, and the Nationals' Willie Harris, who will be hard-pressed to play in 140 games again with Josh Willingham added to the fold in Washington. Harris was in the Plus/Minus top ten for left fielders in both '07 and '08, while Byrnes was the best in the game in '07 before missing much of '08 to injury.

In center field, the Mariners could try to acquire a glove man without a role such as the Braves' Josh Anderson or the Pirates' Nyjer Morgan. They could also run Jeremy Reed out there for one last time; Reed is average to average-plus defensively, and is the rare internal solution who might provide their lineup some OBP. Put the emphasis on "might" here; Reed has simply never built on the promise of 2003 and 2004, and in an extended trial last season, he posted a .314 OBP with 18 walks in 312 PA. Something else to watch is that the Mariners have added two minor league free agents, Steve Moss and Mel Stocker, neither of whom is a prospect, but both of whom are defense and speed players. Given how open this situation is, either could win the job. Kevin Goldstein suggests Clay Timpner and Drew Macias as possibilities, if the Mariners want to maximize run prevention in a center fielder.

The answer is similar in the infield, where Adrian Beltre is excellent defensively, and entering the final year of his contract. You can look to trade him at midseason, but unless someone overwhelms you, there's not much need to do so this winter. Again, the AL West simply isn't going to be that great next year, the last year of the pre-Rangers Era. Give yourself a chance to win the game's smallest division by keeping one of your best players. Young veterans Betancourt and Lopez have been a huge part of the team's problem with OBP, walking a combined 39 times on their own power last year in more than 1,200 plate appearances. Both have raw skills that have not translated to performance; at 27 and 25, respectively, it's time for the Mariners to find out if this is a middle infield you can win a championship with, or not. At the least, you want to ramp up their trade value as the Carlos Truinfel Era approaches.

Where the Mariners have to get better production is at first base and DH, which were disasters of biblical proportions last season thanks to the career-ending collapses of Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro, and before that, the organization's inability to identify either as a potential problem. Both of these spots should be much, much better in '08. At DH, the Mariners have to slot Jeff Clement 120 times, giving him 40 other opportunities to catch, in order to find out if his bat will play in the majors. Even a repeat of his .227/.295/.360 line would be an upgrade, and he will hit better than that. At first base... pick a body. I like the idea of bringing in Adam Dunn on a three-year deal. He can play first base, some left field, some DH, and he would immediately become the best hitter on the team. Safeco isn't that bad a park for left-handed power hitters, and the effect of a hitter like Dunn on the lineup would be similar to the bounce the Angels got from Mark Teixeira, where the effect of adding a high-OBP/SLG guy to a team with none of them is non-linear.

Got all that? Here's the final plan:

  1. Don't trade away the contracts. The temptation to start over completely is tempting, with a new management team and the memory of 2008 fresh in ownership's minds. However, the AL West is soft, the Mariners do not have a bumper crop of young talent coming soon (their best prospects are low-minors pitchers like Phillippe Aumont), and their tradeable veterans either aren't (Suzuki), are undervalued (Beltre), or at a trough in their trade value (Bedard, Silva). Keep them all with an eye towards catching the division by surprise.

  2. Trade Juan Ramirez for Willie Harris. The potential for a 30-run upgrade in left field is real, and should be chased. Harris has a solid track record of performance, and no place to play for the Nats. He's even an above-average OBP guy for this team, and if a better option presents itself, has a lot of value as a bench player. The Nationals are in talent-acquisition mode, so dealing Harris for a live arm makes sense for them. It could be Ramirez, it could be Nathan Adcock, it could be one of them and someone else (Ryan Rohrbaugh or what have you), but consider the name a placeholder representing the organizational strength of low-level pitching prospects.

  3. Pick and play the best defensive center fielder. Whether that's Reed, Moss, Stocker, or an import, the only quality the Mariners should care about in center is range. Put a +50 defense (in Plus/Minus terms) in the outfield and watch the runs melt away. In 2009, you can worry about integrating Michael Saunders and Greg Halman, and if they force their way in by midsummer '08, deal with it then.

  4. Play Jeff Clement. The Mariners have to learn what he's going to be, and that means giving him 600 plate appearances, or some large subset of that, to see if he can be an impact bat at DH or first base. Get him 150 innings behind the plate as well, so that the skills to be a backup catcher remain in his possession, and so that you don't lose him in interleague or post-season games.

  5. Sign Adam Dunn. This market is actually lousy with DHs and first basemen. Pick the best one and spend money on him. No team in baseball needs a .350/.500 guy like the Mariners do, and no team will get as much of a bump over last year's DH/1B performance as they will by adding that guy. Mariners DHs hit .221/.273/.334. Their first basemen hit .242/.315/.365, which is largely Vidro's empty average. As with the defense in left field, the bar is set so low that a two- or three-win upgrade is available, and almost inevitable.

  6. Leverage the park the way the Padres have to build a bullpen. Instead of buying relievers, pick them up cheaply and tell them to go throw strikes and let the outfielders play a bit. There are dozens of free-talent pitchers available who can be the next Al Reyes or Heath Bell, giving you 80 innings of 2.50 relief. Go get Chris Britton or Jason Bulger or Michael Wuertz. If I'm the GM, then Tony Blengino works for me, and I know damned well Tony can find these guys. Have him pick eight and invite them to spring training. Spend a couple extra bucks to get them, or a random prospect five years younger with more shine. Spending $250,000 extra on guarantees to the guys you want in this class is worth $4 million if even one of them pans out, and in Safeco Field with a very good outfield defense, some of them are going to pan out.

It may seem insane to project that the Mariners, 61-101 in 2008, could bounce back to contend for a post-season berth in '09. When you consider the competition-a transitional Angels team, an A's squad that could do almost anything, a Rangers team maybe a year early-punting the year doesn't make sense. You can't pare enough payroll to make a difference, and you can't turn your current assets into future ones in a way that will change the long-term prognosis. Don't underrate the immediate potential of the roster, because that could as be damaging, if not by quite so much, as overrating it was a year ago.

With that in mind, take a somewhat short-term view. Take the easy upgrades in left field and at DH that will not only make the '09 team better, but help develop the core strength, the three young starters. Use '09 to evaluate the young veterans and emerging prospects to figure out who gets to go forward with the team, who gets cut loose or traded, and what needs to be acquired next winter.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

31 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Richie

Did you check with Will re Bedard? I thought I recall hearing that he won't be ready Opening Day, will be nowhere near 100% Opening Day, or that Will considers him an injury risk akin to a dimwitted version of Evel Knievel. Something along those lines, I'm pretty certain.

Dec 03, 2008 10:23 AM
rating: 0
 
jhelfgott

Nice article overall, but you're missing out on problem #1: Betancourt's defense, which was supposed to be his calling card, is awful. Dewan had him as the worst defensive SS in baseball last year. When a premium position player can neither hit nor field, that's a really big deal.

Right now, the Ms' starting shortstop is below replacement level with the bat and glove. They need an upgrade if they're going to reach for 85+ wins.

Dec 03, 2008 10:24 AM
rating: 4
 
Evan
(47)

The Mariners could really benefit from trading both of their middle infielders. Betancourt's really not good, but he still has a good reputation, so trading him is probably a great idea.

And Lopez probably has about as much value right now as he will ever have. Everything after this is downside.

Aside from that, Joe's right. The Mariners - despite being awful, and coming out of the worst period of mismanagement any team has seen in a very long time - can contend in 2009. And contending increases the chances of holding on to players like Beltre.

My one real concern is Silva. He's durable, sure, but he's terrible. I don't really want him throwing 180 innings with a tRA over 6.

Dec 03, 2008 11:27 AM
rating: 0
 
dogtothedog

Good read, and good reads are few and far between these days.

I still want you to do the jays by the way

Dec 03, 2008 10:28 AM
rating: -3
 
ElAngelo
(942)

A big question with Dunn has to be whether or not you think he's going to age well. Because if you think he'll be an albatross in 2-3 years (a la Richie Sexson), this team would be better off taking a 1-year flyer on Jason Giambi.

Dec 03, 2008 10:41 AM
rating: 1
 
Jim Ferguson

"... a dimwitted version of Evel Knievel." Why can't I think of analogies like that?

So Joe, what is the list of teams that could *not* use Adam Dunn. Maybe the Phils lean too far to the Left for him to have much impact...

Dec 03, 2008 10:42 AM
rating: 1
 
jgbauer

Thanks for picking the Mariners for your GM series. I have to agree with jhelfgott, though. You make a lot of good points, but landing a quality shortstop in the near future (like this offseason) should be a high priority for this team. From what I hear Triunfel isn't likely to stick at short, and it doesn't seem likely that both Yuni's offense and defense will ever cone around enough to add up to an above average player. I'd be curious to know if you can think of any other team(s) that have an abudance of talent at short and might be willing to deal with the M's.

Dec 03, 2008 10:46 AM
rating: 1
 
Matthew Avery

I was going to request something on the Braves, who had a lot of options going into the off-season, but now that the first domino has fallen, I guess that wouldn't be too interesting. :-)

I like your thoughts on the Mariners. Definitely not what I would have assumed going in. Considering the market for Dunn and Burrell, you ought to be able to get one on a relatively cheap deal and stick him at DH.

The team you designed is something of a wildcard, as there are a lot of ways the middle infield, CF, and Clement could go, not to mention the rotation, which could boom or bust depending on progression/regression of young pitchers and Bedard's health.

Actually, I hope the Mariners do something like this; it might just make the AL West the most interesting division in baseball next year.

Dec 03, 2008 11:10 AM
rating: 2
 
buffum
(458)

As with the Dodgers, I still recommend the Indians' Franklin Gutierrez as a terrific defensive CF. People tend to think of him as an under-producing corner because that's how he's been used (hard to supplant Gold Golver Grady Sizemore from center, even if Gutierrez is actually a better defender), but the Tribe brass has consistently maintained that Goot plays at least as well there. Safeco would actually be a terrific place to showcase his skills ...

... with the glove. With the bat ... eh. Why do you think I keep trying to trade him? Still, he hit .285/.354/.462 after the All-Star break, with 22 XBH and 17 BB (high for Gutierrez). It could be argued that he's starting to figure it out, and he's only 25.

I was kind of hoping to make him the centerpiece (with arms, modulo a catcher or something) of a deal for Beltre, so I'm hoping Zbigniew or whatever his name is doesn't read your piece, but I'd still take him over guys like Morgan, Anderson, or (heaven forfend) Byrnes.

(And I'd still like to see the Indians, FWIW.)

Dec 03, 2008 11:19 AM
rating: 2
 
nmhesketh

I find it ironic that the team that once had the prototypical DH position hasn't been able to find one since he retired.

Dec 03, 2008 11:21 AM
rating: 4
 
schneidler

They had an ok dh last year, but put him in LF.

Dec 06, 2008 00:33 AM
rating: 0
 
DAra

Very good read! Very surprising recommendations but logically it can be made to work. Thanks.

Dec 03, 2008 11:23 AM
rating: 0
 
SC

I want you to write about the Nationals. The team seemingly has no real plan (despite Bowden's promises), so it would be nice to see someone identify a credible strategy to compete, and I wonder how quickly you think you could get there.

Dec 03, 2008 11:32 AM
rating: 0
 
SaberTJ

The Indians would be a good one too.

Dec 03, 2008 11:42 AM
rating: 0
 
EdKoch

Let me be the reader who recommends that you write an article on the Royals. I'm a Yankees fan, and the Mets/Tigers/Cards/Reds have obvious issues anyone paying attention can understand. Plus, it would be a challenge, no? Looking at a team stuck in mediocrity... I'd love to see an article on the Kansas City Royals. Go Kevin Seitzer!!!!

Dec 03, 2008 12:19 PM
rating: 0
 
abcjr2

I love articles like this about fixing bad teams, but I think this one's a bit too optimistic.

The M's lost 101 games last year, finished 39 games out, and are losing Ibanez, their best hitter. The top four pitchers in your article went a combined 23-22 last year. Silva and Washburn finished a combined 9-29 and may well be holding down two rotation spots again next year.

I agree that improving their defense would make them a better team but doubt that it could get them to 87 wins.

A team with Willie Harris, Jeremy Reed and Ichiro Suzuki in its outfield (not to mention the black hole of Johhima at C, and Betancourt is not all that good offensively, either) is going to have a very, very hard time scoring runs regardless of who you plug in at DH and 1B.

You could take almost any team and say "add Adam Dunn and their offense would be better." In this case addition of Dunn would simply offset the loss of Ibanez and leave you with essentially the same team that finished 28th in MLB in hitter VORP last year.

I think they are three Dunns short of having a decent lineup that might support an 87 win team. Even that would be for the privilege of finishing 13 games behind the Angels.

Dec 03, 2008 12:26 PM
rating: -1
 
plink2

Good assessment, and I agree wholeheartedly about the AL West and the Mariners CF defense, but one nitpick:

"The Twins? It's close; they don't have anyone with the upside of Hernandez or Morrow."

I'm pretty sure that Francisco Liriano has more upside than Morrow.

Dec 03, 2008 13:08 PM
rating: 1
 
DWrek5

What about Baletien?
Is he ready for everyday AB's?
Would his glove play as the "defensive upgrade" you speak of?

Dec 03, 2008 13:25 PM
rating: 2
 
Morris Greenberg

Great Article Joe. I think for the future continue to do teams like the Mariners instead of the Dodgers (aka teams that were bad but could rebound easily if they make the right moves).

Some teams that come to mind when I say this are the Giants, Twins, Padres, A's, Indians and maybe even the Braves and Cardinals.

Dec 03, 2008 13:31 PM
rating: 0
 
Patrick

The Twins came within one game of the playoffs (and won more games than the Dodgers in a tougher division). That's a pretty tough definition of "bad" you have there.

Dec 03, 2008 16:04 PM
rating: 3
 
mymrbig

Good article.

(1) I think they should test the market for Betancourt and make a run at Furcal. Their wallets are deep and they have plenty of cash coming off the books after 2009 (Washburn, Beltre) if they want to backload a deal slightly. With the SS market fairly weak, they should be able to find a suitor for Betancourt. May not get much in return, but nothing suggests he will ever learn to take a walk and his defensive decline is a serious issue. Sell him while he still has some defensive reputation, hopefully to a team who isn't savy enough to pay attention to +/- numbers. I wonder if the Cards would be interested in a Betancourt for Joe Mather trade. Or maybe the Tigers would be interested as a cheap alternative. Furcal's health is a concern, maybe they could do what the Tigers did with Maggs and Pudge. If they could get that kind of opt-out if he has a recurrence of back problems, then a 4-year deal would be a solid move. Furcal is a plus on offense and defense when healthy and would be an enormous upgrade over Betancourt. Combining Ichiro and Furcal atop the lineup would make opposing catchers sweat a little.

(2) I like the Dunn selection, though Giambi would be another decent choice (not a Burrell fan for the M's). Giambi is nice if he can be had on a 1 year deal (maybe with a vesting option if necessary). Dunn is nice because he has at least some defensive flexibility if you need him on the field. Plus he is younger and undervalued slightly. And don't shoot me, but I actually think the M's should consider Griffey. It will put butts in the seats and letting him DH most of the time should help his bat a little. He is more fun than Giambi (for the fans) and cheaper than Dunn.

(3) I agree about not trading anyone for salary relief. I wouldn't move Beltre unless blown away (he is seriously undervalued). I wouldn't move Washburn just for salary relief since he only has 1 year remaining. I would move Silva is someone wanted him since his deal is bad, both for number of years and annual salary. That said, I wouldn't eat salary just for the sake of moving him since he should rebound back into 200-inning eater at the back of the rotation if the M's can cobble together a better defense.

(4) Clement definitely needs at-bats. They also need to find out whether Balentien will ever adjust to major league pitching. For these reasons, I favor signing Giambi or Griffey over Dunn. Dunn permanently blocks guys, while Giambi and Griffey can be pushed aside more easily if they are ineffective.

(5) I agree with hunting for cheap bullpen guys. Some intriguing names in the Rule V draft in addition to those mentioned.

(6) This is a little out of left field (so to speak), but I wonder if the Dodgers would swap Andruw Jones for either Batista or Washburn. Depending on what they end up doing with the free agent market, the M's might be able to afford to take on the extra salary. I would only do it if the Dodgers also included a pretty decent prospect (Hu as an alternative to Betancourt?).

Dec 03, 2008 14:14 PM
rating: 2
 
mymrbig

Meant to include Batista as another name coming off the books after 2009. Between Batista, Washburn, Bedard, and Beltre, the M's will have around $40 million coming off the books after 2009. Some of that will go to pay raises, but the M's should have lots of money available in the near future.

One nice thing about taking Giabmi or Griffey instead of Dunn is that if the M's are out of it in July, Giambi and Griffey are more likely trade chips.

Dec 03, 2008 14:22 PM
rating: 1
 
HRFastness

If I say 'Do the Brewers next' 100 times in a row, will that increase the chances of that happening?

Dec 03, 2008 14:16 PM
rating: 0
 
mafrth77

why sign Dunn when you can have Milton Bradley at a similar price? Bradley's contact skills make him a better offensive player and has proven he can hit in the AL. Sign a ML free agent for 1B (Dallas McPherson). It is time to pull the plug on that awful Betancourt/Lopez combo. Upgrade now

Dec 03, 2008 15:11 PM
rating: -1
 
Choska

Old M's GM: Throw 4 years and $48 million at Adam Dunn who is several steps down the Richie Sexson career path.

New M's GM: Give Russell Branyan, the poor man's version of Dunn, a 1 year deal.

So far so good for Z.

Dec 03, 2008 16:01 PM
rating: 3
 
moremoose

A nice easy read that made sense. Reload instead of rebuild, I like it.

Dec 03, 2008 18:53 PM
rating: 1
 
R.A.Wagman

I would love (from both ends) a deal that sends Washburn to Toronto for Overbay and maybe a mid-range prospect. Maybe even Russ Adams. Overbay only has two years remaining on his deal, and the cost is reasonable. It would upgrade the Mariners lineup a little and Adams gives them a decent option who can backup at numerous spots - big upgrade over the Willie Bloomquists of the world. Washburn would give the Jays a bridge for Marcum's lost '09 and allow them to avoid rushing a Cecil, or overrelying on Romero/Purcey/Richmond/dreck. And it would ensure that neither Lind nor Snider waste any more time in the minors.

Dec 04, 2008 07:52 AM
rating: 1
 
krissbeth

I'm going to have to agree. Let's take as given that adding a real 1B and a real DH will net the Ms 3 wins at each position. Let's take as given that LF and CF defense can be worth an extra 3 and 2 wins over last year, respectively. That gets the Ms to... 72 wins. (Note the downslide offensively to Willie Harris needs to be accounted for, but doesn't seem to be. Is he really equivalent to Ibanez at the plate?)

I guess that you're counting on Bedard and Putz to come back healthy and unaffected, which, according to last year's projections, would net you another 10 wins, which I think is REALLY pushing it. Even at that rate of return, you're only to 82 wins, but more conservatively to 77 wins.

Where are you going to pick up the next 5-10 wins? I guess you're counting on a 5-10 win improvements from Morrow and Hernandez... and for nothing else bad to happen elsewhere.

I agree with the premise that the division is ripe for the taking. I just don't see the Ms taking it.

Dec 04, 2008 08:59 AM
rating: -1
 
jimbrewersbro

How about covering the Brewers - coming off their first playoff appearance in over 25 years, they now face one of their most challenging offseasons in team history having to replace two aces, almost their entire bullpen, while hiring a new coach and having to replace Zduriencik - They also have to figure out what to do with Rickie Weeks while possibily moving Hardy or Fielder to fill out the rotation - On top of it all, they have major league ready talent in Escobar, Salome and Gamel

Please cover the Brewers

Dec 04, 2008 12:41 PM
rating: 1
 
raybert

I'm curious about your thoughts on the Rangers being a year away from having an "era." I'm a Yankee fan, but I've lived near Dallas for 8 years now. So, Josh Lewin has managed to cajole me into caring about the Rangers!

Dec 04, 2008 21:25 PM
rating: 1
 
RaymondV

The interesting thing about reading Joe's article is that if Bavasi was still the GM I would say about Joe's recommendations, "sounds nice, will never happen." Now, I can hope the new regime will take the advice. Maybe Z will actually read this article.

Dec 05, 2008 22:25 PM
rating: 0
 
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