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Atkins speaks!: Talkin' Teo trade with Tim
PLUS: Some Jays-related radio chatter from ESPN's Jeff Passan, on Swanson, Nimmo, Bellinger, Bichette, and more!
Alright, the dust has settled somewhat from the first big movement among the Blue Jays’ offseason puzzle pieces. The 20th-best hitter in baseball by wRC+ since the start of 2020 now plays in Seattle, and a reliever the Mariners trusted to throw one whole inning in five playoff games is Toronto-bound. But while Teoscar Hernández shouldn’t have had to go, and it didn’t have to be to a team the Jays will potentially be competing for a Wild Card spot with, what’s done is done, Swanson is a good pitcher who helps in an area of need, and more moves are obviously coming. It is what it is.
And to talk about “it,” Jays GM Ross Atkins showed up for a segment with the great Tim Micallef on Wednesday evening’s edition of Sportsnet’s Tim and Friends. Below is a transcript of the hit — not quite in full, but with only a couple questions removed, and one rearrangement for better flow — as well as my notes on Atkins’ comments.
Below that, we’ll also take a look some insightful commentary on the deal, and several other Jays-related things, via ESPN insider Jeff Passan’s Fan 590 segment on Thursday morning!
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How tough is it to let go of Teoscar?
Oh man, they're always difficult. There's no easy trade. There's not much like baseball, in just how much time you spend with people, get to know their family, get to know everything about them individually. I have a very strong bond with Teoscar and feel like I always will. I knew the fans do as well, because of, obviously his performance, but the person that he is, the father that he is. That huge smile on his face, I will miss. I know the fans will as well. And hopefully this is an opportunity to make our team better, and any time we have these types of tough decisions it's always with thinking about our future and trying to move things forward and get better in any possible way.
I mean, they obviously didn’t like him enough to get an extension done years ago! But that, I suppose, is just business. Especially considering Teoscar’s age, defensive limitations, and the Jays’ preference for rotating players through the DH spot — and the reality that George Springer will likely have to occupy it more and more as years go on.
How long was the deal in the works?
Because we had depth in the area there's been a lot of teams that have expressed interest in our outfield over the last couple of years, and Teo's market picked up a little bit over the last couple of weeks, and certainly into the GM meetings. There were several teams with interest, and fortunately things lined up with Seattle.
One man’s warm bodies are another’s depth, I suppose.
Currently the Jays have Springer and Whit Merrifield to play centre, with Nathan Lukes maybe an option (he started 59 games in CF in 2022, versus 48 in a corner spot, though the Rays didn’t have him out there nearly as much in 2021), as well as, uh, I guess Otto Lopez? Those guys are also corner options, along with Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Cavan Biggio. Spencer Horwitz played 20 games in left field this season, but is much more a first baseman. Addison Barger somewhat surprisingly hasn’t played the outfield as a pro, though I have to think he’d be an option out there as well. Gabriel Moreno could wind up in the mix too, theoretically.
There’s, like, one guy in that group (Springer) that I’d want actually starting every day. They can claim this to be an area of depth all they want, but clearly they’ve got some work to do in the outfield.
That said, it’s not like it’s difficult to see what they’re trying to accomplish. Take Teoscar, his salary, and a catcher, and spin it into bullpen help, a left-handed hitting outfielder who improves the defence, and some starting pitching. Better outfield defence, better lineup balance, better pitching, and all at the cost of one guy there was no room for anyway, and another who would have otherwise likely walked for nothing at the end of next season.
It’s not a bad plan. It is, in fact, probably a good plan. It’s just a plan that I still don’t think should be necessary. Teoscar and Springer should have been the corner outfielders and any other problem that couldn’t be solved by dealing a catcher should have been solved with money. Gurriel, Biggio, Merrifield, Lukes? Pick one or two to stay and be gone with the rest.
Am I being unrealistic here? Probably. Am I being overly obstinate on this because I very much do not want to do ownership the favour of evaluating this trade within the expected boundaries of the payroll parameters they choose? Oh, absolutely.
Am I wrong? No.
Did you talk to your player leadership group before making the deal?
We're always checking in with our team — with the leadership group and beyond — to get a pulse for opportunities. And, you know, listen, no one ever wants to see anyone go. Well, I suppose there could be exceptions [laughter], but for the most part. We have a great group, and no one wanted to see anyone leaving that clubhouse. They're extremely tight. I think people generally understand where we have depth.
Seems to me like you have depth behind the plate and in second-division position players with nominal “versatility,” neither of which I feel has really changed here. But I know, I know. It’s early.
What drew you to Swanson and Macko?
Focusing on Swanson, initially, because of the impact to our major league bullpen. We acquired relievers last year to our bullpen, in Bass and Pop as well, so now to be adding to Romano and Garcia and Mayza and Cimber, with Swanson — who strikes out both sides of the plate, right-handed, left-handed hitters, has one of the best, or at least we think one of the best secondary weapons in his split-finger pitch, and is really coming into his own. Fastball plays. The slider certainly plays. Really good athlete. Incredible person. He knows a lot of the guys in our bullpen as well, so. He knows John Schneider from their days crossing over in the minor leagues. Feel like he'll fit in really well.
And then in the addition of Macko, it's an up-and-coming prospect, happens to be Canadian, but feel like the arsenal has a chance to be exceptional — the youth and athleticism on his side. So, there was a lot to like about the acquisition.
Swanson is good. I do see red flags, as I noted in my trade reaction piece, in the swinging strikeout rate trend and the strand rate overall, but some of the usage stuff is fairly explainable. The Mariners have other very good relievers, for one. For two, Swanson happened to hit a bit of a skid at the end of the season. He allowed seven runs (six earned) over 10 2/3 innings in September/October, but many of his underlying numbers during that stretch were mostly fine. Opponents slashed just .250/.302/.375 against him, for example, and his strikeout rate was 37.2%, making it his best month in that regard. He just happened to see an uptick in walk rate combined with an unlucky bit of BABIP (.391) and an ugly dose of regression in his strand rate (51.7%). His lack of use in the playoffs was likely more a reflection of where he was at in that moment at the end of the season, not on him as a whole.
Some folks actually like him quite a lot — and we can presume that Atkins is in that group.
As for the prospect, Macko, I must admit that when I first heard that this was a Canadian kid (though born in Slovakia), I thought about how Ross himself once told me about a GM calling at the last minute to insist on the Jays adding an org. guy type to a one-for-one deal that had already been agreed to, just so he could tell his fans and bosses that he had at least spun one player into two. But that definitely is not the case here. Macko is a real guy, and D.M. Fox has compiled some good information on him — including the fact that he was the M’s number eight prospect for Baseball America in their mid-season update — in his latest newsletter. So go check that out. (MLB Pipeline has also slotted him in at number eight for the Jays, placing him between Hayden Juenger and Gabriel Martinez).
Are you comfortable with your bullpen now?
Yeah, we are. But we'll continue to work o— we'll continue to see whether there's opportunity, whether it be big impact or moving the needle in a less significant way, we'll definitely be open to it.
Something the Jays obviously would have valued about this deal that clowns like me might not appreciate enough is that it means that fixing the bullpen is no longer a massive problem looming over their offseason. I obviously don’t particularly like the cost it took for them to get here, but they’ve checked off that box, and did so on their own terms. That’s better than being at the mercy of the market, particularly if they think the markets for starting depth, outfield defence, and lefty bats are going to have better opportunities in them. And if the five-year, $46 million deal Robert Suarez received from the Padres, and the three-year, $34.5 million deal Rafael Montero got from the Astros, are any indication, that could certainly end up being the case.
That said, one has to believe there will still be some movement before the bullpen takes its final form. Two guys who may end up on the outside looking in are Julian Merryweather and Trevor Richards. Both are out of options, and also not great, which makes them less-than-ideal fits in a world where teams can only carry 13 pitchers.
It wouldn't surprise me at all if the Jays chose to go with as many optionable relievers as they can, which would allow them to better cycle guys in and out from Buffalo when someone needs a rest. As it stands, Yimi Garcia and Anthony Bass are the only relievers beyond Richards and Merryweather that they'd be unable to option. Jordan Romano probably wouldn't be given that treatment, and maybe not Swanson, Tim Mayza, or Adam Cimber either. But all four can be sent down with no consequences, as can Zack Pop, Nate Pearson, Yosver Zulueta, and Hagen Danner. There's a good amount of flexibility there. But another arm still couldn't hurt.
Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay, and Trent Thornton can all be optioned as well, though each is heading into his last option year, which may make them even stronger candidates to be moved on.
How attractive was the payroll flexibility this adds?
It wasn't needed, but it's powerful any time you have flexibility. We've had incredible support, and any time there's been opportunities, within reason there's always been great dialogue and, like I said, incredible support. But this gives us more flexibility given the strategy that we started the year with.
I mean, it would be a pretty ridiculous trade if the added payroll flexibility and the additional move (or moves) that it will facilitate weren’t exactly the point of it. So… yeah. It damn well better be “powerful.”
Does this open right field for George Springer?
We don't think of it as opening up that opportunity, we think of it as opening up more opportunities for us. Because George can play centre. So it allows us to think about a pure centre fielder as he goes to right. It allows us to think about more of a corner bat. It allows us to think about complementary players. As you saw, how we built our roster last year. And we also feel good about the additions of Nathan Lukes, obviously Whit Merrifield a year ago — he was incredible for us down the stretch. And Cavan Biggio's versatility. So we're at a good starting point. There will be opportunities to improve it. And there's a decent market for us out there already.
I mean, Ross has to say this, but I think the case for going forward with Springer and Merrifield as the club's main options in centre mostly only works if the idea is to hit the piss out of the ball, defence be damned. You can do that kind of a thing with Teoscar around. To move him and still end up with 33-year-old Springer hauling your most innings in centre, a position the Astros never gave him more than 80 starts in a season at — his career high of 84 was set in 2022 with the Jays, and would have been higher with better health — or, god forbid, 34-year-old Merrifield (career high of 27 starts in centre)? That would, uh, probably be bad.
Would you be comfortable going into the season with your current outfield?
Well, I would say this: We are going to make other additions to this team, and to this organization. And we have predominantly been focused on the run prevention side. We're cognizant of the subtraction to our offence at this point with Teo, and there will be opportunities there. We're just thinking of how do we make this 40-man better, how do we make this 26-man better, and it doesn't have to be a centre fielder, or a right fielder that hits left-handed. But there will be opportunities to consider those factors.
It makes no sense to publicly tell agents and other teams that you absolutely must add a centre fielder, so I get why he puts it like this. But I always wonder whether anyone is gullible enough to believe it.
Springer was +1 by Outs Above Average in centre, so it's not like having him there would be catastrophic. But it must be noted that +1 is only good enough for him to rank 34th by that metric. Also, watching him out there hurts my bones.
Do you believe more balance in the lineup is necessary?
I do think it is, but it wasn't the issue with our team. We scored — what was it? — the second most runs or third most runs in baseball, depending — there are different ways to measure your offence — and feel like we have an elite offence. Even with Teo no longer on it, we're still going to be an above average offence. But we will look to complement it. I know there will be opportunities there. And we have some players within, as well, that we're excited about. What we're thinking about is how do we make our 40-man roster and our 26-man roster as good as it can possibly be.
Does the long-term future of Bo and Vlad play into this move?
Well, everything is a puzzle, right? When you're putting a team together everything matters, every decision impacts the next decision. But I would not say this is a significant piece impacting our potential progress on those fronts.
Sure sounds like the decision to not extend Teoscar was made some time ago, doesn’t it? Which… you know… fair enough. Love the bat. Can’t blame him for betting on himself. But the industry isn’t exactly in a rush to hand out long-term, big money free agent deals to poor-defence/high-strikeout corner outfielders on the wrong side of 30, and clearly whatever the Jays might have been willing to offer him would have reflected that. He was always going to be off the books by the time Bo and Vlad’s salaries were due to seriously escalate, and that hasn’t changed.
Are you comfortable with your starting pitching depth?
I do think that's a more significant need than the one on the position front. And that's what I was alluding to with the run prevention — that we'll be more focused on that area, and ensuring that we're adding in that area.
I mean, he’s not wrong. But, oh man, a year after literally spending more than a quarter of a billion dollars on the rotation — the total commitments to José Berríos, Kevin Gausman, and Yusei Kikuchi add up to $277 million — and it’s still your top priority?
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I don’t do transcriptions of “mere” insiders around here very often, but I’m making an exception today because I thought ESPN’s Jeff Passan had a really interesting, insightful, and informative segment about the Jays on Thursday’s episode of the J.D. Bunkis Podcast on the Fan 590.
Let’s do it to it!
(Note: This is basically a full transcription of what was said on Passan’s side, edited for clarity, with some small bits of crosstalk removed.)
Is it just the world we live in now that a two-time Silver Slugger is only worth a reliever who doesn't pitch in high leverage situations and a bunch of freed up money?
A little bit. To me this was less about freeing up money, necessarily, as it was reallocating money. I think you look at the Blue Jays' lineup right now, and by and large, what are they? They're mostly big slug, OK on-base guys. Right? That is Bo Bichette's m.o. He doesn't walk a lot, he hits the ball really hard. Vladdy last year, didn't walk a ton, hit the ball really hard. Alejandro Kirk doesn't fall into that category, and George Springer will walk a little bit. Gurriel, same thing. We can go on and on about what this lineup is.
I'm not saying that Teoscar Hernández was redundant, because a guy who has his skills can never be redundant. But what I am saying is that, if the Jays are going to take that money that they were going to pay Teoscar Hernández, and go out and get a Brandon Nimmo, does that change people's minds?
I think that if the Jays were to sign Nimmo it definitely would change how people view the trade, though I'm not sure it necessarily should. Why not have both?
Also, Nimmo specifically is maybe not the right guy to justify a move like that, at the cost it's going to take. I suppose I've sort of established that I don't think cost should matter so much to this team, but signing Nimmo long-term and paying Teoscar’s one final year at $14 million or so are very different things.
Anyway, there will be more on Nimmo later. Passan continued (with some interjections from the host, as I will note)...
Passan: And we have to acknowledge the reality that sometimes — not sometimes, all the time — you're going have a budget. And if you feel if you can spend the money in that budget in a better way, and in the process go and get a relief pitcher who is going to help out a bullpen who you're going to need to be pretty good — because, sorry to twist the knife here, don't know if you guys remember, but there was a game last year where the Toronto Blue Jays were leading 8-1.
JD: Why, Jeff?
Passan: Because it's necessary to understand why they care about Erik Swanson. It was 8-1 and they lost! It was an 8-1 playoff game and they lost!
JD: Well, you know why it was also 8-1? Because they had Teoscar Hernández. He hit two home runs and he drove in four runs.
Passan: Yeah, he did hit two home runs. By the way! By the way, all I'm doing there is making the case why this might be OK. I didn't like the trade that much. [Laughs].
When talking about Macko earlier, I touched on the idea that there can definitely be a PR aspect that factors into transactions that teams make. I think Swanson is good enough in his own right, and Teoscar too important as a trade chip for this team, that it seems unlikely they'd have done anything quite so cute here. But I could completely understand it if the Jays felt, on one hand, that they needed to show that they did something major to help the bullpen this winter, while on the other hand still believing it wasn't as big a problem as that one wretched game, or all the post-deadline chatter, made it seem.
OK, but, seriously, is this all they could get? And now is a guy who pitched just one inning in the playoffs is supposed to be your eighth inning guy??
Passan: Do you remember when Adam Cimber got to Toronto, what the rap against him was?
Passan: No, it's, 'Oh, he doesn't pitch in leverage.' 'Oh, he doesn't punch guys out.' There was that entire leverage conversation with him, and I remember saying, 'Yeah, but he's good.'
Erik Swanson is your archetypal modern day reliever. We've talked a lot about spin rates in recent years. His spin rates are actually — especially on his fastball — not good.
What's elite — and I mean, like, top of the sport elite — is his spin efficiency. What that means is, if you're throwing a four-seam fastball, what you're trying to do is get absolutely perfect backspin on it. Because the more a baseball backspins, the less it drops, right? Now, the faster it spins, the higher it stays up there. But if you have a pitch that is different than most fastballs that are normally seen — than a fastball that's got 92% spin efficiency, or 95%. Swanson's is 99.4%. So, he throws a fastball that has elite backspin on it, and he compliments that with a splitter that doesn't spin very much either, which is why the low spin on his fastball actually plays tricks on guys' eyes. So, it's a nasty strikeout combination, JD.
Passan is definitely not wrong about Swanson’s spin efficiency being elite. His 99.4% mark ranked 14th out of 625 pitchers to throw at least 50 in 2022 — as we can sort of see in this pretty, if somewhat inscrutable, chart.
Back in late 2021, Beyond the Box Score put together this brief primer on the concept of spin efficiency, which is worth a read if you’re interested in the subject.
OK, now back to Passan…
Listen, I don't know if Erik Swanson, on paper, is enough to get back for Teoscar Hernández. You'd think trading a guy who has been an All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger — I don't have to go over his resumé to people who are listening to this program right now. You would think that they could do better than that. But the question I suppose I have to ask is, why would Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro not take the best offer? Is the suggestion, the implication from people who don't like the deal, that if this is what we're going to get we should hold on to Teoscar Hernández?
Or maybe, just maybe, we wait and see what the entire package looks like once they do go out and get a hitter. Once they do go out and get another pitcher. Whatever the Blue Jays do. Not look at this offseason as a matter of individual trades, but the sum of the parts.
Oh, I think people are very much there. The Jays will get better. No one fears that they're not going to use the newly acquired flexibility to improve the roster. It's just, why should Teoscar have to be a casualty of the ultra-wealthy, Rogers-owned, mammoth-TV-ratings Toronto Blue Jays, that so many fans pour so much of their own hard-earned money into, hitting some kind of a budget ceiling.
Y'know, not to belabour that one point too extensively. *COUGH*
Are the Jays now the favourites to land Nimmo? And if they don't land him, where does that leave them?
Passan: I'm going to pull back the curtain here a little bit. I don't know if you follow me on social media — if not, I don't blame you, because social media is horrible.
JD: You're actually pretty good at it.
Passan: Well, I appreciate that. And I think people may share that sentiment because I do not pollute their timelines, and I do not pollute their timelines because I think the favourite game is a bunch of garbage. I think favourites change. I think we're dealing with extremely fickle twenty-something-year-old men whose decisions change as the wind does. And so, to suggest anyone is the favourite for Brandon Nimmo is to suggest that nobody else is going to come in with a dollar more tomorrow.
Do you think Nimmo is the Jays’ top target then?
Passan: I think he's a target that they would like, but I think that offseasons are built around having multiple plans.
I swear I'm not trying to, like, avoid answering the question, or equivocate here. This is just the way that modern baseball offseasons work for teams. They understand that free agency is a minefield, and that along the way — the Blue Jays were extremely hopeful on Justin Verlander last year, and had a plan in place, and thought that they had him. The Blue Jays were extremely hopeful on Noah Syndergaard last year, and did an incredible job and were impressive in the interview process, as they were with Verlander. Did that get them Noah Syndergaard? Nope. So, best laid plans, right?
They could sit here and say, 'This is our number one target, but that means that we're not going to be able to get this guy, this guy, and this guy.' And if you put all your eggs in one basket like this, or if you put any of your eggs in one basket, some other team's going to knock it out of your hands, and your eggs are going to crack on the ground, and you'll be sad that you don't get an omelette.
JD: Yeah, but it worked out, because they didn't get Justin Verlander but they got Yusei Kikuchi. So it was totally fine.
Bunkis with a perfect kicker right there. And as much as a lot of this segment was simply winding Passan up and letting him go, I thought JD did a great job guiding the conversation throughout.
Also, uh, holy shit, re: Verlander. Also also, this is some of the best stuff on the offseason process I've heard in a long time. Always more of this, please! And less of the nonsense horse race coverage, or stuff that encourages fans to think adding free agents is like shopping for pickles at the supermarket.
OK, but about Nimmo...
Passan: Here's my question on Brandon Nimmo — and this is perhaps for you to answer, or for others to answer. Is Brandon Nimmo worth George Springer money?
JD: No. This is the part of it that I find most interesting with Nimmo, is that if you're bringing him in as your centre fielder, which means that part of the Teoscar equation was you already paid your right fielder. I think the more interesting one out of this is, did they move on Teoscar now because they feel like the market is going to move quickly, and they might be one of the teams that could set the market?
Passan: I don't get the impression, necessarily, that that's the case. Nimmo has been one of those guys who, from the jump, I think the industry has valued more highly maybe than fans. At the start of the winter what was the number ... you were hearing most attached, final dollar figure for Nimmo? He's going to cost what?
JD: No idea. Honestly, I'd had zero Brandon Nimmo free agency thoughts until this offseason.
Passan: I went into it thinking, OK, he's going to get, like, $80 million. And then I was told, 'No, no, no, no, it's going to be nine figures.' And I was like, $100 million? And he was like, 'No, no, no, no, no. Keep going." $125 million? 'Nope.' You know?
The Shin-Soo Choo deal, which was six years and $130 or so million, is the place where I've landed after talking to people, but it wouldn't surprise me if it goes higher than that.
And Brandon Nimmo is a guy who has a very particular set of skills. He's probably not going to hit you a ton of home runs. He's not going to play great defence, it's going to be adequate defence in centre field. He gets on base. That is, bringing the conversation full circle, kind of what the Blue Jays need, right? They need a guy who could be at the top of their lineup, along with George Springer, and set the table for Bo, set the table for Vlad. But those are two names that I bring up intentionally, because I don't know how big the Rogers family wants to take the Blue Jays' budget.
You can, if you are them, sign Brandon Nimmo, and sign Bo Bichette, and sign Vladimir Guerrero Jr. But is that going to take them to a place of discomfort going forward? I don't know. I think, as we look at this, Nimmo may be the answer, but I wouldn't entirely discount Cody Bellinger.
OK, so then Cody Bellinger...
Passan: The tender date is this week, and there's a chance Cody Bellinger gets non-tendered, there's a chance Cody Bellinger gets traded. He's got one year left before he's supposed to hit free agency. He's an elite defensive centre fielder who has won an MVP award, but whose bat is, like, annoyingly inconsistent, and flat out just not good in recent years. Is this a change-of-scenery guy who can be an MVP again? And is the potential one-year you have on that contract, or maybe two years if he hits free agency and wants more — is that worth, long-term, if it is an equation like this, keeping Bo Bichette or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. around?
JD: I'll tell you this, if they end up reallocating money for a change of scenery guy with Teoscar, that's going to be tougher for this market to swallow. That would be one that people wouldn't really love here.
I don’t think JD is wrong on this, especially since the Jays burned up a ton of the “we can fix him” goodwill they earned with Robbie Ray in the Kikuchi deal. But I also am extremely intrigued by Bellinger. Partly that’s because, as Jeff points out, he’ll be off the books by the time the team has to start really worrying about long-term, big-money extensions for Vlad and Bo. (I mean, they should be worried about those now, but you know what I mean.)
It’s also partly because of this Prospects Live piece, which makes the case that Bellinger picked up bad habits while playing through the pain of a hairline fracture in his leg in 2021, which theoretically should mean that he’s fixable.
It would be an enormously risky play, though, as he's slashed just .203/.272/.376 (78 wRC+) over his last 1,143 plate appearances.
OK, Nootbaar it is, then!
Are the Jays real players in the shortstop market? Does the Bichette trade buzz have any legs to it?
I don't discount the possibility of Bo Bichette moving, but I think that's, like, Plan C. Plan D maybe. That's a pivot. Like, what a weird offseason it would be if Teoscar Hernández and Bo Bichette, two of the centrepieces of this Blue Jays renaissance, were to wind up on other teams. Whereas with Teoscar Hernández, because there was only one year left on his contract, it mitigated the value on the return. For Bo Bichette you'd need to get full freight, and there aren't a lot of players out there who equal full freight for Bo Bichette.
I think that last statement is the important one. I’ve certainly found myself scheming ways that a Bichette deal could possibly make sense for the Jays this winter, but it is absolutely tough. Only 18 position players have produced a higher fWAR than Bo over the last two seasons. Vlad, Devers, Tucker, Harper, Seager, Bregman — there are a whole lot of impressive names trailing him.
I don’t think it’s a deal you force, as it’s an absolutely franchise-altering move. However, as we’ve seen with this Teoscar business, what was once considered the core of this team may not be quite as tightly bound as we had thought. More surprising pivots could yet be in store. More moves of significance definitely will be.
The Winter Meetings will kick off in San Diego in just a little over two weeks.
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