2021 MLB Season Preview: Team-by-Team Capsules

In baseball these days, it’s all about perception and percentage. As the country stirs cautiously back to normal life, each ballpark comes with its own set of pandemic restrictions: 12 percent capacity at Fenway Park in Boston, 25 percent capacity at Marlins Park in Miami — even (gulp) 100 percent capacity for the opener at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

Interpreting those figures is up to you. If you root for the World Series champions, are you happy that Dodger Stadium will be partially open for fans? Or are you bummed that only 20 percent of a typical crowd will be allowed to witness Clayton Kershaw finally slipping on a championship ring?

In that conflicted spirit, here’s a look around the majors through two perspectives — a ballpark half full, you might say, and a ballpark half empty — with a telling number for each.

Half full: The Braves once won 14 division titles in a row, and now they’ve started another streak, with N.L. East crowns in each of the last three seasons. Last year they fell one game short of the World Series and signed Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly to join Atlanta’s dynamic young starting rotation alongside Ian Anderson, Max Fried and Mike Soroka, who is working his way back from tearing his Achilles’ tendon. Their robust offense will provide plenty of support, with Ronald Acuna Jr., a strong candidate to follow Freddie Freeman as winner of the N.L.’s Most Valuable Player Award.

Half empty: The 1990s Braves won the World Series on their fourth postseason attempt of the decade, in 1995, but in this century, October has brought only pain. The Braves have reached the postseason 12 times in the 2000s without breaking through to the World Series — and this year, they’ll have to navigate a division in which every front office is actively trying to win.

.832: Team on-base plus slugging percentage in 2020, best in M.L.B.


Half full: The Mets got their centerpiece in shortstop Francisco Lindor, and wisely loaded up on solid role players throughout the roster. Nobody in the regular lineup is older than 30, and the team added starters in Marcus Stroman (who opted out of the 2020 season after joining the team via trade in 2019), Carlos Carrasco, Taijuan Walker and Joey Lucchesi.

Half empty: Seth Lugo had elbow surgery in February, and Carrasco dealt with elbow soreness before a hamstring tear sidelined him in March. Pete Alonso’s 2020 season was a lackluster follow-up to his 53-homer rookie season in 2019, Dom Smith is a work in progress in left field and Lindor is unsigned past this season.

2.10: Jacob deGrom’s E.R.A. since 2018, best in M.L.B. (min. 50 starts).


Half full: The Phillies were actually pretty good last year — except for a historically awful relief corps, which posted the majors’ worst bullpen earned run average since 1930, at 7.06. Things can only get better with competent seasons from the newcomers Jose Alvarado, Archie Bradley, Brandon Kintzler and Hector Rondon. Offense won’t be a problem, with hitters like Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Rhys Hoskins in their primes and Alec Bohm emerging as the franchise’s next star third baseman.

Half empty: The Phillies — who haven’t been to the postseason since 2011, longer than any other N.L. team — need Zach Eflin to build off his breakout season, because the rotation thins quickly after Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. They signed lefty Matt Moore from Japan, but since his All-Star season of 2013, his major league E.R.A. is 5.08.

49: Games in the 60-game season in which the Phillies had a lead, second in N.L. to the Dodgers.


Half full: The Marlins crashed the playoff party last fall, rallying around their status as “bottom feeders,” a term applied to them early by a Phillies analyst, Ricky Bottalico. The pitchers have terrific stuff, the hitters can beat teams in several ways, and they have clear direction under the chief executive Derek Jeter; last year’s N.L. manager of the year, Don Mattingly; and the new general manager, Kim Ng.

Half empty: The Marlins’ big offensive addition, outfielder Adam Duvall, has a meager .293 on-base percentage in seven seasons, and even with a strong bullpen, depth could be an issue with their pitching staff: Only one starter, Sandy Alcantara, has ever worked more than 120 innings in a major league season.

51: Stolen bases in 2020, second in M.L.B. to San Diego.


Half full: The starters who led the Nationals to the 2019 World Series title — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — are still around, with Scherzer in the last year of his contract and the old pro Jon Lester along for the ride. Outfielder Juan Soto, 22, is a breathtaking talent; his .972 on-base plus slugging percentage trails only those of Mike Trout, Christian Yelich and Mookie Betts since 2018.

Half empty: The offense falls off sharply after Soto and Trea Turner. The new first baseman Josh Bell has hit .229 since starting the All-Star Game in 2019, and Kyle Schwarber, a Cubs castoff, is coming off his worst season. Corbin led the majors in hits allowed last season, and the Nats owe him $107 million for the next four years.

216: Strikeouts Max Scherzer needs to become the 19th pitcher in history with 3,000.

Half full: Two years after plucking one slugging corner infielder from the N.L. West (first baseman Paul Goldschmidt from Arizona), the Cardinals grabbed another in a trade for third baseman Nolan Arenado. The stalwarts Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina return for their 17th season as teammates, and while leadership is hard to define, these two embody it in St. Louis.

Half empty: Only one N.L. team, the Pirates, had a worse O.P.S. last season than the Cardinals’ .694. That figure should rise with Arenado on board, but he can’t do it all by himself. They’ll lean heavily on Dylan Carlson, 22, a top outfield prospect who hit .200 in 35 games last season. Starters Miles Mikolas and Kwang Hyun Kim were slowed by injuries in spring training, and center fielder Harrison Bader will miss a month with a forearm strain.

17: Career Gold Gloves for catcher Yadier Molina (9) and third baseman Nolan Arenado (8), the only active players with at least eight such awards.


Half full: The Brewers added Gold Glovers at second base (Kolten Wong) and center field (Jackie Bradley Jr.), and Manager Craig Counsell is a master at deploying an array of power arms in just the right situations. Lorenzo Cain returns after opting out last summer, and Christian Yelich, a former M.V.P., is due for a reset after a mystifying 2020.

Half empty: The team finished with a losing record last season (29-31), and neither of its top two starters, Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes, has ever pitched 125 innings in a major league season. Keston Hiura, a crucial bat who slumped badly last season, is learning first base, where he has never played in high school, college or the pros.

11.97: Strikeouts per nine innings by Brewers relievers in 2020, best among M.L.B. bullpens.


Half full: It has been quite a run for infielders Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who are facing free agency after the season. They’ve helped the Cubs to five postseason appearances in the last six years with a title in 2016, and now they’ll have help from outfielder Joc Pederson, the former Dodgers slugger who had a torrid spring training as he tries to shed his platoon label.

Half empty: The Cubs dealt the ace starter Yu Darvish to San Diego, and their rotation is overloaded with pitch-to-contact right-handers: Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies, Trevor Williams and the returning Jake Arrieta. If the Cubs stumble, expect trade rumors to swirl with those Wrigley Field winds.

6.00: E.R.A. for Craig Kimbrel in two years with the Cubs (1.91 in previous nine years).


Half full: The Reds made the playoffs last season after six losing seasons in a row, and their 3.84 E.R.A. trailed only the Dodgers in the N.L. Outfielder Jesse Winker gets better and better, and starters Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray can match up with anyone.

Half empty: If the Reds hope to build off last season, they have a strange way of showing it, chipping away at their strong pitching and doubling down on their weak offense. Closer Raisel Iglesias was traded to the Angels, the Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer signed with the Dodgers as a free agent, and after hitting .212 as a team during the regular season — and scoring no runs in their two playoff games — the Reds mostly left the offense intact.

0: sacrifice bunts by the Reds in 2020 (Milwaukee and Tampa Bay also had none).


Half full: Whether the Pirates are good or bad (and they’re going to be really bad), you can’t beat the ambience of PNC Park, perhaps the most picturesque setting for a ballgame in all of Major League Baseball. Also, a full season of Ke’Bryan Hayes, Charlie’s son, should be fun. Hayes, a 24-year-old third baseman, made his debut last Sept. 1 and batted .376.

Half empty: Remember how hopeless things seemed in Pittsburgh for two decades after Barry Bonds left for San Francisco? Last year’s 19-41 fiasco produced the Pirates’ worst winning percentage (.317) since 1952 — and at least that team talked a good game, with Ralph Kiner and Joe Garagiola in the lineup. These Pirates did little to improve over the winter, trading veterans for prospects and waiting for better days.

5: No. 1 overall picks for the Pirates, including 2021, in the last 40 years (most in M.L.B.).


Half full: No more qualifiers — the Dodgers are the best team in baseball, and they finally proved it in October with the first World Series title in their eight-year run of division crowns. Already overflowing with pitching depth, they signed the N.L. Cy Young Award winner, Trevor Bauer, and their fans will finally get to see the enchanting Mookie Betts in person.

Half empty: You’ll need to buy a new jersey if you’ve been representing Enrique Hernandez or Joc Pederson, who left as free agents after a final fall flourish. Otherwise there’s no reason to worry, except for the presence of the ever-improving Padres in the N.L. West. Finishing first still seems likely, but it won’t be automatic.

3: Cy Young Award winners (Trevor Bauer, Clayton Kershaw, David Price) and M.V.P. winners (Clay Bellinger, Mookie Betts, Kershaw) on the Dodgers’ roster.


Half full: The “hot talent lava” — a term used in 2018 by Eric Hosmer’s agent, Scott Boras, to describe the Padres’ potential — now flows freely in San Diego, where fans have a team to celebrate in baseball’s only market without N.F.L., N.B.A. or N.H.L. competition. The Padres have used their farm system to trade for high-impact talent throughout the roster, building a team led by Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Hosmer that ranks among the most exciting in the majors.

Half empty: In one sense, it’s a shame that the Padres’ moment arrives at a time when the majors’ premier franchise resides close by. The Dodgers are the best team in the majors until proven otherwise, but the Padres — who ooze swagger to go with their talent — will make this a must-watch rivalry.

53.4: Percentage of Dinelson Lamet’s pitches that were sliders in 2020, highest slider usage among M.L.B. starters since 2008. Lamet is working his way back from an elbow injury.


Half full: The Giants stayed in the playoff hunt until their 60th and final game last season, a nice surprise after three years as an also-ran. They retained starter Kevin Gausman, who looked sharp last season, and gave a three-year deal to infielder Tommy La Stella, a rare contact hitter with pop (21 homers and just 40 strikeouts across 135 games the last two seasons).

Half empty: The last pillars of the Giants’ championship years — Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford — all reach the end of their contracts in 2021. The Giants hold an option on Posey for 2022, but they could shed more than $100 million in expiring contracts after this season. With the Dodgers and the Padres so strong, the Giants are essentially biding time until a possible spending spree as a springboard to contention.

1.015: O.P.S. by Brandon Belt in 2020, best in N.L. West.


Half full: Madison Bumgarner looked good for most of spring training after struggling in his debut season with the Diamondbacks, and the third-year right-hander Zac Gallen is emerging as a possible ace, with a 2.78 E.R.A. in 27 career starts.

Half empty: Gallen is out with a stress fracture in his forearm, a casualty of a batting practice session in mid-March. The injury highlights the shortsightedness of M.L.B. and the union in using the universal D.H. as a bargaining tool instead of prioritizing pitchers’ health.

$8.5 million: Total free-agent spending by Arizona this off-season (on Asdrubal Cabrera, Tyler Clippard and Joakim Soria).


Half full: In German Marquez, Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela, the Rockies have three starters, all 26 or 27 years old, who should keep them in games, though Freeland will miss time with a shoulder injury. Jon Gray, 29, is solid every other year, and he’s due for a good one. Austin Gomber, 27, acquired from St. Louis in the Nolan Arenado deal, also offers promise.

Half empty: The Rockies have fallen hard since signing Arenado to an eight-year contract extension in 2019. Years of disastrous decisions caught up to them — they lavished money on has-beens, but let D.J. LeMahieu walk — and after trading Arenado in February, they face another crossroads with the star shortstop Trevor Story, who can be a free agent after the season.

191: Extra-base hits for Trevor Story since 2018, most in M.L.B.


Half full: Expect the Yankees’ stacked lineup to regularly punish the dubious pitching staffs of the Orioles, Red Sox and Blue Jays. Every hitter can slug, and even with first baseman Luke Voit expected to miss a month, there’s no weak spot provided catcher Gary Sanchez follows his pattern of making the All-Star team every odd season. The best version of their top three starters — Gerrit Cole, Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon — would give the Yankees an imposing rotation, too.

Half empty: Zack Britton’s elbow surgery weakens a bullpen that lost Adam Ottavino in a trade to the Red Sox. For all of their promise, Kluber and Taillon have combined for one inning in the majors since May 2019. And the Yankees’ lineup always looks strong in theory, but keeping it healthy is an annual challenge.

33: Regular-season games, of a possible 222, in which both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have played since 2019.


Half full: When last we saw Randy Arozarena, he was all but unstoppable, hitting .377 with 10 homers in 20 postseason games. His development will be fascinating, especially as one of few everyday players in the Rays’ mix-and-match offense, which returns almost fully intact from the World Series. Starters Blake Snell and Charlie Morton are gone, but both averaged fewer than five innings per start last season, and the Rays always seem to find quality innings from unlikely sources. As you read this, they’re probably making a waiver claim on a guy with two Tommy John scars who throws 99 miles an hour.

Half empty: Arozarena can’t possibly be as electric for six months as he was last October; he’s still a rookie, technically, and he’ll have to adjust as pitchers hunt for weaknesses. Were the Rays wise to spread $13.8 million among the veteran pitchers Chris Archer, Rich Hill, Collin McHugh and Michael Wacha, or should they have just picked up Morton’s $15 million option? They tend to know what they’re doing, but it’s a fair question.

1: Farm system ranking by Baseball America, led by shortstop Wander Franco, the No. 1 overall prospect.


Half full: The Blue Jays did what they promised, spending on free agents with their homegrown core coming of age. They signed outfielder George Springer for six years and $150 million and shortstop Marcus Semien for one year and $18 million. With Teoscar Hernandez and a celebrated quartet of second-generation hitters — Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. — the Blue Jays’ offense will be dangerous.

Half empty: Still barred from playing in Canada, the Blue Jays will stage home games at their spring training park, tucked into a cozy neighborhood in Dunedin, Fla. They may return to Toronto at some point, but over a 162-game grind, the lack of a stable home base could wear them down. They’re also relying on notoriously erratic starting pitchers, they’ve already lost their projected closer, Kirby Yates, to a serious elbow injury, and Springer is slowed by a strained left oblique.

42: Pounds lost by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. between July 2020 and the start of 2021 spring training.


Half full: Young hitters like Alex Verdugo and Bobby Dalbec offer hope for the future, and some old friends return — Eduardo Rodriguez should be back in the starting rotation soon after missing last season with myocarditis, a result of contracting the coronavirus; Chris Sale should be back this summer from Tommy John surgery; and designated hitter J.D. Martinez will again be allowed to watch in-game video thanks to a rule change by M.L.B. Without it last season, Martinez slumped to a .680 O.P.S. and a career-low .213 average.

Half empty: Boston fans know their history, so they’re praying for a different type of century than the 1900s, which started with a flurry of World Series titles but was doomed by the trade of a transcendent star who quickly led his new team to glory. Mookie Betts isn’t Babe Ruth, and the Red Sox actually got a solid return for him in their trade with the Dodgers … but the parallel is chilling.

98: Home runs allowed by the Red Sox in 2020, most in M.L.B.


Half full: The return of first baseman Trey Mancini is a genuine cause for celebration. Mancini, 29, learned he had Stage 3 colon cancer last March and missed the season. He got a standing ovation from the small crowd at his spring training debut, and will surely earn another at the Orioles’ home opener on April 8. Mancini batted .291 with 35 homers in 2019.

Half empty: Only true die-hards could name more than a few Orioles. The team hopes that outfielders Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays can be part of the long-term foundation, and starters Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer will get every chance to join them. But the Orioles have gone nearly 40 years without a pennant, and they won’t win another one soon.

5.29: E.R.A. by the Orioles since 2018, highest in M.L.B.


Half full: “It’s not about the past wins, it’s about the next ones,” said the new Chicago manager, Tony La Russa, who has 2,728 career victories and is poised to add a lot more. The White Sox have a blend of savvy, dependable veterans — first baseman Jose Abreu, fresh off an M.V.P. season, starters Dallas Keuchel and Lance Lynn, closer Liam Hendriks — and young stars entering their prime. The continued development of that group, including infielders Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada, outfielder Luis Robert and starter Lucas Giolito, gives La Russa, 76, a chance to become the first manager to win championships with three teams.

Half empty: The fourth starter, Dylan Cease, led the A.L. in walks last season, and the fifth starter, Carlos Rodon, has been slowed in recent years by shoulder and elbow surgeries. The White Sox tend to hit their way on base, which is a fun approach to watch, but a bit more patience might help — they ranked 24th in walks among the 30 teams last season, and all the teams below them had losing records.

183: Runs batted in by the A.L. M.V.P. Jose Abreu since 2019, most in M.L.B.


Half full: Andrelton Simmons, a four-time Gold Glove shortstop, arrives to shore up a weak spot in the Twins’ defense. The new closer, Alex Colome, has been durable and dominant: Since 2016, only Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Andrew Miller have a better E.R.A. and more appearances among active pitchers than Colome (275 games, 2.62 E.R.A.). The returning Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, Miguel Sano & Co. will keep the Twins an elite slugging team.

Half empty: Always solid as a Dodger, Kenta Maeda was a revelation in his first A.L. season, placing second in voting for the Cy Young Award. But is that who he really is? If it’s not, the Twins might not have the pitching to keep up with the White Sox, who have passed Minnesota for overall talent throughout the roster.

137: Wins by the Twins since 2019, most in the A.L.


Half full: The shortstop prospect Bobby Witt Jr., 20, was a spring training sensation, and the Royals won’t hesitate to call him up when he’s ready. The team can hit for power (Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier, Salvador Perez) and steal bases (Andrew Benintendi, Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesi), and Brady Singer has ace potential.

Half empty: The Royals acted aggressively to improve the team, but most of the newcomers struggled last season, including Benintendi, Mike Minor, Wade Davis, Carlos Santana and Michael A. Taylor. Like so many other players around the league, they’ll trust in their track records and try to dismiss the truncated 2020 season.

637: Hits by Whit Merrifield since 2017, most in the A.L.


Half full: The team finally has Eddie Rosario on its side. Rosario, the longtime Twins outfielder, has hit .353 with 11 home runs in 45 career games in Cleveland, where he signed for one year and $8 million. He’ll play behind the Cy Young-winner Shane Bieber and other talented starters who should keep most games competitive.

Half empty: After shedding Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco and Brad Hand over 18 months, the staff is bound to suffer eventually, and there’s simply no replacing shortstop Francisco Lindor, who was traded with Carrasco to the Mets. With an A.L.-low projected payroll of $62.6 million, it’s clear where this team is headed. In the words of the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer John Lennon: “It’ll be just like starting over.”

.895: O.P.S. by Jose Ramirez since 2016, best among M.L.B. switch-hitters.


Half full: The Tigers seem to be making the most of their years in obscurity. According to MLB.com rankings, they have five of the game’s top 25 prospects, including starter Casey Mize and infielder Spencer Torkelson, both former No. 1 overall picks. They’ll add to their crop with the No. 3 overall pick this summer as Miguel Cabrera (487 homers, 2,866 hits) chases down milestones in his 19th major league season.

Half empty: The team’s new manager, A.J. Hinch, has seen the worst of the Tigers as a backup catcher with their 119-loss team in 2003. They’ve already reached the nadir of their current reconstruction (114 losses in 2019), but it isn’t quite over: Only one newcomer (outfielder Robbie Grossman) received a multiyear contract over the off-season.

.349: Average by Willi Castro in 2020, fourth in M.L.B. (min. 140 plate appearances).


Half full: The A’s shopped in bulk for seasoned pros with World Series experience, trading for shortstop Elvis Andrus and signing closer Trevor Rosenthal, the setup man Sergio Romo and first baseman Mitch Moreland in late February. They’ll fortify a team seeking its fourth playoff appearance in a row and hoping that starters Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk — highly touted lefties who lived and trained together over the winter — blossom into aces.

Half empty: First baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Matt Chapman both hit 36 home runs while winning a Gold Glove in 2019. Last season, though, Olson hit just .195 and Chapman needed surgery to repair a torn right hip labrum. Can they resume their upward trajectory — and can Andrus be a viable hitter again? In the last three seasons, his on-base percentage is a meager .306.

11: Playoff appearances in the 2000s for the A’s, more than every other A.L. team except the Yankees (17).


Half full: The Astros lost their best player from 2020, George Springer, but welcome back designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, the 2019 A.L. rookie of the year, who had knee surgery last summer and played just two games. A finger injury to lefty Framber Valdez was not as serious as first feared, and as an added bonus, it motivated the Astros to sign Jake Odorizzi, an All-Star for the Twins in 2019. Valdez’s eventual return will deepen the group.

Half empty: The ace starter Justin Verlander will probably miss the season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, the untested Myles Straw takes over for Springer in center, and while the Astros looked strong in October, mainstays like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel — who combined to hit .230 last season — must prove that their struggles were a collective fluke. Oh, and they’ll be playing with fans in the stands this season, so reminders of the 2017 sign-stealing scandal could shadow them on the road.

459: Career starts by Zack Greinke, most among active pitchers.


Half full: After three years of mixed results, the Angels will try again to get a two-way season from the still-fascinating Shohei Ohtani, who sizzled in spring training on the mound and at the plate. Injuries have limited Ohtani to just 12 career starts with a 4.39 E.R.A., but now the Angels want the full Ohtani experience, with plans to use him as a hitter even on days he pitches. Add Ohtani to Anthony Rendon and the incomparable Mike Trout, and the Angels have three of the game’s most dynamic players.

Half empty: The Angels plan to use six starting pitchers, which is quite ambitious for a team that struggles every year to find two or three. In the six seasons since the Angels’ last playoff appearance, in 2014, their starters have compiled just 37.1 wins above replacement (as calculated by Fangraphs), the fewest of any team in the majors. They’re counting on Dylan Bundy, Griffin Canning, Alex Cobb, Andrew Heaney, Jose Quintana and Ohtani to reverse that trend.

1,185: Draft spot in 2015 of first baseman Jared Walsh, who hit .337 with nine homers last September.


Half full: Center fielder Kyle Lewis was the A.L. rookie of the year last season, and a pair of former New York pitching prospects — Justus Sheffield (Yankees) and Justin Dunn (Mets) — looked solid in 10 starts apiece. The top outfield prospects Julio Rodriguez, 20, and Jarred Kelenic, 21, are eager to make their mark in Seattle.

Half empty: “Half empty” roughly describes T-Mobile Park, which welcomed an average of 43,200 fans per game in the team’s last playoff season, 2001, but just 22,112 in 2019. The team must repair trust with fans and players after the former chief executive Kevin Mather’s infamous Rotary Club speech in February, when he exposed the organization’s strategy of keeping prospects in the minors unless they sign long-term, team-friendly contracts.

36: Wins by Marco Gonzales since 2018, trailing only Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in M.L.B.


Half full: It took until their 50th season in Texas, but the Rangers can finally welcome fans inside to see them play during the roasting summer months. Their retractable-roof ballpark opened amid the pandemic and hosted fans for neutral-site postseason games only.

Half empty: The Rangers have never won the World Series, yet they’ve also never endured a streak of five losing seasons since the 1960s, when they were the Washington Senators. They open this season with a streak of four that seems likely to grow; the team made only marginal improvements to the A.L.’s worst offense, but did get a promising young starter, Dane Dunning, from the White Sox for Lance Lynn.

40,300: Seats at Globe Life Field, which will be open at 100 percent capacity for opening day.


Dodgers over Braves

White Sox over Yankees

Dodgers over White Sox

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