Archive for July, 2012

Is Darwin Barney a piece to build around?

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

by Matt Eurich

The word echoing throughout the organization since the arrival of team president Theo Epstein has been: Rebuild. The Cubs have been an organization in recent years that has relied heavily on the “win now” approach, often times throwing money at players for a short term pay off and then being saddled with large unmovable contracts.

Epstein, along with General Manger Jed Hoyer and Director of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod, have made a point in the short time here in Chicago that all of their moves now are to improve the future. Having a solid draft as well as signing Cuban Jorge Soler has immediately helped to improve the system moving forward.

Most do not see the Cubs being true contenders for another couple of seasons, making it likely that most of the players currently seen on the field will not be around when that day comes. The obvious names, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, are here for the long run and the two have provided a nice base of players to build off of. Other guys like pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood are two names the organization hopes can also be major contributors for years to come, but what about second baseman Darwin Barney?

In Barney’s first major league season last year, he finished the year batting .267, good enough for seventh among all major league second baseman. Barney’s average has dipped a bit this season, currently batting .260 but has already doubled his home run total from last year with four and is on pace to eclipse the 43 RBI he finished with last season.

Although Barney’s offensive numbers are not at the top of the charts, he remains as an average to slightly above average hitter. Barney’s biggest contributions come from the defensive side of the game. Barney currently ranks 1st in the majors among second baseman with a .998 fielding percentage, having committed just one error this season and came in to Monday night’s contest against the Pirates with an 87 game errorless streak. Barney also leads all second baseman in defensive wins above replacement (DWAR) with a stellar 3.1 while the next closest second baseman, Robinson Cano, has a 1.4. Despite Barney’s stellar defense so far this season, it is unlikely he will be able to beat the reigning gold glove second baseman in the NL, Brandon Phillips.

Barney came up in the Cubs system as a shortstop but because of the success of Starlin Castro, the Cubs moved Barney to second base. With a lot of talent at the shortstop position in the minor league system for the Cubs, it has been rumored that the Cubs could eventually move Castro to second base to make way for one of their shortstops, but not many are sold on the defensive abilities of the top shortstops in the system. Javier Baez has played great in Single-A Peoria batting .351 with 11 homeruns but many think he will eventually make the move to third base as his range and size might be better suited at the hot corner. Another shortstop playing well has been Junior Lake. Lake is batting .293 with seven homeruns for Double-A Tennessee but has committed 23 errors in 67 games splitting time at both shortstop and third base. Many believe that if Lake cannot cleanup his mistakes he may be better suited to make a move to the outfield, given his great speed and range.

With a lack of depth at the second base position in the minor league system and one of the best field percentages in all of baseball, the Cubs may have found their second baseman of the future. Barney will never be a power hitting second baseman like Robinson Cano but he should be able to raise his batting average a few points and continue to play great defense for a team, that moving forward, will be relying on players that do the little things right, and Barney appears to be their guy.

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Prospect Spotlight: Albert Almora

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Albert Almora, the Cubs’ first round pick from this June’s Rule 4 draft, has been getting his feet wet in the Arizona League for his first professional action.  As we discussed with Jorge Soler last week, his hitting line at this point means nothing due to a tiny sample size and this should only be a short stop for Almora before moving on to Boise or Peoria (I’d bet Boise).

But, for those of you who would like to know, through 21 plate appearances Almora has a .190/.190/.429 line.  Don’t let that concern you.  Almora has only struck out in one of those plate appearances, so a lot of is just balls not finding holes.  Plus, tiny sample size.

While a little bit of playing time in Arizona doesn’t tell us much about Almora, here’s a fun video of his first professional home run.

 As for Soler, he’s got his numbers up to .296/.345/.556 in 29 plate appearances.  By all accounts of anyone who has seen him, he’s looked good even though the numbers won’t tell us much at this level.

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Game 101: Big Hits & Big Trades

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Pirates 4 @ Cubs 14

Box Score / Highlights / Condensed Game

The Game

  • New Cubs’ acquisition Justin Germano pitched a solid 5 innings to earn his first win in almost 5 seasons. I didn’t get to see every pitch he threw, but from what I did see he had some interesting off-speed stuff and pretty good command of the edges of the strike zone. I’m not sure he’ll amount to much more than fifth starter or a long reliever, but he performed better than Chris Volstad or Randy Wells did when they were called upon for similar duty.
  • Dale trotted out a predominantly right-handed lineup Monday night to face the Pirates’ Erik Bedard, and they did not disappoint. In fact, they collectively had one of the Cubs’ best offensive nights of the season. Darwin Barney broke open the game with 3-run homer in the 4th inning, and wound up a double shy of the cycle. Anthony Rizzo clubbed his own 3-run homer to kick off an explosive 9-run 5th inning. Yup, 9 runs. It was glorious. Alfonso Soriano, Geovanny Soto, Barney, Joe Mather, and David DeJesus all followed up with singles, and Starlin Castro–himself a triple shy of the cycle–capped off the inning with a 2-run homer to give the Cubs a 11-run advantage.
  • Reed Johnson made another highlight reel play, sprinting across centerfield to catch a shallow fly ball and then doubling off Pirates’ rookie Starling Marte. Johnson’s throw came in to Starlin Castro, who had faked like it was a groundball double play, causing Marte to slide into second base. If Castro doesn’t sell the fake, I don’t think they double off the speedy Marte.
  • The one down note for the Cubs in an otherwise stellar game was the “relief” performance of Jeff Beliveau. He came in for Germano in the 6th after the Cubs turned it into a laugher and tried his best to spoil the fun. He faced 7 batters, giving up 3 hits, 2 walks, and 2 runs, leaving the bases loaded. Fortunately Manny Corpas got the next batter, former Cub Casey McGehee, to ground into a double play.

Everything Else

  • The Cubs made a couple trades in the midst of the game. The first indication came in the 5th inning, when Reed Johnson was called back before taking his second at-bat of the inning (he had already reached on an error to lead off the 5th and scored on Rizzo’s homer). The hugs he received from his teammates in the dugout were a good indication that Theo & Jed were up to something. Turns out he and Paul Maholm have been traded to the Braves for pitchers Arodys Vizcaino and Jaye Chapman. Vizcaino appears to be the prize of the deal–he was the Braves #2 prospect and the league’s #40 overal prospect coming into the season, but needed Tommy John surgery during Spring Training. It sounds like Chapman is a solid reliever who might be able to contribute soon. I’ve been a big fan of Reed Johnson in both his tours of duty with the Cubs, and would welcome him back for a third stint if he’s available next year.
  • But the roster shuffle didn’t end there–Geovanny Soto was pulled in the 6th inning. The word is he’s been traded along with some cash to the Rangers for pitching prospect Jacob Brigham, but the Cubs have yet to make an official announcement about the deal.
  • You may have already heard that Dale doesn’t expect Ryan Dempster to make his Tuesday night start for the Cubs. Theo & Jed have been talking to to the Dodgers about him and Matt Garza, whom the Blue Jays have also expressed interest in after his clean MRI earlier this week. Perhaps one or both of them will be gone before game time Tuesday. Or maybe they both stay–at this point, all bets are off. What you can say for sure is that plenty of playoff contenders are still looking for starting pitching, and the Cubs are eager to sell. Don’t rule anything out at this point–including Dempster murdering another sweetheart deal at the eleventh hour (for all we know he’s screaming “It rubs the lotion on its skin!” at a potential deal right now).
  • In the flurry of trade activity Monday night, Brett Jackson was removed from his game for AAA Iowa. At first he was thought to be part of the apparent Reed Johnson deal–then it was rumored he had been called up to the majors. Since the big league team now needs to replace a catcher and a starting pitcher, it looks like he might not get the call up Tuesday. As usual, we’ll know more in the morning. Be sure to check VFTB for updates throughout the day.
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Pirates Series Preview

Monday, July 30th, 2012

Probable Pitchers

Courtesy of MLB.com

Monday at 8:05pm EDT – Eric Bedard vs. Justin Germano

Bedard held the Cubs to one run on two hits during his last start, throwing seven stellar innings without being rewarded with a win. He threw 113 pitches in the outing, his most in a start since August 2007. Acquired from the Red Sox for cash considerations on July 19, Germano will be making his first start for the Cubs in his second appearance for the team. He pitched three innings in relief on July 21. He was starting at Triple-A Pawtucket.

Tuesday at 8:05pm EDT – A.J. Burnett vs. Ryan Dempster

The 13-year veteran Burnett just keeps rolling along; a 13th win would match the second-most of his career, with two months of the season to go. His 14 quality starts do not include his May 25 turn vs. the Cubs; he blanked them, but only for 5 1/3 innings. Dempster lost to the Pirates in his last start, giving up three runs on five hits over six innings. He is second in the Majors with a 2.25 ERA, but has given up seven runs in his last two starts.

Wednesday at 2:20pm EDT – Jeff Karstens vs. Travis Wood

Karstens has had a wicked breaking pitch through a recent hot stretch, using it primarily to notch 29 strikeouts in his last 34 innings. Trying to close out another strong July (2-0, 2.67) after posting a 2.06 ERA in five starts in July last season. The Cardinals roughed up Wood in his last start as he became the first Major League pitcher to give up home runs in five consecutive innings. In his last five starts, Wood is 2-3 with a 7.36 ERA, and he has given up 10 home runs.

Our Take

by Jeremiah Johnson

Can anyone give me a good reason why we’ve played only the Cardinals and the Pirates for the last week and a half? Other than Montgomery Burns’ Bud Selig’s general incompetence. I can’t wait to see how his staff butchers the schedule next year when interleague play runs throughout the season (15 teams in each league will necessitate it).

Series Prediction: A short, ugly start from Germano tonight, but two wins to follow (2-1). Also, Dempster turns down another trade and stays put.

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When Will the Clock Strike Midnight For Luis Valbuena

Monday, July 30th, 2012

Coming into the 2003 season, the biggest hole in the Cubs organization was always third base. Each year we had to live through the conversations about all the players trying to play the hot corner since Ron Santo. Then Aramis Ramirez came along in an absolute steal of a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Suddenly the hole was filled as Ramirez would hit effectively and play adequate enough defense to cool the talk of Santo. To be honest, I got a little spoiled and took that position for granted. There’s no question Ramirez had his faults, whether it be the lazy baserunning or the defensive shortcomings at times, or even the injuries to the shoulder late in his time with the Cubs. All those factored in, he was much better than anything we’ve had for a long long time. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the list of starting third base for this team since Santo. It’s not a pretty picture.

This past off-season, the new regime decided to let Ramirez walk in favor of a lottery ticket named Ian Stewart. The thinking was that Stewart could be a stop gap at worst until either Josh Vitters showed he deserved the shot or Theo and Jed could find an adequate building block to put over there. Best case scenario would be that Stewart would once again find the hitting stroke he seemed to have misplaced in Colorado and couple that with above average defense and turn into a bargain. Needless to say, Stewart has continued to suffer from the wrist issues that have plagued him throughout his career and now we’re left with Luis Valbuena.

For some reason, each and every time I ask for a Josh Vitters call up, I’m immediately shouted down with the reply of “defense”. At some point, you have to look at the fact that Valbuena simply can’t hit the baseball. Coming into Sunday’s game against the Cardinals, he was hitting just over .200. When the day was done, that number was under the Mendoza line. A quick look on Baseball Reference shows that he is good for a +7 runs when it comes to fielding, while his hitting is good for -7 runs. His hitting cancels anything he might do with the glove out.

I have a hard time believing that Vitters is that bad defensively at third base that he can’t make up for it with his hitting, but at this point, I’m resound to the fact that the earliest we’re going to see him is September. Theo and Jed have a history of wanting guys to see a full season of AAA ball and Vitters is not there yet. That’s fine, I get it, but at this point haven’t we seen that Valbuena is not the answer?

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Game 100: St. Rizzo Day

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

Cards 2 @ Cubs 4

Box Score / Highlights / Condensed Game

 

Full disclosure here: I didn’t plan to watch this game too closely. I had an afternoon full of errands to run, which I expected would last until just after the game ended. I figured I’d fast forward through to the highlights on MLB.tv and piece together a recap from there that would be posted within an hour of the game ending. I don’t like doing it that way, but unfortunately life looked to be getting in the way.

Well, Anthony Rizzo and Paul Maholm had different plans for me. When I got home, I checked Twitter just in time to see that St. Tony added to his growing resume with a walk-off home run. A little more reading and I discovered I’d missed another Maholm gem. With those factors combined, I had to go back and watch…so, I got to see a great game (after knowing the outcome), and unfortunately you, dear reader, get a slightly delayed recap.

The Great (there were a lot of good things – two clutch run-scoring fielders choices to put the Cubs up early, a one-two-three inning out of Carlos Marmol to send it to extra innings  – but today we focus on the great):

  •  St. Tony Wins It – This Anthony Rizzo kid can play a little ball, eh? Rizzo went 3-4, walked once, and drove in a couple runs…a couple of extra inning, game winning runs, that is. Rizzo’s blast in the bottom of the tenth gave the Cubs the series win over the Cardinals, and by my count was the sixth time in 27 games with the Cubs that he drove in the winning run. What I’m trying to say is: I love you, Anthony Rizzo. I may suspend my rule against buying jerseys of non-retired players for you.
  • Maholm’s Gem – Certain to be overshadowed by Rizzo’s heroics was yet another gem twirled by Paul Maholm. The lefty allowed just one run on four hits over 6 2/3 innings against a Cardinals team that feasts on southpaws, including teammate Travis Wood on Friday. Maholm has now pitched at least six innings without giving up more than one run in six consecutive starts.

The Bad

  • One Bad Pitch – The most unfortunate part of this game is that it should never have gotten to extra innings. Maholm deserved a win for his efforts, but Shawn Camp denied him that joy by throwing a belt high sinker to Carlos Beltran that couldn’t have missed the center of the plate by more that an inch. That sinker ended up in the basket in left center field, ending Maholm’s chance for a win.

 The Ugly

“We can’t be playing well and come in here and lose to the Cubs,” St. Louis’ Matt Holliday said. “We can’t lose this series. But we did.” ~ Matt Holliday

I think I speak for Cubs fans everywhere when I say…well, there’s really no nice way to say it, so fill in the blanks for yourself.

 

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Game 99: Samardzija & Cubs Squeeze Win From Cards

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

Cards 2 @ Cubs 3

Box Score / Highlights / Condensed Game

This was a game of two important innings, so let’s get right to it.

Top of the 1st
Samardzija was erratic from the opening pitch. None of his first seven offerings found the zone, by his 16th pitch he’d walked the bases loaded without recording an out. Inexplicably the combination of Beltran, Berkman and Molina opted to swing at 5 of the 6 pitches they would see. Two groundouts and one strikeout later, Samardzija was out of the inning with the Cubs down only 1-0.

Bottom of the 1st
The Cubs struck back immediately. DeJesus singled, Castro doubled, and after a Rizzo popout, Soriano tripled to give the Cubs a 2-1 lead. This sequence bailed out Samardzija and seemed to settle him in – at least a bit.

Bottom of the 7th
Leading off the 7th in a tie game, LaHair drew a walk and was immediately removed for pinch-runner Campana. Everyone knew Fast Tony was going to try and steal second, the Cards were trying to hold him close. But Campana took yet another base this year off of the great Yadier Molina. Soto singled to right, and with none out the Cubs had runners at the corners. Impatient Jeff Baker, not wanting to take advantage of Joe Kelly’s 7th innning wildness, lined out on the first pitch he saw. Brian Fuentes was brought in, battled Luis Valbuena, and won – two outs.

Reed Johnson had been paying attention, though. Utilityman, Matt Carpenter was at 3B today for the Cards. With two outs and Carpenter playing deep at third, Johnson caught the Cards off guard by bunting the first pitch he saw from Fuentes. After the game Dale would indicate that the bunt was NOT called for from the dugout. Not a very pretty bunt, it was however very effective. Johnson’s sand wedge popped up but died before anyone could catch it; halfway up the third base line, too far to make a play on either Johnson or Campana. The Cubs led 3-2 and the bullpen would eventually slam the door.

Castro’s Single
After Johnson’s squeeze, DeJesus drew a walk from the rattled Fuentes. Castro then with two strikes hit a slow grounder to short. He beat the throw at first but was nevertheless called out. Cub partisans collectively went crazy. Castro was as demonstrative I’ve seen him; replays showed Pat Listach’s disbelief from across the diamond at third. In real time I think it looked closer than it actually was, in part because of how Castro stretched for his final step and then quickly came to a stop. But he was undoubtedly safe. It’s this type of play, in my opinion, that baseball needs to use replay on. There is zero reason to get it wrong. And the time that it took for Dale to come out of the dugout, argue with first base umpire Mike Winters, and eventually get tossed from the game was far longer than it took for replays to reach a conclusive decision on what should’ve been a run-scoring play.  (Watch how Berkman ‘sells’ the call even after Winters had punched out Castro – that should’ve been a big hint that Winters had blown the call)

It’s prudent to remind you now that in the last three games the Cubs have had a HR overturned by an umpire and then incorrectly confirmed as a ground-rule double by replay; and now a clear-cut run-scoring play wiped away by another erroneous call. Two bad calls, one replay, Cubs get screwed both times.

Samardzija
Not his best outing, but with a little help from the anxious Cardinal hitters he managed the damage quite well without his best stuff. He only threw first pitch strikes to 12 of the 27 batters he faced, only 58 of his 104 pitches were strikes, and in his final inning (the 6th) he faced six batters and each of them started with a 1-0 count. He wasn’t around the strike zone much, but he cobbled together 6 decent innings of work.

Offense
Take a bloody pitch! In 11 different plate appearances, a Cub swung at the first pitch he saw. In 32 total PAs on the night, the Cubs only saw 116 pitches. For comparison, the Cardinals had 37 PAs and saw 151 pitches. Only their pitcher saw fewer than 10 pitches; meanwhile Soto went to the plate 3 times and saw only 6. The useless Jeff Baker saw 9. It’s maddening. Rizzo gets a new pitcher (a LHP) to start the 8th, swings at the first pitch – misses – and then makes a horrible bunt attempt to first on which he was easily retired. At-bats like that will only lend more credence to the notion that he needs to sit against lefties.

Ultimately, though, the Cubs beat the Cardinals – so none of that other stuff really matters.

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Game 98: Let The Games Begin

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

Box Score / Highlights  / Condensed 

The Game: Where to begin? There were so many things that were great and so many things that were terrible. Each inning had unexpected twists and turns that cannot be divided into “good” and “bad” because they were all mixed together. The game had some promise through the first four innings. The Cardinals would take the lead, then the Cubs would come back to tie it, but by the 7th inning it was over.

Pitching: Travis Wood pitched a doozie. He gave up 5 home runs – one per inning – and 8 ER while taking the loss. He was done after 5 innings. Jeff Beliveau made his Wrigley Field debut, striking out 2 and walking one in a scoreless frame. Manny Corpas had the only hiccup, giving up a run, while Russell and Camp finished the game with no problems. Camp did have a great pickoff at first base, catching Jon Jay off guard. It was great. 

If Wood hadn’t dished up those 5 home runs, the pitching would have been good. If only…

Batting: The offense was great. DeJesus started off the bottom half of the first with a triple. Castro hit an RBI single to drive him in. Rizzo hit a two-run blast. It was beautiful and exciting. Lance Lynn had held the Cubs to 2 runs in his previous starts against them, but gave up 3 runs in the first inning of today’s game. 

The Cubs had 2 doubles, 2 triples, and a home run. With all the hitting that was happening, you would think the wind was blowing out. But no. It was blowing in.

Summary: The game had some promise early on, but the home runs killed us. Thankfully the game wasn’t a blow out. The score easily could have been much higher with the hit parade that was happening out there.

I actually got to witness this game in-person, thanks to Mastercard. Nearly everyone who has access to a television has seen their “Priceless” commercials. Well, they are bringing the Priceless experience to Chicago. Anyone who is a Mastercard cardholder has the opportunity to experience the greatest opportunities Chicago has to offer. The experiences range from exclusive dining privileges to meeting iconic Chicago sports figures, and multiple other events.

If you are a Mastercard cardholder and would like more information, or if you don’t have a Mastercard but are curious about the perks of being a cardholder, check out: www.priceless.com/Chicago.

They gave a short presentation about the Priceless program, and had representatives from the Chicago Bears, the Cubs, the American Girl Doll Place, the Magnificent Mile, and the Gilt Groupe all share a bit about their organizations’ involvement in the program. It made me want to go open an account with them just for the possibility of doing all the fun things they talked about!

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Cardinals Series Preview

Friday, July 27th, 2012

Probable Pitchers

Courtesy of MLB.com

Friday at 2:20pm EDT – Lance Lynn vs. Travis Wood

Lynn is 3-0 with a 0.94 ERA in three outings against the Cubs this season. He threw six shutout innings against Chicago on Sunday — his fourth scoreless start of the season — and he’s allowed one earned run in his last three outings. This would’ve been Matt Garza’s spot, but he’s being skipped after coming out of his last game with cramping in his right elbow. Wood lost to the Cardinals on Sunday, giving up six earned runs over six innings, including back-to-back homers.

Saturday at 1:05pm EDT – Joe Kelly vs. Jeff Samardzija

Despite turning in six straight quality starts, Kelly is 1-3 over that span. He’s allowed an unearned run in each of his last four outings, but homers haven’t helped his case, either. Kelly’s given up three-run jacks in two of his last four starts. He has never faced any member of the Cubs in the past. Samardzija is coming off his best outing, in which he held the Pirates to one hit, an infield single, over eight innings. He had good command, mixed his pitches well and kept his pitch count down. Let’s see what he does for an encore.

Sunday at 2:20pm EDT – Adam Wainwight vs Paul Maholm

Wainwright outdueled Clayton Kershaw to earn his eighth win on Tuesday. His 7 1/3-inning effort was his longest since tossing a complete game on May 22. Wainwright has pitched well for most of two months now but has run into his share of lousy luck. Maholm is on quite a role. He’s posted five straight starts of at least six innings in which he’s given up one or no runs. That’s a first by a Cubs left-hander since 1918. He’s also won all five. And he loves pitching at Wrigley Field.

How to Pitch to the Big Boys

Each series we’ll take a look at the top power hitters in the opposing team’s lineup to establish how to get them out and minimize the damage. Power doesn’t always mean home runs. It can also mean doubles and triples. To examine that, we’ll focus on Isolated Power. The heat maps show each player’s isolated power based on area of the zone. If you’re not familiar with the stat, Isolated Power or ISO is a sabermetric baseball statistic which measures a batter’s raw power. The formula is Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average, which removes all the singles that are included in SLG%. The final result measures how many extra bases a player averages per at bat. By limiting extra base hits, you drastically increase your chance to win the game.

Our Take

By Jeremiah Johnson

Last week’s series against the Cardinals represents the one major blight on the Cubs’ record stretching all the way back to before the All Star break. Did Chicago simply fail to show up in St. Louis, like so much lost luggage?

Or are the Cardinals really that much better than the Cubs? Doubtful. I can’t argue that both teams are on an equal competitive footing, but I also can’t believe that they’re really a +22 run differential ahead of us on any given weekend.

Honestly, I don’t have s good explanation for the complete no-show in St. Louis last weekend. Was it the lingering doubts of Dempster’s impending trade (rumors swirled before the game that he might be traded to the Cardinals, and that he’d make the start for them that evening)? Was it the letdown of surrendering an historically bad 12-run inning on Saturday.

I doubt I’ll ever find a satisfactory answer, but I’d really like to know what made the Cubs completely fold last weekend. Because for all their success against us, I don’t believe the Cardinals are really that much better than the Cubs. And I’m hoping to see some proof this weekend.

Series Prediction: A dramatic, hard-fought 2-1.

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