Jose Altuve is the AL Co-Player of the Week, and once more reminds us that greatness comes in all shapes and sizes.

Jose Altuve spoils us. Again and again. With his quickness. With his instincts. With his relentless desire to be great. If you drew up everything you’d want in a baseball player, he might look exactly like Jose Altuve.

You’d throw in some added hunger which is a byproduct of having been told he wasn’t good enough. Remember that the Astros, like every other team, sent Altuve away from his first tryout camp in Venezuela. Only after they took another look were they able to focus on what he was instead of what he wasn’t.

To make the most difficult game on earth look so easy is an incredible accomplishment. And Altuve has been so good for so long that we take him for granted.

When the Astros made their first postseason appearance in a decade last season, we were so taken by Carlos Correa’s gifts and Dallas Keuchel’s greatness that it was easy to overlook the little guy.

Now about that. Altuve is 5-foot-6. This has hindered him, but not in the way you think. Sure, it kept some teams from signing him.

Beyond that, his height became the focus of his early seasons with the Astros. ESPN almost made him famous, but in concentrating on that one thing, it was easy to overlook that this is a really good baseball player.

Scouts say you can watch hitters for a long time and not see another one with hands as quick as Altuve’s. He simply has the God-given ability to get the bat into the hitting zone faster than others.

He led the American League in hits and stolen bases for a second straight season. He also hit 15 home runs, which is more than twice as many as he’d ever hit before.

That additional power is part of the continuing evolution of his game, which should be no surprise to anyone know who knows how badly he wants to continue to improve and to walk away as one of the great hitters ever.

He won that first batting title two years ago and is still only 25 years old. But in the first two weeks of this young season, he has been better than ever before.

He’s way more selective at the plate, which is reflective of a .397 OBP. His OPS is 1.024, also the highest of his career.

Given that he’s more selective at the plate, he’s putting himself into more hitter-friendly counts. As a result, he has four home runs already and a .627 slugging percentage.

He hit .208 on the Astros opening road trip to New York and Milwaukee. When the club came home, he got hot, and in seven games against the Royals and Tigers, he batted .407.

For that, he was named AL Co-Player of the Week with Orioles OF Mark Trumbo. Altuve also had three doubles, three home runs and two stolen bases.

 

 

To understand Jackie Robinson’s legacy, just look around you. His impact is everywhere.

 

Today, we celebrate Jackie Robinson, and don’t think for a moment this is just about baseball. He represents baseball’s finest hour, but it was also Robinson’s vehicle to begin reshaping the world.

   To understand his real impact, look around you. Our schools and restaurants, our stores and neighborhoods, they are different because of a movement that began with Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line 69 years ago.

    Amid the death threats and insults and assorted humiliations, Robinson took the first steps toward forcing Americans to see the world differently than they’d ever seen it before. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Jackie Robinson was a sit-in-er before sit-ins and a freedom rider before freedom rides.”

    Robinson alone could not have ended racism, and he was under no illusion about ever doing that. Indeed, we’re still working on that part of the deal in this country. That said, Robinson’s impact on both his sport and his world are incalculable.

    “It meant there were six-, seven- and eight-year-old boys who suddenly thought a black man was a hero,” President Obama told filmmaker Ken Burns in a new documentary on Robinson.

   Baseball has ushered Robinson into the consciousness of an entire new generation of people in recent years with its annual celebration of his life. Thanks to the ceremonies and speeches and community outreach work, countless players, fans, club executives and others know more about him than they might otherwise have known.

   In 1997, baseball ordered that Robinson’s No. 42 be retired throughout the sport. In 2009, every player began wearing No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day thanks to a suggestion by Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.

   Robinson’s widow, Rachel, and daughter Sharon have become part of the fabric of baseball, and through them, the story, with all its ugliness, has gained two human faces, soft and sweet.

   Jackie Robinson is such a compelling figure that we hunger to know more, that we want to understand the world in which he lived and how he maintained his dignity and grace through it all.

   Three years ago, a movie, “42,” beautifully written and exquisitely acted, introduced Robinson to thousands of people, not just baseball fans, either. Now, Burns’ new documentary takes Robinson’s story to another level with news footage and accounts of historians, former teammates, etc.

   Thanks to all these efforts, Robinson will live forever in our hearts and minds. We may never fully grasp all that he endured along the way. One of the highest tributes to Robinson’s legacy is that millions of Americans can’t come to terms with the hatred directed toward this man because of the color of his skin. His world, for all its imperfections, is nothing close to his world.

   As the Burns documentary points out, 90 percent of the African Americans in this country were living in the Jim Crow South when Robinson was born in Georgia in 1919. That year, 21 blacks were lynched in Georgia alone, according to the documentary.

   Robinson played his first professional game in the Negro Leagues in 1945 a few days after Franklin Roosevelt’s death. From the moment Branch Rickey approached him about playing for the Dodgers, Robinson understood the larger impact.

   “He (Robinson) laid the foundation for America to see it’s black citizens at subjects and not just objects,” Obama tells Burns.

   During 10 season with the Dodgers, Robinson played the game with an edge and an anger that became part of his greatness. He took some of the aggressiveness into his life after baseball as a forceful, relentless voice for change.

   “He became one of the most powerful voices we had to extricate ourselves from the evil and the pain of (our) history,” actor Harry Belafonte tells Burns.

   Robinson’s legacy, his ultimate legacy, is interspersed with all of that, with the baseball and the civil rights movement. By the time Robinson died in 1972 at the age of 53, he’d seen President Johnson signs laws that integrated schools and restaurants, enhanced voter protections and made the world a bit better.

   Robinson knew the battle wasn’t over, that it might never be over. But his legacy was that he made an indelible impression on people and that he used his voice and his fame to make us a better nation and a better people.

   That’s part of what we celebrate today. Baseball’s is proud of its role in all of this, that it embraced change and gave Robinson a platform. Most of all, we honor this man’s courage and suffering, his vision and his heart.

 

Slap me with a large shoe the next time I doubt the Orioles

You know who isn’t one bit surprised by the Orioles’ 6-0 start? That would be the Orioles.

Adam Jones and Buck Showalter. J.J. Hardy and Chris Davis. Darren O’Day and Chris Tillman.

Yeah, those guys.

Some teams just have a certain vibe, a quiet confidence. For sure, the Royals and Giants have it. The Astros seem to have it as well.

And there’s absolutely no doubt the Orioles have it, perhaps more of it than any club other than maybe the Royals.

This core group of Birds has been together for five seasons, and in that time they’ve won more regular-season games than any other American League team.

This run coincides with Dan Duquette taking over as the head of baseball operations. No general manager has done a better job of unearthing talent without spending wild amounts of money.

When a team has won as often as the Orioles have in recent years, there’s a collective ego that is born and strengthened and reenforced.

While those of us on the outside evaluate things that can be weighed and measured, the Orioles see the whole world a different way.

They look around their clubhouse and look at guys that they know and trust and believe in.

Some of that comes from a manager, Showalter, who is absolutely brilliant. He sweats the small stuff, sometimes obsesses over the small stuff.

No manager is better at building the right environment and convincing his players they can write whatever ending those choose to write.

None of us on the outside can be 100 percent certain how he does it. He’d be the first to remind us that it’s a player’s game and that whatever the Orioles do this season will be because Jones, Davis, etc., are the guys who make it go.

On the other hand, some managers have an ability to motivate and reach players in ways others don’t.

In a season like this one, when the whole world had the Orioles penciled in for the bottom of the American League East, Showalter absolutely thrives.

So does Jones.

“Oh so, we’re counting Spring Training games now?” he asked a few weeks ago when his team had the worst record in the Grapefruit League.

He reminded me, politely, that the game was different when the games counted, that paying too much attention to March was silly.

Still, it was tough to believe in the Orioles who need a lot of things to fall into place:

  • Could Chris Tillman bounce back from a disappointing season?
  • Would Yovani Gallardo fill the hole in the rotation left by Wei-Yin Chen’s departure?
  • Did the organization have quality arms for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation?

Here’s what we know so far:<p>

1. Tillman has a 1.29 ERA after one start cut short by rain and another very solid one.

2. Gallardo has been good once and not so good another time.

3. Ubaldo Jimenez and Vance Worley have a combined 2.31 ERA. Mike Wright makes his first start today as the fifth name in the rotation.

The Orioles also fretted about production from their left fielder. That’s where Joey Rickard, a Rule V pickup from the Rays, comes in.

He started hitting in Spring Training and hasn’t stopped. He began the day with a .409 batting average.

No one evaluates a baseball team on these first few days. Baseball seasons have a way of exposing every weakness, and that rotation could still be a problem.

But a 6-0 start helps, too. It instills confidence and becomes a building block. And the Orioles look around the rest of the AL East and don’t believe there’s a better team.

If, say, young right-handers Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy end up churning out quality innings and if Tillman continues to lead the way, the Orioles could easily end up back in the postseason for the third time in five seasons.

Perhaps the larger lessons is this group—from general manager Dan Duquette to Showalter to the players—has earned the benefit of the doubt.

They’ve resurrected this sport in one of the country’s great baseball cities. They play the game a certain way, the right way.

They were one out from defeat on Monday afternoon when Davis hit a three-run home run off Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel at Fenway Park for a 9-7 victory.

In the celebration that followed the victory, it was easy to believe that this could end up being one of those galvanizing moments and that maybe we really have underestimated the Orioles.

We’ve done that a lot in recent years. We ought to know better by now.

 

What can we learn from baseball’s best teams?

Here are baseball’s most successful regular-season teams the last three seasons:

  • Cardinals (287-199).
  • Pirates (280-206).
  • Dodgers (278-208).
  • Royals (270-216).
  • Nationals (265-221).

What are the lessons of these five franchises? Is there a common thread? Yes, Mr. Wise Acre, I know having good players is the biggest reason for their success.

Beyond that, what can the less successful teams learn from the Cardinals, Pirates, etc.?

One striking thing is that three of the five teams are cautious spenders. The Cardinals seldom get involved in big-ticket free agents. The Royals and Pirates never do unless it’s for one of their own—Alex Gordon or Andrew McCutchen.

Another characteristic is patience. The Pirates averaged 94 in Neal Huntington’s first five seasons as general manager. The Royals averaged 92 losses in Dayton Moore’s first six seasons as general manager.

Six seasons.

Roll that one around in your mind. Royals owner David Glass and his team president, Dan Glass, stayed the course when it was not a popular thing to do.

To continue to believe in a guy when so many are whispering otherwise in your ear—and in some cases, screaming—is tough.

These are competitive people. They are accustomed to winning regardless of the arena. Here’s what they knew that others didn’t.

That when Moore was hired in 2006 he sat down with his bosses and outlined a plan. He said the Royals had no chance of competing without a great farm system, and Moore intended to build one.

But it would not happen quickly, and the path would not always be smooth. As a scout once told me, “My job is to look at an 18-year-old kid and predict what he’s going to be, both physically and emotionally, at 25. That are just going to be things you can’t predict.”

David and Dan Glass stayed with their guy. They saw the pipeline—Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer—show tangible progress. They saw Moore make shrewd trades and free-agent signings even with a payroll in the bottom half of baseball’s 30 teams.

And when the Royals finally turned a corner, they turned it with breathtaking results. Since June 22, 2014, the Royals are 158-99, including the postseason. That’s 28 more victories than the next-closest AL team (Blue Jays Jays) and 17 more than the next NL club (Cards).

The Royals have done things a certain way. Their defense and bullpen have been so good that it has prompted others to reconsider their core beliefs on roster building. Maybe it’s not just about starting pitching and three-run home runs.

The Royals will always have challenges. Almost every season there’ll be some tough budget decisions and some losses from the roster. In this off-season’s case, Ben Zobrist, acquired at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, signed with the Cubs.

But no general manager has made more smart moves than Moore, and after 30 years, the sport has been born again in one of the country’s great baseball cities.

The Pirates have followed a similar path. They weren’t immediately successful under Huntington, and plenty of fans, columnists, etc., were more than ready to pack his bags.

Pirates owner Bob Nutting stayed the course, seeing the larger picture. Patience is incomprehensibly difficult for competitive people, especially when you’re highest profile venture is subject to daily reviews.

But Nutting understood that the Pirates had to do things a certain way. They had to have a great farm system. Without that, they had zero chance of competing. And their ventures into free agency were going to be more about baseball acumen than simply money.

Did Francisco Liriano still have productive baseball left in him? What if we give him time to heal and put him with our brilliant manager (Clint Hurdle) and pitching coach (Ray Searage).

(In three seasons with the Pirates, Liriano is 35-25 with a 3.26 ERA and has averaged 170 innings. In four seasons before that, he was 34-45 with a 4.85 ERA with 155 innings.)

Anyway, after 20 consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates have made three straight postseason appearances. It’s perhaps the highest tribute to the job Huntington and Hurdle have done that Pirates fans are grousing about not getting past the NL Wild Card Game the last two seasons.

Never mind that they lost to Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta or that the franchise couldn’t even dream of a postseason appearance before Huntington arrived. The Pirates gave a generation or two of their fans almost nothing to cheer about. Now, they’ve built expectations, and that’s a good thing.

Finally, the Cardinals.

That little hacking scandal notwithstanding, they’re probably the most admired organization in the sport.

They have it all: great ownership, terrific management and a core of winning players. They’re in a city where every day of the year is baseball season and have been so successful that the bar for success or failure is the World Series.

The Nationals and Dodgers spend more money, but their baseball operations staff have the same core beliefs of these other three teams. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo built his organization on collecting as many young power arms as possible. The Dodgers have cooled their spending, vowing to get back to a player development-based roster. Despite the money, the Dodgers and Nationals haven’t yet had the postseason success they hope to have.

Maybe the larger point is that the formula for success hasn’t changed all that much. There are new and better ways to arrive at decisions, but the bottom line is–as Branch Rickey taught generations of executives–player development and smart talent assessments. In the end, those two things are what winning is about.

 

 

Wouldn’t it be a kick in the pants if the Cardinals won 100 games again?

I’m guessing the St. Louis Cardinals are absolutely thrilled that some of us have already conceded the National League Central to the Chicago Cubs. The Cardinals? They’re playing for second place… or third. You can look it up.

Do you think Cardinals manager Mike Matheny sees this as a gift? Competitive people love this stuff. They feed off being doubted. It motivates them every single day. How about Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright? Think they’re conceding anything to the Cubs?

Okay, I understand this isn’t high school baseball. In the end, emotion and fighting words can only do so much. The grind of a 162-season will reveal every strength, expose every weakness.

We’ll find out if the Cubs have indeed passed the Cardinals after what may have been a transformative off-season by what happens on the field.

On the other hand…

Do not overlook the Cardinals, or for that matter, the Pirates. Cubs manager Joe Maddon is sure to mention that to his players and coaches. This could again be the grownup division. For long stretches of last season, the NL Central appeared to have the National League’s three best teams.

According to Fangraphs.com, these are the NL Central projections.

Cubs 94-68

Cardinals 84-78

Pirates 83-79

After five straight postseason appearances and three straight division championships, the Cardinals are projected to finish 10 games behind the Cubs and one ahead of the Pirates.

That’s a byproduct of the Cubs having all that young talent and going on a  $277-million free-agent spending spree this off-season.

To add Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey to a club that won 97 games creates a different dynamic.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals went hard for Heyward and David Price. Their big free-agent addition has been getting Mike Leake to replace injured Lance Lynn in the rotation.

If you’re a Cardinals fan, though, there’s still hope, plenty of it. For one thing, the Cardinals still have money to spend if something comes up they’re comfortable doing.

But what they’ve also done is stick to their core belief of producing their own players. In addition, they believe that when players have earned a shot in the big leagues they ought to get that shot.

To quote Braves President John Schuerholz, “If you’ve got young players who are ready, it can be ruinous to an organization not to give them that chance.”

Accordingly, projections about the Cardinals perhaps can’t accurately predict production for Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham. Between them, they’ve had fewer than 1,000 major league at-bats (821 to be precise).

The Cardinals do not know how good the three of them will be, but in Piscotty’s case, there’s star potential.

There are other questions. This is big season for Matt Adams, who has also shown star potential. During the 2013-2014 seasons, he hit 32 home runs in 823 at-bats and had an .800 OPS.

Likewise, the rotation has questions that could be answered only over the course of an entire season. If Jaime Garcia is healthy and if Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney provide insurance at Triple-A, the Cardinals would again be in a very good place.

Here’s the point: there’s plenty to like about the Cardinals. The lineup needs the younger players to produce in addition to Matt Carpenter, Holliday, etc.

What’s the alternative? They pushed to sign Heyward. When that didn’t work out, they decided not to simply throw money at the next available free agent.

General manager John Mozeliak’s genius has been his ability to see a larger whole and to assign a value to each player.

How often has he been wrong? Those five consecutive playoff appearances emphatically answer that question.

Cardinals fans would point out there hasn’t been a championship since 2011. Nothing wrong with that.

In St. Louis, the bar is higher than most other places. That’s why it’s the best baseball city on the planet and why baseball season runs, oh, 365 days a year.

If Mozeliak is wrong about Piscotty, Grichuk, etc., it could be a tough, disappointing season in St. Louis. But the Cardinals haven’t been wrong very often in recent years. It’s unlikely they’re wrong this time either.

 

 

This is where the really smart teams have a chance to get rewarded in free agency.

There are still productive players on the free-agent market. In fact, this might just be the best time to shop. This is when the smart teams have a chance to clean up.

Here’s some recent history:

  • RHP Kyle Lohse was signed by the Cardinals on March 13, 2008, for the bargain-basement price of $4.25 million. He won 15 games and pitched 200 innings that season.
  • 1B/OF/3B Aubrey Huff was signed by the Giants on Jan. 10, 2010, for $3 million. He hit 26 home runs and had an .891 OPS. He then hit .268 in 15 postseason games to help the Giants win the World Series.
  • RF Nelson Cruz signed with the Orioles on Feb. 24, 2014, for $8 million. He led the majors with 40 home runs as the Birds won the AL East for the first time in 17 years.

So, yes, things sometimes do happen late in Spring Training, and teams get signification production from guys who don’t get one of the mega-dollar deals.

If you’re favorite baseball team is still looking for just that right finishing touch (or two or three of them), there’s still opportunity.

These really aren’t money deals, at least not deals involving more than a season or two. Rather, these are deals that get done because a coach or a scout sees something in a player no one else has seen.

He has to stand up in meetings and argue for that argue, argue that investing a few million dollars would result be wise.

There are very few sure things on the market at this point. Some players are coming off poor seasons. Some are fighting back from injuries.

And in some cases, players are widely seen as too old or in steep decline. For instance, right-hander Doug Fister is still unsigned.

At this time last year, he figured to be one of the coveted free agents. He’d gone 16-6 and had a 2.41 ERA for the Nationals. In six full major league seasons, he’d averaged 171 innings and had a 3.38 ERA.

But 2015 was tough for him. He pitched his way out of the rotation and dealt with some forearm soreness. Despite finishing the season with six consecutive relief appearances, he remains on the market.

If he’s healthy–and really, that’s the only issue–he’s going to be a great pickup for some team.

For instance, the Orioles, who need starting pitching and have seen a lot of Fister through the years.

His former teammate, shortstop Ian Desmond, also remains unsigned. And Pedro Alvarez and Dexter Fowler and Howie Kendrick.

There are enough quality players out there that an entire team could be composed of just the remaining free agents.

For instance:

C—Tony Sanchez

1B—Justin Morneau

2B—Howie Kendrick

3B—David Freese

SS—Ian Desmond

OF—David Murphy

OF—Austin Jackson

OF—Jonny Gomes/David DeJesus

DH—Pedro Alvarez

SP—Yovani Gallardo

SP—Doug Fister

SP—Mat Latos

SP—Mike Minor

SP—Cliff Lee

Closer—Casey Janssen

Setup—Joel Peralta

Setup—Tyler Clippard

Lefty specialist—Craig Breslow

Lefty specialist—Neal Cotts

Baseball Hall of Fame release on Monte Irvin

Hall of Fame outfielder Monte Irvin passed away Monday night at his Houston home. Irvin died peacefully of natural causes at the age of 96.

“Monte Irvin’s affable demeanor, strong constitution and coolness under pressure helped guide baseball through desegregation and set a standard for American culture,” said Jeff Idelson, President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “His abilities on the field as the consummate teammate are undeniable, as evidenced by World Series titles he contributed to in both the Negro and Major leagues, and a richly-deserved plaque in Cooperstown. He was on the original committee that elected Negro Leagues stars to the Hall of Fame, something for which the Museum will always be grateful.”

A multisport athlete in his youth, Irvin starred with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League before joining the New York Giants in 1949. By 1951, Irvin was one of the National League’s most dangerous hitters, driving in a league-high 121 runs in 1951 while leading the Giants to their improbable pennant, catching the Brooklyn Dodgers down the stretch and then defeating Brooklyn in the three-game playoff.

Irvin played seven seasons with the Giants and one with the Cubs from 1949-55. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues in 1973, becoming the fourth Negro Leagues candidates inducted following Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard.

Born Feb. 25, 1919 in Haleburg, Ala., Irvin was one of the greatest amateur athletes of his time. After starring in the Mexican Leagues and Negro Leagues, Irvin was considered by many to be the leading candidate to integrate the major leagues. His play at the big league level – two years after Jackie Robinson’s debut in 1947 – proved that he was indeed one of the best players of his era.

In eight big league seasons – all coming after he turned 30 years old – Irvin batted .293 with a .383 on-base percentage, totaling 99 home runs and 443 RBI. He led the Giants with 11 hits and a .458 batting average in the 1951 World Series against the Yankees.

Irvin later served as a scout for the Mets before joining the Commissioner’s staff under Bowie Kuhn, working for almost 20 years as a public relations specialist.

Irvin was the second-oldest living Hall of Famer, behind only Bobby Doerr, and the eighth-oldest living former big leaguer overall.

Funeral and memorial services are pending.

Ken Giles is close to a perfect fit for the Astros.

NASHVILLE—The Astros could hardly make a more perfect acquisition than the one they were on the verge of making Wednesday night.

How do those final six outs look now?

Ken Giles just might take care of them the next time the Astros are positioned to advance to the American League Championship Series.

Some defeats linger in the hearts and minds, and that’s especially true of one like  the Astros suffered in Game 4 of the AL Division Series. They turned a four-run lead over to their bullpen in the eighth inning.

That bullpen had been one of baseball’s best for five months. And then in September, it became arguably baseball’s worst as injuries, fatigue and a tired starting rotation took its toll.

When a 6-2 lead turned into a 9-6 loss in Game 4 and when the Astros went on to lose a deciding ALDS Game 5 to the Royals, general manager Jeff Luhnow drew up a simple wish list for 2016:

1. Right-handed reliever.

2. Left-handed reliever.

3. Starting pitcher.

Luhnow was close to completing part of that to-do list on Wednesday as he attempted to finalize a trade to get Phillies closer Ken Giles for four prospects, including right-hander Vincent Velazquez, one of the organization’s best arms.

This is just the kind of trade Luhnow hoped to be able to make when he spent three seasons replenishing the minor league system. When the Astros had a specific need to fill, he wanted to be able to outbid other competitors.

In return, Luhnow is getting one of baseball’s dominant young closers back, one the Astros will have under control for the next five seasons.

Giles is 25 years old and relies on a fastball/slider combination. His fastball was clocked consistently in the 97-mph range and regularly ticked 100 mph. In two seasons in the big leagues, his ERA is 1.56. Among all big league relievers, only Wade Davis (0.97) and Dellin Betances (1.45) have been better.

After the Phillies traded Jonathan Papelbon in late July, Giles slid into the closer’s role and made good on 15 of 17 save chances. In 26 1/3 innings, he allowed just 12 base runners with five walks and 33 strikeouts.

Luhnow is still shopping for at least one lefty reliever, but Giles is a nice start. He joins a string of quality arms—Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Josh Fields and Will Harris.

Projections are tricky things, but with a solid core, an improved bullpen and a rich farm system, the Astros believe they’re good enough to make a second straight postseason run.

Luhnow also focused on his bullpen a year ago by signing free agents Gregerson and Neshek. They were part of a group that helped transform one of baseball’s worst bullpens in 2014 to one of its best in 2015. On September 1st last season, the Astros bullpen had a 2.73 ERA, fourth-best in the majors.

After that, not so much. Houston’s bullpen had a 5.63 ERA the rest of the way, worst in baseball. And in the postseason, that bullpen had a 6.23 ERA, last among baseball’s 10 postseason teams.

When the ALDS was there to be won in Game 4, four Houston relievers allowed five earned runs in two innings. Astros manager A.J. Hinch said he still thinks about that game and about how close his young team was to getting to the ALCS.

But when the Astros turned a huge corner in 2015 to make their first playoff appearance in 10 years, they knew they were not a perfect club. They believed young stars like shortstop Carlos Correa and right fielder George Springer would continue to improve and that there’d be a steady stream of young talent headed toward the big leagues.

In Giles, the Astros didn’t just get a reliable reliever. They got someone who could be a dominant one for a few years. In that way, he fits nicely with the impact players Luhnow has scattered around the diamond.

After that Game 5 loss to the Royals, the Astros spoke of being bitterly disappointed. They also spoke of 2015 being just the beginning of a bright and shiny new era of Astros baseball. That new era will look even better with Ken Giles pitching the ninth inning.

 

Lance Lynn gone for 2016? Cardinals have positioned themselves nicely to address the problem.

The Cardinals still have enough pitching to contend in 2016. Even without Lance Lynn. Even possibly without John Lackey. Thats not the issue here.

And that’s the beauty of the Cardinals.

Under general manager John Mozeliak, the Cardinals have accumulated so much pitching and spent their money so smartly that now, faced with a critical loss, they’re in an ideal position to do something dramatic.

This is a reminder why they’re arguably the most respected franchise on the planet, one that prides itself on doing virtually everything right.

Let’s not sugarcoat what Tuesday’s announcement that Lynn will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the 2016 season means. He pitched 175 innings and had a 3.03 ERA in 2015 on a staff that was the best in baseball by miles (2.94 ERA).

With Lackey exploring free agency, that’s 393 innings the Cardinals could be looking to replace.

Even with all their organizational depth—and there’s an impressive amount of young pitching—the Cardinals will now be shopping for pitching.

They probably were going to shop for pitching anyway in addition to attempting to re-sign outfielder Jason Hayward. They may have enough pitching to contend, but the bar is higher than that in St. Louis.

This is the franchise that has been to the postseason 12 times in 16 seasons and that has finished first three years in a row, averaging 96 victories.

So does that mean the Cardinals get outside their comfort zone and make a run at an elite free-agent pitcher, say, David Price or Zack Greinke?

Yes, it probably does.

Does that mean attempting to work out a multi-year contract with Lackey, who was extended a $15.8-million qualifying offer?

Yep, most likely.

Lackey’s 13th major league season might have been his best as he worked 218 innings and compiled a 2.77 ERA for a staff that was the best in the game.

The Cardinals are positioned to do these things because they don’t do them very often.

They’ve never signed a pitcher outside the organization to huge money. They’re prefer to develop—and then reward—their own guys.

They can do it now for a couple of reasons. One is that have only $65 million in guaranteed money committed for the 2017 season.

Another is they have a lucrative television contract about to kick into gear. As Mozeliak said, “We have resources.”

Here’s their current rotation: Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia, Tyler Lyons. Wacha and Martinez are 24, Garcia 29, Lyons 27 and Wainwright 34.

There are few guarantees. Garcia hasn’t made more than 20 starts the last four seasons. Lyons has made 20 career starts total. Martinez is recovering from a shoulder issue.

But there’s also Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney as depth. If Lackey is thrown into the mix, the rotation could be formidable.

Again, though, the bottom line is winning a World Series and because the Cardinals have spent conservatively, they’ve got the cash to spend on a free agent.

Re-signing outfielder Jason Hayward is also a priority, but Lynn’s surgery increases the need to add a starter. Mozeliak doesn’t rush into anything. He typically allows things to play out and gives his young guys every chance.

He believes that holding back the progress of a youngster is damaging to a franchise. When young players see those ahead of them get a crack–instead of being passed over–it’s added motivation.

But it’s also about winning. One free-agent starter will not blow up the Cardinal Way. That has endured too long and succeeded too much.

That’s why this franchise is special.

Do I hear an opening offer for Zack Greinke? (Tip: He’s the best free agent in this market.)

Let’s just say there probably won’t be any surprises for the club signing Zack Greinke. Go ahead and write these numbers down:

  • 205 innings.
  • 32 starts.
  • 195 strikeouts.
  • 2.99 ERA.

That’s the average of his first eight seasons in the major leagues. Yes, that’s the average. In three seasons with the Dodgers, he’s 51-15 with a 2.31 ERA.  So even if you think he won’t repeat a 2015 season in which he had a mind-blowing 1.66 ERA, you’re still getting one of the best and most durable pitchers on the planet. He has made fewer than 32 starts just twice in the last eight seasons. He made 28 both those.

Those were also the only seasons he didn’t fly past the 200-inning threshold. In terms of performance, that 2.99 ERA puts him right there in the conversation with Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Felix Hernandez in the “best pitcher in baseball” debate.

Inside the industry, there’s a feeling the Dodgers will not re-sign him, that they’ll make a run at David Price, who is two years younger and probably will end up with similar money.

In opting out of his contract, Greinke is walking away from $71 million over three years. He probably figures to get a deal averaging around $30 million a year and then will stretch the years as far as some team is willing to go.

When he signed a six-year, $147-million deal with the Dodgers after the 2012 season, it was the highest offer on the table. Three years later, that one looks like a bargain, which says plenty about the health of the game.

Enough about money. Let’s get to the good stuff. At his best, Greinke is the most dominant, most entertaining pitcher in the game. He’s that generational type pitcher who can beat you with his third and fourth pitches.

To combine a 92-mph fastball with a wipeout slider and an above average curveball and changeup is as good as it gets.

His 1.66 ERA in 2015 was historically good, the lowest by a pitcher since Greg Maddux had a 1.63 ERA in 1995. His WHIP was a microscopic 0.84. In July, he strung together six straight scoreless starts, a stretch of 45 2/3 innings, fourth-longest in a half century.

It’ll be fascinating to watch the free-agent starters leave the marketplace. Besides Greinke, there’s Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, John Lackey and Hisashi Iwakuma. The Giants are looking for starting pitching after finishing second in the Jon Lester sweepstakes. The Cubs and Red Sox would like more starting pitching. Actually, every team wants more starting pitching, and it’ll be interesting to see where the dollars for Price and Greinke land.

Here are the benchmark pitching contracts:

  • Clayton Kershaw (7 years, $215 million).
  • Max Scherzer (7 years, $210 million).
  • Justin Verlande (7 years, $180 million).
  • Felix Hernandez (7-$175 million).
  • Jon Lester, 6 years, $155 million).

Here are the ages of those five pitchers in the final years of the contract: Kershaw (32), Lester (36), Scherzer (36), Verlander (37), Hernandez (33).

Given that Greinke is already 32 years old, a six-year contract would take him past a point of comfort for many teams. Besides that, the salary will run $30 million a year or more. A five-year deal seems where the final number will land, but the dollars will be huge.

This is also how the thing is supposed to work. He’s at the point in his career where there are no questions. Presuming he stays healthy–and that’s a risk–he as good as there is.

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