The Yankees? Wouldn’t it be something if…

The Yankees are fascinating on a whole bunch of levels. As you probably know, they’ve made a fundamental commitment to doing things a different way.

“I don’t believe we should have to have a $200-million payroll to win the World Series,” owner Hal Steinbrenner said.

This statement does not mean the Yankees won’t spend money. They will. Lots of it. More than almost any other franchise.

For this, they will not apologize.

Nor should they.

But the larger mission is to build a consistently productive player development system and to use big-ticket free agents to fill specific holes.

So last off-season, the Yankees toed a disciplined line. They got younger. They didn’t go crazy in free agency.

However, if they were to contend in 2016, they needed productive seasons from some of their older players.

What did C.C. Sabathia still have in the tank? Carlos Beltran? Jacoby Ellsbury? General manager Brian Cashman did a nice job adding young, athletic guys to his club the last two off-seasons, but those guys weren’t going to carry the load in 2016.

Back when the Yankees were 9-17 and in last place in the American League East, the season seemed to be coming undone.

Since then?

The Yankees have been exactly what they hoped they could be. Since May 6, they’re 22-13 and have climbed back above .500 at 31-30.

They awake this morning over .500 for the first time since they were 4-3 on April 13.

This run is tribute to manager Joe Girardi and his coaches, to the environment they created and to push ahead in a city where, well, the environment can be tough on a losing team.

That’s especially true of the Yankees, who’ve set the bar for winning in professional sports.

Back to the old guys.

At 35, C.C. Sabathia has figured it out. Again. He has regained some of his velocity and all of his command. Mixing in cutters and sinkers and curves with a nice changeup, he has fashioned six of the best weeks of his career.

His .087 ERA is leading the way for a rotation in which Nathan Eovaldi and Ivan Nova are 9-2 during the run.

Let’s be honest. You didn’t think Sabathia had something like this in him, did you? He probably wondered himself.

He has set a high standard for production and professionalism. He has a high pitching aptitude as well.

To see someone make significant adjustments is a tribute to Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild for his guidance. It’s also a tribute to Sabathia’s tenacity and smarts.

And there’s 39-year-old Carlos Beltran.

He’s doing some nice work on a Hall of Fame resume with 12 home runs, 10 doubles, 34 RBIs and a .314 batting average since May 6.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Didi Gregorius, Chase Headley and Brett Gardner are all in the middle of nice runs.

Even Alex Rodriguez, who struggled so mightily early in the season, has gotten it going, hitting .317 this month.

And the Yankees are very much back in the conversation. They’ve gotten within 5 1/2 games of first place in the AL East and within a game of third-place Toronto.

Are the Yankees better than the Orioles and Red Sox? That’s a tough point to argue at the moment.

That’s also a discussion for another time. All that matters now is that the Yankees keep winning and regaining their footing.

There could be reinforcements coming from the minor leagues over the next few weeks, and Cashman is relentless in looking for upgrades outside the organization.

For now, they look like a team capable of making a second straight postseason appearance, and if they get there and have Masahiro Tanaka and Sabathia lined up and Beltran and A-Rod hot and…

Nah, forget about it.

Let’s enjoy the ride and see where it goes.

Old guys rule.

 

2,400 hits will be a reminder of Miguel Cabrera’s greatness

Miguel Cabrera had just been buzzed by a 97-mph fastball from Blue Jays relievers Robert Osuna. He hit the ground hard, got up slowly and took a couple of seconds to collect himself.

He didn’t seem to even glance at Osuna. What he did next speaks volumes about him on so many levels.

He didn’t scream at Osuna. He didn’t charge the mound. Instead, he got even in the ultimate way.

Two pitches after being knocked down,  Cabrera turned another 97-mph fastball into a towering game-tying double off the wall in right-center in the bottom of the ninth inning.

The Tigers rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the bottom of the ninth, then won the game 3-2 in the 10th as part of a run that has them 30-29 and tied with the Royals for second place in the AL Central, three games behind the Indians.

Former Tigers manager Jim Leyland sometimes would scold reporters asking him to compare Cabrera to other players.

“Don’t even try,” he would say or something close.

Leyland wanted us to appreciate that we’re watching one of the best baseball players ever. There just aren’t many worthy of comparison.

Cabrera will step onto the field at Yankee Stadium on Friday with 2,399 career hits, the 124th-most in history.

Here’s the part of that number that’s so striking: At 33 years, 53 days, Cabrera will be the fifth-youngest player to collect 2,400 hits, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Every young player is a Hall of Famer: Ty Cobb (31 years, 177 days), Rogers Hornsby (32 years, 86 days), Hank Aaron (32 years, 198 days) and Robin Yount (33 years, 8 days).

He made his big league debut at 20, and in 14 seasons since, his resume includes 10 All-Star Games, a Triple Crown, two MVPs and five other top five MVP finishes.

He has four batting championships, and his .959 OPS is the 16th-highest of all-time, his .561 slugging 15th. He’s climbing the leaderboard in RBI (58th), doubles (58th), home runs (50th) and a string of other numbers.

There have been times in recent seasons when it was easy to wonder if he could still perform at an elite level.

His performance suffered at times as he attempted to play through a string of injuries. This season, though, he has played in all 59 Tigers games with 12 home runs, 12 doubles and a .904 OPS. He took a 10-game hitting streak into Friday’s game.

He has played in all 59 Tigers games this season and is showing he’s still capable of being one of the game’s elite players.

There’s something special about being able to watch a player that is going to be remembered as one of the best ever.

For this, we are the lucky ones.

 

 

 

 

The Phillies just might be the most interesting team in baseball.

 

 

One question lots of people are asking about the Phillies is whether or not they’re remarkable start is sustainable.

Who cares?

Let’s just enjoy the ride and all its possibilities. There’s no team in baseball more fun to watch than this one.

At 24-17, the Phillies are seven games above .500 for the first time since 2011, their most recent playoff season.

They’re tucked at the top of the NL East standings, a half game behind the first-place Nationals and a full game in front of the third-place Mets.

“Our confidence is through the roof,” catcher Cameron Rupp said.

They’re doing this despite a -28 run differential—seventh-worst in baseball—and an offense that has scored the second-fewest runs in the majors.

Here’s how they’re winning:

1. 14-3 in one-run games. Only the Giants (9-5) have more.

2. Fifth-best rotation ERA (3.72) in the National League.

3. Seventh-best bullpen ERA (3.91).

4. Closer Jeanmar Gomez 16 for 17 in save chances. Right-hander Hector Neris 11 holds.

5. Neris and David Hernandez leading NL relievers in strikeouts—33 and 30. “Give us a lead, we feel like we’re not going to give up a run,” Hernandez said.

6. 13-8 against NL East.

7. Three walk-off victories.

Magic? Yeah, there’s some of that. But winning is winning is winning. Since an 0-4 start, the Phillies are 24-13. Since April 20, they’re 18-8.

They’re making every run count. They’re scored fewer than five runs in 20 of their last 22 games, but gone 15-7.

There’s something so cool about watching a bunch of kids win when almost no one outside of their own clubhouse thinks they’ve got a chance.

This is a reminder that teams who turn their roster over to young players have no idea what will happen.

“It’s crazy, but hey, why not?” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’re playing well. We’re pitching well. We’re playing good defense. We’re getting just enough runs to win. I’ll take it every time.”

Regardless of how this season turns out, the Phillies have so much young talent that their fans have every right to be optimistic.

There was already a feeling that things were headed in the right direction. In last year’s hiring of Andy MacPhail as president of baseball operations, the Phillies handed the keys to one of the game’s most respected and accomplished executives. He methodically put together a smart, innovative front office.

In Mackanin, the Phillies got a manager who is on his way to becoming a star in his own right.

Most nights, Mackanin runs out a lineup with four or five position players 26 or younger: third baseman Maikel Franco (23), left fielder Tyler Goeddel (23), center fielder Odubel Herrera (24), first baseman Tommy Joseph (24) and second baseman Cesar Hernandez (26).

Herrera has evolved into a true star in just his second full major league season. He impacts games in every way possible and has a .901 OPS.

But it’s the pitching that has been a difference maker. In Vincent Velasquez (5-1, 2.42 ERA) and Aaron Nola (3-2, 2.89), 24 and 23, the Phillies have two guys who have a chance to stabilize the rotation for years to come.

Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson is the oldest member of the rotation at 29. He’s 4-2 with a 3.99 ERA and has jump-started his career after three tough seasons with the Rays and Diamondbacks.

Best of all, there’s room for growth, not just with the young guys on the team, but in a farm system about to deliver another wave of talent.

Right-hander Zach Eflin, 22, has a .810 WHIP at Triple-A, and two others, Mark Appel and Jake Thompson, appear to be on the fast track to the big leagues.

And there’s the top prospect in the system, 21-year-old shortstop J.P. Crawford, who has a .760 OPS at Double-A.

Baseball is a relentlessly cruel sport, with a season long enough to expose every weakness. But teams like the Phillies, who keep on winning, something is revealed there as well.

“We believe that we belong here,” Rupp said. “We have 25 guys in this clubhouse who believe we can win. I think it’s shown.”

It’s starting to feel like one of those years for the SF Giants, isn’t it?

 

When the San Francisco Giants are on a roll like this, almost everyone in baseball seems to be struck by the same thought.

Uh oh, here they come.

That’s what happens when a franchise wins the World Series three times in six seasons—2010, 2012, 2014.

The Giants didn’t even make the postseason in 2011, 2013 and 2015. That’s the strange part of this deal.

In the last five seasons, seven teams have won more regular-season games than the Giants. The Cardinals (396) have 30 more victories than the Giants (366).

In the postseason, though, the Giants are 23-10 (.697). The Royals (22-9, .710) have a slightly higher winning percentage.

That’s a tribute to an organization that gets it on every level, beginning with team president Larry Baer and his top baseball executive, Brian Sabean.

These men are the gold standards for doing things right in baseball, whether it’s the environment at AT&T Park or constructing a winning club.

And there’s that manager, Bruce Bochy, who has 1,726 regular-season victories–16th on the all-time list–and three championships.

There are 22 managers in the Hall of Fame. Bochy will be there shortly after he decides he has had enough.

In terms of communication, getting a cohesive effort and managing a bullpen, there surely has never been anyone better.

Bochy would be the first to tell you that having players like Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, that being part of an organization that produces Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, etc., have been critical to his success.

During Spring Training, he marveled at the way his players welcomed new players into their clubhouse, how all that mattered was the bottom line, that is, playing smart and winning.

Most nights, the Giants are the only team on the planet that runs out a lineup with an entirely homegrown infield: 3B Matt Duffy, SS Crawford, 2B Joe Panik, 1B Belt and C Posey.

“They have such pride in wearing the Giants uniform,” Bochy said.

Those of us on the outside never really understand this sort of thing. Some discount it completely.

I once asked Jack Morris if we made too much of chemistry and teamwork and that stuff.

“I think you make too little of it,” he said.

There were plenty of questions about these Giants. Even after a $251-million spending spree for Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span, there were unknowns:

1. What did Matt Cain have left in the tank? In the previous two seasons, he’d made just 26 starts with a 4.83 ERA.

Could he come close to being the guy who was 55-35 with a 2.93 ERA between 2009 and 2012? In those four seasons, he was a monster, averaging 220 innings and 180 strikeouts.

2. Would a reconfigured bullpen be as good as the one that was so good in the championship years?

3. Finally, could Bumgarner, Posey, Hunter Pence, etc., continue to play at a championship level as they got older?

So far, so good.

The Giants just won their sixth straight road game and today can complete a 7-0 trip for the first time in 103 years.

Since finishing the last home stand with a walk-off victory over the Blue Jays, the Giants are 7-0. In this time, the starting rotation is 4-0 with a 1.37 ERA.

Cain has allowed three earned runs in 15 innings in his last two starts. Cueto and Bumgarner just pitched the franchise’s first back-to-back complete games in 14 years.

Meanwhile, the bullpen has done fine, going 3-0 with a 3.14 ERA.

Offensively, the Giants are hitting just .237 during the winning streak, but with that kind of pitching, it hasn’t mattered.

The Giants have gained three games in the NL West standings during the winning streak, going from one game out to a 2 1/2-game lead.

The Dodgers and Rockies are both 2 1/2 back. The Dodgers have had a remarkable first half considering all the injuries, and the Rockies may have enough young pitching to hang around.

When the Giants are done with the Padres tonight, they’ll return to AT&T Park for a weekend series against the Cubs.

The place will be packed, but then it always is. The crowds will be loud, but they always are.

It’ll be a good checkpoint to see what the team who is playing the best at the moment can do with the team that has the best record in the majors.

But the way things are going, we might just see a lot more Giants-Cubs this season, and won’t that be fun?

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

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