Speaking of very good off-seasons, the Angels have had one.

Angels GM Jerry Dipoto has had himself a very nice off-season, one in which he positioned his team both to win in 2015 and also to sustain the winning in the years ahead. He’ll also begin the season with payroll flexibility to make more additions. So while the Angels didn’t make a lot of huge headlines, they did put themselves in a good place going forward.

In looking at the 2015 Angels, it’s about Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton. It’s about Albert Pujols staying healthy and Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker continuing the progress they made in 2014. When a team won 98 times the year before, goals and expectations are high.

The Angels and Mariners will be almost unanimous picks to finish first and second (in some order) in the AL West. In keeping his team competitive, DiPoto also positioned them for the years ahead. He added two highly touted young starting pitchers in Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano. He added a young third baseman in Kyle Kubitza and set up a nice little spring competition for the second base man with Josh Rutledge, Grant Green, Johnny Giovotella and Taylor Featherstone. He also acquired an everyday designated hitter in Matt Joyce.

It’s interesting to farm system assessment. In recent years, the Angels have been near the bottom. But in that time, they’ve gotten a steady stream of contributions from their minor leagues, from Mike Trout and Garrett Richards to Matt Shoemaker, Cam Bedrosian and Kole Calhoun.

As Dipoto looked ahead, though, he saw a thin system. But Tropeano and Heaney provide depth and an eventual transition with C.J. Wilson and Weaver unsigned after 2016. And with third baseman David Freese entering the final year of his contract, Kubitza could provide a smooth transition there as well.

Dallas Keuchel might be the AL’s best pitcher. He’s certainly a slam-dunk All-Star.

Astros manager Bo Porter used his post-game news conference on Wednesday to lobby for his ace left-hander, Dallas Keuchel, to be part of the American League All-Star team.

Come on, Bo, give us something harder. Challenge us, Bo. How about asking for hot summers and big mosquitos in Houston? Hey, that’s a good one, Bo. Good barbecue in Austin? There you go, Bo.

Or how about asking Keuchel to show us how he can still call the Hogs five years after he pitched his last game for the University of Arkansas? Here’s betting he can still do it.

That’s because Dallas Keuchel is about as close to a slam dunk as the American League All-Stars will have this summer. There’s just no way Red Sox manager John Farrell can draw up his roster without inviting Keuchel.

And that would be a kick in the pants on so many levels.

One of the best things about baseball’s Mid-Summer Classic are the stories like this. Guys who’ve had to fight and claw for everything they’ve gotten. Guys who’ve dealt with some failure and who simply kept working and kept figuring things out. Guys who believed in themselves when plenty of others had to be a bit shaky.

That’s Dallas Keuchel.

First, he may be the American League’s best starting pitcher in 2014. At the very least, he’s on the short list.

He’s No. 1 in Wins Above Replacement among AL pitchers, according to BaseballReference.com. His WHIP is a dazzling 0.99, third-best in the AL, behind only Masahiro Tanaka (0.94) and Scott Kazmir (0.98).

His name is dotted across the leader board in other places as well: fifth in ERA (2.38), fifth in batting average (.220), eighth in innings (90 2/3).

He has been a huge part of the renaissance of the Astros. George Springer and Jon Singleton are the faces of the franchise because they represent the beginning of a new era for the club.

But the Astros are being led by their starting pitching. They’ve been really good lately, winning 13 of 18.

But they’ve been competitive for awhile. Since April 21–and this is no small sample size–they’re 25-23. In that time, their rotation is 20-17 with a 3.66 ERA. Only the A’s and Angels have gotten better starting pitching int his stretch.

So it’s not just Keuchel. It’s Collin McHugh and Jarred Cosart and Scott Feldman and others. Slowly, methodically, the Astros are getting it right.

Back to Keuchel.

He began this season having started 38 big league games. He had a 9-18 record, a 5.20 ERA and a 1.540 WHIP.

Keuchel, 26, probably is going to look back and see those 38 starts, especially the 22 he got last season, as huge in his development.

Because the Astros didn’t have better alternatives, they kept running him out there. And like a lot of other guys, he gradually began to figure things out.

He’s exactly the kind of guy Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow hoped to find as he rebuilt the franchise. In constantly shuffling the roster, Luhnow got a good look at all the talent in the organization–and plenty from outside the organization.

As Porter would say, “We give guys a shot. If it doesn’t work out, we move on to the next guy.”

The Astros were not burdened by contracts or expectations. They simply ran what amounted to a tryout camp.

With this freedom, Keuchel figured himself out. He dropped a bad curveball and added what has become a very good slider.

He polished his change-up and got better command of his fastball. As he had more success–as the slider began to get swings and misses–his change-up became better, too.

Suddenly, he was taking a very impressive arsenal to the mound. In keeping the ball down, he’s getting a ton of ground balls. He’s missing bats and throwing strikes. In short, he’s the real deal.

When he allowed the Diamondbacks one run in eight innings on Wednesday, they paid him the ultimate compliment. They said he was no longer a surprise. They said they knew what to expect, but that he simply had executed his game plan, never giving them a chance.

Keuchel is a reminder for all of us that young players require patience, that they don’t all advance at the same speed and that, in the end, they don’t all figure it out. Keuchel has figured it out dramatically and emphatically.

Only Mark Buehrle and Tanaka have more quality starts this season. The Astros are 9-4 in Keuchel’s 13 starts. His is a victory for tenacity and confidence. His is also a victory for an entire organization, for all the people who worked with him and encouraged him since he was the 221st player taken in the 2009 draft.

He’s the kind of guy that could use the All-Star Game’s stage to tell his story, to talk of perseverance and hard work. Isn’t that what the All-Star Game is all about? He’s also deserving of the honor. Slam-dunk deserving.


George Springer hits another one, and the Astros are doing a really good imitation of a good team.

The Astros aren’t winning just because of George Springer. GM Jeff Luhnow has constructed an airtight bullpen. Dallas Keuchel has led a solid string of starts by the rotation. Jose Altuve is playing his way right on to the American League All-Star Team. Dexter Fowler has been very good as well.

Successful teams are living, breathing organisms. It’s not one thing. It’s a hundred. When things are clicking the way they are with the Astros right now, it feels like the club will never lose again.

After all the losing in recent years, a six-game winning streak feels like 20. Almost everyone–club employees, security guards, coaches–had an extra spring in their step at Minute Maid Park on Thursday. Winning does that to an organization.

And while Altuve has been tremendous and Fowler and Keuchel and others have done their jobs well, everything begins with Springer, who homered for the seventh time in seven games in a 3-1 victory over the Orioles.

He does more than make the Astros a better team. Actually, he makes every player better. He impacts the guys in front of him, and the guys behind him as well. He’s just 24 years old and has had fewer than 200 at-bats. There’ll be some tough days ahead.

But that’s just the beginning. He’s a guy Bo Porter can build his lineup around. He’s also the guy Jim Crane can construct his franchise around.

Springer is smart and personable and charismatic. Springer exudes charm. He’s also athletic and has a flair in how he does almost everything.

Isn’t it amazing how much difference one guy can make? Not just on the field, either. Fans look at the club differently. Players suddenly have a little extra spring in their step. Do you think Bo Porter might be sleeping a bit better. Oh, you betcha.

When Jim Crane bought the Astros in 2011, he said he was going to do it this way. He was going to give Luhnow the freedom to tear it down and built it back up. In doing so, there would be some serious short-term suffering. Once the Minor League system was rebuilt, though, the Astros might have something that would last.

Maybe we’re closing in on that moment. The Astros are 14-13 this month. First baseman Jonathan Singleton, who has 14 home runs at Triple-A, is in the on-beck circle. Carlos Correa and Mark Appel could be competing for jobs next spring.

Two years ago when the Orioles made their first playoff appearance in 15 years, they used 52 players. They could do this because they had so few contract obligations. Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette treated their team like it was a 50-man roster, shuffling players here and there.

In doing so, they had the freedom to keep searching for the right combination. That’s how it has been with the Astros the last few years. Luhnow has shuffled players on and off his roster at all, looking for guys good enough to stick around when the club got good again.

How good are they? Who knows?

All that’s clear is that there has been progress made, and that the club Porter is running on the field at Minute Maid Park these days is both entertaining and competitive.

In defense of Astros GM Jeff Luhnow.

Let me say right up front that Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and his staff don’t need me defending what they’re doing or how they’re doing it. Lord knows, they can do their own heavy lifting.

That’s also the beauty of this thing. Ultimately, they’ll be judged on how many games they win. Evaluations couldn’t be simpler. Jeff knows and accepts this.

He was hired by Astros owner Jim Crane to rebuild the Astros. This he is doing. He’s also doing it exactly the way he said he would do it. If things work out as planned, there’ll be a steady supply of talent flowing onto the big league roster for the foreseeable future.

At the moment, things are changing and quickly. Luhnow has shuffled the roster freely these last few years in search of players good enough to stick around after the Astros have turned a corner.

The Astros may not be far from turning that corner. They’re 13-13 in May with George Springer, Jose Altuve, Dexter Fowler, Dallas Keuchel, Chad Qualls, Matt Dominguez and others leading the way.

At the moment, their bullpen is as good as any in baseball, and Springer, Altuve, etc., have ignited the offense. Likewise, the rotation has been solid.

Will there be more bumps in the road? Of course there will. That’s part of the deal.

Baseball’s seasons last for six months, and along the way, every weakness—and every strength—is exposed.

There was a time when it was impossible to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Now, though, Springer symbolizes what may be ahead.

By Opening Day 2015, the Astros could have Carlos Correa at shortstop, Jon Singleton at first and Mark Appel in the rotation.

There’s other talent coming as well, including the No. 1 overall pick in next week’s draft. Enjoy that one, fellas.

The Astros are the first franchise to pick first three straight years, but they’re not likely to have it again for a long, long time. At least that’s the plan.

Anyway, the Houston Chronicle published a story that contained comments critical of Luhnow and his staff regarding their use of advanced analytics.

Based on an assortment of quotes, some of them anonymous, Luhnow is guilty of seeing players as numbers rather than people. In other words, he seems more concerned with constructing a winning team than fretting about his players’ feelings. I’m simplifying the argument, but you get the picture.

Here’s my problem with the criticism. In the end, advanced analytics is about gathering as much information about players as possible and then getting as many good players as you can afford or acquire based on that information. This is what baseball teams have done since the beginning. Numbers have always been important. Numbers were less sophisticated 50 years ago, but they were nevertheless important.

Back then, numbers could not evaluate base running, defense, arm strength and a dozen other little things. Now, there are numbers that attempt to do that. Are they infallible? They are not. Are they insightful? They absolutely are.

Some people in baseball think numbers have devalued the importance of a manager. Wrong. If a manager is smart, he’ll devour the information his front office supplies in terms of defensive alignments, pitching match ups, lineups, etc. What can’t be replaced is the human touch.

Joe Maddon isn’t the best manager in baseball because his front office supplies him with the most cutting edge data. That data helps Maddon do his job, but he’s the best there is because of the human touch he has with players. He has the ability to get players to buy into the whole program.

Sometimes that means batting first, fifth or ninth. Sometimes it means not playing at all. But Maddon’s simple philosophy is that all we’re trying to do is what’s best for the Rays. Because he’s so honest and so decent and so instantly likable, his players believe in him.

He’s a huge reason the Rays are now one of the places players from 29 other teams want to play. Oakland is like that, too, for many of the same reasons. It’s all about the environment.

Okay, back to the numbers. Branch Rickey used ‘em. Pat Gillick used ‘em. Numbers were different back then and less complicated than the ones Billy Beane, Brian Sabean and Andrew Friedman use now, but they were part of the decision-making process.

Roster building is as much an art as a science, so there are considerations to clubhouse atmosphere and getting along and all that. But numbers were a big factor in decisions.

Rickey was cold, calculating and brilliant. He did what was best for the club he was running at the time.

Did he hurt some feelings along the way? He did.

If any of these people think Luhnow is cold, they should go talk to the players who were forced to go in and negotiate a new contract with Rickey.

At times, they’d go in expecting a raise and leave thankful he was going to let them back on the team another year.

In other words, he did what he thought was right for winning as many games as possible. That was his one and only consideration.

I don’t know that I’d want a general manager to think another way. Would you want a GM who kept a player because he was a nice guy? Don’t players collect all the available data when they negotiate a new deal?

It’s just that with analytics there are more and better ways to evaluate players, managers, etc., than ever before. Virtually every team has an analytics department because they at least want to hear those opinions. If they don’t avail themselves of every scrap of information, they’re unlikely to have their jobs for very long.

Nor should they.

As Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey said a couple of years ago, “We don’t know yet if this deal will work in basketball. But it’s been proven in baseball. If a GM doesn’t use it, he’s not going to have his job for very long.”

A couple of weeks later, Morey had a guest on draft night: Rays GM Andrew Friedman.

He’s among the best in his sport, and he stopped by to see if Morey’s NBA evaluations might offer him something he could use to make the Rays better. That’s what the good ones do. They look and listen. They’re curious. They also at times have to make decisions based on numbers rather than personal feelings.

This same thing happens in every industry. Robert McNamara used all the data he could find when he ran Ford and the Pentagon.

There’s a reason Beane doesn’t travel with the A’s or allow himself to get too close to his players. He wants to be able to make the best assessment of what’s right for the A’s.

If he hung around the clubhouse and made friends, there surely would come a time when his personal feelings for a player would intersect with what’s best for the team.

Is this cold?

Of course, it is. That’s why they keep score. That’s why they evaluate people like him by how many games they win.

When do teams get into trouble? Answer: When they allow personal feelings to distort the decision-making process.

Baseball’s best organizations assign a value to each player. And if somewhere down the road that means walking away from that player, so be it.

That’s what the Cardinals did with Albert Pujols, the Yankees with Robinson Cano and the Rangers with Josh Hamilton.

Each of us can decide whether they made the right decision. Clubs get into trouble when they allow emotion—or talk radio—to dictate decisions.

No club ever loved a player more than the Cardinals loved Albert Pujols. But in the broad view of winning, they believed they would have a competitive team—and more flexibility—by not making a $254-million commitment.

Advanced analytics—Moneyball—has changed baseball in ways we’re all trying to grasp. For one obvious thing, standings are no longer dictated by payroll size.

Smarts count, too, more than ever before. In that way, Beane has changed the game forever.

If there’s a place in Cooperstown for people who’ve changed baseball in dramatic, positive and earth-shaking ways, Beane will someday get his plaque.

There’s data on everything from the impact of base running to outfield throws to defensive positioning to how to line up hitters in the batting order. You can argue about whether you agree with the assessment. You can choose to believe that the past does not predict the future. In fact, there are people who do exactly that.

One analyst said a team should always bat his best hitter second or fourth, not third, as has been previously thought. In fact, he said that the No. 3 spot in the order was for the fourth- or fifth-best hitter.

His manager isn’t quite onboard with that advice, but he’s working to get there. Incidentally, this team is in first place and has championship hardware. How’s that for a hint?

There’s another word for analytics: facts.

In the end, that’s what we’re talking about. If Luhnow’s staff notices opposing hitters are batting .088 on Collin McHugh’s curveball, isn’t that information that should be passed to the coaching staff?

THAT’S what analytics is all about. It’s about positioning, about exploiting strengths and attacking weaknesses.

Just because it’s a former NASA employee running the math models is irrelevant.

In fact, Moneyball has changed dramatically since the book was published in 2004. Every team is in an arms race to develop better ways of doing things.

One of the challenges Luhnow has wrestled with is how much information to pass on to the players. He wants the players and coaches to have the best available information, but he doesn’t want to overload them, either.

For instance, the Houston Rockets do a 50-page (or so) scouting report on each game. But the cover page is a summary, and for most of the players, that’s what they’ll consume.

(Shane Battier read all 50 pages. He sometimes would tell an opposing player where he’s supposed to go on a certain play. He said that was an old Coach K. trick to get in an opponent’s head. But I digress.)

As for the rest, that’s up to Kevin McHale and his staff to decide how much they want. If he chooses to know where Chandler Parsons should be getting the ball on the perimeter based on where he’s had the most success, it’s available. If he doesn’t, if he wants to follow his gut, go for it, big fella.

There was a baseball general manager who asked his manager about a certain decision he’d made regarding that night’s lineup.

The manager said he liked the matchup of right-handed power hitting versus right-handed power pitching. He knew it gave his team an advantage.

“Smart,” the general manager said, then added, “Did you look it up?”

No, he hadn’t.

The general manager went through his team’s data bank and found that everything the manager had said was factually wrong.

The GM was steamed. He told the manager that when NASA is bringing the shuttle back, it doesn’t push, say, the green button on a hunch.

Rather, it collects as much data as it can collect and makes a decision based on facts.

In the end, that’s what advanced analytics is all about. In the end, it IS about the numbers.

But it always has been.

For good teams, that never changes.

It’s that way for players, too. They don’t make salary requests in a vacuum. They collect information to support their case. They do comparables. In other words, they’re doing exactly what teams do.

In this way, the baseball world has changed. The Astros are all in, and in the end, it’s the standings that are likely to tell us whether they were right or wrong. Luhnow has had the freedom to bring players in and out, to keep trying combinations and to look at all his various theories.

This may be the end of the beginning, but it’s still just a beginning. If Luhnow is correct about the people he has hired, the Astros are going to keep finding newer and smarter ways to make decisions. I’m guessing these last two-plus years have been an amazingly fun ride for him.

He has had the kind of opportunity that every baseball man dreams of having. He has long had certain ways he thought things should be done, and Crane appears to have allowed him to enact them.

Yes, numbers drive many of the decisions. On the other hand, numbers have always driven most baseball decisions. It’s just that the numbers are different now.

Luhnow got the job in Houston because he performed brilliantly in St. Louis. At the moment, he appears to be doing the same in Houston.

I’m not counting the Rangers out yet.

The Texas Rangers are about to become a case study in how an organization reacts to the toughest times. Here’s betting we’re reminded that they are a great franchise–deep and resilient and talented.

Can they still win the American League West? At a time when they’ve been absolutely crushed by injuries–”startling” is the word general manager Jon Daniels uses to describe the number–it would be silly to think they could finish in front of the Oakland A’s. They’re probably not better than the Angels or Mariners, either.

On the other hand, who knows who things will look three months from now? Daniels has constructed a baseball operation built to last, an organization respected throughout the game for its excellence.

The Rangers have averaged 93 wins the last four seasons. In that stretch, they’ve been to the World Series twice, the American League Wild Card game once and forced a 163rd game playoff with the Rays once.

And there’s not a better baseball area than Dallas-Fort Worth. The Rangers have drawn an average of 3.1 million fans the last three seasons, and local television and radio ratings have soared.

All that success breeds organizational confidence, and manager Ron Washington is a huge part of the equation. As the clubhouse has transitioned from Michael Young’s team to Adrian Beltre’s, as players have come and gone, Washington has been able to keep the group focused on a common goal.

No matter how many injuries have, the Rangers will continue to compete hard and be professional. This is the kind of thing that sounds hokey, but as players come and go and as youngsters get their chance, clubs can be dramatically transformed in a short period of time.

For core players like Beltre and Elvis Andrus and Colby Lewis, their relentless approach to preparation and professionalism is more important than ever. There’s a dynamic in clubhouses that have developed a winning culture. The collective ego of the group believes it can withstand any losses because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

That’s important as the Rangers hand the ball to starting pitchers they never envisioned being in their 2014 plans. For instance, 23-year-old right-hander Nick Martinez.

They envisioned him being one of the anchors of their rotation for a long time. They just never imagined they would be leaning on him in 2014. And they’ve got a slew of other kids in their system–Luke Jackson and Alec Asher and Alex Gonzalez–who could end up being critical a year or two before they were scheduled to arrive.

This wasn’t the original blueprint. But Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz haven’t pitched an inning in the big leagues this season. Matt Harrison and Martin Perez probably won’t pitch another. That’s four guys Daniels had penciled into his rotation behind Yu Darvish.

Instead, the Rangers have had to turn relievers into starters and scramble to find solutions. As a result, Texas starters have a 4.60 ERA. Only two teams have been worse.

And that’s only part of the story.

Beltre is just back from a stint on the Disabled List. Second baseman Jurickson Profar has spent the season on the DL. First baseman Prince Fielder, a big-ticket off-season acquisition, has just three home runs.

So here’s how the Rangers go to the postseason for the fourth time in five years. First, their stars must perform like stars. Darvish, Beltre, Andrus, Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo have to do the things they were supposed to do.

Holland has to contribute in the second half of the season, and indications are that he will. Lewis must continue his remarkable recovery from hip surgery. And then some of the kids–Martinez, Nick Tepesch, etc.–must take advantage of the opportunity. If, say, Tanner Scheppers or Neftali Feliz can return and pitch at a high level, the Rangers have a decent chance to make a run in the second half.

Daniels has channeled resources and manpower into hiring first-rate scouts, coaches and instructors to allow the Rangers to sustain their success. This is one of those seasons when everything he has worked toward will be tested. Here’s betting it passes with flying colors.


Berkman announces retirement

Lance Berkman’s has decided to retire, he told MLB.com Wednesday afternoon.

“It doesn’t make sense to play in the physical condition I’m in,” he said.

He has had continuing problems with his right knee, the same injury that limited him to 73 games for the Rangers last season.

“I’m not going to keep trying to run out there for the heck of it,” he said.

During his 15-year career, he made the National League All-Star Team six times and was a member of five playoff teams, including the 2011 Cardinals, who won the World Series.

He had toyed with the idea of attempting to play a 16th season, but came to the conclusion that his 37-year-old body wouldn’t allow him to.

“I think I’m actually glad about it,” he said. “I’m excited about the next chapter in my life. I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family, and at some point, I’ll definitely coach somewhere.”

His legacy will be that he was one of the best offensive players in the game for a long stretch of his career. During his first 12 seasons, including 10-plus with the Astros, he averaged 30 home runs, 34 doubles, 95 walks and had a .410 on-base percentage and a .958 on-base-plus-slugging.

His .9429 OPS is the 26th-highest in history among players with at least 500 games. It’s higher even than Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

He was also one of the most popular players on every club on which he played, including that 2011 Cardinals team.

That 2011 season fulfilled his dream of playing for a champ. He came close in 2005 when the Astros won the National League pennant, but were swept by the White Sox in the World Series.

He was traded to the Yankees at the trade deadline in 2010 and signed with the Cardinals the following year. He fell in love with both the team and the team, and when the Cardinals won the World Series that year, he uttered this memorable quote:

“The emotions are overwhelming. I can’t even begin to describe. It’s one of those things you’ve thought about for so long, and then when it happens, it hits you harder than you ever imagined.”

That was the final high point of his career. He played just 105 games the next two seasons, spending 2012 with the Cardinals and 2013 with the Rangers.

“I’ve had a great career,” he said. “I did everything anyone could have set out to do. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.”

With Tim Hudson gone and Brian McCann probably out the door, what happens to the Braves?

Tim Hudson is a reminder that prices are going up. Baseball teams have money to spend, and with a thin free agent market and at least 20 clubs thinking they’ve got a chance to win the World Series in 2014, it’s a great off-season to be a free agent.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann are going to get very, very rich, but Marlon Byrd did just fine for himself as well. This is the way the system is supposed to work.

If you’re Braves GM Frank Wren this morning, what are you thinking? You probably had Hudson penciled in for $9 million in 2014. Instead, he got $23 million over two years from the Giants.

Wren simply could not go there, and so he’s left with a hole in his rotation. At 38, Hudson was still good for 25-30 starts and 175-200 quality innings.

He’s also a great teammate, a great influence on all those young guys. On the other hand, this could be one of those moments that show off what a great organization the Braves have.

Here’s the Braves rotation in the wake of Hudson’s departure:

  • Mike Minor.
  • Kris Medlen.
  • Julio Teheran.
  • Brandon Beachy.
  • Alex Wood or David Hale.

Not bad, huh? Yes, there are questions. Beachy has made five starts since recovering from Tommy John surgery. He appears to be good to go, but there are questions. Wood has made 11 big league starts, Hale two.

Because the Braves don’t have unlimited resources, they have to build a great top-to-bottom organization, and that’s what Wren has done.

Atlanta was one of baseball’s three youngest teams in 2013. Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman were all 23 on Opening Day. Craig Kimbrel was 25.

Now it’s McCann’s turn. He’s one of the most sought-after players on the market and could be gone, too.

If you look at the Braves from a certain angle, you can convince yourself they’re good enough to hang with the Nationals in the NL East.

They still have baseball’s best bullpen and a front of the rotation that could be tremendous. In Freeman, Simmons and Heyward, they have three of the National League’s best players. If B.J. Upton can get his career back on track, if Justin Upton has a productive year, the Braves could have a dynamic offense.

But there are questions at second, where Dan Uggla has worked furiously to get his swing back. And there are questions in the rotation and behind the plate.

Wren will then have to decide if Evan Gattis can handle the everyday catching duties. In the end, Wren will figure something out.

And the Braves move on. They’ll be fine.

So the Phillies are keeping the band together. What’s wrong with that?

Revisionist history says the Phillies made terrible decisions in giving all these longterm commitments to Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, etc.

This is just silly. What were they supposed to do with these guys? Walk away from them? Allow Ryan Howard to leave via free agency?

This group of players has transformed the Phillies from a losing franchise to one of the best in baseball. Between 1984 and 2006, the Phillies went to the postseason one time.

And then this group arrived and took them to the playoffs five years in a row, won the National League pennant twice and won the World Series in 2008.

Along the way, the franchise became monstrously successful. Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004, and 3 million became the norm. The Phillies led the NL in attendance three straight years.

So what did the Phillies do? They made a commitment to keeping the band together as long as possible. In a perfect world, their farm system would be supplying a pipeline of talent, but that’s another story.

With an older roster, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has done whatever he can to patch together one more run. That’s why Marlon Byrd makes sense. That’s also why Carlos Ruiz makes sense.

Yes, he may have overpaid for both players. If he stood around and waited for the market to settle, he probably could have found bargains in January or February.

But he was comfortable with Byrd and Ruiz. He thought they fit into his clubhouse. The Phillies did get younger last year as Domonic Brown made the National League All-Star team and Cody Asche and Freddy Galvis contributed.

But they’re built around Howard, Utley, Rollins, Hamel, Cliff Lee, etc. They’re going to go as far as those guys take them. If they’re all still productive, the Phillies have a chance to be a factor in a division in which the Nationals and Braves appear to be a cut above every other team.

To second guess Amaro is great fun. It’s part of the deal. Having spent his life in this game, he understands how it works.

He’s believed to be in the last year of his contract, so he probably feels some pressure to get the Phillies back on track. Now he has his manager, Ryne Sandberg, in place, and is getting closer to having a roster he believes in.

Again, it comes down to those familiar names being what they once more. In the end, that’s what matters, and it’s those guys who’ll either decide whether the Byrd and Ruiz signings pay off.

Red Sox did it the right way and have a trophy to prove it.

Until the moment the World Series was won on Wednesday night, the Red Sox were focused only on the job at hand. One pitch at a time. One inning at a time. Et cetera.

“Whatever the task is in front of us, that’s the one we address,” manager John Farrell said earlier in the week.

His players did a splendid job of thinking small, so in these last few days, as they approached another championship, they simply wouldn’t allow themselves to think about what it all meant.

“You know what we’re concerned with?” Dustin Pedroia asked after the Red Sox won the American League pennant. “That would be the first pitch of the next game.”

He paused for emphasis.

“Nothing else.”

Pedroia’s point was that there would be plenty of time to consider legacies and the team’s place in the history books in the weeks and months ahead. First they wanted to finish the deal.

Even when they clinched a playoff berth, even when they won the AL, there were no crazy celebrations.

There was always another mountain to climb. The players’ message to the world — and to one another — was that there was always another threshold to cross.
Most World Series titles
Rank    Team    Last    Total
1.      Yankees 2009    27
2.      Cardinals       2011    11
3.      Athletics       1989    9
4.      Red Sox 2013    8
5.      Giants  2012    7
6.      Dodgers 1988    6
7. (tie)        Reds    1990    5
7. (tie)        Pirates 1979    5

Now it’s done. A season that began with the Red Sox widely picked to finish last in the AL East ended with a 6-1 victory in the World Series-clinching Game 6 at Fenway Park.

Right fielder Shane Victorino slapped a three-run double off the Green Monster in the bottom of the third inning to get the Red Sox rolling. Boston added three runs in the fourth, and that was pretty much that.

David Ortiz was named the World Series Most Valuable Player after reaching base four more times, all on walks, as the Cardinals finally decided to stop giving him pitches to hit.

And right-hander John Lackey, who won Game 7 for the Angels 11 years ago, when he was a 23-year-old rookie, was tremendous in another clincher, allowing one run in 6 2/3 innings.

When the game ended, the emotions of a season that began nine months ago in Fort Myers, Fla., were unleashed in a torrent of bear hugs, laughter and accomplishment. In this era of unprecedented parity in baseball, Boston is the closest thing to a dynasty, having won the World Series three times in the last 10 seasons.

Remember when they were the team that couldn’t quite get over the hump? Remember the bitter disappointments of 1967, ’75 and ’86?

Now they’re the franchise that is operated shrewdly, managed brilliantly and fueled by such old-fashioned values as hard work and unselfishness.

They are cursed no more. This championship was different from those of 2004 and ’07 because it was won in their 101-year-old cathedral in front of a raucous home crowd.

This one was also different because it was so improbable. Who remembers that the Red Sox lost 93 games last season?

No general manager had a better offseason than Ben Cherington.

In a rush of signings, Cherington brought in seven free agents. None of them would be considered stars. None of them got really big money.

Cherington wanted players who had reputations for being good clubhouse guys. He wanted players who understand that playing for the Red Sox is a unique experience — that is, expectations are high, and players are held accountable.

Cherington was methodical, adding a Shane Victorino one day, a Jonny Gomes the next. Mike Napoli signed on, too. And so did David Ross, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara and Stephen Drew.

Everything clicked. The same things drove these players. They loved to work, and they cared for one another. Though the Red Sox got their star power from familiar names — Ortiz and Pedroia and Jon Lester — they were fueled by all of them. They improved by 28 games, led the Majors in runs and spent 164 days in first place. In short, they were pretty much a perfect hardball team.

It was hokey at times hearing the things they said about one another. It was magical, too.

“We love each other,” Napoli said. “We don’t just hang out while we’re here. We hang out off the field. Our families get together. It’s a group that’s so tight. We play for each other. No one is selfish on this team. We play for one another.”

The Rangers hang in there another day, four straight wins and hope

Maybe the Astros came to town at just the right time to save the Rangers. Speaking of the Astros, this is the two-week anniversary of their last victory.  During this little 0-12 run, they’ve been outscored 69-19.

The Reds, Indians and Rangers all swept ‘em at a time when all three teams needed victories. The Rangers were hanging by a thread when the Astros came to town on Monday. They got the sweep, and then kept going with a Jurickson Profar walk-off home run to beat the Angels on Thursday.

So they begin this final weekend of the season trailing the Rays by two games and the Indians by one. The Rays and Indians are on the road in Toronto and Minneapolis for their final series while the Rangers have three more against the Angels. The Rays and Indians begin the day with seven-game winning streaks.


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