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.

Now the whole country is finding out that these Astros are the real deal

One of the coolest things about seeing the Houston Astros on baseball’s biggest stage is that millions of others are discovering what those of us in Houston already knew.

These Astros are the real deal.

Yes, that energy is real. Yes, that enthusiasm is real. That talent is real, too.

In George Springer and Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, the Astros have players who are going to be stars for years to come. In Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus and a long list of others, the Astros have solid contributors.

Here’s how baseball people pay a player one of their ultimate compliments: They say a guy could be a contributor on a winning team. That’s Jason Castro and Chris Carter and Jake Marisnick and a whole bunch of others.

Marisnick may just stand head and shoulders above the others as an example of why Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and his staff are smarter than a lot of others.

The Astros do not know how much Marisnick will hit. They think he has a chance to hit, but they aren’t sure. However, from the moment they acquired him from the Marlins in the Jarred Cosart deal, the Astros believed his defense and base running would be so good that they could accept a little less offense.

In other words, they saw a greater whole than simply offense or batting average. They saw a guy capable of impacting games in a variety of ways.

And all those ways contribute to winning.

Anyway, the Astros aren’t a surprise anymore. Nor are they a fluke. Baseball’s landscape has changed so dramatically that the key thing is to be playing well at the right time of the year.

The Astros recovered from a terrible slide to win six of their final eight games of the regular season. Now they’re 2-0 in the postseason after victories over the Yankees and Royals.

They’ve got miles to go.

But with every victory, they become a bit more dangerous. This isn’t about confidence. When a team has won as much as the Astros have over the last six months, that confidence is there.

A.J. Hinch nursed it along brilliantly, first in Spring Training, later in the opening two months of the regular season. He simply refused to let other people’s expectations matter.

When a team spends 139 days in first place, there’s an inner-confidence that grows among the group. That’s what the Astros have.

Those five rookies aren’t seeing the world for the first time. They’re now comfortable. They now know that they belong.

Collin McHugh is another great example. The Astros got him on waivers. They saw him as a guy who could change speeds, command the strike zone and win.

If others focused on the fact that he didn’t throw 99 mph, that was their problem. In terms of pitching variables–velocity, location, movement–McHugh has two of three.

If the Astros get what they think they’re going to get from Scott Kazmir in Game 2, the baseball world may feel as if it’s been turned on its head.

McHugh gave the Astros six solid innings, and then four relievers finished up. Now the pressure is squarely on the Royals to win Game 2.

Otherwise, they’re facing an elimination game in Houston on Sunday. Dallas Keuchel will put his 15-0 home record on the line in that one.

The Astros went through so many peaks and valleys during the season, and they barely made the playoffs. But Hinch did a masterful job keeping them focused in one direction.

Near the end of the season, there were good signs. Springer was hitting. The bullpen was getting outs again. Jose Altuve was Jose Altuve. Chris Carter was hot, too.

Luhnow has done a fabulous job constructing this roster. Maybe the Astros have arrived a year ahead of time. Luhnow doesn’t agree with that, but still.

The Astros are a confident group at the moment. They’re young and talented, too. That’s a good combination to have in October.

The Cardinals represent excellence and a commitment to doing things right

Our spring interview was winding down when I said something to Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak about his relationship with team owner Bill DeWitt Jr.

“Oh,” he said, “we’re in lockstep.”

He didn’t mean that he and DeWitt agreed on everything. He didn’t mean they always saw the world the same way. He simply meant that the Cardinals speak with one voice.

When they make important decisions, they talk them out, weigh the pros and cons and arrive at a decision. DeWitt has the final call, but he gives everyone a voice.

Once the decision is made, it’s not a DeWitt call or a Mozeliak call. It’s a Cardinals call. There’s confidence and resolve.

And this, perhaps more than anything, reveals the greatness of the Cardinals.

They are baseball’s model franchise. At least they’re on the short list. They do not spend the most money or make the splashiest moves.

They’re patient in giving their own players a chance to play. But they’re also unafraid to make big bold trades. Mozeliak has pulled off a couple of beauties the last 18 months.

The Cardinals will win the most games in baseball for the second time in three seasons. Over the last three seasons combined, their 283 regular-season victories are the most in baseball.

In that time, they’ve also played in and won more postseason games than any other franchise. They haven’t won a World Series since 2011, and around St. Louis, that’s considered a huge negative.

In St. Louis, the bar is winning championships. Fans and the media expect it. No big deal there. The Cardinals expect that of themselves.

First, there’s stability.

In the last 20 seasons, the Cardinals have had one owner, two general managers and two managers. Only the Yankees have had that kind of continuity.

In that time, only the Yankees and Braves have won more regular-season games than the Cardinals. Only the Yankees have won more postseason games.

Second, there’s the ability to make tough decisions.

Albert Pujols was allowed to leave via free agency because the Cardinals weren’t comfortable with where the years and money had gone. They made the toughest of tough calls to trade one of their favorite homegrown players, Allen Craig, in a roster shakeup.

When Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa departed after the 2011 championship, Mozeliak stayed in house and gave the job to Mike Matheny.

He’d never managed at any level, but he was held in such respect by the organization and by the clubhouse, that the call now seems easy.

His 374 regular-season victories are the most by any big league manager in four seasons at the helm. Of all the hundreds of smart decisions Mozeliak has made, none has been smarter than this one.

The Cardinals won 100 games this season, but it wasn’t easy. Adam Wainwright tore his Achilles tendon in his fourth start. Matt Holliday and Matt Adams missed huge chunks of the season.

Twenty-two teams have scored more runs than the Cardinals. Yet the Cardinals climbed atop baseball’s toughest division on April 17th and have been there ever since.

The Pirates and Cubs might be the second- and third-best teams in baseball, but there was no time when the Cardinals lead really seemed in jeopardy.

Their 2.93 staff ERA is the best in the game. They have the No. 1 rotation and No. 3 bullpen.

The Cardinals have continued to evolve. Their veterans—Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, John Lackey—have produced at a high level, but rookies have been worked into the mix, too.

Outfielder Randal Grichuk has played his way into the NL Rookie of the Year conversation, and outfielder Steven Piscotty provided a late-season boost to the offense.

They’ve been numbingly consistent. They’ve had six straight winning months. They’ve had eight winning streaks of at least five games and just one losing streak longer than three. As a franchise, the last losing month was June 2012 (13-14).

Because the Cardinals are the Cardinals, they understand that baseball pushes a reset button for the postseason. Having not won a World Series since 2011 carries a pressure unique to St. Louis.

Molina is hurting. Adams and Holliday are just back. Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha have had a couple of September hiccups. So has the bullpen.

Still, the road to a championship once more will go through St. Louis. The Cardinals are 100-game winners for the first time in a decade and just the ninth time in franchise history.

In that way, this has already been a special season. To get back to the NLCS, they’ll have to play the winner of a Cubs-Pirates Wild Card Game.

Those two teams might represent the most significant obstacle to getting to the World Series. But the Cardinals have held them off this entire season.

if the Cardinals do not win their 20th pennant or 12th World Series, only one thing seems certain. They’ll be right back in contention in 2016. That’s the Cardinal way.

I hope the Red Sox remember to send Ben Cherington a thank-you note when they make the playoffs in 2016

When the Red Sox won the 2013 World Series, they knew they’d caught lightning in a bottle, or whatever you choose to call it. They’d had a magical run after hitting on a string of unheralded free-agent signings and didn’t believe the same group could win again.

Rather than go on a free-agent spending spree, they hoped for an infusion of talent from the farm system. This was going to be the Red Sox new way of doing business.

This was the path they’d committed to in the wake of those 2012 trades in which they shipped Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers.

If the Red Sox were going to win in 2014, they were going to get another productive year from Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, etc., but they believe there’d be a natural evolution with Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Will Middlebrooks and other young players working their way into the lineup.

And that experiment flopped. The Red Sox lost 91 games and finished 25 games behind the first-place Orioles in the AL East.

Along the way, they were reminded that young players do not come with guarantees or timetables and that a large number of minor league stars simply don’t make it.

And that’s why the organization went for a quick fix last off-season by signing veterans Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to deals totaling around $190 million.

GM Ben Cherington also reworked his rotation around veterans acquired in the prior nine months: Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly. Cherington was criticized for not adding a true No. 1, but Masterson was once a No. 1 in Cleveland and the other three had sometimes been projected as No. 1’s.

The Red Sox still loved their Minor League depth, but for a franchise constantly in a win-now mode, they hoped those veterans brought more certainty.

Okay, it didn’t work out.

The Red Sox could be headed for a third last-place finish in four years. Ramirez and Sandoval have had tough years, and Cherington departed after Dave Dombrowski was brought in to be president of baseball operations.

Sandoval has a .296 OBP, and Ramirez was so bad in left field that Dombrowski has him penciled in to play first base in 2016.

On the other hand…

The Red Sox could be riding a wave of optimism into the off-season. They’ll enter the weekend having won 22 of 37. Best of all, there have been contributions up and down the lineup.

Since they bottomed out at 14 games under .500 on July 30, the Red Sox are 22-15. In this stretch, they’re leading the majors in runs (6.2 per game) and OPS (.841).

Among the AL’s top 20 hitters since July 30 are five Red Sox: Mookie Betts, sixth at .353; Jackie Bradley Jr., seventh at .351, David Ortiz, eighth at .347,  Xander Bogaerts, 10th at .336 and Rusney Castillo, 17th at .319. (Rookie catcher Blake Swihart is hitting .284 in 69 games since being called up.)

Also, the starting pitching has been above average. Red Sox starters are 20-8 with a 3.69 ERA during the 22-15 run. Kelly (1.85 ERA) and Porcello (2.98 ERA) have been very solid in their last seven starts, and Miley has a .388 ERA since the All-Star Break.

Rookie left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez has pitched well enough to be penciled into the 2016 rotation. In 18 starts, he’s 9-5 with a 4.05 ERA.

But he has had four terrible starts—30 earned runs in 15 innings. In his other 14 starts, he has a 1.74 ERA.

If Dombrowski does bring in a No. 1, he could have the makings of a formidable rotation, especially because there’s more pitching depth in the minors.

This free-agent class includes three No. 1’s: David Price, Zack Greinke and Jordan Zimmermann. Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto could also be considered No. 1’s.

Dombrowski’s top priority has to be the bullpen. Even if you can look at the rotation and lineup a certain way and see good things, the bullpen needs work.

Since July 30, Boston’s bullpen ERA is 5.79 ERA, third-worst in the majors, behind only the Braves (6.19) and Tigers (5.93).

Some of you—the cynical types—will point out that Dombrowski was unable to get the bullpen right the last three seasons in Detroit.

To say he ignored it would be untrue. But some of the relievers he counted on—Joe Nathan, Bruce Rondon, Joba Chamberlain–simply didn’t pitch the way he projected.

At a time when baseball’s best teams are built, in part, around really good bullpens–Royals, Cardinals and Pirates are ranked 1-2-3—Dombrowski can’t get the Red Sox back into contention without fixing this part of his team.

However, given where the Red Sox were a few weeks ago, his off-season work is a lot less challenging now than it was then.

Baseball people warn one another not to trust September stats. In this case, it’s probably fair not to trust any of the numbers the Red Sox have accumulated since they’ve dropped out of contention.

On the other hand, we have nothing else to go on. And these young players are playing the way the Red Sox projected them to play. Turns out, their farm system was as good as they thought it’d be.

If nothing else, Betts, Rodriguez, Swihart, etc., ought to help Cherington land a job elsewhere. Along with that 2013 World Series ring, those young players are a testament to Cherington’s expertise at both building a farm system and a roster.

At a time when five clubs besides the Red Sox are looking for new general managers, Cherington seems unlikely to be out of work very long.

And the Red Sox may not be out of contention for very long.

Let’s start with Matt Williams asking Anthony Rendon to bunt even though it’s not why the Nationals most likely will miss the playoffs

First, you’ll say that Anthony Rendon is a professional hitter and that if his manager asks him to lay down a sacrifice bunt, he should be able to do that.

You are entitled to your opinion.

You are also wrong.

One of the things Jim Leyland tells every young manager is this: “Know your team.”

Translation: Know what your players need, both physically and emotionally. Also know what they can and can’t do. Play to their strengths.

When Williams asked Rendon to bunt the tying run into scoring position in the bottom of the ninth inning on Tuesday, he was asking a player to do something he hasn’t done very much.

In 1,332 major league plate appearances, Rendon has laid down four sacrifice bunts—two in 2014 and two in 2013. He had no sac bunts in 373 minor-league plate appearances.

Never mind that taking the bat out of one of his best offensive player’s hands is a very questionable call. That’s a separate issue.

With a critical game on the line, Rendon was asked to do something way out of his comfort zone. Besides that, isn’t a team more likely to score with a runner on first and no outs instead of a runner on second and one out?

Williams seemed to compound the issue by keeping the bunt on when the count went to 3-1. If he had that one to do over, he’d probably take another approach.

When we dissect what happened to the Nationals in this profoundly disappointing season, we will not begin with Matt Williams asking Anthony Rendon to bunt.

That decision was just one subplot in a season filled with them. How were so many of us so wrong about the Nationals? For about the last three seasons, they’ve gotten plenty of Best Team in Baseball labels on Opening Day.

In defense of us…

Since Opening Day 2012, the Nationals are 351-273 (.563). Only the Cardinals (363-262) and Dodgers (352-272) have won more games or had a higher winning percentage.

Unfortunately, the Nationals are just 3-6 in the postseason in this stretch. Meanwhile, the Giants (23-10) and Cardinals (20-19) have both had success when the lights are brightest.

To win 351 games over three-plus seasons tells you the Nationals have talent and a winning culture. There simply isn’t some fatal flaw in the organization.

There are nights Williams leaves himself open to a string of second-guesses with his handling of the bullpen. This is no small thing.

Managing a baseball team in 2015 isn’t like managing one in 1975. For one thing, there are no more walls between the front office and manager.

Or there shouldn’t be.

Front offices can supply managers with stacks of data dealing with lineups, defensive alignments, pitch counts, bullpen strategy, etc.

Managers are still in charge of the personalities and convincing players that what’s best for the team is best for every player. And perhaps most important, the manager must manage the bullpen.

The Nationals play hard. Effort simply isn’t an issue. Has Williams made some questionable choices in the late innings? Yes, he has.

But the dynamics of his staff changed dramatically this season. While the offense is better (4.43 runs per game vs. 4.23 runs per game), the pitching staff is nowhere close.

Last season, the Nationals rotation had a 3.04 ERA and 1.14 WHIP, both No. 1 in the majors. This season, the rotation has a 3.84 ERA (ninth) and 1.23 WHIP (eighth).

Bullpen? Same story. Last season’s had a 3.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 72.6 percent success rate at making good on save chances. This season, those numbers are down across the board: 3.65 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 67.3 percent.

Washington’s defense is worse too. Using MLB.com’s defense efficiency rating, the Nationals have slipped from .693 (15th) in 2014 to .681 (24th) in 2015.

This season, baseball’s top three defensive teams are the Astros, Blue Jays and Royals. All three teams are in first place. Likewise, the top three bullpens belong to teams headed for the postseason: Royals, Cardinals and Pirates. Right behind are the Astros (fifth), Mets (eighth), Blue Jays (ninth) and Yankees (10th).

So…

At a time when teams are constructed around solid bullpens and defenses, the Nationals are short in those areas.

On the other hand, if the Nationals had gotten the same work out of their rotation as they did in 2014, there might not be a bullpen problem.

Last season, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister went 44-22 with 578.2 innings, 522 strikeouts and a 2.77 ERA.

This season, they’re 24-21 with 355.2 innings, 288 strikeouts and a 3.90 ERA.

Fister has pitched so poorly he was removed from the rotation. Strasburg has made just 18 starts, and his ERA has increased from 3.14 to 4.35.

Zimmermann is still rock solid, with his ERA up from 2.66 to 3.32. He’s the ace.

What’s amazing is that Nationals GM Mike Rizzo added Max Scherzer to what was already baseball’s best rotation. His 3.03 ERA is very solid.

But…

In 18 starts before the All-Star Break, he had a 2.11 ERA. In 10 starts since, he has a 5.12 ERA. In his last six starts, he’s 0-3 with a 6.35 ERA.

In his most important start of the season, he was unable to hold a 5-3 lead on Monday night against the Mets, and the series unraveled from there.

So a little this, a little that. Everyday lineup hit hard by injuries. Mediocre defense and bullpen. Starters performing below what their career numbers say they should.

And at times, the manager has had some calls blow up in his face.

With Ian Desmond, Denard Span, Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann all headed for free agency in a few weeks, the Nationals were always going to be significantly different in 2015.

Now it’ll be interesting to see how Rizzo reshapes the club. Here’s some free advice: think bullpen and defense.

Despite the disappointment, the Nationals are still in a good place. They’ve got a talented big league roster and a fairly deep farm system.

They’ve got Michael Taylor ready to step in for Span in center and Trea Turner in line to play shortstop in place of Desmond. If Rizzo devotes the off-season to deepening his bullpen, the Nationals could be right back in contention.

Again, that 351-273 record the last three-plus seasons indicates there’s far more right than wrong. But missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons says some change is needed.

Rizzo has been steadfast in his support of Williams. Once the season ends, though, he surely will look at not just the Xs and Os, but also the tone.

Williams is a tremendous baseball man, a guy who cares about his players. He deserves to shoulder some of the blame for what went wrong.

But he’s also a thoughtful man and surely will evaluate himself along with all his players. If I were general manager, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring him back.

Sure, the fans are down on him. That goes with the territory. Williams becomes the face of all the failure. The popular move would be to fire him.

That might not be the correct call.

Do you think Bruce Bochy is a better manager now than he was in his second year? Joe Maddon? Bob Melvin? Joe Girardi?

Here’s guessing Rizzo and Williams will have a series of long chats after the season to consider all that went right and all that went wrong.

They should not lose sight of the fact that the Nationals aren’t far away, that a major overhaul isn’t needed. As the Royals, Blue Jays and Pirates have reminded us the last four years, winning is a process and not usually a smooth road.

The Nationals aren’t fatally flawed.

Neither is their manager.

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