LAS VEGAS — Whether it’s a team surging together at the right time just as a nervy curveball clinches the pennant in Queens or an inning that comes apart because of a fluke finger injury days earlier in Pittsburgh, Major League Baseball’s ever-expanding postseason is chocked with unpredictability. It can turn an 83-win team into a champion or send a sixth seed to the pennant.
As far back as 2004, a baseball executive referred to the short series of the playoffs as a “crapshoot,” and clubs describe building rosters, as one Atlanta executive said a year ago, “to get in and see what happens.” Earn the ticket; take the ride.
Annually, teams such as the Cardinals describe the challenge of building a team to overcome the unpredictability of postseason roulette and “hope you get hot.” They never can be sure how the ball will bounce.
And as unpredictable as the postseason has become, with new rounds, new teams taking the spin, one surefire predictability has emerged.
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The Astros won their second World Series championship since 2017 last week. They’ve appeared in four of the past five World Series, and they’ve advanced to six consecutive American League Championship Series. They have not been tripped, snagged, or upended in a first-round series in this run. They’ve defied the probabilities — or broke them. How?
“It’s a really hard question to answer, but obviously our guys have continued to come through in those big spots, year in and year out,” Houston general manager James Click told the Post-Dispatch during a recent conversation. “So, while there is a level of unpredictability in the playoffs and I think we all understand that this is a game of inches — talent still plays in the playoffs. Nobody is suggesting that it’s all luck. It’s probably a little bit more of a question of luck and skill than the regular season, but three is still plenty of room for skill to play up.”
The first glimpse of team-building under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and expanded playoffs begins this week at Resorts World Las Vegas with the annual GM meetings.
At the north end of the Las Vegas Strip, front-office executives will gather for formal meetings on new rules, minutiae, and arbitration approaches, and they also will circulate for the first time this offseason with agents and perhaps free agents. The Cardinals have come to price compare for an everyday catcher and a bolder bat to add thump the lineup. In the past, the Cardinals have used the GM meetings to gauge and even accelerate trade talks, and they can do both with Toronto and Oakland about the catching position.
A bigger, almost philosophical question continues to greet the Cardinals each winter, and especially this one as they boast a club built around two National League MVP finalists, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, who also are in their prime.
How do they fortify their team for October’s games of chance?
“We played the Cardinals. They’ve got a good ballclub. Very even clubs,” said Dave Dombrowski, who built the Phillies team that hurdled over the Cardinals in two leaps this postseason on the way to winning the NL pennant. He also built the Tigers, who lost a World Series to the 83-win Cardinals of 2006. “But that ninth inning of the first game we scored six runs. How often does that happen? Just picked the right time? I’ve been on their side of the fence, too. You hope the next day you come out and win. All of a sudden a ball bloops in.
“If something like that happens during the season, you may not be happy,” Dombrowski concluded. “But it doesn’t knock you out of the year.”
It’s oversimplifying to claim the Cardinals’ season hinged around closer Ryan Helsley jamming his finger into the ground at PNC Park when fielding a ball and having that finger tighten on him as he tried to close out the Phillies. The Cardinals’ offense was absent. The only three runs they scored in two playoff games came from rookies off the bench.
That’s one constant for the Astros. Their offense doesn’t go dim.
“Sometimes you have to have the ball bounce your way,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I honestly, really think that people in here are not scared to compete — and they are not scared to fail. From Day 1, winning drives every single person. We put a lot of that pressure on ourselves in practice, so when those situations come we’re ready for them. And that continues for every player who comes in, every player we add.”
Said pitcher Lance McCullers Jr.: “A lot of times in today’s game it’s build up, build up, build up, make a run, win or not, and then tear down. We’ve been able to build up and … hold.”
That does generate some organizational momentum, players and officials said when asked about it last week. And Houston bends the probabilities of the postseason its way with pitching depth, and this year Click said a focus was run prevention because “if we pitch a shutout we’ll win every single game, but if we score 10 we can still lose.”
Eroded pitching depth is that costs the Dodgers this fall and dooms countless other playoff teams after the long haul of a season.
“Anybody who ends up winning the postseason, they have good starting pitching,” Dombrowski said. “That’s a common thread. They usually shut you down at the back end. They usually have a good hitter or two that might make a difference.”
Houston has had all of that — solid to exceptional starters, fireproof bullpen, and a deep lineup, with notable left-handed power.
This year did bring new element the Astros’ planning.
Instead of the six division winners advancing to a best-of-five series only four did, forcing the division winner with the fewest wins into a best-of-three matchup. That team had one more layer of unpredictable, one more roll of the dice. The Cardinals crapped out. Houston made it a priority to avoid the risk.
“Our goal is to get one of those top two spots just to take out one level of unpredictability,” Click said. “I think in a lot of ways it does change your regular season priorities a little bit just because now being one of the top two seeds is critical. It raises the bar a little bit for where that inflection point is.”
That brings the conversation back to the question.
And when fortune winks have the talent and health to take advantage.
“That’s a good way to describe it,” Dombrowski said. “Somebody will always come up with exceptions — well, this club won this way, and that stuff is true. Things happen. But would you call the Cardinals in 2006 random? Well, they made it. And they were fortunate they made it with their record. But once they got in, they weren’t the same club.”
3 Cardinals finalists for prestige awards
Cardinals corner infielders Goldschmidt and Arenado finished in the top three for voting for the National League MVP Award, and a first-time winner is certain to claim the award when its announced Nov. 17. Finalists for baseball’s major awards given by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were announced Monday night, and Goldschmidt, Arenado, and San Diego’s Manny Machado are the three “finalists” for the highest honor in the National League.
Goldschmidt is the favorite after leading the league in slugging and OPS and finishing top three in average and RBIs this past season.
Rookie Brendan Donovan, already a Gold Glove Award winner, finished in the top three for the National League’s Jackie Robinson Award, given to the top rookie. Atlanta’s Spencer Strider and Michael Harris II are the other “finalists” and considered the favorites. The winner will be announced Nov. 12.
Gomez added to roster, etc.
Outfielder Moises Gomez, who set a Cardinals’ minor-league record for home runs in a season, was added Monday to the team’s 40-man roster to avoid losing him to free agency. Gomez, 24, hit 39 home runs with a .294 average and a .995 OPS this year, forcing his way to Class AAA Memphis with that production. If the Cardinals did not add him to the roster, Gomez could have elected minor-league free agency and signed with any time. His addition and the forthcoming end of the 60-day injured list puts the Cardinals’ 40-man roster at 37.
• The Cardinals were among the clubs that received a 2-minute “sizzle reel” Monday for free-agent shortstop Trea Turner, one of the most dynamic players available. The video, produced by Turner’s CAA reps, includes information on his stats, his five-tool talent, and his elegant slides, and if Cardinals execs thought the narrator sound familiar, he should: St. Louis native, first fan, Emmy-winner Jon Hamm.