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Richard Justice

Winning offseason doesn't guarantee championship

Justice: Winning offseason doesn't guarantee title

Winning offseason doesn't guarantee championship
You know what's really annoying about this time of the year? OK, it may not be the most annoying thing. Nothing compares to people who put those giant fake reindeer antlers on their cars.

Still, right behind fake reindeer antlers on cars is how some columnists and talk-show hosts decide it's time to whine that the local baseball team hasn't done enough to improve itself.

Or they point out that the local team hasn't been as busy as another team in the division, implying that the road to ruin has been paved.

This is silly talk. This is the column you write when you don't have anything else to write. It's a good one, too, because fans love screaming that the owner is cheap and the general manager stupid.

I haven't been above this kind of thing myself a few times. Come to think of it, I still owe Ed Wade a box of chocolates for some of the things I wrote during his days in charge of the Astros.

Here's why it's silly. Rosters are complex, fragile things. Sometimes teams accomplish more than they seem capable of.

Winning is about having talent, but it's also about having a manager who sets the right tone and players who understand the game isn't really complicated. It's about making pitches and playing defense, about playing hard every inning and competing.

Sure, talent is important. The Dodgers and Blue Jays appear to have hellacious teams, maybe the two best in the game. The Angels are right behind them.

Right now, though, at least 20 general managers think they've constructed a team good enough to win a championship. They've tweaked their roster, filled some holes and believe in some of the young guys who'll push for roster spots.

They understand that just because a team wins the offseason doesn't mean it's going to win the regular season. Money does not decide postseason berths.

Every general manager would like to have more money to spend, even though Oakland's Billy Beane and Tampa Bay's Andrew Friedman seem to take a lot of pride in doing more with less.

Money gives teams a better chance to compete, but the teams who don't have as much cash lying around have figured out other ways to win.

For instance, player development. Great scouting, great instructors, great Drafts. Those things will make up for a lot of payroll disparities.

And there's brains and math. "Moneyball" has changed the world, and not in a small way.

In the past 12 seasons, the team with the largest payroll has won the World Series once (Yankees, 2009). In that time, the average payroll rank of the 12 champions has been 10th.

Baseball's last three champions -- Giants, Cardinals and Giants -- have been eighth, 11th and ninth, respectively, in Opening Day payrolls.

The Rays have proven that brains and an unshakeable confidence in an organization's blueprint can make up for a lot of payroll deficiencies.

The Dodgers, Blue Jays and Angels are dominating a lot of the coverage, but plenty of other general managers are extremely happy with their offseasons. Let's run down a partial list: Reds, Royals, Rays, Red Sox, Braves, Nationals, Tigers, Giants and Phillies.

None of those teams has made as much noise as the Blue Jays, Dodgers and Angels, but it would be a mistake to overlook any of them.

Other than the Royals -- and they're still a work in progress as the young guys come along -- every team on that list -- and I counted eight -- believes it is good enough to win the World Series.

The Red Sox began this offseason with huge holes, and they appear to have filled them nicely: shortstop Stephen Drew, outfielders Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes, right-hander Ryan Dempster, reliever Koji Uehara and perhaps first baseman Mike Napoli.

General manager Ben Cherington didn't sign any player for longer than three years, but he appears to have done everything he set out to do. If Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz are healthy and productive, Boston is good enough to compete for a postseason berth.

The Phillies are a lot like the Red Sox. Like Cherington, Phils general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has had a terrific offseason. But like Cherington, Amaro needs his core guys -- Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Roy Halladay, Jimmy Rollins -- to be healthy and productive.

The Dodgers are very good, but are they better than the Giants? The Nationals? The Cardinals?

That's why the 2013 season could be so much fun. The parity that baseball worked so hard to build finally is the norm. It's easy to be awed by the Dodgers, but if you polled baseball people, at least half of them still believe the Giants will win the National League West.

The Yankees? Only a fool counts them out.

Part of the fun of the 2012 season was seeing the pennant races in a different light every couple of weeks as different clubs emerged as contenders. Despite all that has happened the last few months, that's how 2013 is likely to be, too, even if some of the word is more subtle and harder to recognize.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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