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Dodgers, Cardinals and Pirates should have few regrets

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Here are a couple links to columns written about the two NL playoff teams that have joined the Pirates on the sidelines this October. See if anything in them sounds familiar.

-P- Steve Dilbeck of the LA Times on the Dodgers:

[W]hat works in small-market Tampa Bay doesn't necessarily translate to Los Angeles. Coming close is not enough. Expectations here are for championships. Particularly for a team that hasn't won a World Series in 27 painfully long years.

So even with the Dodgers advancing to the playoffs this fall for a record third consecutive year, the season was viewed as a disappointment — in and outside the clubhouse — when the Dodgers fell in the first round. ...

Those are some lofty standards, but they're also reality. Expectations are huge here to win now. And when [Andrew] Friedman and General Manager Farhan Zaidi made modest moves at the trading deadline, they weren't convincing anyone they truly understood the urgency.

There's a good point in here about Friedman never having had to make the kinds of expensive signings he'll likely be tasked with making this offseason. And maybe we shouldn't be surprised that a Dodgers reporter is writing about the team needing to get further in the playoffs than Ned Colletti's teams did, since Friedman and Zaidi replaced Colletti. That is, undoubtedly, the expectation for Friedman in Los Angeles. But it's funny to hear about a 92-win team being a "disappointment."

-P- Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the Cardinals:

The two organizations offer a contrast because the Cardinals are always there and the Giants have always won in the even years when they get there. Which is better? ...

"I would imagine … rings," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said, referring to the accessory every World Series winner receives. "I think the compliment to the Cardinals is the ability to have a strong regular season and be able to qualify. I do think this year, more than any, has been a very tough grind. Wins weren’t easy. We didn’t have a lot of blowouts. Every night you felt that stress. I do feel like it helps you prepare for October because you’re ready for it, but there is also a level of fuel or energy that starts to get depleted."

So, Mozeliak was asked Thursday, is the remedy an off year like the Giants have stumbled into after each championship?...

Finding a solution will preoccupy the Cardinals this offseason after their elimination Tuesday from the National League division series.

"[I]s the remedy an off year like the Giants have stumbled into after each championship?" Goold is a great reporter, but that question makes my head hurt. What Mozeliak was essentially being asked is whether the Cardinals should try to lose next year in order to try to win in 2017.

As a Pirates fan, I'd support that strategy for the Cardinals, but it's bonkers, and the reason is that it imagines there's a strong causal relationship between the Giants' weaker seasons and their stronger ones. There isn't. This year's Cardinals were good. They had a chance at winning the World Series. They just didn't. And the question about the Giants shows the kind of rabbit hole you can fall into when you try to find out why.

We're seeing this kind of hand-wringing from the media surrounding the Pirates now, too, and it's exhausting, because we're criticizing the Bucs and imagining they ought to self-criticize over things they fundamentally can't control. No one knows who is going to win in a short series. Once the playoffs begin, every team has a chance, and there's very little any front office can do beyond create a team that wins a ton of regular-season games and hope for the best.

Obviously, every executive should be self-critical. Every executive should want to improve their process and want their team to improve. And there are teams that sneak into the playoffs and don't have that great a shot once they get there.

But then again, even those teams have a shot. The Cardinals won 83 games in a weak division in 2006 and won the World Series. Both of last year's World Series teams were Wild Card teams, and the eventual winner had played so badly down the stretch that a blog covering the team jokingly debated whether the team should even bother trying to win the Wild Card game.

This year's Dodgers, Cardinals and Pirates were not weak teams, and while all three franchises (especially the Dodgers) face questions heading into the offseason, tooth-gnashing about why they didn't get further in the playoffs grinds away perfectly good enamel for no reason. You can't build a team to win a World Series. You can only build a team that has a good shot.

You'll often hear that one team or another succeeded in the playoffs because of, for example, a dominant starting pitcher or two. But even that is usually just a post-hoc explanation for what already happened. Madison Bumgarner is very good, but he was maybe the seventh- or eighth-best pitcher in the National League during the regular season in both 2014 and 2015. Who would have been able to predict, heading into the 2014 season, that he would almost single-handedly carry the Giants to a title? And if a game-changing ace is the key to playoff success, why haven't the Dodgers, who had not one but two pitchers significantly better than Bumgarner, advanced further in the playoffs in recent years? And why didn't last year's Athletics or Tigers advance further?

And why, for that matter, wasn't Clayton Kershaw, or Gerrit Cole, this year's Jake Arrieta? Today, you could probably answer that question convincingly, but you couldn't have answered it last winter, when the Cubs and Dodgers and Pirates were being assembled.

There's simply too much variance in short playoff series for the ultimate results to have much to say about whether a team's strategy for playoff success is any good. This year's Dodgers were a flawed team, but they won 92 games and had a rotation headed by Kershaw and Zack Greinke; they could easily have won the World Series. They didn't, but they could have. The Cardinals won more regular-season games than anyone else this season; they, too, could have easily won the World Series, and there's very little for them to learn from the Giants franchise that they don't already know.

In fact, if you're the GM of a team whose season is already over, looking too closely at single examples of teams that won the World Series might actually lead you in the wrong direction. Over time, the single best predictor of postseason success is regular-season success. So if the Cardinals win 100 games and lose in the playoffs, probably the smartest thing for them to do is shrug it off and try to win 100 games again.

When our teams lose, we want to make sense of what happened, and when we watch a series of events unfold, we want to imagine that it unfolded for a reason. Sometimes, though, there wasn't really a reason, or there wasn't a reason we could predict.

You might point out, of course, that the Pirates had to play the Wild Card game, which cut their chances of winning a World Series in half -- or maybe, based on the fact that they were facing Arrieta, slightly less than half. True. But their front office had a limited amount of control over even that. The Bucs were a Wild Card team, but they won 98 games. Winning 98 games will get you a division title most of the time. And if it's, say, Tuesday, and the Pirates are playing in Pittsburgh, they have no control over whether the Cardinals win or lose that night in Milwaukee.

This year's Pirates were a great team. They'll now have to go about the business of making next year's team a great team, too, and it isn't a given that they'll be able to. But beyond that, there isn't much that should keep Neal Huntington and company up nights, any more than John Mozeliak should be up nights wondering about why the 100-win team he assembled wasn't good enough. They were good enough. Just not on the precise days they needed to be. There isn't much Mozeliak could have done about that.