NLDS Preview: Breaking Down Cubs vs. Cardinals and Mets vs. Dodgers

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Three teams enter the NLDS looking for their first taste of October glory in a long time. The Mets will try to win their first playoff series in nine years. The Dodgers hope to claim their first World Series in 27 seasons. As you may have heard, the Cubs haven’t won it all since 1908. And meanwhile, Cardinals fans have been made to suffer the outrageous misfortune of a four-year championship drought.

For all the intrigue that such history provides, these promise to be two series between two pairs of very well-matched teams. Actually, you know what? “Promise” is the wrong word. As my colleague Ben Lindbergh put it in yesterday’s preview of the ALDS matchups, “I know nothing. You know nothing.” As we’re taught during every postseason, anything can — and probably will — happen. With that in mind, let’s go to the preview machine!

Chicago Cubs vs. St. Louis Cardinals

(Game 1: Friday at 6:45 p.m. ET on TBS.)

Starting Rotations

Chicago Cubs’ Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K% BB%
1. LHP Jon Lester 3.34 2.92 205.0 25.0 5.6
2. RHP Kyle Hendricks 3.95 3.36 180.0 22.6 5.8
3. RHP Jake Arrieta 1.77 2.35 229.0 27.1 5.5
4.* RHP Jason Hammel 3.74 3.68 170.2 24.2 5.6
St. Louis Cardinals’ Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K% BB%
1. RHP John Lackey 2.77 3.57 218.0 19.5 5.9
2. LHP Jaime Garcia 2.43 3.00 129.2 19.0 5.9
3. RHP Michael Wacha 3.38 3.87 181.1 20.1 7.6
4.* RHP Lance Lynn 3.03 3.44 175.1 22.2 9.1

*If necessary.

The big story here isn’t Jake Arrieta. Rather, it’s the lack of Jake Arrieta. By using him in the wild-card game, the Cubs will get to deploy their best pitcher only in Game 3 at Wrigley Field. Given that Arrieta over the past three months has been a rich man’s version of 1968 Bob Gibson, that’s a huge break for the Cardinals.

However, Jon Lester potentially taking the ball twice in this series could still be an advantage for the Cubs. The Cardinals ranked just 12th among National League teams in park-adjusted offense against left-handers. They don’t have the blazing speed to capitalize on Lester’s throwing-to-first yips either, stealing just 69 bases (tied for 11th in the NL). Plus, over five starts and 31 innings against St. Louis this year, Lester threw 34 strikeouts and posted a 2.59 ERA.

The pair of righties at the back of the rotation could be an entirely different story. Jason Hammel pitched well for much of the season … only to then record a 5.65 ERA in his last nine starts. Kyle Hendricks was also erratic, flashing a 5.85 ERA over an eight-start stretch from August 14 to September 23. Both Hammel and Hendricks did end the season with strong showings, but the Cardinals become a much more potent team against right-handed pitching, so Games 2 and 4 should provide the best opportunity for St. Louis to do some offensive damage.

As for their rotation, the Cardinals did get Adam Wainwright back from a torn Achilles, but he’ll be limited to bullpen duty this postseason. Without him, St. Louis will be without the kind of flashy frontline starters the rest of their competitors in the National League can boast. On raw stuff, Carlos Martinez might have been that guy, but he recently went down for the year with a shoulder injury.

Even without Martinez, there’s no weak link in the bunch. John Lackey gave them 218 innings with a 2.77 ERA,1 and his extensive playoff experience (117 innings, 3.08 ERA) points to a pitcher who doesn’t wear down in October. Jaime Garcia has shaken off injuries to become a slightly lesser version of Dallas Keuchel, with a 61.2 percent ground ball rate from the left side. Michael Wacha is the team’s most talented pitcher with Martinez out. Lance Lynn did struggle with consistency this season, but a park-adjusted ERA 21 percent better than league average and nearly a strikeout per inning are pretty swell from your fourth starter.

This is Kyle Schwarber. Baseballs are scared of him.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images This is Kyle Schwarber. Baseballs are scared of him.

Lineups

Chicago Cubs’ Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1. CF Dexter Fowler S .250/.346/.411 110 690
2. LF Kyle Schwarber L .246/.355/.487 131 273
3. 3B Kris Bryant R .275/.369/.488 136 650
4. 1B Anthony Rizzo L .278/.387/.512 145 701
5. 2B Starlin Castro R .265/.296/.375 80 578
6. C Miguel Montero L .248/.345/.409 107 403
7. RF Chris Coghlan L .250/.341/.443 113 503
8. SS Addison Russell R .242/.307/.389 90 523
St. Louis Cardinals’ Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1. 3B Matt Carpenter L .272/.365/.505 139 665
2. RF Stephen Piscotty R .305/.359/.494 133 256
3. LF Matt Holliday R .279/.394/.410 124 277
4. CF Jason Heyward L .293/.359/.439 121 610
5. SS Jhonny Peralta R .275/.334/.411 105 640
6. 1B Brandon Moss L .226/.304/.407 94 526
7. 2B Kolten Wong L .262/.321/.386 96 613
8. C Tony Cruz R .204/.235/.310 46 151

Required Joe Maddon Lineup Disclaimer: The Cubs lineup we have listed is a very rough estimate and is highly subject to change. We’re just one game into the Cubs’ postseason and Maddon has tinkered heavily: He installed little-used Tommy La Stella as the starting third baseman and no. 5 hitter (?!) against the Pirates, then shifted regular third baseman Kris Bryant to left field and Kyle Schwarber to right as a nod to PNC Park’s quirky dimensions. In the end, that game boiled down to two things: Arrieta steamrolling everyone for nine innings and Schwarber making baseballs cry.

Schwarber figures to start in every game this series except Game 2 against the lefty Garcia. When he’s in, he’ll give the Cubs a potent power-hitting threat to complement Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Leadoff man Dexter Fowler delivered a solid .346 on-base percentage this season and reached base three times in the wild-card game. That big three obviously gets a lot scarier when Fowler’s on. Yet while patience is often his biggest virtue — his 12.2 percent walk rate ranked eighth in the National League — the only Cardinals starter who was a bit liberal with free passes was Lance Lynn.

On the Cardinals’ side, the biggest question is Yadier Molina, who has torn ligaments in his thumb. He’s on the NLDS roster, but it’s not clear how much he’ll play or how effective he’ll be when he does. Molina had his second consecutive pedestrian offensive season, so the offensive downgrade to backup Tony Cruz isn’t as big as it might initially seem. But while Cruz is considered a competent defensive catcher, Molina is widely viewed as one of the best catching masterminds in the game, handling the Cardinals staff with aplomb, controlling the running game, and affecting play in multiple, tough-to-quantify ways. His absence — or his reduced presence — could sting.

In addition to the uncertainty surrounding Molina, the Cardinals must contend with questions marks from two other right-handed hitters.

After looking like a top-30 hitter over the first two months, veteran left fielder Matt Holliday struggled with a quad injury for much of the year. Since returning from a seven-week DL stint on September 17, Holliday has batted just .182/.217/.318 over 23 plate appearances. Meanwhile, 24-year-old rookie Stephen Piscotty dazzled (.310/.365/.502) in his first 61 major league games. Then he suffered what looked like a scary head injury on September 28 after colliding in the outfield with Peter Bourjos. Fortunately, he avoided a concussion and returned to the lineup on the final day of the season, going 0-for-4 in the finale. If Piscotty suffers no lingering effects from the injury, he’s a huge right-handed equalizer in a lineup that needs more sock from that side of the plate.

As for defense, both clubs are good, but not quite spectacular: The Cubs ranked fifth in the NL in Baseball Info Solutions’s Defensive Runs Saved, while the Cards landed sixth. Much of the defensive impact of this series could come down to where batted balls get hit: Schwarber, Rizzo, Fowler, Miguel Montero, and Chris Coghlan could smack a bunch of balls to right field, and Jason Heyward’s the best in baseball at that position. The Cubs’ subtler weapon comes from behind the plate, where Montero rates as one of the best pitch-framers in the league.

A healthy Randal Grichuk would give the Cardinals the best bench player in the series.

Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS/Getty Images A healthy Randal Grichuk would give the Cardinals the best bench player in the series.

Bullpens/Benches

Look for Maddon to use his bench as aggressively as he did during the wild-card game, with Austin Jackson leading the parade of defensive replacements if and when the Cubs get a lead. If La Stella comes off the bench, he’ll give the Cubs a playable left-handed bat, while righty Javier Baez offers raw power and a good glove at multiple positions. The super-duper-top-secret weapon is Quintin Berry, who shouldn’t see a postseason at-bat unless the sun explodes, but he could give the Cubs their own version of 2014 Royals playoff pest Terrance Gore — an ace pinch runner late in tight games.

Of course, in the wild-card game, Chicago’s bullpen was rendered irrelevant, and that could again be the case come Game 3 when Arrieta gets his next start. But when an actual mortal pitches for the Cubs, the performance of strikeout-heavy but slightly erratic setup men Justin Grimm, Travis Wood, and Pedro Strop (in front of closer Hector Rondon) could prove decisive.

Assuming he’s healthy, the Cardinals will trot out the best bench player on either team. Like fellow rookie Piscotty, Randal Grichuk was setting the league ablaze (.284/.333/.561) before an injury (in this case, an elbow) sidelined him for three weeks. He’s struggled a bit in part-time duty since then, batting .206 with a .289 on-base percentage, but he’s also slugged two homers and two doubles in that span of 34 at-bats. If both Piscotty and Grichuk are somewhere near 100 percent, St. Louis becomes overloaded with quality outfielders, with Piscotty pushing boom-or-bust lefty swinger Brandon Moss at first, especially when the lefty Lester starts. Of course, if Grichuk’s ailing elbow won’t allow him to throw, he’ll likely be the team’s ace pinch hitter instead.

Elsewhere, the St. Louis bullpen should be loaded. They’ve added Wainwright to a core group that includes tough lefty Kevin Siegrist, ground ball specialist Seth Maness, strikeout-heavy right-hander Jonathan Broxton, and quality long man Carlos Villanueva.

Even with that depth, look for the Cards to get more aggressive with closer Trevor Rosenthal’s usage. Manager Mike Matheny was very careful with Rosenthal during the season, leading to multiple head-scratching decisions in which lesser relievers came in for high-leverage situations in the eighth inning. Don’t expect that trend to continue in the playoffs. As St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold told me, the Cardinals handle Rosenthal with kid-glove, three-out save opportunities during the regular season for two reasons: (1) To try to prevent early-career burnout, and (2) so he’ll be fresh enough to get four, five, or six outs in crucial playoff situations.

How will the Cubs fare with only one start from their ace?

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images How will the Cubs fare with only one start from their ace?

The Call

If Arrieta could start twice during this series, I’d take the Cubs. Since he can’t, Chicago will have to make do with two lesser right-handed starters, giving the Cardinals a chance to pour on some offense in Games 2 and 4 — even if Molina’s out or at less than full strength. I see this series going the distance. In the decider, expect Lackey and Lester to keep their teams in it, only for the Cards to edge out their opponent with some bit of late-inning voodoo or, of course, a sprinkle of #CardinalsDevilMagic. Cardinals in 5.

New York Mets vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

(Game 1: Friday at 9:45 p.m. ET on TBS.)

Starting Rotations

New York Mets’ Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K% BB%
1. RHP Jacob deGrom 2.54 2.70 191.0 27.3 5.1
2. RHP Noah Syndergaard 3.24 3.25 150.0 27.5 5.1
3. RHP Matt Harvey 2.71 3.05 189.1 24.9 4.9
4.* LHP Steven Matz 2.27 3.61 35.2 22.8 6.7
Los Angeles Dodgers’ Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K% BB%
1. LHP Clayton Kershaw 2.13 1.99 232.2 33.8 4.7
2. RHP Zack Greinke 1.66 2.76 222.2 23.7 4.7
3. LHP Brett Anderson 3.69 3.94 180.1 15.5 6.1
4.* LHP Alex Wood 3.84 3.69 189.2 17.4 7.4

*If necessary.

Bad news first: The specter of burnout and/or performance issues hangs over the heads of all the Mets’ young pitchers. Matt Harvey’s elbow has become his most-scrutinized body part since that time he ordered room service. Noah Syndergaard is a rookie with 179.2 innings under his belt this season — by far the highest total of his professional career. Jacob deGrom established himself as the team’s no. 1 starter this year, but he’s only in his second season, and an ugly five-start stretch in late August and early September made you wonder if he’d hit a wall. Meanwhile, Steven Matz, who’s been struggling with back spasms, looks likely to start Game 4 (if necessary), but he hasn’t pitched since September 22.

Now the good news: Harvey was phenomenal this season — 189.1 innings, 188 strikeouts, a 2.71 ERA, and two or fewer earned runs allowed in 11 of his final 13 starts. Syndergaard hasn’t worn down either: In his last four starts, the big right-hander punched out 37 batters and walked two over 27.2 innings. As for deGrom, the Mets had him skip a start after the late-summer rough patch. He responded by allowing just one run in his final two outings, piling up 16 strikeouts against two walks over 10 innings.2 And if Matz can’t go, the Mets do at least have a competent option in Bartolo Colon to take his place.

So, despite those end-of-year surges, could New York’s big three still run out of steam in the postseason? Of course. As the Dodgers saw last year, even the best pitcher on the planet in his seventh season in the big leagues isn’t immune to fatigue.

A thousand keyboards stand at the ready should Clayton Kershaw struggle again in this year’s playoffs. And yes, he did lay an egg in Game 1 of last year’s NLDS matchup against the Cardinals. But then he came back in Game 4 and, on three days’ rest, fired six spectacular shutout innings … only to have Don Mattingly send him back out for the seventh because the Dodgers setup men in front of Kenley Jansen were (mostly) a collective tire fire. Nonetheless, Kershaw’s career 5.12 playoff ERA has overshadowed his five consecutive Cy Young–worthy seasons, and it might still do so until he starts firing more October zeros.

Yet, the Dodgers’ co-ace has both extraordinary skill and precedent on his side. Remember when the best hitter on the planet was considered a lock to choke in every playoff series? Then came 2002, when Barry Bonds put on the most impressive hitting performance in postseason history. In short, give a super-elite player enough cracks at it, and eventually he’ll eat planets in October.

By some measures, Kershaw’s running mate was even better this year. Zack Greinke has dominated with each of his primary pitches; opponents hit .199 against his fastball, .168 against his slider, and .165 against his changeup. And he’s smoked both right-handed (.182/.208/.274 against him) and left-handed hitters (.194/.257/.278). Greinke is pretty close to the perfect pitcher, with the lone exception being that he’s extremely routine-oriented, and thus unlikely to start on short rest at any point.

While Kershaw and Greinke are terrific, New York could still have an opportunity here, as there may be two games started by pitchers other than those two. Brett Anderson will get the nod in Game 3, sporting a league-leading 66.9 percent ground ball rate and roughly league-average park-adjusted ERA and FIP numbers. He also posted one of the lowest strikeout totals in the league, and his 180.1 innings were a career high, meaning it’s a bit of a toss-up as to how he’ll perform in the playoffs. If the Dodgers are leading the series, Alex Wood will likely get the start in Game 4. He allowed just four runs over four of his final six starts, but he gave up 16 runs over seven innings in those other two outings. If Los Angeles trails after three games, bet on the same formula as last year: Kershaw starting that potential elimination game on short rest (thus bringing the bullpen more into play) and, if the Dodgers avoid Game 4 elimination, Greinke in Game 5 on full rest.

Rookie shortstop Corey Seager helped revive a Dodgers offense that slumped through the second half.

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images Rookie shortstop Corey Seager helped revive a Dodgers offense that slumped in the second half.

Lineups

New York Mets’ Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1. RF Curtis Granderson L .259/.364/.457 132 682
2. 3B David Wright R .289/.379/.434 133 174
3. 2B Daniel Murphy L .281/.322/.449 110 538
4. CF Yoenis Cespedes R .291/.328/.542 135 676
5. 1B Lucas Duda L .244/.352/.486 133 554
6. C Travis d’Arnaud R .268/.340/.485 131 268
7. LF Michael Conforto L .270/.335/.506 134 194
8. SS Ruben Tejada R .261/.338/.350 95 407
Los Angeles Dodgers’ Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1. LF Carl Crawford L .265/.304/.403 95 193
2. 2B Howie Kendrick R .295/.336/.409 109 495
3. 1B Adrian Gonzalez L .275/.350/.480 129 643
4. 3B Justin Turner R .294/.370/.491 141 439
5. RF Andre Ethier L .294/.366/.486 137 445
6. SS Corey Seager L .337/.425/.561 175 113
7. C Yasmani Grandal S .234/.353/.403 115 426
8. CF Joc Pederson L .210/.346/.417 115 585

Mets manager Terry Collins hinted at it late in the season, and now he plans to follow through in the playoffs: He’s likely going to run all of his left-handed lineup regulars out there, regardless of who’s pitching.

That tack could prove problematic. Daniel Murphy is a sub-replacement-level player against left-handed pitching, batting just .254/.284/.349, and his usual lousy defense3 exacerbates the problem. Except, Collins might not have any better options at second against the Dodgers’ lefty-heavy staff, even if he wanted to platoon: A deep chest bruise knocked righty-swinging infielder Juan Uribe out for the NLDS, and Wilmer Flores isn’t a great option either, having lost 10 pounds as he tries to recover from a nasty case of strep throat.

Collins has no such excuses in the outfield, though. Curtis Granderson batted an ugly .183/.273/.286 against southpaws this year, while Michael Conforto (.214/.267/.214) wasn’t any better. Granted, we’re getting into smallish sample sizes here, especially in the case of Conforto, who had just 14 at-bats against lefties. Still, it would be baffling if Collins starts both those players against Kershaw, Anderson, and Wood: Juan Lagares hit .273/.333/.438 against lefties this year and plays all-world defense. Beyond Yoenis Cespedes, who is terrifying and has been the best hitter on either team, there’s an outfield platoon screaming to happen.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers offense tailed off as the season wore on. Blazing hot starters like Adrian Gonzalez and especially Yasmani Grandal and Joc Pederson came back to the pack in the second half. Yasiel Puig has suffered through a miserable, injury-plagued season, just made it back from a hamstring injury on Saturday, and, at this stage, looks like little more than a platoon player against lefties during the playoffs.

On the plus side, the Dodgers eventually came to their senses at shortstop, allowing dynamic rookie Corey Seager to wrest the starting job away from fading veteran Jimmy Rollins. It was only 27 games, but Seager’s .337/.425/.561 late-season spree gave the Dodgers offense a jolt, and it could help mitigate some of the regression seen by the team’s second-half slumpers.

And if you’re trying to read the tea leaves on defense, that probably won’t offer much help on either side: Per Baseball Info Solutions, the two teams tied in the middle of the NL pack in Defensive Runs Saved, with 13 each.

The Mets know Jeurys Familia is their closer, but who will be his setup man?

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images The Mets know that Jeurys Familia is their closer, but who will be his setup man?

Bullpens/Benches

The upside to Collins’s likely refusal to platoon his lefty hitters is that he’ll have some options off the bench, led by Lagares. Lefty Kelly Johnson offers a potent and versatile option from the other side of the plate, and he could slide into one of several different positions if Collins elects to double-switch.

GM Sandy Alderson fortified the bullpen at the deadline, so the Mets have some viable options ahead of lights-out closer Jeurys Familia. Before a rough September, late-July pickup Tyler Clippard looked set to be the primary setup man. Instead, we could see Addison Reed, who was acquired from the Diamondbacks in late August, take over as Familia’s deputy. Erik Goeddel and Hansel Robles have also looked really good at times, and they could each pitch important innings if the Mets opt to pull any of their starters early.

Alderson’s counterparts — Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi, & Co. — had the Dodgers’ unlimited riches at their disposal last offseason. But rather than spend for superstars, they went to great lengths to build roster depth during hot stove season and into 2015, which could prove vital in the playoffs. Kike Hernandez has been terrific as a multi-position threat who can hit, and he’ll likely see plenty of action. Rollins and Chase Utley provide added experience. There’s also a panoply of right-handed outfield bats to choose from: Even with Scott Van Slyke’s hand injury knocking him out for the NLDS, the Dodgers have Puig, Chris Heisey, and Justin Ruggiano at their disposal.

As for the non-Jansen portion of the bullpen that struggled last year, the Dodgers didn’t spend much money to upgrade there either. Instead, Friedman and Mattingly used the season as an audition process, eventually landing on Chris Hatcher (27.1 percent strikeout rate) as the team’s likely right-handed setup man and Luis Avilan (18 strikeouts and a 5.17 ERA in 15.2 innings after coming over in a deadline deal with the Braves) as the top lefty. If you’re looking for a super-sleeper out of the pen, Joel Peralta could be the answer. After appearing washed up for much of the season, the 39-year-old right-hander hiked both the velocity and spin rate of his pitches late in the season, and he’s been near-unhittable over the past month.

The Call

If the Mets can steal a win in the first two games in Los Angeles, they’re a strong bet to take the series. They have the starting pitching talent to nearly match up with luminaries like Kershaw and Greinke, and the most likely victory scenario against that pair is something like a 3-2 win. Because, for as great as Cespedes is and as strong as the Mets offense has been over the past two-plus months, this is a decidedly weaker club if Collins sticks to his left-handed regulars against someone as good as Kershaw on full rest. Murphy, Granderson, and Conforto crush right-handers, though, so that Syndergaard vs. Greinke Game 2 tilt could land in the Mets’ favor. Pull that off, and the Mets get the underbelly of the Dodgers rotation: Anderson vs. the electric Harvey in Game 3, and Kershaw on a pitch count against the really-good-when-healthy Matz in Game 4. That’s how I see the series playing out: the Mets dropping Game 1, then winning the next three. Mets in four.

This post has been updated to correct how long it has been since the Mets have won a playoff series, and to remove an erroneous reference to Adam Wainwright winning a Cy Young Award.

Filed Under: 2015 MLB Playoffs, MLB, MLB Playoffs, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, NLDS, 2015 World Series, Mike Matheny, Joe Maddon, Don Mattingly, Terry Collins, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Yoenis Cespedes, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Corey Seager, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Schwarber

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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