There are no sure things anymore. Last week, physicists at CERN, the European organization for nuclear research, reported that they had measured a subatomic particle traveling faster than the speed of light. If the finding holds up, it will topple Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity — the foundation of modern physics. The scientific community wouldn’t be more stunned if someone published a convincing proof that 2+2 equals 5.
If even the speed of light is no longer an absolute limit, then what hope do we have for predicting MLB playoff outcomes? Sometimes bad teams win, sometimes good teams lose, and no matter how sophisticated our prediction methods are, in the end we’re all just guessing. (See Wednesday night for details.) Now that we’ve established that, let’s proceed.
The Brewers went all-in this season, cashing in every top prospect in their farm system for Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke, and the move worked masterfully. Despite a shaky defense and a startling lack of depth, the Brewers won their first division title in 29 years and a franchise-record 96 games.
The Brewers lack a legitimate Cy Young candidate this year, but they have the best 1-2-3 of any playoff team this side of Philadelphia. Gallardo has struck out 200 batters in all three of his full seasons in the majors, and he’s just 25; there might be a Cy Young somewhere in his future. Marcum’s changeup baffled National League hitters as much as it did AL hitters when he was a Blue Jay; batters averaged just .232/.284/.372 against him this season. And Greinke — who pitched Wednesday night as the Brewers secured home-field advantage in the first round1 — might be the best of the three.
Home-field advantage means more to the Brewers than anyone else — they had a losing record on the road, but were an amazing 57-24 at home, including 15-0 when Greinke started. It’s not entirely clear why they played so much better at Miller Park, but at this point in the season, explanations matter less than results — the Brewers pulled out all the stops to win their final game and start the playoffs at home.
Greinke’s 3.83 ERA is the highest of the trio, but he finished the season with 201 strikeouts and 45 walks. His xFIP — a measure of what his ERA “should” have been given an average defense and average luck — was 2.56, the best in the major leagues. Greinke already has a Cy Young award on his mantle — he won it with the Royals in 2009 — and aside from Justin Verlander there isn’t a pitcher in this postseason more likely to set the baseball world abuzz with a 15-strikeout masterpiece in October. Veteran lefty Randy Wolf rounds out the quartet; Wolf is good for 200 league-average innings year after year, which is to say he’s a hell of a no. 4 starter.
Sometimes you get lucky. Two years ago John Axford was a prototypical hard thrower with no idea where the ball was going, indistinguishable from dozens of other minor league pitchers. Today, he’s one of the best closers in the NL; only Mariano Rivera had a better ERA among playoff closers than Axford’s 1.95 mark this season. After walking six batters per nine innings in the minors, he’s cut his walk rate in half in the majors.
Francisco Rodriguez isn’t the same K-Rod who won five playoff games and propelled the 2002 Angels to a world championship, but he’s still awfully good. Rodriguez has struck out more than a man per inning in every season of his career. He’s still the same hothead he’s always been — most recently bitching about the lack of save opportunities that have come his way since the Brewers rescued him from the Mets at midseason. Behind him, Takashi Saito (2.10 ERA) and LaTroy Hawkins (2.42) are effective setup men when healthy. Given that they’re a combined 79 years old, their continued health is anything but guaranteed, but they start the playoffs at 100 percent.
The most interesting thing about the Brewers’ bullpen is who’s not there — a left-handed reliever. The Brewers have gotten a combined 26 innings (and a 7.62 ERA) from southpaw relievers all season. Manager Ron Roenicke, who was a coach on that 2002 Angels team, is aware that the Angels won the World Series despite lacking a reliable left-handed relief option for most of the season. Playing matchups in the late innings is a fine idea when you have the personnel. The Brewers don’t, so Roenicke doesn’t get cute — his right-handed relievers have the stuff to get hitters out from both sides. Southpaw Chris Narveson, who worked as the Brewers’ fifth starter all season, might give Roenicke a left-handed option in the bullpen, but expect Roenicke to rely on the formula that’s worked until now.
RF Corey Hart (R)
CF Nyjer Morgan (L)
LF Ryan Braun (R)
1B Prince Fielder (L)
2B Rickie Weeks (R)
3B Jerry Hairston (R)/Casey McGehee (R)
SS Yuniesky Betancourt (R)
C Jonathan Lucroy (R)
C George Kottaras (L)
OF Carlos Gomez (R)
OF Mark Kotsay (L)
UT Craig Counsell (L)
3B Taylor Green (L) or SS Josh Wilson (R)
The Brewers offense lives or dies with the heart of its lineup, as Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are arguably the best 3-4 combination in the game. Braun might have taken the mantle of being the NL’s best right-handed hitter away from Albert Pujols. He finished second in the league in batting average (.332), led the NL in slugging (.597) and OPS (.994), stole a career-high 32 bases, and struck out just 93 times, the fewest in his career. Fielder, in his free-agent walk year, hit .299/.415/.566 with 38 homers and 107 walks. Corey Hart (.285/.356/.510) is an unconventional but highly effective leadoff hitter, and Rickie Weeks, who missed six weeks with a sprained ankle, is back to full health and hit .269/.350/.468.
The Brewers’ biggest flaw is the left side of the infield. Yuniesky Betancourt is the Will Rogers of the batter’s box; he never met a pitch he didn’t like. He hit .252 with 13 homers, but drew just 16 walks all year, leading to a horrendous .271 OBP. Casey McGehee was even worse, hitting .223/.280/.346 at third base. And defensively, let’s just say the two of them have moves like Jagger. Mind you, Mick Jagger is 68 years old.
McGehee has been so bad that Jerry Hairston, a 35-year-old career utility player, started at third base in three of the team’s last four games of the season. But with or without Hairston, the bottom third of the Milwaukee lineup is simply not playoff-caliber, and the lack of a big stick off the bench means Roenicke can’t even call on a pinch-hitter in a key situation.
The Brewers have their flaws, and they have astonishingly little depth. But in the postseason, when off days are plentiful and no one plans for tomorrow, depth doesn’t matter much. They have as much star talent as any team in this postseason, and they’re a formidable matchup for any team.
The Diamondbacks, who lost 97 games last year, clinched the NL West with a week to spare, and the most surprising part of their season is how unsurprising it feels. Only two teams have previously made the playoffs the year after losing 97 games (and not one has after losing more than 97) — and one of those teams was the 1999 Diamondbacks. And yet Arizona is no fluke; it was legitimately the best team in the division.
The Diamondbacks’ rotation starts with Ian Kennedy, who isn’t nearly as good as his 21-4 record suggests, or even as good as his 2.88 ERA suggests — his xFIP was 3.49. But he’s plenty good, and Game 2 starter Dan Hudson (3.49 ERA, 169 strikeouts to 50 walks in 222 innings) is just a tick behind him.
The rotation starts to break down after that. Manager Kirk Gibson is leaning toward giving the Game 3 start to Joe Saunders, who makes up for what he lacks in talent with age and experience. Saunders is a left-hander who operates with more guile than stuff, and it shows: Despite a respectable 3.69 ERA, he’s barely struck out a man every other inning, and has allowed 29 home runs in 212 innings. Rookie Josh Collmenter strikes out a higher percentage of batters, walks fewer, and allows fewer home runs. But he throws even softer than Saunders, and the Diamondbacks don’t trust that his funky delivery will continue to fool hitters, so he’ll slot in as the fourth starter. It’s a rotation that the Red Sox would have killed for in September, but it’s a tier below the other NL division winners.
The Arizona bullpen is solid but top-heavy. J.J. Putz has quietly had an excellent season, with a 2.21 ERA and less than a baserunner allowed per inning. David Hernandez has done fine work as his wingman, including 75 strikeouts in 68 innings. Behind those two the Diamondbacks have struggled to find a reliable third reliever. They traded for Brad Ziegler and have been rewarded with a 1.74 ERA, but Ziegler is a sidearmer, and like most pitchers of his ilk, he is helpless against left-handed hitters, who get a great look at the ball from his delivery. In his career, left-handers are batting more than 100 points higher than right-handers (.324 to .219) and slugging more than 200 points higher (.476 to .268).
Ziegler is matched from the other side by rookie Joe Paterson, a left-handed sidearmer the Diamondbacks selected in last winter’s Rule 5 draft. Paterson has appeared in 62 games this season, but somehow has managed to throw just 34 innings. (He has not retired more than three batters in any outing.) Ziegler and Paterson, used judiciously, combine to form one quality reliever. That leaves Bryan Shaw, who was in the minors four months ago, and Micah Owings, who is more notable for his hitting2 than for anything he’s done on the mound.
Owings has a career line of .286/.313/.507 as a hitter, and in 203 at-bats has hit 14 doubles and nine home runs. He is almost certainly the best-hitting pitcher baseball has seen in at least 30 years. Given his career 4.91 ERA, there are some who think he missed his true calling.
The Diamondbacks have guys they trust to pitch the first six and last two innings of every ballgame, but they have trouble bridging the gap. Don’t be surprised if a seventh-inning blowup costs them a game this October.
LF Gerardo Parra (L)
2B Aaron Hill (R)
RF Justin Upton (R)
C Miguel Montero (L)
1B Paul Goldschmidt (R)
CF Chris Young (R)
3B Ryan Roberts (R)
SS Willie Bloomquist (R)
1B Lyle Overbay (L)
UT John McDonald (R)
3B/1B Geoff Blum (S)
C Henry Blanco (R)
3B Sean Burroughs (L)
Offensively, the Diamondbacks’ lineup centers around the fulcrum that is Justin Upton, who isn’t the best player in the National League this year (that would be Matt Kemp), but who is a legitimate MVP candidate. Upton, who turned 24 in August, hit .289/.369/.529 in the regular season, with 21 stolen bases. His brother B.J. stole the postseason spotlight three Octobers ago by hitting seven homers in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and now it might be Justin’s turn to shine.
Upton bats in front of catcher Miguel Montero, who hit .282/.351/.469 and is one of baseball’s most underrated players. Elsewhere, the Diamondbacks have a lot of puzzle pieces they’re trying to fit into a cohesive lineup. Chris Young has pop (38 doubles, 20 homers) and draws walks (78), but hit .236 this season. At third base, Ryan Roberts sang the same tune with 19 homers and 66 walks but a .249 average. Left fielder Gerardo Parra provides the opposite skill set, hitting .292 but with only eight homers and 43 walks.
Arizona bolstered its lineup with two late-season acquisitions. It traded second baseman Kelly Johnson to Toronto for Aaron Hill, whose batting numbers jumped from .225/.270/.313 to .315/.386/.492 for the Diamondbacks, which proves either that anything can happen with small sample sizes, or that the NL is a much crappier league. And the Diamondbacks closed a revolving door at first base by promoting Paul Goldschmidt, who slugged 30 homers in 103 games in Double-A before being called up August 1, and has slammed eight more homers and batted .250/.333/.474 since.
The Diamondbacks have one hole in the lineup, which was created in July when shortstop Stephen Drew fractured his ankle. In his place, Arizona has been forced to slum with Willie Bloomquist, who combines the offense of a utility player (he’s hitting .266/.317/.340) with the defense of a utility player. John McDonald, acquired for his superior glove work, has gone 10-for-59 in a Diamondbacks uniform.
The Diamondbacks’ unheralded advantage is their defense. Parra is an elite defender in left field, Young is above average in center, and Upton is very good (albeit error-prone) in right field. Montero has thrown out 40 percent of attempted base-stealers, the highest percentage in the NL. All season long, the Arizona defense has helped its pitching staff perform above their abilities.
The Diamondbacks are a good team and a great story, but they’re not a great team — not with just two above-average starting pitchers, two reliable relievers, and two elite hitters.
On paper, these two teams are very close. The Brewers won 96 games, the Diamondbacks won 94; the Brewers outscored their opponents by 83 runs, the Diamondbacks by 69. But in a head-to-head matchup, the Brewers have small advantages everywhere.
The Diamondbacks have two borderline-elite starting pitchers; the Brewers have three, each of whom is better than either of the Diamondbacks’ two. John Axford is a more overpowering closer than J.J. Putz, and Rodriguez is a better set-up man than Hernandez. The Brewers can call Justin Upton with Ryan Braun, then raise with Prince Fielder. The fifth-best hitter in Milwaukee’s lineup (Nyjer Morgan) is a doppelganger for the third-best hitter in Arizona’s (Gerardo Parra). And while the Brewers have lineup ciphers at shortstop and third base, the Diamondbacks have their own no-hit, no-glove problem at shortstop.
If the Diamondbacks have an edge, it’s on defense, and it’s possible they may steal a game in the series when the Brewers kick the ball around the field. They would also be wise to deploy Brad Ziegler early and often: The Brewers’ lineup tilts heavily to the right side, with only two left-handed hitters on most days, and Ziegler has shown the ability to go two or three innings in an outing. If Gibson goes to Ziegler at the first sign of trouble in the middle innings, and makes judicious use of the intentional walk to get around having to pitch to Prince Fielder, the Diamondbacks may make this a series.
Ultimately, however, the Brewers are the more talented team, they have home-field advantage, and they’re our pick to win. With the usual caveat that anything can happen in a five-game series, we’ll predict Milwaukee in four games.
The Phillies set a franchise record with their 102nd win Wednesday night, and this is a team that’s been around since 1883. The Phillies could have won even more games if they hadn’t lost eight in a row immediately after clinching a playoff spot. Apparently it’s a smart idea to trade for Roy Halladay and throw millions at Cliff Lee. Who knew?
The first thing you have to know about the Phillies is that their starters pitch better than any other playoff team does anything. The Phillies have a team ERA of 3.02, the lowest by any major league team in more than 20 years. Their starting rotation has a combined ERA of 2.86, the best since the 1985 Dodgers. Roy Halladay led all National League pitchers with 7.4 bWAR (Wins Above Replacement, per baseball-reference.com). Cliff Lee (6.9) was tied for second with Clayton Kershaw; Cole Hamels (5.4) finished fifth.
The Phillies, in other words, have three of the five best starting pitchers in the league. Even the Atlanta Braves, during their dynastic run from 1991 to 2005, had three of the league’s five best starters only once, in 1996.3 Heavy analysis is neither possible nor necessary here: Whether they’re facing Halladay’s relentless cutter, or Lee’s superhuman fastball command, or Hamels’ disappearing changeup, opponents will have a mountain to climb in almost every postseason game. Even the Phillies’ fourth starter is formidable: Roy Oswalt, suffering through the worst year of his career, is still a slightly above-average starter.
Surprisingly, the 2005 Houston Astros, with Roger Clemens (1st), Andy Pettitte (3rd), and Roy Oswalt (5th), had three of the five best starters in the NL per bWAR. They rode their rotation all the way to the franchise’s first NL pennant.
You’d rather have elite-level starting pitching than not, but it’s not entirely clear how much of a game-changer this is for the Phillies. Despite having the best sustained run of starting pitching in history, the Atlanta Braves went just 12-13 in playoff series from 1991 to 2005, and famously won just one World Series title, in 1995. Like Bob Veale4 said, “Good pitching will beat good hitting any time, and vice versa.”
This quote has also been popularly attributed to Yogi Berra. Yogi’s been connected to every famous quote in American history since the Gettysburg Address, so we’ll give Veale his moment in the sun.
Joe Blanton or David Herndon
The Phillies’ bullpen can’t hold a candle to its rotation, but it’s good enough, should Charlie Manuel even need it. Ryan Madson plunged yet another knife into the zombie conventional wisdom that claims that the ninth inning is different than other innings, and that closers are imbued with special qualities that other relievers lack. (No matter how many times it’s stabbed, the zombie will not die.) Madson had spent his entire career as a setup man, with just 20 career saves in eight seasons prior to 2011. Forced into the closer’s role when Brad Lidge’s shoulder shelved him to start the season, Madson has pitched as well as ever, if not better — a 2.37 ERA and 62 strikeouts against 8 unintentional walks, to go with his 32 saves.
Madson will be backed up by Lidge, who’s been his usual effective-but-wild self since returning in late July, along with Vance Worley, their excellent rookie starter who will be relegated to middle-relief duties given that playoff teams need only four starters. Kyle Kendrick and Michael Stutes provide long-relief and post-rain-delay insurance.
If there’s an Achilles’ heel on the Phillies’ pitching staff, it’s that their sole left-handed reliever, Antonio Bastardo, isn’t right. Four weeks ago Bastardo was enjoying a historic season — in 53 innings, he had allowed just 19 hits, and the .110 average he had allowed opposing batters to hit was the lowest in major league history. But since September 2, Bastardo has faced 30 batters, and allowed nine hits and seven walks. First the Phillies claimed Bastardo was just tired, then they suggested he was tipping his pitches. Whatever the problem is, a solution is still being sought — in his next-to-last outing he allowed five of six batters to reach base. (He finally threw a 1-2-3 inning on Tuesday night.) Without a healthy Bastardo, the Phillies lack a late-inning weapon who can neutralize the likes of Prince Fielder and Miguel Montero.
Even without a healthy Bastardo, the Phillies will keep runs off the board. Whether their offense will put runs on it is a more dicey question.
SS Jimmy Rollins (S)
2B Chase Utley (L)
RF Hunter Pence (R)
1B Ryan Howard (L)
CF Shane Victorino (S)
LF Raul Ibanez (L)
3B Placido Polanco (R)
C Carlos Ruiz (R)
OF John Mayberry (R)
C Brian Schneider (L)
OF Ben Francisco (R)
IF Wilson Valdez (R)
UT Michael Martinez (S)
1B Ross Gload (L)
The Phillies rank seventh in the NL in runs scored, but their ranking is deceptive in that the lineup they head into the playoffs with is better than the lineup they used for most of the season. Hunter Pence, acquired at the trading deadline, has hit .324/.394/.560 as a Phillie, giving the team the impact right-handed bat it was missing. Chase Utley and Placido Polanco, who both missed wide swaths of the season, are back to full health.
Even so, this is a lineup that can be pitched to. Pence isn’t this good a hitter; for the season he’s batting .314/.370/.502. His .502 slugging average leads the team, and the team leader in OBP is catcher Carlos Ruiz, whose .371 OBP is larded with intentional walks from batting eighth in front of the pitcher. Chase Utley, batting .259/.344/.425, is having his worst season since 2005. It might just be an off-year, but Utley is 32 years old. Craig Biggio and Ryne Sandberg lost their groove at age 33 and never got it back; Roberto Alomar went from All-Star to below-average at age 34. The Chase Utley who hit seven homers in 11 World Series games in 2008 and 2009 may be gone for good.
The heart of the Phillies’ lineup is particularly susceptible to good left-handed pitching. Cleanup hitter Ryan Howard still can’t hit southpaws; he’s batting .224/.286/.347 against them this year, with just three homers in 170 at-bats. Raul Ibanez, batting sixth, is increasingly having trouble hitting anyone — his .245/.289/.419 line is his worst in more than a decade — but against left-handers he’s utterly impotent, with a line of .212/.232/.353. It thus falls to Shane Victorino, sandwiched between them, to put the fear of God into lefties. Victorino is a switch-hitter but has always hit left-handers better than right-handers, and this year is no different. A playoff game may at some point come down to what Victorino does against a LOOGY (left-handed, one-out guy) with the game on the line.
The Phillies don’t have a particularly strong bench, with the exception of John Mayberry Jr., who as a 27-year-old rookie5 may have finally tapped into his potential as a former first-round draft pick: He’s hitting .273/.341/.513, better numbers than he ever put up in the minor leagues. But Wilson Valdez, Ross Gload, Michael Martinez, and Brian Schneider are backups for a reason: They can’t hit.
Strictly speaking, Mayberry is not a rookie, as he spent more than 45 days on the Phillies’ roster during the summer of 2009. But he came into the season with 69 career at-bats — he’s a rookie in the practical, if not the legal sense.
The Phillies are doing themselves no favors by choosing to go with 11 pitchers and 14 hitters on their playoff roster, which keeps outfielder Domonic Brown on the outside looking in. The Phillies have essentially elected to keep a seventh reliever over a seventh bench player, which is ridiculous when you consider not only the frequent days of rest during the playoffs, but the fact that the Big Three — Halladay, Lee, and Hamels — have averaged 7.15 innings a start all season. In the non-DH league, the Phillies are setting themselves up for a situation in which someone like Gload has to bat for the pitcher in a key situation, all so that they’re fully prepared in the event of a 21-inning game.
The Phillies’ lineup lacks the premium talent of a Ryan Braun or Justin Upton in the middle of it, but also lacks any automatic outs at the bottom of the lineup. There will be games when they score just two or three runs; with their rotation, that might be all they need.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals will go as far as Adam Wainwright’s right arm will take them. Wainwright, along with fellow starters Matt Morris, Bob Tewksbury, and John Tudor, gave the Redbirds a quality start every time out, and a bullpen headlined by Todd Worrell and Bruce Sutter made sure the leads held up. Willie McGee and Lou Brock ignited the offense from the top of the lineup, insuring there were lots of men in scoring position when Bill White and Stan Musial batted wait a sec. I’ve just been informed that none of these players actually suited up for the Cardinals this season.
Alright, I have a confession to make: I have no idea who these guys are. I stopped paying attention to St. Louis in late August, around the time they fell 10 games out of the playoff race and were struggling to stay above .500. Most baseball fans did. But the Cardinals finished the season 23-9 — despite outscoring their opponents by just 34 runs in those 32 games — and made up four games on the Atlanta Braves in the last five days of the season. And so here we are, with Tony La Russa taking a team to the postseason for the 14th time in his career. He’s the Freddy Krueger of baseball, only if Freddy became a vegetarian and mastered the art of the double-switch.
The Cardinals’ rotation comes straight off the Dave Duncan assembly line: mostly veterans, mostly right-handed, and mostly guys who pitch off their sinker. (None of the Cardinals’ projected starters gave up more than 16 homers this season.) There’s not a weak link in the bunch — all four pitchers finished with an ERA between 3.39 and 3.79. But there’s not a transcendent ace to be found, either; the loss of Wainwright to Tommy John surgery in the spring took care of that. Carpenter comes the closest — while he’s not the same pitcher who led the NL in ERA two years ago, he led the staff with 191 strikeouts and led the league in starts and innings pitched. The need to pitch him on the season’s final day (he threw a two-hit shutout) will keep him out until Game 3, however.
Carpenter is overqualified to start Game 3, and Garcia, the sole left-hander in the group, matches up with any fourth starter in the playoffs. The problem is that they have to pitch Lohse and Jackson first. If the Cardinals can steal one of the first two games, they’ll have the pitching momentum on their side.
Motte and Salas are sort of co-closers, and they’re both excellent. Motte quietly took over the glamour role in September, earning eight of his nine saves in the season’s final month, but Salas didn’t cough up the job so much as Motte — armed with a new cut fastball — stole it from him. Motte finished with a 2.25 ERA, Salas with a 2.28 ERA, and they both allowed fewer than one baserunner per inning. Whichever one La Russa chooses to use in the eighth inning becomes the best setup man in the NL playoffs.
Rzepczynski and Rhodes give the hyperaggressive La Russa two left-handed relief options at his disposal, which is probably one fewer than he’d like. Rhodes is 41 and was released by the Texas Rangers earlier this year, but he’s been getting left-handed hitters out one batter at a time for close to two decades, and La Russa won’t be afraid to turn to the big lefty in a tight spot. But Rzepczynski is the true tactical weapon here. Acquired from the Blue Jays at the deadline as part of the Colby Rasmus trade, Scrabble Man has been death to left-handed hitters his entire career — they have a line of .205/.289/.284 against him. Given the off days in the schedule, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he pitches in every game of this series.
Rzepczynski is nicely paired with Dotel, also part of the Rasmus trade, whose slider makes him deadly against right-handed hitters (they batted .154/.198/.211 against Dotel this season). La Russa practically invented the one-out reliever, so expect him to be proactive in trying to get the platoon advantage in the middle innings. Boggs and Sanchez are more than adequate insurance policies for an extra-inning game, and McClellan is the guy they turn to if one of their starters gets blown out in the second inning. Having them around gives La Russa the freedom to go crazy with situational relievers when the, um, situation dictates it.
SS Rafael Furcal (S)
CF Jon Jay (L)
1B Albert Pujols (R)
RF Lance Berkman (S)
LF Allan Craig (R)
C Yadier Molina (R)
3B David Freese (R)
2B Skip Schumaker (L)/Ryan Theriot (R)
LF Matt Holliday (R)
SS/2B Nick Punto (S)
C Gerald Laird (R)
UT Daniel Descalso (L)
UT Tyler Greene (R)
The biggest question surrounding the Cardinals’ roster is the status of Matt Holliday, who suffered a finger injury on September 14, has played in only four games since, and was forced to leave Tuesday night’s game early. Holliday has hit .296/.388/.525 this season, and losing him would set back the Cardinals’ chances to upset Philadelphia.
That said, even without Holliday the Cardinals field a fantastic lineup — they scored 762 runs this year, 27 more than any other NL team. Albert Pujols was only the third-best hitter on the Cardinals, behind Holliday and Lance Berkman, who hit .301/.412/.547. True, Pujols had the worst season of his career, failing to hit .300 or drive in 100 runs for the first time. (He hit .299 and drove in 99.) Pujols may be showing signs of age — assuming cyborgs get old — but the dip in his overall numbers masks the fact that he was his usual Pujolsian self during the last four months of the season; since June 2 he’s hitting .321/.386/.620.
There’s more to this offense than just the stars. If Holliday can’t go, he’ll be replaced by Allan Craig, who hit .315/.362/.555 in 75 games this season. Yadier Molina hit .305/.349/.465 to go with his Gold Glove-caliber defense. Jon Jay took over for the much-maligned Rasmus in center field and hit .297/.344/.424. Rafael Furcal, rescued from a nightmare situation in Los Angeles, added some offense at shortstop with a .255/.316/.418 line. David Freese quietly hit .297/.350/.441 at third base. The Cardinals go into the playoffs with above-average hitters at every position but second base, and Skip Schumaker didn’t embarrass himself by hitting .283/.333/.351.
Furcal tweaked his hamstring a few days ago, and his presence in the lineup on Saturday is no sure thing. If he can’t go, Nick Punto will start at shortstop and Jay will lead off. Ryan Theriot may start over Schumaker at second base against left-handers. But even at less than full strength, this lineup will score runs.
All this offense comes at a cost: defense. The Cardinals ranked 20th in the majors in defensive efficiency, not surprising when you consider that nearly half their lineup is playing out of position. Berkman is a first baseman playing right field; Jay is a corner outfielder playing center. Schumaker is an outfielder who’s been trying to fake it at second base for the past three years. It’s a worthwhile tradeoff, but for a team that lost a playoff game two years ago after Holliday dropped a routine fly ball with two outs in the ninth, the specter of a defensive meltdown looms again.
The Cardinals’ bench is constructed the way La Russa likes it — light on thump, but heavy on versatility. La Russa may have hurt baseball with his incurable need to push buttons and be prepared for every eventuality, but he’s generally helped his teams. Even when La Russa makes an inexplicable decision, like forcing the trade of his best young hitter,6 things have a way of working out for him. There’s a reason the Cardinals are here in the first place.
At the trading deadline, the Cardinals traded Colby Rasmus — who had feuded with La Russa for years — in a three-way deal that netted them Jackson, Rzepczynski, and Dotel. Rasmus is under contract for three more years, while Jackson and Dotel are free agents this winter — but Rasmus hit .173/.201/.316 for the Blue Jays after the trade. As bad a deal as that looked for the Cardinals at the time, without it they’re on a golf course right now.
The Phillies may live to regret sweeping Atlanta to end the regular season, which allowed the Cardinals to win the wild card after they had been given up for dead. St. Louis matches up better against the Phillies than either the Brewers or Diamondbacks do.
Everyone knows about the Phillies’ league-leading pitching staff, but the Cardinals’ league-leading offense merits equal attention. The Phillies have a transcendent rotation, with at least one (Halladay) and perhaps three future Hall of Famers. But the Cardinals counter with a Hall of Fame hitter in Pujols, and Berkman has a better case than you’d think. This isn’t going to be a repeat of last year’s NLDS, when the Phillies allowed four runs in three games and swept the series. Particularly if Pujols is back to form, the Cardinals will get their punches in.
Meanwhile, once the starters are out of the game the pitching advantage swings to St. Louis. Ryan Madson is the only sure thing in the Phillies’ bullpen; Bastardo may be hurt, and given the nasty, nasty thing Pujols did to Brad Lidge six years ago, I suspect the Phillies will do everything in their power to keep those two from facing off again. (For one thing, HD makes it a lot harder to disguise the urine stains on Lidge’s pants.) With Salas and Motte, and with Rzepczynski around to torture Ryan Howard ad infinitum, the Cardinals are much better situated to hold on to a late-inning lead.
The Phillies have a massive advantage in starting pitchers in Games 1 and 2, obviously. But if the Cardinals can manage a split of the first two games, they should hold their own with Carpenter and Garcia going against Hamels and Oswalt. St. Louis has the better offense, the better bullpen, and home field in Games 3 and 4. This has the potential to be a classic first-round series and the potential to be a massive upset.
The Phillies have the best starting rotation anyone has seen in years. Which will just make their first-round exit at the hands of a team that no one thought would even be here that much more galling. In a season in which a pair of titans have already suffered shocking late-season collapses, the Phillies will be the biggest to fall. I fully expect that by the end of this series, at least one Phillies pitcher will suffer from PTSD thanks to Albert Pujols. Philadelphia fans already hate me, so I might as well earn their scorn: St. Louis Cardinals in four games.
To read Jonah Keri’s look at the ALDS matchups, click here.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Arizona reliever David Hernandez as Daniel Rodriguez. Two instances of the error have been corrected.
Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website and co-hosts The Baseball Show with Rany and Joe podcast. He is one of the original founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.
Previously from Rany Jazayerli:
Rock Bottom in H-Town
Philadelphia Phillies: The End Is Nigh
On the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2011 turnaround
The Case for Carlos Beltran
The Cleveland Indians’ wheeling and dealing
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ playoff chances
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