NLDS Preview: Cardinals vs. Dodgers

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The Dodgers and the Cardinals have 35 National League pennants and sixteen World Championships between them. That said, there isn’t a ton of historical late season drama between these two teams. When the Gashouse Gang Cardinals were flying high, the Dodgers were bums. When those Jackie Robinson/Duke Snider Dodgers teams were manufacturing nostalgia, the Cardinals were often Stan Musial, a wish and a prayer.  Each franchise had some great 1960s teams and some great moments after that, but for most of their history they have see-sawed like birds on a bat.

Recent history has the Cardinals beating L.A. in the dramatic 1985 NLCS and once again topping the boys in blue in the 2004 division series.  Based on my uber-complicated scientific breakdown of this year’s NLDS — really, it involved beakers and a sextant and six different intellectual strains of alchemy — I have concluded that, once again, the Cardinals are going to beat the Dodgers.  Let’s see why, shall we?

2009 NLDS Probables 

Game 1: Chris Carpenter vs. Randy Wolf

Game 2: Adam Wainwright vs. Clayton Kershaw 

Game 3: Joel Piniero vs. Chad Billingsley. At least we think. UPDATE: Try Vicente Padilla!

Game 4:  Kyle Lohse or maybe a Lohse/Smoltz committee start or, if they’re in deep doo-doo, Carpenter on short rest vs. Dear God, the Dodgers have a decision to make, don’t they?

Game 5: Carpenter or Wainwright vs. Wolf or Kershaw.

As you can see, the starting pitching is where the rubber really hits the road in this series.  The Cardinals have what is almost certainly the best rotation in the playoffs, with two Cy Young candidates, a guy who never walks anybody, a totally serviceable fourth starter in Kyle Lohse, and the all-time postseason wins leader that is John Smoltz. And Tony La Russa is a total genius, so even if one of those guys lays and egg or gets slick balls or something, I’m sure he’ll be able to synthesize another starter out of some anti-matter and a few loose hairs found in an old Joaquin Andujar cap they found before demolishing the last Busch Stadium.

The Dodgers, in contrast, are kind of up the creek.  Billingsley has been erratic, having his last start skipped because of it.  He’s going to throw a simulated game today or tomorrow and unless something goes terribly wrong —  say, he gets simulatedly shelled — he should be the Game 3 guy. UPDATE: Or not.  Game 4 is going to be a toughie. Kuroda is hurt. Vicente Padilla pitched well yesterday, but the Rockies didn’t exactly throw their major league lineup out there. Jon Garland allowed five runs in 3 1/3 innings his last time out and is no one’s idea of a savior.  The Dodgers have had some decent rotation depth this year, but they are sorely lacking in high quality.  If I were Joe Torre, I’d consider a three-man rotation.

Upshot: I like Kershaw an awful lot and could totally see him shutting the Cards down, but I like the Cardinals in every other matchup. The Dodgers’ best chance to win this thing is based on the Cardinals mighty struggles vs. lefties this year, but if they can break through against either Wolf or Kershaw, L.A. is in deep trouble.

 

Offenses:  Both teams have a superstar (Pujols and Ramirez), a solid second banana (Holliday and Kemp) and a bunch of guys you can pitch to. To be fair, the Dodgers probably have a third banana in Ethier, and their offense is stronger from top to bottom, but that 1-2 punch is a doozy.  Of course, I’m reminded a bit of the Astros of the 1990s here, in that they always had a solid 1-2 in Bagwell and Biggio but would routinely get sent packing by the Braves or whoever.

Upshot: Ultimately, though, I just don’t think the Dodgers have the arms to shut both Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday down for five games, and as noted above, the runs will be hard to come by for L.A.

 

Bullpens: A lot of Dodgers fans are probably about ready to pounce on me for not noting that L.A. had the best bullpen in all of creation in 2009.  Fair point, but as Christina Kahrl points out here (sorry; subscription only), overall bullpen numbers can be misleading when the playoffs roll around.

Why? Because bullpen usage changes dramatically in the postseason. You don’t go six or seven arms deep in October, and you don’t save a guy for tomorrow when there may be no tomorrow. Indeed, if you cut things down to the top four or five relievers that a team is likely to use, the Cardinals’ Ryan Franklin, Kyle McClellan, Trever Miller and Dennys Reyes/Blake Hacksworth has actually been better than the Dodgers’ Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill, Ramon Troncoso/Ronald Belisario and Hong-Chih Kuo.

Upshot: The Dodgers pen is great, but the Cardinals is pretty darn good in its own right, even if it doesn’t look as sexy on paper. The difference certainly isn’t enough to neutralize the rotational differences and the mighty and just fury of Albert Pujols’ bat.

 

Overrated Angle: These games will be on TBS instead of FOX, so the “we must create a compelling storyline and drive it into the ground” thing won’t be quite as obvious, but I’m sure we’ll see one of two things hit hard and hit often: (a) Torre vs. La Russa: the battle of Hall of Fame managers!; and (b) Manny vs. Pujols: the battle of evil superstar vs. good superstar!  I’ll grant that those four guys are the biggest personalities in this series and thus will create some appeal to even the more common fans, but that’s all pretty boring, ain’t it?

Underrated Angle: The surprising balance of the Cardinals. Above comments notwithstanding, it’s not all Albert and Matt.  Yadier Molina had a great offensive season — especially for a Molina — and is outstanding behind the dish. Ludwick and Ankiel aren’t fabulous or anything, but they’re capable. Joel Piniero is not as big a falloff from Carpenter and Wainwright as most people think and, like I said, the Cardinals’ bullpen is being seriously undersold.  They’ll be a lot of talk about how both the Dodgers and the Cardinals skidded into the postseason, but the Cardinals (a) weren’t really playing for anything; and (b) are a better overall team in my estimation.

 

Prediction: Kershaw beats St. Louis in Game 2, but the Cardinals win it, 3-1 as the back end of the Dodgers’ rotation is exposed.

Brandon Belt signs $6.2 million deal, avoiding arbitration with Giants

Brandon Belt
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In a last-second compromise before a scheduled heading today, first baseman Brandon Belt and the Giants have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $6.2 million deal.

Belt requested $7.5 million and the Giants countered at $5.3 million, so they’ve settled slightly on the team-friendly side of the midpoint. Belt will be arbitration eligible again next season for the final time before hitting the open market as a free agent.

He’s coming off a very good season in which he hit .280 with 18 homers and an .834 OPS in 137 games and Belt has a lifetime .803 OPS through age 27, making him one of MLB’s most underrated all-around first baseman.

Orioles sign ex-Padres reliever Dale Thayer

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Right-hander Dale Thayer and the Orioles have agreed to a minor-league contract that includes an invitation to spring training.

Thayer had a rough 2015 season for the Padres, posting a 4.06 ERA and spending time in the minors, but he was a solid part of San Diego’s bullpen from 2012-2014 with a combined 3.02 ERA and 173/50 K/BB ratio in 188 innings.

At age 35 there’s no guarantee that Thayer will look good enough to claim a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he’s got a strong chance to wind up pitching middle relief for Baltimore.

Phillies acquire Taylor Featherston from Angels

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Taylor Featherston, who was designated for assignment by the Angels last week, has been traded to the Phillies for a player to be named later or cash.

Featherston stayed in the majors with the Angels for all of last season due to being a Rule 5 pick from the Rockies organization, but the 25-year-old infielder hit just .162 in 169 plate appearances.

He’s been much better in the minors, but nothing about his track record there screams quality regular and the Phillies are likely viewing him as a defense-first bench option for now.

Keith Law: The Braves have the best farm system in baseball

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Flags fly forever! Hooray for The Process championship!

Ah, sorry. This is about as much rooting as I’ll get to do this year, so cut me some slack.

This is the week when ESPN’s Keith Law releases his prospect and farm system rankings. He kicks off his content this week with a top-to-bottom ranking of all 30 farm systems. As a rule he limits his analysis to players who are currently in the minors and who have not yet exhausted their rookie of the year eligibility. The top system: the Atlanta Braves. The bottom: the Los Angeles Angels, about whom Law says “I’ve been doing these rankings for eight years now, and this is by far the worst system I’ve ever seen.” Enjoy Mike Trout, though, you guys.

If you want to know the reasons and the rankings of everyone in between you’ll have to get an ESPN Insider subscription. Sorry, I know everyone hates to pay for content on the Internet, but Keith and others who do this kind of work put a lot of damn work into it and this is what pays their bills. I typically don’t like to pay for content myself, but I do pay for an ESPN Insider subscription. It’s worth it for Law’s work alone. And though he drives me crazy sometimes, Buster Olney’s daily column/notes thing is also worth the money over the course of the year.