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NLDS Preview: Cardinals vs. Nationals

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You can’t predict baseball, but you can at least lay out the parameters. So let’s take a look at what the Cardinals and Nationals have in store for us in the National League Division Series.

The Teams

St. Louis Cardinals (88-74) vs. Washington Nationals (98-64)

The Matchups

Game 1 Sunday in St. Louis: Gio Gonzalez vs. Adam Wainwright
Game 2 Monday in St. Louis: Jordan Zimmermann vs. Jaime Garcia
Game 3 Wednesday in Washington, D.C.: Chris Carpenter vs. Edwin Jackson
Game 4 (if necessary) Thursday in Washington, D.C.
Game 5 (if necessary) Friday in Washington, D.C.

Analysis: The Nationals’ postseason rotation would obviously look far more fierce with Stephen Strasburg active, but you already knew that. And these previews are supposed to be informative. Gonzalez, a Cy Young Award candidate in the National League, posted a stellar 2.89 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 32 starts this year for the NL East champions, tallying 207 strikeouts over 199 1/3 innings. But he was almost a full run worse on the road (3.31 ERA) than at home (2.28 ERA) and he has a 4.2 career BB/9. The Cardinals, meanwhile, finished with the highest collective on-base percentage in the major leagues this season.

Beating Gonzalez in Game 1 would put the Cards in a pretty great spot. Game 2 starter Garcia has a 2.48 career ERA at home and matches up well against a Nats lineup that relies heavily on left-handed hitters Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche. There’s a decent chance that 88-win St. Louis could be up 2-0 on 98-win Washington before the five-game series shifts to the nation’s capital. You have Bud Selig to thank for that one.

The Storylines

  • The Nats beat the Cards in four out of seven games during the regular season and outscored ’em 43-40.
  • Zimmermann had a 2.36 ERA in 16 road starts this season and a 3.54 ERA in 16 starts in Washington. If the Nationals drop Game 1 at Busch Stadium, he could be a stabilizing force the next day.
  • Wainwright showed some signs of fatigue in early September, but his final regular season start was against this same Nationals team and he held them to one earned run over six innings while striking out five. He’s been telling reporters all summer that his surgically-repaired right elbow is 100 percent healthy.
  • E-Jax started opposite Wainwright in that aforementioned game, yielding eight earned runs while recording only four outs against the team he won the World Series with in 2011. That game was played at Busch Stadium. Jackson should feel a little more comfortable at home in Nationals Park for Game 3.
  • Carpenter made a surprise return to the Cardinals’ rotation in mid-September after being ruled out for the year with thoracic outlet syndrome. He looked fairly sharp in his three starts down the stretch, posting a 3.71 ERA and 12/3 K/BB ratio in 17 innings against the Cubs, Astros and Reds. The veteran righty was an animal in the postseason last October and can be effective even when he doesn’t have his best stuff.
  • It’s an odd thing in a series that features big names like Matt Holliday, Ryan Zimmerman, Carlos Beltran, Jayson Werth and Yadier Molina, but the player most casual fans will tune in to see this week is the 19-year-old Harper. He registered a 1.043 OPS over his final 126 regular-season plate appearances and told CSN Washington’s Mark Zuckerman on Saturday that he has no nerves about playing in his first postseason game. Harper has been overshadowed somewhat this year by the Angels’ Mike Trout. With the Halos failing to make the playoffs, Bryce gets the phenom spotlight all to himself.
  • The Nationals will have a distinct advantage if these games are close in the later innings because of their dominant bullpen. Tyler Clippard struggled in September but has the goods to bounce back now that he’s been given a week of rest. Drew Storen has been exceptional his entire young career and Sean Burnett is an elite setup man. The Cards have some nice, battle-tested relievers in Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs and Lance Lynn, but there’s a clear talent discrepancy. Oh, and St. Louis will carry only one lefty in the ‘pen: Mark Rzepczynski. He had a 4.24 ERA in 46 2/3 innings during the regular season.

Prediction

At the MLB level, anything can happen in a five-game series. And there’s certainly no glaring favorite here. But the Cardinals get to open with two consecutive games at home, where they were 50-31 this season. A quick two-game lead would put the younger, less experienced Nationals roster on the ropes.

CARDINALS WIN THE SERIES 3-1

The Yankees are paying $86 million for a one-inning reliever

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OXON HILL, MD — The Yankees signing of Aroldis Chapman late Wednesday night came as something of a surprise. And the money — $86 million — was something of a shock. Yes, we knew that Chapman was going to break the bank and likely set a record as the highest paid relief pitcher in history, but seeing it in black and white like that is still rather jarring.

In the coming days, many people who attempt to analyze and contextualize this signing will do so by pointing to the 2016 playoffs and the unconventional use of relievers by Terry Francona and the Indians and Joe Maddon of the Cubs. They’ll talk about how the paradigm of bullpen use has shifted and how relief pitchers have taken on a new importance in today’s game. Chapman’s astronomical salary, therefore, will be described as somehow more reasonable and somewhat less shocking than it first seems.

Don’t buy that jive for a second.

Yes, Andrew Miller and, to some extent, Chapman himself were used unconventionally in the 2016 playoffs, but not long into the 2017 season we will see that as an exception, not the rule. And not just because Chapman showed himself unable to hold up to that level of use in the playoffs. It will be the exception because the Yankees have shown no inclination whatsoever to deviate from traditional bullpen usage in the past and there is no reason to expect that they will do so with Chapman in the future.

As you no doubt remember, the Yankees had Chapman, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller for the first half of 2016. Such an imposing back end of a bullpen has rarely been seen in recent history. All of them, however, were used, more or less, as one-inning-a-piece guys and no real effort was ever made to break any bullpen usage paradigms or to shorten games the way many applauded Terry Francona for doing in the playoffs.

Miller pitched 44 games for the Yankees, totaling 45.1 innings. He pitched more than a single inning on only three occasions. Chapman pitched 31 games for the Yankees, amassing 31.1 innings. He was used for more than one inning only twice. Betances worked in 73 games, totaling 73 innings. On 11 occasions he pitched more than one inning.  It was unconventional for a team to have three relievers that good, but they were not, in any way, used unconventionally. Nor is there any reason to expect Chapman to be used unconventionally in 2017, especially given that Miller is not around and Chapman has shown no real ability to be stretched for multiple innings for a sustained period.

None of which is to say that having Chapman around is a bad thing or that he is any less of a closer than his reputation suggests. It’s merely to say that the Yankees paying Chapman unprecedented money for a closer should not be justified by the alleged new importance of relief pitchers or that changing role for them we heard so much about in the playoffs. Indeed, I suspect that that changing role applies only to pitcher use in the playoffs. And I do not suspect that this transaction alone pushes the Yankees into serious playoff contention, making that temporary unconventionality something of a moot point in New York for the foreseeable future.

It is almost certain that the Yankees are paying $86 million for the same one-inning closer Aroldis Chapman has been for his entire seven-year career. His contract may or may not prove to be a good one for New York based on how he performs, but don’t let anyone tell you now, in Decemeber 2016, that it’s better than you think because Chapman will somehow transform into a 1970s-style relief ace or something.

Report: Yankees sign Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million deal

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Update (12:02 AM EST): Rosenthal adds that Chapman’s contract includes an opt-out clause after three seasons, a full no-trade clause for the first three years of the contract, and a limited no-trade clause for the final two years.

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Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that the Yankees have signed closer Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million contract. Mark Melancon recently set the record for a contract earned by a reliever at $62 million over four years. Chapman blew that out of the water and many are surprised he didn’t fetch more.

Chapman, 28, began the 2016 season with the Yankees but he was traded to the Cubs near the end of July in exchange for four prospects. The Cubs, of course, would go on to win the World Series in large part due to Chapman. The lefty finished the regular season with a 1.55 ERA, 36 saves, and a 90/18 K/BB ratio in 58 innings between the two teams.

Chapman was the best reliever on the free agent market and, because he was traded midseason, he didn’t have draft pick compensation attached to him.

The Yankees don’t seem to be deterred by Chapman’s domestic violence issue from last offseason, resulting in a 30-game suspension to begin the 2016 regular season.