NLDS Preview: Pirates vs. Cardinals

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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 Pirates and Cardinals have in store for us in the National League Division Series.

The Teams

Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68) vs. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)

The Matchups

Game 1 Today in St. Louis: A.J. Burnett vs. Adam Wainwright
Game 2 Friday in St. Louis: Gerrit Cole vs. Lance Lynn
Game 3 Sunday in Pittsburgh: Joe Kelly vs. Francisco Liriano
Game 4 (if necessary) Monday in Pittsburgh: Undecided vs. Charlie Morton
Game 5 (if necessary) Wednesday in St. Louis

Overview: 

These teams are certainly no strangers to each other, having battled all year for the NL Central crown. The Pirates won the season series 10-9, but the Cardinals took care of business against their other opponents better than the Pirates did, taking the flag. It did take work, however, as Pittsburgh was in first place much longer than the Cards were, with St. Louis only passing them up for good in mid-September. the Cardinals only passed up Pittsburgh for good in mid-September.

But they are very different in terms of postseason experience. The Cardinals have been in the playoffs ten times in the past 14 years. The Pirates, as you may have heard once or twice, are back in the dance for the first time since 1992. Pittsburgh is the ultimate Cinderella story with a bandwagon of fans which grows by the day. St. Louis, it seems, is being cast as something akin to the Yankees this fall. That overdog team which is in it every year and which people are, quite frankly, getting a bit tired of seeing.

Thing is, though: such a narrative is fun and all, but it’s less than illuminating or explanatory. Only three games separated these two clubs. While most will favor the Cards and root for the Pirates, this series is anything but a mismatch.

Storylines

  • Each of these teams has a legitimate MVP candidate: Yadier Molina for the Cards and Andrew McCutchen for the Pirates. Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter will likely have some votes thrown his way as well. But McCutchen may be the most likely to dominate in this series. He showed on Tuesday that being a playoff newbie meant little, reaching base in each of his first four plate appearances and scoring once. And he is probably champing at the bit for Game 1 to start: he has a career line of .429/.452/.750 against Adam Wainwright.
  • That said, Wainwright has been dominant in his home park, where he will likely start twice if the series goes five games.  Pirates starter A.J. Burnett, however, is no great shakes on the road and has been blown up in Bush Stadium in the past.
  • The Pirates like to run, especially with Starling Marte and McCutchen. Molina is one of the best in the business at gunning down base runners, however, so if Clint Hurdle is hellbent on making things happen on the base paths he could be in for a rude awakening.
  • The Cardinals have some roster flux: closer Edward Mujica is on the playoff roster but he has lost his closer job after a miserable September. First baseman Allen Craig is off the roster with a sprained foot.  But one of the hallmarks of the Cardinals for the past several years has been team depth. Every time someone leaves the team or goes down there is always someone there to take their place and the team tends to not miss a beat. Here we have Trevor Rosenthal filling in for Mujica, and as we saw in last year’s playoffs, Rosenthal can be dominant. In for Craig: Matt Adams, who did nothing other than hit .284/.335/.503 with 17 home runs in 319 plate appearances in 2013. The Cardinals don’t rebuild, they reload.
  • This series will be worth watching for the fans alone. PNC Park’s rowdiness clearly got the best of the Reds on Tuesday night and you can expect them to be just as crazy when this series gets to Pittsburgh over the weekend. Meanwhile, don’t think for a minute that the Cardinals’ self-proclaimed Best Fans in Baseball didn’t take notice and won’t do their best to amp up the noise a well. Between Cardinal red and Pirate black these games are gonna look more like college football crowds than baseball crowds.

Prediction

This series will be laden with more narrative storylines than any of the others this postseason, and most of them will put the Pirates in the more positive light. But ultimately, baseball games are decided on talent. While McCutchen is probably the best guy on the field in this series, this is not the NBA and one man can’t carry a team. Overall the Cardinals have the better lineup with fewer holes. They led the NL in on-base percentage, were third in slugging, were historically good hitting with runners in scoring position and led the league in runs scored. Even after Allen Craig went down in early September, the offense did not really miss a beat.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals rotation likely has the edge here too, if for no other reason than the Pirates best starter — Francisco Liriano — was used on Tuesday and will get only one start in this series. The Cardinals’ starters, meanwhile, combined for a 2.36 ERA in September. The Pirates probably have a slight edge in the bullpen and a huge edge in team defense, but I feel like the Cards have way too much firepower.

I’ll pick The Cardinals in Five.

2017 Preview: Washington Nationals

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Washington Nationals.

The measure of a successful season varies from team to team. Some prefer to set the bar low. Perhaps they’re in rebuilding mode, content with a few veteran additions to balance out a new influx of young talent. Others raise the bar to a modest level, hoping to secure a division lead or, barring that, a Wild Card berth.

Still others set their sights on the loftiest of goals: a World Series championship. They’ve been around the proverbial postseason block, they know how to dominate in regular season play. Only a championship title eludes them now, and failing that, anything else feels like settling.

Enter the 2017 Washington Nationals, a team that boasts former MVP Bryce Harper, future MVP Trea Turner, the one-two punch of Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, the 3-4-5 punch of Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross, the 2016 NL East division title, the 2014 NL East division title, the 2012 NL East division title, and three failed attempts to reach beyond the first rung of the playoffs. Should the Nationals once again find themselves unable to make a bid for the World Series, it would be a stretch to call their 2017 season a disappointment, but it’s clear that the stakes have been raised this year.

Every hero has his Achilles heel, and the Nationals’ weakness appears to be the health (or lack thereof) of its starting rotation. Stephen Strasburg worked his way back from a worrisome flexor mass strain in his right elbow this winter, evading a second round of Tommy John surgery but giving the team some pause as he prepared to improve on his 3.60 ERA and 3.9 fWAR from 2016. Max Scherzer sustained a stress fracture in his knuckle, though he’s been cleared to start the team’s third game of the season after successfully pitching through several outings in camp.

It may be a stretch to expect Strasburg to remain healthy for an entire year, something he hasn’t done since 2014, but barring catastrophe, the Nationals’ rotation looks sturdy, if not dominant. The same can be said for the bullpen, though the club lost a big contributor when Mark Melancon reached free agency — and a shiny new deal with the league-rival San Francisco Giants.

No one approaching Melancon’s superstar status remains on Washington’s roster, though 23-year-old hurler Koda Glover has attracted some looks in spring training. With days to go before the Nationals make their regular season debut, club manager Dusty Baker has remained mum on the subject. Veteran right-hander Shawn Kelley is the supposed frontrunner for the position, though his age and declining health put a limit on his availability. The opposite is true for fellow right-hander Blake Treinen, whose stuff is too good to be wasted in a ninth-inning slot, while Glover’s inexperience in the big leagues makes him more of a question mark than a sure thing.

Also troubling is the decline of star slugger Bryce Harper, whose .243/.373/.441 batting line and 3.5 fWAR in 2016 were hardly reminiscent of the league-leading totals that netted Harper his first MVP award in 2015. Anytime a good player shows wear and tear, it’s cause for some concern, but when it happens to one of the best hitters in the league, it tends to generate panic. Thankfully, not everything went downhill for Harper last season. He generated a career-high 21 stolen bases and muscled 24 home runs, second only to Daniel Murphy’s 25 homers. (In case you forgot, that’s one home run for each year that Bryce Harper has been alive, which makes the threat of imminent decline seem almost laughable at this point in his career.)

Life would be easier if Harper returned to his 42-homer, 9.5 fWAR ways, but the Nationals aren’t exactly hurting for lack of offense these days. Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon comprise a fearsome lineup, complemented by the offseason additions of center fielder Adam Eaton and catcher Matt Wieters. The Nationals secured the return of Adam Eaton for a package of pitching prospects, including top-rated right-hander Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. Despite the appeal of Eaton’s 6.0 fWAR 2016 season and the added benefit of shifting Trea Turner back to short, it’s a move that only makes sense when the stakes involve a championship run.

Short of a viable closer and Bryce Harper’s MVP-caliber production levels, the Nationals figure to be sitting pretty atop the NL East in 2017. Their top prospect gamble should pay off, at least in the short term, and assuming they maintain a healthy pitching staff, nothing appears to be blocking their path to a long and storied playoff battle… except, maybe, the defending World Series champs themselves.

Prediction: 1st in NL East.

Jeurys Familia’s domestic violence suspension to be announced today

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Mike Puma of the New York Post reports that the announcement of Jeurys Familia‘s domestic violence suspension is expected some time today.

Familia was arrested in October following an incident at his home. Criminal charges were dropped in December. As we know, however, MLB’s domestic violence policy does not require criminal proceedings to be commenced, let alone completed, before the leveling of league punishment. MLB has been investigating the incident for the past several months.

Billy Witz of the New York Times reported Monday that the suspension is “almost certain” to be lighter than the 30-game suspension Aroldis Chapman received one year ago. However much time Familia misses, the Mets are expecting Addison Reed to fill in at closer until he returns.