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.

The Braves are leaning toward keeping Brian Snitker as manager

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Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported over the weekend that the Braves are leaning toward keeping Brian Snitker as manager. Part of that comes after team meetings between Snitker and top brass. Some of it, however, is likely attributable to player sentiment, with Bob Nightengale of USA Today reporting this morning that Freddie Freeman and several Braves players have told the Braves front office that they want Snitker back.

Is it a good idea to bring Snitker back? Eh, I’m leaning no, with the caveat that it probably doesn’t make a huge difference in the short term.

The “no” is based mostly on the fact that Snitker has had a disturbing trend of preferring veterans over young players, as Bradley explains in detail here. For a brief moment this summer the Braves seemed surprisingly competitive. Not truly competitive if anyone was being honest, but they were hovering around .500 and were arguably in the wild card race. Around that time he made a number of questionable decisions that favored marginal and/or injured veterans over some young players who will be a part of the next truly competitive Braves team, likely messing with their confidence and possibly messing with their development.

These moves were not damaging, ultimately, to the 2017 Braves on the field — they were going to be under .500 regardless — but it was the sort of short-term thinking that a manager for a rebuilding team should not be employing. Part of the blame for this, by the way, can be put on the front office, who only gave Snitker a one-year contract when they made him the permanent manager last year, creating an incentive for him to win in 2017 rather than manage the club the way a guy who knows when the team will truly be competitive should manage it. Then again, if Snitker was so great a candidate in the front office’s mind, why did they only give him a one-year contract?

I suspect a lot of it has to do with loyalty. Snitker has been an admirable Braves company man for decades, and that was certainly worthy of respect by the club. That he got the gig was likewise due in part to the players liking him — the veteran players — and they now are weighing in with their support once again. At some point, however, loyalty and respect of veterans has to take a back seat to a determination of who is the best person to bring the team from rebuilding to competitiveness, and Snitker has not made the case why he is that man.

Earlier, of course, I said it probably doesn’t matter all that much if they do, in fact, bring Snitker back. I say this because he will, in all likelihood, be given a short leash again, probably in the form of a one-year extension. It would not surprise me at all if, in the extraordinarily likely event the Braves look to be outclassed in the division by the Nationals again in 2018, they made a managerial switch midseason, as they did in 2016. If that is, indeed, the plan, it seems like the front office is almost planning on losing again in 2018 and using the future firing of Snitker as a time-buying exercise. Not that I’m cynical or anything.

Either way, I don’t think Snitker is the right guy for the job. Seems, though, that he’ll get at least an offseason and a couple of months to prove me wrong.

Bruce Maxwell on anthem protest: “If it ends up driving me out of baseball, then so be it”

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For the second straight day, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell took a knee during the national anthem before the A’s game against the Texas Rangers. Afterward, he said he did not care what the repercussions might be:

“If it ends up driving me out of baseball, then so be it. This is bigger than a monetary standpoint, this is bigger than the uniform I put on every day. This is about the people in this country and we all deserve to be treated equally. That’s the whole purpose of us taking a knee during the national anthem.”

And make no mistake, there will be repercussions of one kind or another. The immediate ones are pretty predictable: Maxwell says he has received threats since his first protest on Saturday night, including racial epithets and warnings “to watch [his] back.” These came via the Internet and Maxwell has brushed it off as the act of “keyboard warriors.”

The more interesting question will be whether there will be career repercussions. He has received support from the A’s, but even the supportive comments come with at least a hint of foreboding. Here’s his manager, Bob Melvin:

“It does take a lot of courage because you know that now the potential of the crosshairs are on you and for a guy who’s not as established, I’m sure, and I’m not speaking for him, but I’m sure there were some feelings for him that there was some risk. I do know that he felt better about it afterwards because there’s a lot of uncertainty when you take that type of step.”

I don’t feel like Melvin is referring to the threats exclusively, there, given the reference to Maxwell not being “as established.” That’s a phrase used exclusively to refer to a player’s standing within the game. As long as Melvin is the A’s manager and Maxwell plays for him, sure, it may very well be the case that only Maxwell’s ability as a player will impact his future. But Melvin seems to be acknowledging here — correctly — that this act of non-conformity on Maxwell’s part could be career limiting. Heck, his teammate, Mark Canha, voices concern over the fact that he merely put his hand on Maxwell’s shoulder in support. He’s worried that that might be seen as bad for him.

And if you don’t read that into Melvin or Canha’s words, fine. Because it’s very clear based on the words of others around the league that Maxwell’s sort of protest might be considered . . . problematic. From the story that Ashley linked yesterday, let’s focus again on the words of Pirates GM Neal Huntington:

“We appreciate our players’ desire and ability to express their opinions respectfully and when done properly,” GM Huntington told Elizabeth Bloom of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When done appropriately and properly, we certainly have respect for our players’ ability to voice their opinion.”

Does that sound like a man who is going to judge a player based solely on his baseball contributions? Heck no it doesn’t. How about if Maxwell lands on the Dodgers?

Make no mistake: Matthews is taking a risk with his protest. There are a number of teams — likely more than will admit it publicly — who will hold this against him as they evaluate him as a player.

You can react to this in a couple of ways, I figure. You could nod your head like a sage, adopt the tone of some inside-baseball guy and say “Well, of course! There are consequences for one’s behavior and only those who are naive don’t believe that.” If you do, of course, you’re ignoring the fact that Maxwell has already acknowledged that himself in the quote that appears in the very headline of this story.

Another option: acknowledge his bravery. Acknowledge that he knows damn well that, especially in baseball, that this kind of thing is far more likely to harm his career than help it. If you acknowledge that, you have no choice but to then ask why Maxwell nonetheless continues to protest. Why this is so important to him despite the risks.

That’s when your reacting and your second-guessing should stop and your listening should begin.