If you ever wonder what defines success in baseball, at least in the National League consider that the NL’s top five pitching staffs were the ones that made the playoffs. Conversely, only one of the top five offenses made it to October and that one—the Pittsburgh Pirates—is now home. So who survives the National League arms race—the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Mets?
The NLDS matchups begin on Friday, with the Cardinals hosting the Cubs and the Mets traveling west to face the Dodgers in two very TV-friendly series. Here’s a look at both NL Division Series
Would it surprise you to know that the Cubbies are a slight betting favorite (-115) over the 100-win Cards? Such is the result of the injuries that have nicked away at St. Louis all year. It started early on with the loss of Adam Wainwright and as we enter the playoffs, the losses included starting pitcher Carlos Martinez and the team’s heart and soul, catcher Yadier Molina. (Editor’s Note: Apparently the reports of Molina being out for the year are greatly exaggerated. He’s in the lineup for Game 1 with his thumb heavily wrapped). Even with Wainwright having come back and ready to help in the bullpen, that’s a lot of talent to be down at this time of year.
But we’ve learned throughout the years that you have to focus on the players available rather than those missing and the cupboard is not bare in St. Louis, even if it’s names you might not recognize. The Cards have good young outfielders in Thomas Pham, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk. Jason Heyward is steady, if unspectacular. Matt Holliday’s power might be gone, but he still has a .394 on-base percentage. And third baseman Matt Carpenter remains an excellent all-around hitter.
St. Louis can also hope for Jhonny Peralta to be better this regular season performance and for Kolten Wong to get out of his second half slump that’s seen the numbers for the second baseman tank. The Cards might only rank 11th in the National League in runs scored, they might lack a signature offensive threat, but they still have a lot of candidates to step up.
By contrast, Chicago has the sizzle—Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and new revelation Kyle Schwarber who was great down the stretch and again Wednesday night in Pittsburgh. Any of these three can take over a short series. But if they don’t come through, the candidates down the line aren’t as plentiful. Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler, the latter also a wild-card game hero might. Anyone else stepping up would be a drastic departure from the norm.
The pitching is similar—a battle between top-line talent for the Cubs and great depth for the Cardinals. Chicago can ride Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta to victory. Get a win from Lester in the opener, Arrieta in Game 3 and Lester again in Game 5. St. Louis needs John Lackey to find a way to steal one win against Lester.
The last time Lester and Lackey were in this spot was the 2008 ALDS when they were the Red Sox and Angels respectively. In each game, Lackey pitched well, but Lester was better. If Lackey can get one win, St. Louis could hope to get a Game 2 win from Michael Wacha and then win Game 4 where anyone they throw out there—Jamie Garcia, Tyler Lyons, etc., would likely be a favorite.
Relief pitching is a big edge for St. Louis. They have the best closer left in the postseason in Trevor Rosenthal and a deep enough pen—especially with Wainwright, who worked 28 innings at the end of the year with a 1.61 ERA—that manager Mike Matheny can empty the holster every night. Chicago has a decent closer in Hector Rondon, but he’s unproven in October and everyone else is a question mark.
Chicago general manager Theo Epstein made his reputation when he built two World Series winners in Boston, another long-suffering franchise. In Theo’s first trip to the postseason with the Red Sox in 2003, he had a team that was ready to beat the Yankees, but had problems in the bullpen. That one ended in heartbreak, on an Aaron Boone home run. I see more of the same in this one—somewhere along the line, the Chicago bullpen is going to fail and St. Louis will find a way to advance one more time.
Both of these teams are better offensively, at least right now, than their rankings suggest. The Dodgers have a strange profile, of ranking second in the National League in on-base percentage, third in slugging percentage, yet seeing that translate into being just eighth in runs scored. The Mets are seventh in runs scored, but personnel changes make them significantly better now than they were in the first four months of the season.
New York added Yoenis Cespedes, got David Wright back from injury and has seen left fielder Michael Conforto step up and become a valuable bat. It’s given first baseman Lucas Duda, who hit 27 home runs, and Daniel Murphy, who slugged a surprisingly solid .449, along with Curtis Granderson, who had an excellent all-around year, the help they so desperately needed. Travis d’Arnaud is a solid bat at the catcher position and Duda, with his .352 OBP, is more than just a big slugger.
Los Angeles has similar depth in the lineup. Adrian Gonzales, with a .350 OBP and 28 home runs is the team’s best threat. After that, you have to go past the glitter. Yasiel Puig did not have a good year. Joc Pederson, after lighting it up in the first half and at the Home Run Derby, has been in the tank ever since. Carl Crawford and Jimmy Rollins haven’t been productive in eons.
But lesser known players have. Justin Turner has quietly become a solid all-around third baseman, with a .370 OBP and .491 slugging percentage. Outfielder Enrique Hernandez hit over .300 in 202 at-bats. Corey Seagar took at-bats from Rollins at shortstop and swung the bat well. If manager Don Mattingly is smart, he’ll bury Rollins on the bench and give the playing time to Seagar. This is in addition to a revival year from Andre Ethier and a .353 OBP from catcher Yasmani Grandal.
So the offenses are better than generally perceived, but the starting pitchers will dominate this series. The Dodgers have to ride Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke to victory, because there’s a big dropoff to the #3 starter Brett Anderson and the bullpen is a serious problem.
New York answers with Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard in the first two games, to try and steal at least one win against the Dodger aces. If they do that—and deGrom, with 14 wins and a 2.54 ERA was pretty good himself, as was Syndergaard with a 3.24 ERA—then attention shifts again to Matt Harvey. He’s made headlines for being late to practices and his agent demanding an innings limit. If he gets the ball on Monday for Game 3 with the series tied 1-1, he better deliver. Because that’s the game the Mets are hoping to swing this series.
I see this as a really close matchup and could be persuaded either way. I’m going to pick the Mets, because I trust the bullpen a bit more and you have to think at least one of those games will become a grinding affair where the starting pitchers are long gone. But I’m bucking the establishment with this pick—the Dodgers are heavy (-205) favorite.
So Las Vegas says it’s Dodgers-Cubs, TheSportsNotebook says it will be Cards-Mets. The track record of one of these places is significantly better than the other and I’ll leave it to you to guess which one.
NLDS action opens Friday evening from St. Louis at 6:30 PM ET and then continues on to Los Angeles. The latter game will be on TBS and the former likely will be too, although the Cards-Cubs broadcast location is still unannounced on the MLB.com website.