NL Division Series Preview

Most of the National League’s big-name franchises aren’t in the Division Series The Cubs made a surprise early exit, losing two home games, either one of which could have put them in this round. The Cardinals narrowly missed the playoffs. The Nationals & Giants never got started. That leaves the Los Angeles Dodgers as the 3-2 betting favorite to win the NL pennant against three relative surprises—the Milwaukee Brewers, Atlanta Braves and Colorado Rockies.

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Division Series play starts in the National League tonight, with Brewers-Rockies and Dodgers-Braves being the matchups. Here’s some thoughts on each series…

Brewers (1) vs. Rockies (WC)
Milwaukee being in the postseason isn’t so much the surprise, as is the fact they were able to chase down the Cubs in the Central and finish with the National League’s best record. Christian Yelich is the hottest baseball player in the visible world right now. His final numbers were a .402 on-base percentage, .598 slugging percentage, batting average of .326, 36 home runs, 110 RBI and 118 runs scored. The “M-V-P!” chants will be loud at Miller Park these next couple days.

Based strictly on the numbers, the Brewer offense is heavily dependent on Yelich’s continued excellence. But Milwaukee has a big X-factor in their favor and that’s the number of players they have with championship experience. Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas were both instrumental in the Kansas City Royals’ runs to the World Series in 2014 and 2015. Ryan Braun performed well under pressure in his 2011 postseason appearance with Milwaukee and was also solid down the stretch. The franchise may not have the alluring history, but there are individual players that do.

Colorado is usually a hard time to read statistically, because the altitude of Coors Field inflates both offensive numbers and ERAs. But it is safe to say that the left side of the Rockies’ infield, third baseman Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story at short would be dynamite anywhere. They combined to hit 75 home runs, each cleared the 100-RBI threshold and are both stellar defensively. Charlie Blackmon is an All-Star in the outfield and David Dahl has provided some extra pop in the lineup.

The Rockies’ offense is a little deeper than the Brewers and Colorado also has the single best starting pitcher in this series, 17-game winner Kyle Freeland. This is where Colorado not winning the NL West was significant—Freeland had to pitch the wild-card game in Wrigley Field on Tuesday night and will not be available until Sunday’s Game 3. Milwaukee only has to face him once.

The Brewer bullpen is also insanely deep. I count no fewer than eight relievers that manager Craig Counsell can trust with important outs and that’s not including whichever starting pitchers get moved to the pen. The rotation is less than ideal, with Jhoulys Chacin as the nominal ace. But who starts these games isn’t going to be all that relevant, given Counsell can basically assign an inning to every pitcher on his staff if he so desired.

In an era where emptying the bullpen quickly has become more the norm in the playoffs, I think that, along with some battle-tested players (and a manager—Counsell was the NLCS MVP in the title run for the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks), gives the Crew a narrow edge. The Brewers survive a series that goes the full five games.

Dodgers (2) vs. Braves (3)
Los Angeles brings the raw star power to the National League playoffs. Manny Machado, Max Muncy, Justin Turner, Cody Belligner, Joc Pederson, Yasiel Puig…the regular lineup is loaded with both depth and great talent at the top. The Dodgers can start any of eleven players in the eight spots and have the best starting lineup left in the National League. And the star power doesn’t stop on offense, with Clayton Kershaw leading up the rotation and lined up to start Friday’s Game 2, along with a potential Game 5 next week.

The problem for the Dodgers all year has been an unreliable bullpen. Kenley Jansen has had his hiccups this season and the 3.01 ERA is a little high for the closer of a team with championship aspirations. If Los Angeles could count on Kershaw to deliver them a couple big outings, it wouldn’t matter here. But I think we know by now that Clayton Kershaw is a different pitcher in October. He’s not at the David Price level of melting down, but it’s simply foolish to trust Kershaw in the same way the Astros will trust Justin Verlander or the Indians will Corey Kluber.

“Trust” is not a word used in describing any Atlanta sports franchise in the postseason, but this particular group of Braves’ players at least lacks a negative history. They have a good Big Three in the starting rotation, with Mike Foltynewicz, Anibal Sanchez and Kevin Gausman. The bullpen is deep and well-balanced. The everyday lineup is a good mix of up-and-coming youth along with veteran presence.

The Dodgers-Braves battle is much more straightforward than Brewers-Rockies. The latter series is filled with nuance. This one can be boiled down to this—will Kershaw deliver and will the Los Angeles bullpen avoid crushing the hopes of their fan base late in games. I’m going to say the answer is no and Atlanta pulls an upset in five games.