Thursday, October 3, 2013

Series Preview: NLDS

The Cardinals/Pirates NLDS series at a glance.

The Cardinals will begin their playoff run against the Pittsburgh Pirates tomorrow afternoon, and I thought I'd give it a proper preview. The Pirates come in as the Wild Card winner with the Cards taking the NL Central for the first time since 2009. This will be the first time that two teams in the same division have been allowed to face each other in a playoff series, which will probably take a little bit of the luster off of this matchup. Most casual fans are supporting the Pirates in their first playoff appearance since 1992, so the "underdog" cries will fall on deaf ears here.

2013 Season Series: Pirates won 10-9
While St. Louis was 6-3 at Busch this season against Pittsburgh, they were dominated at PNC Park this year (7-3), particularly in an ugly 5 game series where the Cardinals were barely able to scrape together a single win. I don't feel that season series results are always a great indicator of how the playoffs will play out, especially with shortened rotations and shorter leashes at play.

Starting Pitching: Adam Wainwright / Lance Lynn / TBD vs. A.J. Burnett / TBD / Francisco Liriano
Starting pitching was a major asset for both teams this year, though both teams relieved heavily upon youngsters. Wainwright regained the perennial Cy Young Award candidate form he had before his Tommy John surgery while Francisco Liriano traveled back in time to 2006 to find the magic. Liriano started the Wild Card play-in game, so it will be up to Burnett, who has given the Cards fits, in Game 1. Neither team has announced much beyond Game 1, but it seems likely that Joe Kelly and Gerrit Cole will fill out the holes. The Cardinals will have rookies Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha (of recent near-no-hitter fame) available out of the bullpen to start the series while I'd expect to see Jeff Locke and possibly Charlie Morton at some point for Pittsburgh. Advantage: PUSH

Bullpen: Trevor Rosenthal vs. Jason Grilli
Rosenthal was installed as the closer in just the final week of the season, but he's been one of the most dominant pitchers out of the pen all season. His fastball is among the hardest thrown in the game. Grilli caught lightning in a bottle this year and gained his first All-Star selection in his age 36 season. Grilli had a late season injury that saw him temporarily secede duties to Mark Melancon, while Rosenthal ousted an ineffective Edward Mujica who was a first-time All-Star this season himself. Joining Rosie in the pen is Kevin Siegrist, the 41st Round draft pick with an 0.45 ERA, along with Seth Maness and lefty specialist Randy Choate. The Pirates pen includes Vin Mazzaro and Tony Watson. Few household names on either side, but both team's pens have been excellent for the most part this season. Advantage: PUSH

Catcher: Yadier Molina vs. Russell Martin
Martin is frequently cited as the heart and soul of this year's Pirates club, but recent late game dramatics aside, not much can be done to hide his .703 OPS. Molina is an MVP candidate who flirted with the NL batting crown race before injuries slowed him down a bit. He's the best defensive catcher in the game, has a stellar track record with the pitchers he works with and is a consistent run producer. I'm not sure about the hairdo, though. Advantage: CARDINALS

First Base: Matt Adams vs. Justin Morneau/Gaby Sanchez
Matt Adams took over regular 1B duties for run-producing factory Allen Craig and has been fantastic. He has a powerful, compact lefty swing that has sent some screaming baseballs into the seats. Morneau has struggled mightily since the Twins parted ways with him, driving in just 3 runs in 92 PA's with Pittsburgh. Sanchez is competent but doesn't have the hitting chops that you'd expect from a first baseman. Advantage: CARDINALS

Second Base: Matt Carpenter vs. Neil Walker
Matt Carpenter learned how to play second base this past offseason and turned his new opportunity to play every day into one of the greatest offensive seasons by a lefty Cardinal in recent memory. He broke Stan Musial's single season record for most doubles by a lefty, drove in a ton of runs from (mostly) the leadoff spot and didn't embarrass himself at the keystone. Neil Walker has nice pop for a second baseman and in most years would win this matchup handily. Advantage: CARDINALS

Third Base: David Freese vs. Pedro Alvarez
Freese chose a lousy time for his worst offensive season, his future now with the franchise very much in doubt after natural third baseman Matt Carpenter's breakout year. With Kolten Wong waiting in the wings, it'll be interesting to see what direction the team goes with next year. Freese, when right, has a lot of power to all fields, but glimpses of his 2012 self have been fleeting this year. Alvarez hits monster homeruns and strikes out a lot. He's dragged down by a low batting average and, consequently, a low OPB. Nevertheless, Alvarez is still the most dangerous hitter in the Pirates lineup as far as being able to turn the outcome of a game on a dime. Advantage: PIRATES

Shortstop: Pete Kozma/Daniel Descalso vs. Jordy Mercer/Clint Barmes
The Kozma/Descalso situation isn't so much a platoon as it is a coinflip to see who might suck less today. The SS spot in the Cardinals order has been a black hole this season with Kozma not able to live up to his late 2012 promise, as he regressed to numbers that were more consistent with his minor league career. Descalso has more experience points than Kozma, which just means he leveled up on slimes while eating Hot Pockets, and manager Mike Matheny seems to believe it's appropriate to put him at 3rd sometimes in late game situations. Barmes hasn't been a good hitter in 4 years, but Mercer has done some positive things with the bat. Both Pirates shortstops are right-handers, which means their usage will be even more difficult to exclaim. No one is winning awards here with their defensive skills, but Barmes and occasionally Kozma can handle themselves. Advantage: PIRATES

Right Field: Carlos Beltran vs. Marlon Byrd
Byrd has been the best of the Pirates late season acquisitions, putting together the best overall season of his career, much of it wasted in a Mets uniform. Beltran has quietly put together almost the exact same season offensively, but he's had better seasons and has a playoff track record that can't be overlooked. Advantage: CARDINALS

Center Field: Jon Jay vs. Andrew McCutchen
Jay is a singles hitter who has had a rough go of it this season with an increasingly empty .275 batting average. He's usually good for a light .300. He can be fun to watch in the field, but he doesn't have much of an arm. McCutchen is the Pirates star, and he's good-to-great in all aspects of the game. He may get MVP consideration even though his numbers are not eye-popping in the traditional categories. Advantage: PIRATES

Left Field: Matt Holliday vs. Starling Marte
Holliday had a rough first half of the season but has been studly in the second half, pulling his numbers up to not look too funny while sitting with the other seasons he's spent in St. Louis. He's a bit lumbering in the field, but he usually gets the job done, minus the style points. Marte stole 41 bases this season but also led the league in being caught (15 times). He has the strength to be a slugger, but only drove in 35 runs this year, only partly explained by his spot in the batting order. Like Alvarez, he's a fan of the big swing-and-a-miss. Advantage: CARDINALS

Manager: Mike Matheny vs. Clint Hurdle
One-time Cardinal Hurdle, a former "can't miss" prospect who was once on a Sports Illustrated cover, led the Colorado Rockies to the playoffs in 2007 after Matt Holliday was given credit for his phantom touch of home in a tiebreaker game with the Padres. His overall playoff record is 7-4, all of which occured in 2007. Matheny is the former Gold Glove catcher who last year became a manager for the first time. He went 7-6 if you count the play-in game.
Advantage: PUSH

Prediction: CARDINALS in 5

Here's a look at the Cardinals beating up on the Pirates earlier this season, now that I'm done trying to be unbiased.

Game 1 game time is 4:00 CDT at Busch Stadium with national coverage on TBS. Go Cards!

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