Yesterday, I previewed the AL playoff picture – you can find that column by clicking here. Today I’ll look at the NL using the same format.
Before I start, let me say one thing about Wednesday’s Wild Card game – that 8-0 loss doesn’t tell us ANYTHING about the Pirates or any of their players other than they had a bad night (and more to the point, ran into a good pitcher having a great night). Once again, ANYTHING can happen in a single game. You just have to tip your cap to Bumgarner and the Giants and move on.
The Dodgers and Nats are the class of the field here, but I’m giving the edge to LA because their home park is much tougher on hitters than Washington’s yard, yet the Dodgers’ stats are better across the board. Among non-Colorado teams, the Dodgers led the league in runs, batting average, and doubles – and they led the league (32 in MLB) in steals. With Matt Kemp raking once again, they boast the best outfield in the NL and get above-average production from every position except catcher. They also have the deepest bench in the game – Scott Van Slyke, Andre Ethier (or Carl Crawford), and Justin Turner would all start for most clubs.
The Nationals aren’t quite as deep, but they also get above-average production at seven of eight positions (2B Danny Espinoza is their weak link). Their bench isn’t anywhere near as good as LA’s but the return of Ryan Zimmerman gives them one good pinch-hitting/platoon option. Their outfield is better than most with Harper, Span, and Werth, and these days a 24-home run shortstop (Ian Desmond) is almost unheard of.
You saw the Giants’ attack last night – not deep, but they have some stars in Posey, Pence, and (at times) Sandoval. The loss of Angel Pagan REALLY hurts this team, though, and the bottom third of their lineup is not good (Crawford’s slam notwithstanding). The bench is nonexistent – when you’re forced to start Travis Ishikawa in left field for a do-or-die playoff game, you are officially out of options. The Giants will need to hit ‘above their heads’ to match up with the Nats.
Then we have the Cards. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Cards were the #1 scoring offense in the NL a season ago, with power to burn and a high batting average. This season the Cards ranked 10th in the league (by far the worst among NL playoff teams) in runs, and last in the ENTIRE LEAGUE in home runs – in fact, only the punchless Royals hit less home runs in all of MLB! In fact it’s eerie how similar the Cards’ offense is to the Royals’ attack – both have no power, don’t walk a lot, and both make a lot of contact. The big difference is that the Royals have speed to burn – the Cards are by and large a plodding group of baserunners. They are HEAVILY reliant on stringing hits together and getting exceptional pitching to win.
I’m sure ranking the Nats over the Dodgers has some of you confused – isn’t Clayton Kershaw far and away the best pitcher on the planet this year? (Yes.) Don’t Kershaw and Zack Grienke form the best 1-2 punch in the NL? (again, yes). The issue here is depth – the Nats boast FOUR starters with ERAs under 3.14, and that doesn’t even include Gio Gonzalez, who had a bit higher ERA (3.57) but had excellent peripheral stats. Meanwhile, the Dodgers are HOPING that Hun-Jin Ryu can start Game 3 – he’s missed 3+ weeks with shoulder irritation – then they are planning to bring both Kershaw AND Grienke back on three days’ rest if the series goes four or five games. There’s a TON of risk involved here all the way around, especially for games 3-5 of this series.
The Cards have an ace in Adam Wainwright, and Lance Lynn bounced back with a strong 2014 campaign. After that it gets dicey – Shelby Miller had a disappointing season, Michael Wacha has been moved to the bullpen, and John Lackey is extremely inconsistent. Wainwright vs. Kershaw is must-see TV, but the lack of depth could hurt the Cards against the Dodgers’ potent bats as the series progresses.
The Giants have the ace everyone saw Wednesday night in Bumgarner, but the rest of the rotation is full of question marks. Tim Hudson was above average, but is definitely near the end; Jake Peavy was excellent after being traded, but he was not good for the Sox and his total season stats are mediocre (continuing a recent trend), and Ryan Vogelsong is simply not very good any more. With Bumgarner only available for one NLDS start, the Giants are at a serious disadvantage this round.
Washington has SO much pitching – after a 5-deep rotation, they can turn to a 5-deep bullpen. Soriano, Clippard, Storen, Blevins, and Barrett all had strong seasons for the Nats, and while Soriano was briefly removed as closer, the Nats never missed a beat.
The Giants’ best postseason hope is to get five innings from their starters and get the ball to their ‘pen, because it’s almost as deep as Washington’s. Romo, Casilla, Petit, and Affeldt are the main cogs, but there are six total effective arms that Bruce Bochy can call on.
The Cards’ pen is not as deep as in past seasons, and their closer Trevor Rosenthal was more erratic in 2014. Still, they can come at you with gas (Rosenthal, Marinez), funky angles (Pat Neshek) or sinkerballs (Seth Maness) and all are effective. There’s little depth after those guys, but in most postseason series depth isn’t as important with off days factored in.
The Dodgers’ Achilles heel is definitely their bullpen. Closer Kenley Jansen was excellent again, as was left JP Howell – but they do not have one other reliever with solid peripheral stats (walks, hits, strikeouts, etc). I know I just said depth isn’t as important in October, but you will need more than two relievers to get by even with Kershaw and Grienke – the Dodgers need a lesser reliever to step up.
Bruce Bochy is one of the best managers in the game – he always maximizes his roster’s production, and he’ll need to squeeze out every ounce to make the World Series this time (of course I said that in 2012 as well!). The Giants know they are playing with ‘house money’ after their Wild Card win and are a huge underdog to the Nats. Their defense isn’t spectacular, but they are solid across the board.
I like Washington’s defense, and I think they have the experience now from 2012 – and the hunger from missing the playoffs in 2013 – to be ready for the postseason pressure. My worry is Matt Williams – he’s an average tactician, and if he stays out of this roster’s way they should be fine. If he tries to outsmart the opposition though, he will likely hurt his team.
The Cardinals are not as solid defensively as they have been in years past, and Mike Matheny strikes me as very much an average manager. The Cards DO have tons of experience to fall back on, so I never expect the moment to be ‘too big’ for them.
The Dodgers have a HUGE amount of pressure this season – with the huge payroll, Kershaw’s historic season, and the traditional spotlight of being in LA, the Dodgers will face a TON of scrutiny if they fall to the Cards. Don Mattingly is another manager who is best served on offense by writing out the lineup card and getting out of the way. His relief corps is a different story, however – how deftly he handles his bullpen may well decide the series.
WORLD SERIES CHANCES
2.) Los Angeles
3.) St. Louis
4.) San Francisco
Again I remind you: ANYTHING is possible in a short series. Having said that, the Nationals are in better shape than any team in either league to advance – with Bumgarner only available once and the absence of Pagan (and probably Mike Morse) from the Giants’ lineup. Add to that the fact that they have NO weaknesses on the mound or at bat, and they are clearly my favorite – in fact, at this point they are my favorite to win it all.
The Dodgers will go as far as Kershaw and Grienke take them – the team will get their runs, but if either of their aces struggle, it will be hard for the Dodgers to win. I like them to get by the Cards, but pushing their aces so hard early may leave them spent for the NLCS.
St. Louis has a real chance in the LDS, especially if Wainwright can battle Kershaw to a draw and let the Cards’ superior bullpen take Game 1. If they steal one of the games in LA, the Cards are in great position to return to the NLCS.
The Giants would have a better shot if they make the NLCS – they’d have Bumgarner available for two, maybe three starts; they have always played the Dodgers tough; and they match up better with the Cards than any other NL playoff team. But I don’t expect them to last more than four games in the LDS.
Some hockey previews coming next week – as always I welcome your feedback! Email me anytime at email@example.com.