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October 8, 2001

Playoff Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks vs. St. Louis Cardinals

by Keith Law

Two months ago, the Cardinals were thought to have given up the 2001 season, having made just one minor deal--giving away the established player--at the trade deadline. They made a mad run at the NL Central title, and ended up as the league's wild card. They'll face the Diamondbacks, who had three of the league's best players and continue to defy the notion that you shouldn't build around past-prime players.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/Equivalent Average)

Arizona Diamondbacks

SS Tony Womack (.266/.307/.345/.234)
CF Steve Finley (.275/.337/.430/.261) or Danny Bautista (.302/.346/.437/.266)
LF Luis Gonzalez (.325/.429/.688/.354)
RF Reggie Sanders (.263/.337/.549/.286)
1B Mark Grace (.298/.386/.466/.291)
3B Matt Williams (.275/.314/.466/.262)
2B Craig Counsell (.275/.359/.362/.255) or Jay Bell (.248/.349/.400/.259)
C Chad Moeller (.232/.306/.321/.229) or Rod Barajas (.160/.194/.274/.163)

St. Louis Cardinals

2B Fernando Vina (.303/.357/.418/.270)
3B Placido Polanco (.307/.342/.383/.255)
RF J.D. Drew (.323/.414/.613/.337)
1B Albert Pujols (.329/.403/.610/.331)
CF Jim Edmonds (.304/410/.564/.322)
LF Craig Paquette (.282/.326/.465/.268)
SS Edgar Renteria (.260/.314/.371/.245)
C Mike Matheny (.218/.276/.304/.207) or Eli Marrero (.266/.312/.438/.258)

The Diamondbacks finished third in the National League in runs scored this year... but they owe an enormous chunk of that ranking to Luis Gonzalez, who produced about 70 runs more than the average non-Bonds NL left fielder. Take those runs away and the Snakes finish no better than ninth, and perhaps as low as 12th. Gonzalez isn't going anywhere for the Division Series, of course, but the pitcher who neutralizes him eliminates a good portion of the sting in the Snakes' attack.

Beyond Gonzalez are two veterans who had surprisingly good years, Reggie Sanders and Mark Grace (although Grace was just about average--0.1 runs above position), and a lot of dreck. Tony Womack's exile from the leadoff spot ended just in time as far as the Cardinals are concerned; he posted the second-lowest OBP of any leadoff hitter in baseball and the third-worst OPS of any hitter in baseball. Steve Finley finally ran out of fairy dust, and Matt Williams and Jay Bell also felt the ravages of Father Time. The eighth spot, where one of Bob Brenly's 14 catchers must hit, is an automatic out.

The Cards' lineup reflects some of manager Tony LaRussa's worst qualities, including his failure to distinguish between batting average and OBP and his overreliance on sucky veterans. The Cards have as good a 3-4-5 as any team in baseball, but surround that with some pedestrian hitters and a few ciphers in Craig Paquette and Mike Matheny. LaRussa also has insisted on putting Placido Polanco, who drew just 25 walks in 606 plate appearances this year, ahead of the heavy three at the lineup's heart, which is the kind of tactical blunder that could matter as the Cards scratch for runs against Arizona's Big Two.

LaRussa also must make a decision that is difficult only for him: whether to bench Matheny, who created 29 runs while making 411 outs, in favor of Eli Marrero, who created 25.4 runs in just 216 outs. Given the enormous obstacle that the Cardinals are facing in Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, I expect LaRussa to go for defense and start Matheny.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA)

Arizona Diamondbacks

1B Erubiel Durazo (.269/.372/.537/.302)
1B Greg Colbrunn (.289/.373/.495/.297)
2B Junior Spivey (.258/.354/.423/.270)
OF David Dellucci (.276/.349/.479/.280)
SS Alex Cintron (.286/.286/.571/.366, 7 PA)

St. Louis Cardinals

1B Mark McGwire (.187/.316/.492/.271)
2B Miguel Cairo (.295/.366/.417/.274)
IF Stubby Clapp (.200/.231/.280/.180, 25 PA)
OF Kerry Robinson (.285/.330/.344/.248)
OF Bobby Bonilla (.213/.308/.339/.230)
OF Luis Saturria (.200/.200/.400/.238, 5 PA)

In Erubiel Durazo, the Snakes have arguably the best bench player on any playoff team--yes, even better than the hobbled Mark McGwire. Durazo outhit Mark Grace this year, which was no surprise to anyone. They should consider starting him over Grace or teaching him to catch before the first game; the second is more likely than the first. Beyond Durazo, the Snakes are carrying Greg Colbrunn as a lefty-masher, but he only managed to hit .235/.297/.529 against southpaws in 34 at bats this year, and has a reverse platoon split over the last few years of his career.

Damian Miller (.271/.337/.424 ) could sneak on to the roster in Rod Barajas's or Alex Cintron's space if Miller's rotator cuff heals enough for him to catch. He didn't play in the Snakes' final series over the weekend.

Tony LaRussa generally has lousy benches, but McGwire's injury and the pissing match with Ray Lankford have made this year's edition extra-special, where "special" should be read as "rancid." Miguel Cairo's .274 EqA is a mirage, as he posted just a .226 mark in 2000, leaving LaRussa with the pinch-hitting McGwire (whose 28 homers are nice, but whose .684 out percentage is not) and a sack of spoiled cabbage.

Rotations (Support-Neutral Value Added, ERA, IP)

Arizona Diamondbacks

Curt Schilling (5.0, 2.98, 256 2/3)
Randy Johnson (6.0, 2.49, 249 2/3)
Pre Forrain
Miguel Batista (0.8, 3.36, 139 1/3)
Albie Lopez (-0.4, 4.81, 205 2/3)

St. Louis Cardinals

Matt Morris (3.2, 216 1/3, 3.16)
Woody Williams (0.2, 220, 4.05)
Darryl Kile (4.0, 220 2/3, 3.09)
Bud Smith (0.5, 82 2/3, 3.83)

The Diamondbacks bring the two best starters in baseball in 2001 into the playoffs, but unfortunately will need at least one more pitcher to take the ball against St. Louis. Albie Lopez, who supposedly was acquired to fill the third slot in a playoff series, ran out of hype and will now start Game 4 if Arizona can win the series. The Game 3 slot will be filled by Miguel Batista, a retread who has been the desert version of Ramiro Mendoza this year. The Cardinals will have to scratch a win off of one of the Big Two in the first two games to have any chance of advancing.

The Cardinals have a pretty good rotation of their own, including a fourth starter to rival that of the A's. Woody Williams has been a different pitcher since coming over from San Diego, curing his gopheritis and problems with right-handed hitters. The front three all have excellent control, which should be a substantial advantage against the hackin' D'backs.

Bullpens (Adjusted Runs Prevented, ERA, IP)

Arizona Diamondbacks

Byung-Hyun Kim (23.3, 2.94, 98)
Greg Swindell (3.8, 4.53, 53 2/3)
Troy Brohawn (-4.9, 4.93, 49 1/3)
Bret Prinz (9.2, 2.63, 41)
Mike Morgan (-0.0, 4.26, 38)
Erik Sabel (-7.7, 4.38, 51.1)
Brian Anderson (2.5, 5.20, 133.1)

St. Louis Cardinals

Steve Kline (24.7, 1.80, 75)
Dave Veres (5.1, 3.70, 65 2/3)
Mike Timlin (6.6, 4.09, 72 2/3)
Gene Stechschulte (4.7, 3.86, 70)
Mike Matthews (13.3, 3.24, 89)
Dustin Hermanson (-0.3 SNVA, 4.45, 192.1)

Both teams have strong bullpens, ranking just 4.5 ARP apart on the season. Arizona's pen is not as deep as the Cardinals', with most of the value in the arms of Byung-Hyun Kim and Bret Prinz, but with Johnson and Schilling as the starters in at least three games, the remaining arms in the pen aren't likely to see much use.

Robert Ellis has been hurting, and it's not clear that the Snakes will carry even 11 pitchers, much less 12, so Ellis and either Erik Sabel or Brian Anderson will get the boot. Anderson has been irredeemably bad since the All-Star Break, with right-handed hitters tagging him to the tune of .304/.341/.547, but he has improved since moving to the bullpen (1.83 ERA in seven relief appearances). Bob Brenly could do himself wonders by carrying just nine pitchers if he does so to finagle Jack Cust on to the playoff roster.

Tony LaRussa invented the lefty specialist role around Rick Honeycutt, making it surprising that he doesn't really have a one-batter lefty in his bullpen now. Steve Kline was death to left-handed hitters this year (.149/.250/.149, allowing just 15 singles and 14 walks to 115 batters), but none of the other relievers in the pen were particularly effective against lefties, with Dustin Hermanson, Mike Timlin, and Dave Veres all getting lit up by them. Like Arizona, St. Louis has starters who regularly work into the eighth inning; unlike them, St. Louis doesn't have a 16th hitter worth carrying.

Defense

Arizona's most common configuration is not a strong one defensively, although the high strikeout rates of Schilling and Johnson make it less of a weakness than it would be for most teams. The Arizona defense has serious holes at shortstop, centerfield (Finley has lost a step, but Bautista is really a left fielder in disguise), and, when Jay Bell is playing, second base. Matt Williams and Reggie Sanders have also seen better days afield, although neither is a liability on the order of Womack. Brenly doesn't have many superior defensive options on the bench, and has no pure shortstop to play in the late innings. This is a natural consequence of having such an old lineup, but again, it's not the handicap it would be for most teams.

The Cardinals boast strong defense up the middle, plus one of the game's better-ranged right fielders in JD Drew. Jim Edmonds and Fernando Vina are still good glove men, although both saw their fielding numbers drop this year. Mike Matheny's defensive reputation exceeds his defensive value, although he does provide a reasonable deterrent to Arizona's nonexistent running game - yet another reason to start Marrero in every game.

Managers

Bob Brenly spent the year trying to show how old-school he was, from his mouthing off over Ben Davis's perfectly justified attempt to reach base during Curt Schilling's no-hitter to his misguided loyalty to no-hitting veterans. Brenly has been a hands-on, tactical manager. There's really no evidence that he's a good one, though. His mishandling of the closer transition this year is just one datum against him.

Tony LaRussa's failings are well-documented on these pages, and he hasn't changed his tune much, if at all. He's still good with a veteran team, and Dave Duncan has worked his usual old-pitcher magic, but LaRussa managed his team out of the NLCS last year and could easily do the same in this series.

The Call

Arizona is hardly our kind of team; it's built on a foundation of declining, overpaid veteran hitters, with two great starting pitchers and a host of below-replacement-level hurlers. Yet the one-two punch can be particularly devastating in a short series; most AL teams would have told you that facing a healthy Red Sox squad was their nightmare Division Series scenario because of the chance you'd face Pedro twice in the five games. Facing Johnson twice and Schilling once or twice should be enough to do in the Cardinals, although all of the games should be close as neither team seems likely to score many runs. Diamondbacks in four.

Keith Law is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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