October 3, 2013
NLDS Preview: Dodgers at Braves
The Cardinals won six in a row to end the regular season, snatching the National League’s top seed away from the Braves, who scuffled to a 13-14 record in September. That put Atlanta on a collision course with Los Angeles, which won 62 of its last 90 games and only eased up on the gas pedal when the West division title was well in hand.
Projected Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)
RF-R Yasiel Puig (.319/.391/.534/.334)
Two of the top three National League offenses go toe-to-toe in this series, as the Dodgers—tops in the circuit with 347.9 VORP—square off with the Braves, who were third at 306.9 VORP despite racking up 1,384 strikeouts, the highest total among playoff qualifiers. It’s worth noting, however, that 2013 was a tale of two seasons for several key members of Fredi Gonzalez’s lineup.
Gattis and McCann continued to bat in the heart of the order for the Braves down the stretch and will be asked to serve in similar spots this October. Uggla’s performance during the second half, on the other hand, was so abysmal that the Braves reportedly will exclude him from their Division Series roster altogether. That officially hands the keystone over to journeyman Elliot Johnson, who logged a .242 TAv in 102 plate appearances with the Braves but has been a sub-replacement-level player over the course of his 806-game career.
Mitigating the effects of those downturns is the surge of leadoff man and surprise center fielder Jason Heyward, who inherited the keys to that position from the scuffling B.J. Upton. Heyward slumped for the first two months of the season, but rebounded to bat .310/.382/.519 between June 3 and August 17. He subsequently spent a month on the disabled list with a broken jaw, but rediscovered his swing shortly after returning to the field and finished with a .267/.371/.467 triple-slash line over the final 10 days.
The Dodgers, despite an imposing front four, likewise have their warts. Matt Kemp is out for the playoffs with an ankle injury, leaving Skip Schumaker to split time with a right-handed-hitting partner in his stead. The most optimistic outlook has Andre Ethier, who is also nursing a bum lower leg, ready to usurp that spot when the series heads to Chavez Ravine for Game Three. But the Dodgers must be prepared for some combination of Schumaker, Jerry Hairston Jr., Scott Van Slyke, and Dee Gordon to handle center-field duties for the duration of the best-of-five set.
Small-sample caveats most certainly apply, but few major leaguers had a grander time feasting on Braves pitching than the Dodgers’ rookie leadoff man. Puig went 8-for-16 in his regular season meetings with Atlanta’s arms, slugging a double and two homers while striking out only twice.
Projected Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv)
C-R Tim Federowicz (.231/.275/.356/.215)
Don Mattingly’s bench remains fluid as Game One approaches, with at least one roster spot hinging on Ethier’s health. Assuming the outfielder is well enough to be an asset as a pinch-hitter, the Dodgers may be inclined to go with a six-man crew of reserves in which Gordon’s primary role would be as a caddy for Ethier or a late-inning runner. Van Slyke earns a spot here because, with Ethier’s status cloudy, the bench would otherwise be devoid of pop. Late-season pickup Young joins forces with Punto to give Mattingly a couple of veteran substitutes on the dirt; the latter missed the end of the regular season with a foot injury but is expected to be healthy enough to contribute.
Power is in short supply on Gonzalez’s bench, too, and what little of it he has (Upton, 9) was dogged by strikeouts (151 in 446 plate appearances) all year. Schafer was a nice story during the first half, but he fell off a cliff down the stretch, going just 18-for-106 (.170) in August and September. Uggla’s exclusion gives Janish, who is more versatile defensively, a spot by default. And Johnson, a righty hitter with a .311 career batting average versus left-handers, could prove useful versus the Dodgers’ pitching staff, which features two southpaw starters and a dynamite lefty setup man.
Projected Starting Pitchers (IP/ERA/FIP)
Speaking of Mattingly’s starters, Kershaw’s incredible season, in which he became the first Dodger to log a sub-2.00 ERA since Sandy Koufax did it in 1966, is well documented. But Kershaw’s dominance makes it easy to overlook Greinke’s remarkable summertime performance. The right-hander compiled a 1.58 ERA in 12 starts beginning on July 30, second only to Kershaw over that span. Add Ryu, who enjoyed a fine first year in the States, and the only question mark is Nolasco, who also was solid before hitting a rough patch at the tail end of the regular season. The ex-Marlin’s Game Four assignment isn’t set in stone, but he’s the favorite to get the ball until we hear otherwise.
Medlen, who last Friday outlasted Cliff Lee in one of the season’s finest duels, may need to replicate his eight-inning, no-run effort to keep pace with Kershaw in tomorrow’s opener. Minor wasn’t as effective in the second half as he was in the first, but he held left-handed hitters to just four homers in 192 plate appearances and can grind an opponent’s running game to a halt. Still just 22 years old, Teheran rounded into form quickly and improved over the course of the season, fanning 76 in 72 2/3 innings after the All-Star break. Garcia, who turns 37 on October 6, gets the Game Four nod over Paul Maholm after amassing a 1.65 ERA in 27 1/3 innings with the Braves.
Starting pitching may be the Dodgers’ greatest edge in this matchup, with an on-paper advantage from one through four. The absence of Tim Hudson, who suffered a gruesome, season-ending ankle injury in late July, further widens the gap.
Projected Bullpens (IP/ERA/FIP)
If Wilson is as sharp as he looked in his 18 appearances following his second Tommy John surgery, this relief corps stacks up with that of any other contender. Jansen has earned a spot in the club of elite closers with numbers that rival those of his ninth-inning counterpart. Rodriguez and Withrow, impressive first-years overshadowed by Puig and Ryu, adjusted quickly to the big leagues; the former is a setup weapon, the latter a converted starter who could offer multiple innings if necessary. Howell and Belisario generate ground balls by the boatload. And Capuano is here to offer insurance in the event of an extra-inning marathon or a starter hitting the showers early.
Losing left-handers Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty to Tommy John surgeries dealt this group an early blow, but it jelled over the course of the season and offers a lot to like. Kimbrel is right there with Jansen as the creamiest of the cream of the closer crop. Avilan clamps down on lefties and is, like Howell, a ground-ball fiend. Jordan Walden was sent to the instructional league to shore up his mechanics and gain confidence after a September rut, but his electric stuff is difficult to overlook. Carpenter, who struck out 74 in 65 2/3 innings, did not permit a run in any of his last 10 appearances, lowering his ERA to 1.78. Wood, who proved surprisingly adept in a starter role despite unorthodox mechanics, could give Gonzalez length or serve as a second lefty weapon versus Crawford, Gonzalez, and Ethier.