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October 5, 2004

Playoff Prospectus

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

by Jonah Keri

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Steve Finley's dramatic game-winning, walk-off grand slam Saturday not only gave the Los Angeles Dodgers the NL West division title. The win--the Dodgers' 53rd come-from-behind effort of the season, a new franchise record--encapsulated the team's season perfectly. L.A. fought through controversial trades, shaky starting pitching, player blow-ups and scathing media criticism to reach its first postseason in eight years, where the team will battle for its first World Series title in 16 seasons.

The Cardinals can't claim any such drama. That's because they long ago obliterated the rest of the National League. The Cards' 105-57 record was the best in baseball, and underscored the standout performances of several star players. With a loaded offense and surprising starting pitching, St. Louis will be a stern test to any challenger, starting with the Dodgers.

Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

St. Louis Cardinals

2B-L Tony Womack .307/.353/.385/.267/33.3
RF-L Larry Walker .298/.424/.589/.333/38.8
1B-R Albert Pujols .331/.420/.657/.347/102.0
3B-R Scott Rolen .314/.414/.598/.333/72.8
CF-L Jim Edmonds .301/.424/.643/.346/88.1
SS-R Edgar Renteria .287/.332/.401/.255/26.5
LF-R Reggie Sanders .260/.317/.482/.274/22.2
C-R Mike Matheny .247/.294/.348/.222/-0.8

Los Angeles Dodgers

SS-B Cesar Izturis .288/.330/.381/.254/30.5
LF-R Jayson Werth .262/.338/.486/.282/15.6
CF-L Steve Finley .271/.333/.490/.272/35.8
3B-R Adrian Beltre .334/.388/.629/.333/90.3
1B=L Shawn Green .266/.352/.459/.281/35.6
RF-B Milton Bradley .267/.362/.424/.275/26.0
2B-L Alex Cora .264/.364/.380/.267/19.7
C-L Brent Mayne .221/.314/.263/.205/-5.0

Yikes. Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds form the most devastating heart of a batting order on the planet. Rolen's had a calf problem that's plagued him for weeks which could cut into his performance if it lingers; he went 3-for-18 with a homer upon his late-season return, playing the last six games to tune up for the playoffs.

Larry Walker was an excellent deadline pickup, replacing Ray Lankford, Roger Cedeno, So Taguchi and various Oompa Loompas at a corner outfield spot. Renteria hasn't been anywhere near the force he was in 2003, but he's still an above-average offensive shortstop. Mike Matheny is, was and always will be an offensive cipher. He's in there for his defense, and because the Cards don't have a better option.

Where the lineup may turn is on Tony Womack. A hacker who rarely walked and showed no power his whole career, Womack has always been a player who's needed to hit .300 to be useful; he was very useful this season, hitting .307 and stealing 26 bases in 31 attempts, a gaudy 84% success rate. If he gets on ahead of the Cards' army of mashers, an already high-offense match-up could turn into shootout central.

Though GM Paul DePodesta deserves a lot of credit for nabbing the likes of Werth and Finley, the 2004 Dodgers did what the 2003 Dodgers couldn't largely because of three major surprises. After posting an atrocious line of .233/.261/.301 from 2001 to 2003 vs. right-handed pitching, Izturis rallied for a respectable .297/.339/.397 against northpaws this year. The Dodgers would be better served moving someone like Bradley up to leadoff and Izturis down to the bottom of the order. But that annoyance aside, Izturis' speed and especially his Gold Glove-worthy defense make him a solid asset.

Izturis' double-play partner Cora faded down the stretch, but he still provides a nifty lefty bat near the bottom of the order; he and Jose Hernandez have formed an excellent platoon this season, manager Jim Tracy's tendencies as a former avid player of Strat-O-Matic showing through.

But by and large, the Dodgers have been the Adrian Beltre Show this season. A perennial disappointment, Beltre finally achieved the stardom long expected of him, vaulting to the level of MVP candidate in a parallel, Barry Bonds-less universe. Sandwiched between productive lefty swingers Finley and Green, the Dodgers will surely test Tony La Russa's legendary ability to make any game 30 minutes longer, thanks to his constantly-alternating cavalcade of relievers.

Benches (AVG/OBP/SLG/EqA/VORP)

St. Louis Cardinals

2B/L-L Marlon Anderson .237/.274/.379/.227/-1.3
MI-L Hector Luna .249/.304/.364/.238/2.0
C-R Yadier Molina .267/.329/.356/.242/0.3
IF/OF-L John Mabry .296/.363/.504/.294/18.0
OF-L Ray Lankford .255/.349/.425/.272/4.2
OF-R So Taguchi .291/.337/.419/.265/3.9

Los Angeles Dodgers

2B/SS-R Jose Hernandez .289/.370/.540/.305/23.9
OF-L Jason Grabowski .220/.297/.382/.237/0.6
C-R Jason Ross .170/.253/.291/.193/-7.3
1B-L Hee Seop Choi .251/.370./.449/.200/23.9
PH-L Robin Ventura .243/.337/.362/.251/3.3
PH-L Olmedo Saenz .279/.352/.505/.294/10.0
IF/PR-L Joe Thurston .176/.167/.353/.168/-1.0

Another happy byproduct of the Walker deal is giving the Cards a legitimate threat off the bench in John Mabry. A scrap heap pickup in the off-season, Mabry has put up big-time numbers this season in part-time duty, and offers a potent lefty bat off the pine. You could even make a case for starting him over Sanders against a tough righty like Jeff Weaver, though Mabry has hit lefties better this season, and Sanders has done the same against righties, reversing past trends. Other than pinch-hitting for Matheny in key spots, expect the starters to go the distance; the less the rest of the bench plays, the better the Cards' chances.

It seems unlikely that twitchy La Russa would ever let it happen, but if Hernandez ever gets a chance against a lefty reliever this series, watch out-he hit an outrageous .310/.383/.627 against them this year. Actually much of the bench sets up as a chance for Tracy to counteract La Russa's alternating relievers with a raft of good platoon bats: Choi makes a good fill-in and pinch-hitter against righties, Saenz and Hernandez against lefties. Despite a lousy season, Ross has more pop than Mayne and probably should be starting. Thurston is the de facto 25th man, with the Dodgers likely to go with just three starters, and hence 10 pitchers.

Starting Pitching

St. Louis Cardinals

RHP Woody Williams 4.18/189.2/0.4
RHP Jason Marquis 3.71/201.1/1.4
RHP Matt Morris 4.72/202/-0.6
RHP Jeff Suppan 4.16/188/0.1

Los Angeles Dodgers

LHP Odalis Perez 3.25/196.1/2.6
RHP Jeff Weaver 4.01/220/0.7
RHP Jose Lima 4.07/170.1/0.8

Well they lack star power, that's for sure. Still, GM Walt Jocketty's low-cost signings of Suppan and Chris Carpenter have proven inspired, and Marquis has also been a find, though the Cards gave up injury-meister turned star slugger J.D. Drew to get him. With a VORP of 41.6 Carpenter's been the best of the bunch, but he won't be available until the League Championship Series at the earliest as he fights nerve irritation in his pitching arm. Morris, who'd been the staff ace in the past, gave up a terrifying 35 homers in 32 starts this year, and Woody Williams has shown tater-riffic tendencies in the past. Though this staff has its share of question marks, it'll help that the series' road games happen at Dodger Stadium and not Coors or Minute Maid (the parks, not the cold beverages).

Making lemons into lemonade, Tracy will go with the short rotation. That's both a nod to the overall crappiness of Hideo Nomo, Elmer Dessens and the rest of the team's would-be fourth starters and a lucky break in the schedule: The teams get an extra day off in this series, meaning Perez would go on his normal four days' rest for Game 4. Perez has been solid just about all season, and Weaver and Lima have fared well in their first seasons as Dodgers, Lima in particular better than expected. The strategy here will be to crush St. Louis pitching early, get through five or six frames, then hope to turn it over to the strong Dodger bullpen.

Bullpen

St. Louis Cardinals

Pos Player ERA/IP
RHP Jason Isringhausen 2.87/75.1
LHP Ray King 2.61/62
RHP Danny Haren 4.50/46
LHP Steve Kline 1.79/50.1
RHP Julian Tavarez 2.38/64.1
RHP Cal Eldred 3.76/67
RHP Kiko Calero 2.78/45.1

Los Angeles Dodgers

RHP Eric Gagne 2.19/82.1
RHP Duaner Sanchez 3.38/80
RHP Yhency Brazoban 2.48/32.2
RHP Giovanni Carrara 2.18/53.2
LHP Wilson Alvarez 4.03/102.2
RHP Elmer Dessens 4.46/105
LHP Mike Venafro 4.00/9

The Cards' pen should provide an interesting test case for a playoff debate: What's more important in the post-season, a deep bullpen, or one headed by one or two dominant arms? You'd think Gagne or Rivera (and pray for cholera?) would be best. But in a series where both teams sport questionable starting rotations and strong offenses, the fifth, sixth and seventh innings may be the most important for both clubs. If that happens, having depth with the likes of Tavarez, Kline, Calero and King should help.

Though Brad Lidge may have snatched the title of best National League closer this season, Gagne's still mighty close to automatic at the end of the Dodger pen. Much was made of L.A. trading away set-up man Guillermo Mota (as well as catcher Paul Lo Duca) as part of the team's deadline shakeup. But rookie flamethrower Yhency Brazoban has been a revelation; lest hand-wringers wonder if Brazoban can handle the pressure of his first playoffs, remember that 40 minutes southeast of Chavez Ravine, Francisco Rodriguez blew away all comers in the 2002 pennant race and post-season as a much younger rookie. Throw in strong seasons by Sanchez and Carrara and Alvarez shifting to the pen and you have a strong, balanced group of arms that figures to be the Dodgers' biggest edge of the series.

The Match-Up

The Cardinals have the upper hand on offense. The Dodgers get the edge in the bullpen. The starting rotations look close, as do the teams' defenses (the Dodgers and Cards rank 1-2 in the NL, with standouts ranging from Edmonds to Rolen, Izturis to Beltre boosting their respective clubs).

Though their 12-game advantage in the standings and 4-2 head-to-head edge seem to strongly favor the Cardinals, don't expect a rout. The Dodgers have shown a knack for pulling off the improbable, and voodoo aside, they can flat out play. Milton Bradley, fresh off a five-game disciplining by the team, could be an interesting wild card to watch as well. We'll say Cards in four, but this could easily go the limit.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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