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October 4, 2005

Playoff Prospectus

San Diego Padres vs. St. Louis Cardinals

by Dayn Perry

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It's the best team in baseball this season against arguably the worst playoff team ever to roam the earth. Let's also not forget that the Padres' underwhelming 82-80 record was assembled in spite of a -42 run differential and against the weakest schedule in all of baseball. So it's a mismatch on paper and according to common sense; however, the brevity of a five-game series can wreak havoc on expectations.

The best, the worst, Pujols, Hoffy, Giles, Carp and the pee-colored wonders that are the Padres' road unis--this one has it all

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

St. Louis Cardinals

SS-R David Eckstein (.293/.359/.395/.270/41.6)
RF-L Larry Walker (.289/.384/.502/.295/29.9)
1B-R Albert Pujols (.330/.430/.609/.343/100.9)
CF-L Jim Edmonds (.263/.384/.533/.307/52.1)
LF-R Reggie Sanders (.271/.340/.546/.294/28.5)
2B-R Mark Grudzielanek (.294/.334/.407/.256/24.4)
3B-B Abraham Nunez (.285/.336/.361/.247/11.6)
C-R Yadier Molina (.251/.290/.358/.228/4.3)

San Diego Padres

CF-L Dave Roberts (.274/.348/.427/.282/25.3)
LF-L Ryan Klesko (.248/.358/.418/.280/19.6)
RF-L Brian Giles (.301/.423/.483/.328/64.7)
C-R Ramon Hernandez (.290/.321/.450/.274/24.6)
1B-L Mark Sweeney (.294/.393/.466/.314/23.2)
SS-R Khalil Greene (.250/.294/.431/.263/20.2)
2B-R Mark Loretta (.280/.359/.347/.267/16.5)
3B-R Joe Randa (.256/.303/.395/.247/3.8)

The lineups clearly favor the Cardinals; half their lineup boasts an EqA of .290 or better. Still, the Padres now have a healthy Ramon Hernandez and Khalil Greene, and they've installed Mark Sweeney in the lineup and defenestrated Phil Nevin.

While the core of the St. Louis lineup is undeniably strong, the bottom half is quite lacking. Abraham Nunez has been putrid of late (.231/.284/.269 in August and .238/.273/.250 in September), and Yadier Molina is one of the worst-hitting regulars in baseball. Also consider that Chris Carpenter will likely be in the nine hole for two games (his career batting line: .080/.120/.093 seriously), and you've got three sure outs at the bottom. Still, advantage Cards.

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

St. Louis Cardinals

OF-L John Rodriguez (.295/.375/.436/.290/11.4)
OF-L John Mabry (.240/.288/.407/.241/2.3)
OF-R So Taguchi (.288/.321/.412/.257/16.3)
IF-R Hector Luna (.285/.340/.409/.266/8.2)
C-R Einar Diaz (.208/.245/.277/.175/-5.4)

San Diego Padres

IF/OF-R Xavier Nady (.261/.320/.439/.268/13.4)
1B/C-H Robert Fick (.265/.338/.365/.260/6.3)
C-H Miguel Olivo (.304/.339/.487/.289/12.4)
IF/OF-H Damian Jackson (.255/.332/.342/.260/9.2)
IF/OF-H Eric Young (.275/.350/.380/.258/4.2)

Considering the strength of the Cardinal bullpen and the curious construction of the Padre lineup (three lefties at the top, three righties at the bottom), it's a good thing San Diego has a capable bench. They'll likely face some key pinch-hitting junctures, and to avoid critical daisy chains of platoon disadvantages, Bruce Bochy will need to be bold in his decisions.

Tony La Russa teams, insofar as their benches are concerned, are often hampered by his love of defensive multi-tasking at the expense of hitting ability. While there's much to be said for versatility, the lines between "useful" and "novelty act" are often blurred. This year, however, the Cards have a nice crop of reserves. Rodriguez, Taguchi, Mabry and Luna all have defensive flexibility and can hit a little by bench player standards (for that matter, La Russa could pinch hit Jason Marquis, as he's done on nine other occasions this season). Considering the fragility and platoon weaknesses of guys like Walker and Sanders, this bench, if utilized properly, could play a big role. As for Einar Diaz, it's a task to have a worse bat than Yadier Molina, but, by golly, he's done it.

Rotations (ERA/IP/SNLVAR)

St. Louis Cardinals

RHP Chris Carpenter (241.2, 2.83, 8.6)
LHP Mark Mulder (205.0, 3.64, 5.3)
RHP Matt Morris (192.2, 4.11, 3.0)
RHP Jeff Suppan (194.1, 3.57, 3.4)

San Diego Padres

RHP Jake Peavy (203.0, 2.88, 6.6)
RHPPedro Astacio (59.2, 3.17, 2.2(
RHP Adam Eaton (128.2, 4.27, 2.4)
RHP Woody Williams (159.2, 4.85, 2.2)

Away from run-suppressing Petco this season, the Padres gave up 408 runs. Pro-rate that 162 games, and in the NL only the Reds, Rockies and Diamondbacks would've coughed up more runs on the season. The bullpen (which ranks second in the NL--to the Cardinals--in relief ERA) hasn't been the problem. Rather, it's the fault of the rotation (and, as you'll see below, the defense). Specifically, Padre starters not named Jake Peavy have a 4.98 ERA in 2005. This is where the schedule comes into play.

The Pads and Cardinals will Tuesday, rest on Wednesday, play Thursday, rest on Friday, and then play Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Those two off days early in the series in tandem with Peavy's game one start mean he'll be able to start twice on regular rest, should the series go that far. Because of Chris Carpenter's recent struggles, Peavy without question is the best starting pitcher in this series.

Speaking of Carpenter, much has been made of his 5.73 ERA in the month of September. That's troubling enough, but there's reason to believe his troubles go deeper than something that could be dismissed as small sample size or a run of bad BABIP luck. First, Carpenter has topped his previous high in innings by 26 frames, and this season he ranks ninth in all of baseball in pitches thrown. Second, Carpenter's six September starts came against the Astros (twice), Mets, Pirates, Cubs and Brewers-teams that, on average, rank 10th in the NL in runs scored. Third, Carpenter's peripherals have degraded along with his run prevention skills. Take a look at the worsening of Carpenter's secondary indicators:


                      K/BB ratio      K/9          HR/9          GB/FB
April through August  4.45            8.3          0.62          2.05
September             3.33            7.2          0.96          1.70

Not even mentioning runs, Carpenter's been worse across the board: less command, lower strikeout rates, more homers, more balls in the air. This is something more than a strain of misfortune.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, they get to face Pedro Astacio in game two (away from Petco, no less; in parks other than Petco, Astacio has a 5.08 ERA this season), and probably Adam Eaton in game three. Two starts for Peavy may well mean two victories for the Padres, but squeezing one more from their remaining starters will be an onerous task.

Bullpens (IP, ERA, WXRL)

St. Louis Cardinals

RHP Jason Isringhausen (59.0, 2.14, 3.70)
LHP Ray King (40.0, 3.38, -1.10)
RHP Julian Tavarez (65.2, 3.43, 2.25)
LHP Randy Flores (41.2, 3.46, 0.71)
RHP Cal Eldred (37.0, 2.19, 0.75)
RHP Brad Thompson (55.0, 2.95, 1.57)
RHP Jason Marquis (207.0, 4.13, starter in regular season)

San Diego Padres

RHP Trevor Hoffman (57.2, 2.97, 3.77)
RHP Akinori Otsuka (62.2, 3.59, 1.55)
RHP Scott Linebrink (73.2, 1.83, 3.75)
LHP Chris Hammond (58.2, 3.84, 0.37)
RHP Clay Hensley (47.2, 1.70, 1.96)
RHP Rudy Seanez (60.1, 2.69, 1.71)
LHP Craig Breslow (16.1, 2.20, 0.06) RHP Brian Lawrence (195.2, 4.84, starter in regular season)

The big news, of course, is that the Cardinals will be without Al Reyes. Reyes, who ranks as the 11th best reliever in baseball this season according to expected runs, tore elbow ligaments in the final game of the regular season. The comfort for St. Louis is that in Julian Tavarez, Cal Eldred, Brad Thompson and, if need be, Jason Marquis, they have plenty of right-handed middle relief options.

As mentioned above, San Diego has an enviable relief corps of its own. If there's one thing to take note of it's that Bochy has made the mistake of using Otsuka, rather than Linebrink, as his "critical mass" right-handed setup guy. While Otsuka's anything but a liability, Linebrink this season has been his manifest superior, and he needs to be deployed as such. Using Otsuka in more high-leverage situations hurts the team.

Lefty Chris Hammond is hampered by a groin injury and hasn't pitched since September 24. While he's expected to be available, the whiff of uncertainty may mean a spot on the post-season roster for Craig Breslow. Breslow has been excellent in limited, low-leverage action this season, but must be regarded as an unknown quantity under these circumstances. With bats like Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker across the way, that could be key.

Defense

According to our defensive efficiency ratings, the Cardinals have the third-best defense in the NL, while the Padres rank a measly 12th. If Dave Roberts' strained quad hinders his fly-chasing abilities, then that'll make the Pads even worse in the field. Of course, if Roberts can't answer the bell at all, San Diego may be forced to stick Giles out there. Considering the Cardinals are one of the four best teams in the NL in terms of putting the ball in play, that Padre defense will be a factor.

Managers

Bochy's less prone to micro-management and small-ball machinations, but there's little arguing with La Russa's record of success. In the past, La Russa's been a bit too patient with his starters in the post-season (think game five of the 2002 NLCS), and without Reyes at his disposal that may again be a temptation. Overall, a modest edge to St. Louis.

Prediction

The presence of Jake Peavy, the extra day of rest and the downward spiraling of Chris Carpenter mean this is very much a series. The Pads take both of Peavy's starts, but the other San Diego starters and that porous defense can't keep runs off the board. St. Louis in five.

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