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October 11, 2005

Playoff Prospectus

Houston Astros vs. St. Louis Cardinals

by Christina Kahrl

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The American League and most of the Northeast might have to get used to not getting a Yankees-Red Sox rematch in its Championship Series, but over here in the senior circuit, we all get to revisit last October's NLCS clash. In the visitor's corner, we have an Astros team living large on the greatness of a half-dozen ballplayers, and while there's no Carlos Beltran highlight reel running every other inning, it's also a team that doesn't have to ask Peter Munro to start two games in the series. Still over in the heavy favorite category, we have another deep and talented Cardinals team hoping to achieve what no Cardinals squad has done since Rollie Fingers got hurt in 1982. Is this the year the Cardinals can dispel memories of 1985, 1987, the extra heaping dose of humiliation of 1996, or 2004? While both ALDS featured interesting (if perhaps overdrawn) mismatches between teams that had either strong pitcher or strong hitting, the NLCS might outdo all other series for its matchup between a strong Cardinals lineup and the best trio of starting pitchers on any single team in the game today.

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

Houston Astros

CF-R Willy Taveras (.291/.325/.341/.241/11.9)
2B-R Craig Biggio (.264/.325/.468/.271/37.2)
3B-R Morgan Ensberg (.283/.388/.557/.311/61.5)
LF-B Lance Berkman (.293/.411/.524/.317/55.1)
RF-R Jason Lane (.267/.316/.499/.273/28.3)
1B-L Mike Lamb (.236/.284/.419/.239/2.2)
C-R Brad Ausmus (.258/.351/.331/.247/11.8)
SS-R Adam Everett (.248/.290/.364/.231/8.3)

St. Louis Cardinals

SS-R David Eckstein (.294/.363/.395/.268/39.4)
CF-L Jim Edmonds (.263/.385/.533/.307/51.1)
1B-R Albert Pujols (.330/.430/.609/.344/100.3)
RF-L Larry Walker (.289/.384/.502/.302/27.4)
LF-R Reggie Sanders (.271/.340/.546/.298/27.4)
2B-R Mark Grudzielanek (.294/.334/.407/.257/23.1)
3B-B Abraham Nunez (.285/.343/.361/.249/9.1)
C-R Yadier Molina (.252/.295/.358/.227/4.4)

The Astros' lineup is not a group blessed with balance, but they do have discrete strengths. Obviously, as Ensberg and Berkman go, so go the Astros, and they did combine to hit nine of their 60 home runs on the season against the Cardinals. If the Cardinals keep them under control, that would particularly put Lane and Lamb on the spot. Both finished the season strongly, Lamb in particular, by hitting .319/.392/.609 in the final month. If nothing else, it was enough to summon up memories of last season, and get Lamb into the lineup to stay. In-game, there are obvious tactical dilemmas. Sure, Taveras will slap at everything, and if the Astros really take leave of their senses, he'll try to run if he makes it aboard. Yadier Molina threw out 64% of opposing base-stealers, so you can guess how that's going to turn out.

The larger issue is in the later innings. This is a lineup with the sorts of weaknesses that Tony La Russa is used to picking away at with his bullpen. Although Berkman's relative weakness against left-handed pitching is common wisdom (.294/.416/.429 against southpaws, as opposed to his thumperiffic .292/.409/.558 against right-handers), he's still going to do some damage. It isn't Berkman that's the problem, though. With Lane and Lamb behind him, the middle of the Astros' order is extremely vulnerable to a quality lefty. Lane was bass-ackwards this year, hitting .280/.322/.521 against right-handers, while Lamb would either melt or need to be pinch-hit for, and the Astros bench isn't pretty. (Against Mulder, you can probably expect hero of the moment Chris Burke to play left, and Berkman to move to first base while Lamb gets shelved.)

Manager Phil Garner may overcompensate for his lineup's overall lack of firepower with some running at the top of the order, and getting cute with one-run strategies with the tail end of the lineup, something that Ausmus has afforded him with by finally putting up a decent OBP for the first time in his second Astros incarnation. However, if Garner gets too cute with Ausmus, Everett, and the pitcher's slot, that will just make life easier for the Cardinals' starting pitchers.

Although not armed with the same murder's row they could boast with a healthy Scott Rolen at the hot corner, the Cards still do have one of the National League's better lineups now that Walker and Sanders have come back from injuries. They get men on base at the top of the order, they get power in its heart, and the bottom does a decent job of getting balls in play to convert all the front-end fireworks into additional runs. Walker may be benched in the games Andy Pettitte starts, but Walker can hit lefties a little, and Pettitte isn't Randy Johnson-in-his-prime invincible against them, so La Russa might stick with the famous guy instead of bringing in So Taguchi. These Cards don't run like Cardinals teams of old, nabbing only 83 steals all year, but it really doesn't matter. Brad Ausmus will keep baserunning out of the equation, so the Cardinals' lineup will be that much more reliant on big innings rather than manufacturing runs.

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

Houston Astros

PH-R Jeff Bagwell (.250/.358/.380/.268/3.3)
OF-L Orlando Palmeiro (.284/.341/.431/.268/10.0)
INF-B Jose Vizcaino (.246/.299/.33/.226/0.3)
UT-R Eric Bruntlett (.220/.292/.413/.247/2.7)
OF/2B-R Chris Burke (.248/.309/.368/.238/-0.6)
OF-L Luke Scott (.188/.270/.288/.194/-4.5)
C-R Raul Chavez (.172/.210/.263/.152/-6.6)

St. Louis Cardinals

OF-R So Taguchi (.288/.322/.412/.258/15.5)
OF-L John Rodriguez (.295/.382/.436/.290/11.1)
OF/1B-L John Mabry (.240/.295/.407/.242/1.8)
UT-R Hector Luna (.285/.344/.409/.271/7.1)
1B-R John Gall (.270/.282/.514 /.265/2.0)
C-R Einar Diaz (.208/.248/.277/.176/-5.5)

Despite the presence of future Hall of Famer Bagwell, Palmeiro is the best bench weapon that Houston has. However, he's also easily erased with a lefty reliever: against right-handed pitching, he hit .302/.347/.467, but versus lefties, .136/.296/.136. The challenge for Garner is using Palmeiro at a time when LaRussa won't negate his bat by responding with Ray King or Randy Flores, because his options against lefties aren't quite so tantalizing. A rusty Bagwell? But the Astros may not be as weak as they appear to be at first glance, since they're relying upon a lot of young hitters who didn't fare as well as expected while breaking in or finally sticking in the majors. Although Burke and Bruntlett aren't really 'Killer B's' in keeping with the franchise's history, Burke's a young player capable of hitting better than he did this season, and perhaps adding to the fame he already has for ending the 18-inning marathon on Sunday. They can hope that Bruntlett's .295/.377/.425 in 61 at-bats against lefties is representative. Similarly, Scott hit for considerable power in the minors this season (31 homeruns at Triple-A Round Rock) after washing out in April, so he might surprise the Cardinals in the right situation.

In contrast to so much uncertainty, La Russa can call on a diverse and talented group of veteran reserves kept sharp by frequent use. In the middle and late innings, he's going to need the depth he has here to help achieve a key platoon advantage, and Mabry in particular has experience and success in a pinch-hitting role, slugging .471 as a pinch-hitter this year. Luna might get brought in to pinch-run, but basically, this is the sort of quality that should give the Cards an advantage in any extra-inning game. Rodriguez seems to be reserved for emergencies, but he is the obvious choice to get into the lineup if a starter breaks down, or to get the DH at-bats should the Cardinals advance. Having three usable outfielders on the bench allows La Russa to both pinch-hit aggressively and still have someone to spot for Walker or Sanders if either need to come out; there's no understating how much of an advantage that affords La Russa, especially when he's equally aggressive about using his bullpen, and thus potentially more likely to want to pull the occasional double-switch.

If there's a 'Signs of the Apocalypse' note to be struck, it's if both teams ever have to use their backup catchers. You might be able to find two less dangerous hitters on a big league bench, but suffice to say that neither team is going to be very aggressive about getting their starting backstops out of the lineup.

Rotations (ERA/IP/SNLVAR)

Houston Astros

LHP Andy Pettitte (222.1, 2.39, 8.6)
RHP Roy Oswalt (241.2, 2.94, 7.7)
RHP Roger Clemens (211.1, 1.87, 9.4)
RHP Brandon Backe (149.1, 4.76, 2.7)

St. Louis Cardinals

RHP Chris Carpenter (241.2, 2.83, 8.6)
LHP Mark Mulder (205.0, 3.64, 4.9)
RHP Matt Morris (192.2, 4.11, 3.0)
RHP Jason Marquis (207.0, 4.13, 4.3) or RHP Jeff Suppan (194.1, 3.57, 4.3)

Not this year. This year, the Astros don't have to hope to get by with a non-embarrassing outing or two from Backe or Munro, this year they'll get to take a clean shot at the Cardinals as far as their starting pitching is concerned. If the series is to be won by Houston, it will almost certainly be achieved here, on the strength of the best trio of starting pitchers on a single team in baseball, and three of the best five starters in the game. However, none of the Astros' big three logged multiple wins against the Cardinals this season, or was particularly dominant against them. Still, that may not matter. All three are very different kinds of pitchers, Clemens relying on power and a splitter, Oswalt on power and a curve he can change speeds with, and Pettitte with one of the best cut fastballs in the game. Pettitte has been especially hot down the stretch, winning 11 games in the second half while logging fifteen quality starts (three runs or less allowed in six innings or more) in sixteen starts. (The one "non-quality" start was a game in which he was pulled in the sixth having allowed only two runs.) Oswalt's been hittable, particularly in the second half, but he's also not likely to come apart at the seams, while the Rocket should be ready for a Game Three start. What we won't see is another eight shutout innings in the NLCS from Backe to match last October's surprise effort against the Cards, but if the front three do their jobs, the Astros shouldn't need them.

However, if the Astros are putting their best foot forward this time around, so too is St. Louis, as they get to rely upon staff ace and retread par excellence Chris Carpenter. Carpenter missed the tail end of last season and the postseason, but having him at the front of the rotation gives the Cardinals one of the only starting pitchers in baseball who matches up well with the Astros' big three. It's particularly helpful that he seems to have Houston's number this year, going 4-0 in five starts against them. Beyond Carpenter, the Cardinals' rotation is less a tribute to the individual greatness of any of the other four horsemen, more a testament to their combined talent and durability. They reflect the continuing effectiveness that La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan have had in building up and succeeding with veteran rotations, both here and with the A's rotation of the late '80s that really relied on Dave Stewart while enjoying good seasons from Mike Moore and Bob Welch. As a prescription for the in-season success, you can't do much better. This is a group that gives you quality starts more often than not, and when your lineup puts runs on the board, you win more than the other guys over 162 games.

The tough decision here is whether or not they should turn to Jeff Suppan, or instead start Marquis in the third, fourth, or any game in the series. Morris really ought to bumped behind Suppan on the basis of performance, but he's the homegrown ex-ace, so I doubt that he won't start Game Three. But who do you pick between Suppan and Marquis? Marquis was 4-0 in five starts against the Astros during the year, and even hit six-for-twelve and slugged over .900 against them. Although research generally supports the conclusion that a pitcher loses an advantage the more he faces an opponent, especially if you accept Morris as an automatic choice in Game Three, La Russa has a tough call as far as whether or not he should rely on the regular season success, or if he'll let Marquis' past flakiness lead him to start Suppan. If any one of the three starters behind Carpenter and Mulder falters in his start, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the guy who didn't start is on tap for Game Seven if he doesn't have to pitch in relief beforehand.

Bullpens (IP, ERA, WXRL)

Houston Astros

RHP Brad Lidge (70.2, 2.29, 4.7)
RHP Dan Wheeler (73.1, 2.21, 3.4)
RHP Chad Qualls (79.2, 3.28, 1.9)
RHP Russ Springer (59.0, 4.73, 0.8)
LHP Mike Gallo (20.1, 2.66, 0.1)
LHP Wandy Rodriguez (128.2, 5.53, 0.6 SNLVAR)

St. Louis Cardinals

RHP Jason Isringhausen (59.0, 2.14, 3.6)
RHP Julian Tavarez (65.2, 3.43, 2.0)
RHP Brad Thompson (55.0, 2.95, 1.6)
RHP Cal Eldred (37.0, 2.19, 0.8)
LHP Randy Flores (41.2, 3.46, 0.7)
LHP Ray King (40.0, 3.38, -1.1)

The Cardinals can boast a pretty good pen, and usually do, but this isn't quite as good a unit as it's made out to be, especially with Al Reyes out with a bum elbow. Generally, this is a pen that reflects its manager's micro-managing tendencies. Izzy gets reserved for save situations, and everyone else dances to the beat set by La Russa in his careful attention to situational advantages. Whoever gets dropped from the rotation for the series will serve as the team's long reliever.

It may not get its praises sung as often as the Cardinals' pen, but the Astros have a better group than they're usually given credit for, and more of an honest-to-goodness collection of talent. Although Lidge hasn't been the overpowering pitcher he was last season, he finished strong, and with Wheeler and Qualls ahead of him, the Astros are generally in good shape if they have a lead after seven. Wheeler lost last season's pronounced platoon split, making him that much more effective despite a relatively pedestrian assortment, and Qualls and Springer have had their moments. If there's a pitcher here particularly on the spot, I think it's Gallo. He isn't an effective situational lefty, and unless he comes up with something else, he's not going to be useful against Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds. If Garner chases situational advantages, it could cost the Astros the series, but over the season, he's generally been willing to rely on Wheeler and Qualls to set up Lidge, and avoid over-managing.

Defense

In terms of Defensive Efficiency, both of these teams are pretty strong units. Both feature catchers who can deter if not simply throttle the running game. Both feature outstanding defensive center fielders, with Edmonds apparently losing nothing to age, while Taveras may have an opportunity to shine on national television. It should be interesting to see if Taveras beats out a few infield hits against a group of Cardinals infielders not known for their strong arms, particularly Eckstein and Grudzielanek, but that may be the only potential weakness of note about the Redbirds' defense. By comparison, it's clear that Biggio isn't a very good second baseman these days, and that Berkman doesn't move around as well in left as you might wish; either factor could come into play, but the Astros try to compensate with defense-oriented starters like Taveras in center and Everett at short.

Managers

The fun factoid of this series? The Cardinals led baseball in suicide squeeze plays (defined as sacrifices or bunt hits with a man on third and less than two outs) with 14, and the Astros were second with eight. We've touched on most of each manager's idiosyncrasies in the other sections, but despite broad similarities (a willingness to rely on veterans, and go for the occasional tactical gimmick), it makes for an interesting contrast nevertheless. La Russa has the bench and pen to entertain himself late into the ballgame, while Garner does not, and will need to be much more careful about who he uses, when, and for what particular purpose.

Prediction

The Cardinals dominated the season series, winning 11 of 16, but that's not really a good measure of the matchup that we have on our hands now. The Astros' Berkman and the Cardinals' Rolen were simultaneously active in only one of these two teams' six regular season matchups, and the Cardinals' depth in their rotation doesn't shine as much in a short series in the way that simply great starting pitching usually does. Busch is a bit of a pitcher's park, while Non-Carbonated Fruit Beverage Ballpark To Be Named Later in Houston has its infamous short porch in left just begging to make Pujols the Series MVP or almost anybody the hero for a day. Both teams feature the power hitting to rely upon in either park, which might produce a surprise slugfest (Game Four, anyone?). The Cardinals dodged a lot of bullets and enjoyed the benefit of a lot of stranded baserunners in the series against the Padres, not to mention facing a team that had to call on Pedro Astacio to start a postseason game. It would be asking too much more to expect them to enjoy similar good fortune against an Astros rotation that will keep the scores low, and against an Astros lineup that should have its moments against the non-Carpenters in the rotation, particularly in their home park. In an upset, I'm going with the Astros in seven.

James Click contributed to this article with his incomparable database wizardry.

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

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