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October 3, 2006

Playoff Prospectus

Padres versus Cardinals

by Dan Fox

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"I can't conceive of either team winning a single game." - writer Warren Brown when asked for a prediction as to the outcome of the 1945 World Series between the Cubs and the Tigers

Okay, so things aren't anywhere near that bleak. In fact, the rematch of these two division winners beginning Tuesday afternoon at PETCO Park should be much more compelling than the 2005 version, in which the 82-win Padres impersonated a playoff team on their way to a three-game thrashing at the hands of the 100-win Cardinals. The fact that these are two teams going in opposite directions of 2005 also adds to the fun.

Only five pitchers and two position players remain from the 2005 Padres, and as you can see from the graph below, this year's edition ended on a very strong note. After absorbing a 5-3 loss at Arizona on August 19th, their record stood at 61-62. Over the remaining six weeks they ripped off a 27-12 record, including winning nine of their last 11 (taking two out of three in St. Louis the penultimate weekend) to tie the Dodgers at 88-74 and take their second straight division title by virtue of their 13-5 record against their intra-division rival. In fact, since the end of July and during their run they relied on strong pitching and defense to drive their opponents runs per game down to 4.19, easily the lowest in the National League, albeit in a park where only 86% as many runs are scored as in road games in 2006. The Friars where fairly consistent all season offensively, and with the park factor considered ended in the middle of the pack.

The Cardinals on the other hand basically hit their highpoint in terms of record on June 18th when they beat the Rockies 4-1, running their record up to 42-26 at a time when they were without the services of Albert Pujols, who was on the DL from June 5th through the 22nd. After that they went on an eight-game losing streak starting on June 19th, endured another eight-gamer from July 27th through August 4th, and of course prominently lost seven in a row from September 20-26 to back their way into their third consecutive division crown. The 83 wins the wound up being the product of their compiling a record of 41-52 since June 18th, and 12-17 in September. Only by winning three of their last five thanks to heroics by Pujols did they avoid being tagged with the biggest collapse in history, just avoiding their opportunity to surpass the 1964 Phillies, who had held a 6 game lead with 12 to play-the Cardinals held a 7 game lead with 13 to play.

It's obvious from the graph below that the Cardinals built their lead on the strength of their pitching and defense which fell apart in June giving up 8.6 runs per game during their eight-game slide. Overall, they've narrowly outscored their opponents 781-762, meaning that 83 wins (in 161 games) is right about where they should be. And for what it's worth the new Busch Stadium also played as a slight pitchers park in its inaugural season.

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

St. Louis Cardinals

SS-R David Eckstein (.292/.350/.344/.244/9.2)
RF-L Chris Duncan (.293/.363/.589/.307/25.3)
1B-R Albert Pujols (.331/.431/.671/.350/86.6)
LF-R Preston Wilson (.243/.300/.486/.268/3.9*)
3B-R Scott Rolen (.296/.369/.518/.295/37.4)
CF-L Jim Edmonds (.257/.350/.471/.280/20.6)
2B-R Ron Belliard (.237/.295/.371/.223/-2.8*)
C-R Yadier Molina (.216/.274/.321/.205/-19.3)

* Cardinals Only

San Digeo Padres

LF-L Dave Roberts (.293/.360/.393/.281 /22.8)
RF-L Brian Giles (.263/.374/.397/.278/18.4)
1B-L Adrian Gonzalez (.304/.362/.500/.294 /33.3)
C-R Mike Piazza (.283/.342/.501/.287 /27.1)
3B-L Russell Branyan (.292/.416/.556/.330 /8.3*) CF-R Mike Cameron (.268/.355/.482/.289/40.5)
SS-B Geoff Blum (.254/.293/.366/.231/-2.4)
2B-R Josh Barfield (.280/.318/.423/.262 /22.3)

* Padres only

When looking at the Cardinals lineup perhaps the key questions is one of health. The health of Jim Edmonds in particular remains a bit of an enigma. Edmonds is coming off "post-concussion syndrome" that sidelined him for a month, has logged only 15 at-bats in September, has not looked all that good when he has played, and will have arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder after the season, although its not clear how much the shoulder is bothering him. If he can't go that means a big fat helping of Juan Encarnacion against right-handers, which is never a good thing. David Eckstein coming off of his strained oblique has also logged less than 30 at-bats since September 1st.

On top of that the Cardinals should also be concerned about the drop in productivity of Chris Duncan and Scott Rolen after Duncan hit .212/.302/.471 and Rolen .227/.299/.398 in September/October. Small sample size caveats apply, although for Duncan we could be witnessing more than statistical variation and instead an adjustment by the league. When you add Preston Wilson, Yadier Molina, and Ron Belliard (or Aaron Miles) to the mix, you end up with something resembling Pujols and the extras from Benchwarmers. In other words, the lineup Pujols isn't exactly intimidating, and given its relative lack of patience, you can bet that Bruce Bochy won't let Albert anywhere near a situation in which he can literally swing the game.

Injuries are also a factor for the Padres, althoug they're offensively better balanced and more potent with their hydra-headed catcher arrangement, musical chairs at third, and now their dilemma at shortstop with the return of Khalil Greene. At catcher, the trio of Josh Bard, Piazza, and Ryan Bowen have shared duties and combined for 34 homeruns and 121 RBI; Bard spells Piazza occasionally against right-handers, and Bowen comes in as a defensive replacement for Piazza. At third base the Vinny Castilla and Mark Bellhorn experiments have given way to Todd Walker and more now Russell Branyan. Walker has also garnered some starts at second base, as Josh Barfield has struggled against right-handed pitching (.266/.299/.376). Greene's comeback from the torn ligament in his left middle finger in the last week probably means that they'll initially use him as a defensive replacement for Blum as the game moves along, as they did in the waning days of the season. He might eventually draw a start him against a lefty-not that the Cardinals have any.

It's also been reported that Brian Giles is battling ankle and knee problems, although it hasn't kept him out of any games. Combined with Dave Roberts and Mike Cameron, the Padres outfield is a productive one, albeit without much power and somewhat vulnerable against left-handed pitching. The patience of Roberts and Giles at the top of the order, however, sets the table nicely for Gonzalez, Piazza/Bard, and Cameron. Unlike the Cardinals, the Padres also have no glaring holes in the order, which allows them to turn the lineup over and score runs more consistently. In their final 21 games they topped five runs ten times, and with a lineup that can boast five to seven left-handed bats, the all right-handed Cardinals rotation could be in for a difficult series.

Even with Pujols and Rolen, the injuries to Edmonds and Eckstein and the weak supporting cast make it hard not to give the edge to the Padres here.

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

Cardinals

C-R Gary Bennett (.223/.274/.331/.206/-6.0)
OF-R Juan Encarnacion (.278/.317/.443/.256/9.6)
2B/SS-B Aaron Miles (.263/.324/.347/.235/2.0)
OF-L John Rodriguez (.301/.374/.432/.280/9.1)
UT-B Scott Spiezio (.272/.366/.496/.290/16.9)
OF-R So Taguchi (.266/.335/.351/.246/0.6)
INF-B Jose Vizcaino (.348/.375/.609/.314/3.2*)

* Cardinals only

Padres

C-S Josh Bard (.338/.406/.537/.322/29.9)
INF-B Mark Bellhorn (.190/.285/.344/.222/-10.1)
C-B Rob Bowen (.245/.339/.394/.258/1.8)
SS-R Khalil Greene (.245/.320/.427/.261/14.4)
OF-R Ben Johnson (.250/.333/.425/.269/3.5)
1B-L Ryan Klesko (.750/.833/1.000/.748/3.0)
OF-L Terrmel Sledge (.220/.308/.357/.235/-1.7)
INF-L Todd Walker (.282/.366/.419/.281 /6.2*)

* Padres only

Off the bench the Cardinals have a productive hitter in super-sub Spiezio, and if Encarnacion isn't starting, he can be a potent weapon off of the bench against lefty Alan Embree or starting against David Wells. In the event that Edmonds isn't starting, he'll also be dangerous off the bench against the Pads' squad of quality right-handed relievers. Unfortunately, that's where the goodness ends, as Miles, Vizcaino, and Taguchi provide little punch. At least Taguchi is a fine defender. We've also listed John Rodriguez as a possibility, although with two other outfielders in the mix, he appears to be the odd man out.

The Padres situation is worse although they would appear to have many more options. With the activation of Ryan Klesko off of the DL on September 21st to complete his coming back from April shoulder surgery, the Padres apparently will carry him as a pinch hitter who has all of four at-bats this season. With Greene injured and carrying third catcher Bowen seemingly guaranteed, Bochy won't have much room for maneuvering. Whoever is not starting between the Walker/Branyan duo will be useful in a pinch-hitting role, but that only leaves room for only one additional bench player. Since this article is going to press before the final playoff rosters need to be handed in on Tuesday morning, a final decision hasn't been made, but the two most likely candidates for the final spot are Bellhorn and Johnson. With Klesko basically DH-worthy afield, it would seem that a fourth outfielder like Johnson who can serve as a defensive replacement and pinch hitter against lefties would make a great deal of sense. However, it appears more likely that Bellhorn is in. The Cardinals bring a little more punch off the bench, and when combined with the lack of versatility for the Padres, the slight edge goes to St. Louis.

Rotations (ERA/IP/SNLVAR)

Cardinals

RHP Chris Carpenter (3.09, 221.2, 7.3)
RHP Jeff Suppan (4.12, 190.0, 4.3)
RHP Jeff Weaver (5.18, 83.1, 1.5*)
RHP Anthony Reyes (5.06, 85.1, 1.9)

Padres

RHP Jake Peavy (4.09, 202.1, 5.9)
LHP David Wells (3.49, 28.1, 1.0*)
RHP Chris Young (3.46, 179.1, 6.5)
RHP Woody Williams (3.65, 145.1, 3.5)

Overall, Carpenter and especially Suppan have pitched well in the second half, although Carpenter had a bit of a hiccup in his last two starts, giving up 12 runs and 21 hits over 15 innings. They will likely start Games One, Two, and Four. That leaves Weaver to start Game Three and Anthony Reyes to pick up a possible Game Five, although it wouldn't be shocking to see Suppan again on three days' rest, depending on his workload in Game Two. However, Suppan started twice against the Padres this season, and gave up 12 runs in 9.2 innings. That isn't too surprising; he's generally had trouble with left-handed hitters in 2006, giving up a .370 OBP and .464 SLG. In contrast, Reyes threw six decent innings against the Padres in September, moving him in front of Jason Marquis in the rotation. Reyes may also have an advantage in that he has actually fared slightly better against lefties this season than right-handers, although he wasn't stellar against either.

Jeff Weaver also pitched decently in his one start against the Padres in June (three runs, six innings) although it is more than a little disturbing that lefties lit him up for a WHIP of 2.05 and slugging percentage of .669 in his stint with the Cardinals. Clearly the La Russa game plan is to get two wins from Carpenter, and then hope and pray that somebody else can get the job done.

For the Padres, Jake Peavy has returned from shoulder tendonitis early in the season to again strike out 200+ hitters, and he's been very solid since the end of July, with only two rough starts. His record doesn't equate to his performance, since the Padres did not score in ten of his starts while he was in the game. He'll take the mound in Games One and Four, and is every bit Carpenter's equal when healthy. The Game Three start will be given to Chris Young, as the Padres brain trust will be holding him back for a start in St. Louis. That makes sense, given that Young hasn't lost in 24 consecutive road starts, and threw well in his start against the Cardinals on 9/27, surrendering just one run on three hits in seven innings. Young struggled a bit in July and early August but since August 15th he's thrown 45.2 innings, giving up just 23 hits and striking out 46. Although he's easy to run on, the Cardinals' lineup isn't all that ready to take advantage of him.

In something of a surprise, David Wells will get the Game Two start. He's been up and down in his five starts for the Friars, but looked fine in his last outing in Arizona. It'll be interesting to see what he does, but if he's not on, the game has the potential to be the highest scoring affair of the series. Woody Williams will get the Game Four start if necessary, and has pitched well in his last four starts, although that's including one against the Cardinals on 9/26 where allowed only three runs in six innings despite giving up 11 baserunners.

With the ability of Peavy to match Carpenter and the difficulty Suppan has had with the Padres, not to mention the greater depth of their starting staff, the clear edge here goes to San Diego.

Bullpens (IP, ERA, WXRL)

Cardinals

RHP Adam Wainwright (3.12, 65.0, 2.82) RHP Braden Looper (3.56, 73.1, 1.54)
LHP Randy Flores (5.62, 41.2, 1.06)
RHP Josh Hancock (4.09, 77.0, 0.49)
LHP Tyler Johnson (4.95, 36.1, 0.07)
RHP Brad Thompson (3.34, 56.2, 0.70)
RHP Josh Kinney (3.24, 25.0, 0.61) RHP Jason Marquis (6.02, 194.1, 0.00)

Padres

RHP Trevor Hoffman (2.14, 63.0, 5.99)
RHP Scott Linebrink (3.57, 75.2, 3.98)
RHP Cla Meredith (1.07, 50.2, 3.75)
LHP Alan Embree (3.27, 52.1, 1.40)
RHP Clay Hensley (3.71, 187.0, -0.34)
RHP Jon Adkins (3.98, 54.1, 0.88)
RHP Brian Sweeney (3.20, 56.1, 0.31) RHP Scott Cassidy (2.53, 42.2, -0.60)

When Jason Isringhausen's season went south at the end of August, it made La Russa's life a lot more trying. Fortunately, rookie Adam Wainwright has been a reasonable alternative in the closer's role, with a little help from Braden Looper, although the Cardinals didn't exactly have a lot of save opportunities in the last six weeks.

Instead, look for the pressure to be on lefties Randy Flores and Tyler Johnson when they're called on to pitch to Giles, Gonzalez, Roberts, and Branyan in tough spots. Josh Hancock and Brad Thompson will join Looper as setup men. Interestingly, both had slightly better results against left-handed batters than right-handed.

If La Russa is to carry 11 pitchers he'll have to choose between Jason Marquis and Josh Kinney, but based on comments over the last week it would seem that Marquis will be on the roster. It's hard to understand in what scenario he'd be used with an ERA hovering around seven over the past month and a half.

The Padres pen is led by Hoffman after he ranked 4th in the majors in WXRL. As you probably heard, he surpassed Lee Smith in career saves and now has 480, but more importantly, Hoffman has the best career save percentage in major league history (89.6%). Scott Linebrink and rookie Cla Meredith have been more than adequate setup men, with the sidearming Meredith giving up just 30 hits and six walks in 50.2 innings, including a stretch of 34 consecutive scoreless innings, a franchise record. That said, it should be remembered that Meredith has been touched for home runs in his last two appearances, including a game-winner surrendered to Mr. Pujols on 9/27. Be that as it may, look for Meredith to get the toughest matchups against right-handers in the seventh inning.

The Padres also have a secret weapon and insurance policy of sorts in Clay Hensley, who moved into the starting rotation this season and was perhaps their most consistent starter. He'll be available if one of the starters struggles early, giving Bochy confidence to go with an early hook if need be.

Alan Embree will play the LOOGY role against Edmonds and Duncan, but Bochy will have to decide between Scott Cassidy and Brian Sweeney for the final spot. Despite a fine ERA, Cassidy surrendered eight homeruns in 42.1 innings, not to mention 19 walks. Sweeney pitched better against right-handers than left-handers and has been more consistently used, so there should be little doubt that Sweeney will be the all-important 11th man in the pen.

The injury to Isringhausen and the availability of Hensley just reinforce the fact that there is no doubt the Padres have the much stronger bullpen.

Defense

San Diego led all teams in the majors in 2006 with a Defensive Efficiency rating of .717, while the Cardinals were tenth at .704.

For the Padres the trouble spots defensively are clearly catcher when Piazza is in the game (he threw out just 13 of 97 attempted base stealers), right field when Giles is in the game, and third base pretty much all the time. For catcher, they have nice defensive replacement options in both Bard and Bowen, and if they carry him, they have the potential to swap Johnson in at right field, although Bochy uses him primarily in left and center. At third base they'll have to live with the Walker/Branyan combination. Although its been reported that the Padres weren't too thrilled with his defense, Barfield comes out at a very respectable FRAA of nine. There's also a big difference between a healthy Khalil Greene at shortstop and Geoff Blum.

The Cardinals are very solid at first base (Pujols, +17), third base (Rolen, +13), and catcher (Molina, +19 and 28 of 36 attempted runners gunned down), but hurt a bit by the Belliard/Miles combination at second base (-11). Everywhere else, they are essentially league-average. Molina will certainly help keep Dave Robert's running game in check, while Piazza's deficiencies are not as exploitable for a Cardinals team that stole just 59 bases and were caught 32 times.

Although it's a very close call, given their fewer weaknesses and their ability to shut down Roberts and to a lesser extent Cameron and Barfield, the slight edge has to go to the Cardinals.

Managers

Both of these managers have obviously been through this before, so you shouldn't expect to see much that's new. In this series, expect to see Bochy waving Pujols to first on multiple occasions, especially if Wilson or Encarnacion continues to hit cleanup; Bochy was tied for fifth in the NL with 63 free passes. Of course, if he doesn't, you can simply sit at home and yell at your television. In contrast, whatever La Russa's reputation for tactical chicanery, he called for only 35 intentional walks, next to last in the NL.

La Russa also has the reputation of using his bullpen to "play the percentages," and there you should expect to see the Cardinals try and get the most out of their lefty relievers in the hopes of taking a bite out of the heavily left-handed lineup and bench of the Padres.

Prediction

With the near historic collapse of the Cardinals in the season's final week and the strength of the Padres pitching staff, plus the advantage of playing three games at PETCO, the Padres are the clear favorite in this series. When you combine Carpenter's recent struggles with Suppan's ineffectiveness against the Padres with the necessity of Weaver getting a start, it's hard not to think that perhaps this series will be over in four games, with Padres fans celebrating.

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