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October 11, 2006
The beginning of the postseason marked a chance for Willie Randolph's Mets to consummate something the baseball world had anticipated for at least four months, the chance to show that their regular-season dominance was no fluke. Yet the run-up to the Division Series against the Dodgers brought disturbing news. Not only was ace Pedro Martinez, the symbol of the team's resurgence under Randolph and GM Omar Minaya, likely to miss a start due to his calf strain, but he was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff that would knock him out into the middle of next year. The team's next pick to open the series, Orlando Hernandez, tore a calf muscle running in the outfield, knocking him out of consideration as well. Undeterred, the Mets retooled their postseason roster to play to their strength, a deep bullpen, and Randolph ably improvised his way through the series while the lineup punished nearly every mistake the Dodgers made. The result was a victory in straight sets, confirming that at the very least, the road to the NL pennant runs through the Big Apple.
The start of the playoffs brought Tony La Russa's Cardinals new life as well, in the form of a chance to turn their backs on a late-season swoon that not only saw them lose 36 of their final 61 games, but nearly make a Mauchery of the season as they frittered away a seven-game lead in the Central during the final two weeks. Once in the playoffs, the Cards turned to their ace, Chris Carpenter, and the results turned a funhouse-mirror reflection of last year's NLDS matchup with the Padres into business as usual, earning St. Louis its fifth NLCS berth in the past seven years.
The beginning of that Cardinal run, ironically, was a matchup with the last Mets playoff team, the 2000 edition that roared into the Subway Series against the Yankees. With the Bronx Bombers' shocking ouster at the hands of the Tigers, the Mets have the New York stage all to themselves. They're the 800-pound gorilla in the spotlight. Can they live up to the pressure?
SS-B Jose Reyes (.300/.354/.487/.294/57.7)
SS-R David Eckstein (.292/.350/.344/.244/9.2)
The Mets bring the National League's best offense into this series, a multifaceted unit that combines power and speed, and when firing on all cylinders, contains no easy outs beyond the pitcher's spot. Every regular had at least a .260 Equivalent Average on the year, and as a team they led the NL with a .273 team total despite placing "only" third in scoring (5.15 runs per game) behind Philadelphia and Atlanta. Recall that Shea Stadium is one of the league's more severe pitchers' parks, with a park factor of 967. On that note, while the Metropolitans were third in the league in slugging percentage (.445), it's perhaps more telling that they were first in road slugging percentage (.455). Aside from Lo Duca, every regular is a threat to go yard, though Green's days as a true power hitter are long behind him. The heart of the order is not to be messed with; Beltran led the league in VORP at his position (as did Reyes), while Wright finished just 0.1 runs behind Chipper Jones. When the Dodgers pitched around Beltran in the first round, Delgado (6-for-14) and Wright (4-for-12) both made them pay.
The 23-year-old Reyes took a great leap forward in 2006, raising his OBP by 54 points from the previous year, and upping his SLG by 101 points. The former is a product of vastly improved plate discipline; he upped his unintentional walk rate from an anemic 3.7 percent to 6.7 percent, and while some of those walks were disproportionately distributed in the early season, he ended the year by walking ten times in September, his second-highest monthly total. The latter is supported by his speed (an MLB-leading 17 triples), but that power spike is definitely for real. Six of Reyes' 19 homers were hit leading off a game, a nice way to hang an early run on an opponent.
As for that speed, Reyes also led the majors in stolen bases (64), helping the Mets lead the NL (146), and those steals weren't just window dressing; the Mets were successful 80.7 percent of the time, tops in MLB and comfortably above the break-even rate. Wright swiped 20 bags of his own, and Beltran chipped in with 18, though leg woes curtailed his running in the second half.
On that note, injuries are a bit of a concern here. Beltran has been fighting a quad strain for months, and hit just .203/.413/.356 in limited September duty; lately he's also got what's been described as an upper abdominal strain. More pressing is the status of Cliff Floyd, who appeared to have strained his cranky left Achilles tendon during the Divisional Series, a sad development given that his slumbering bat had awakened against the Dodgers (.444/.500/.778). The team is reporting that this is an ankle injury, but either way, Floyd's status for the series was in doubt right up to Wednesday morning's roster submission. Ultimately he made the cut, though his condition is far from 100 percent. Expect him to be handled carefully, with Endy Chavez spotting him liberally.
The Mets only other glaring vulnerability is against lefthanded pitching; their 738 OPS versus southpaws (on a .254/.332/.406 line) was third-to-last in the NL, and 54 points lower than their showing against righties. But with the loss of Mark Mulder, the Cardinals lack a lefty starter to exploit that platoon differential, and the presence of three well-placed switch-hitters in the lineup is sure to limit LaRussa's options when deploying his LOOGYs.
The Cardinal lineup isn't nearly so imposing as the Mets; it's pocked with more divots than a public golf course. As Will Carroll notes, this isn't even the team's tried-and-true stars-and-scrubs blend right now, bearing more resemblance to a Barry Bonds and the Seven Dwarves-era Giants squad. Pujols is the game's best hitter and the favorite to win his second consecutive MVP award; he led all major-league hitters with 12.7 WARP3, and looked as though he might make a run at the single-season home run record until he was slowed by an oblique strain.
Edmonds (post-concussion syndrome) and Rolen (shoulder fatigue) have both been dogged by injury and their manager's wrath; LaRussa publicly questioned the former's toughness during his seven-week absence from the lineup, and was angered by the latter concealing his injury during a September swoon (.227/.299/.398). After sitting out Game Four of the Division Series, Rolen underwent a cortisone injection and has pronounced himself good to go. Hamstring and oblique woes cost Eckstein a month down the stretch as well, though rumors that the manager threatened to feed his diminutive shortstop to a St. Bernard unless he returned to the lineup could not be confirmed by press time.
Overall, the Cards finished sixth in the league in scoring (4.85 runs per game) but just eighth in EqA (.267) and slugging (.431). And while they did finish fifth in OBP (.337), only the top five hitters were above league average in that category. Wilson (.243/.300/.486 as a Cardinal) and Belliard (.237/.295/.371) actually gobbled outs at a more frequent pace once they were jettisoned by their former teams. Duncan, the son of the team's pitching coach, wasn't just a pleasant surprise by his finishing well north of his 90th-percentile PECOTA projections in every key category, he was a season-saver, and while there's justifiable concern about the league finally catching up to him (.212/.302/.471 in September), most of those woes were concentrated in a 3-for-27 slump at the outset of the month.
Despite the presence of Pujols, the Cardinals are one of the most contact-oriented offenses, putting the ball in play 70.9 percent of the time, the fourth-highest rate in the league. That doesn't really match up well with the team's skill set, however; the pokey Redbirds were 14th in stolen bases and managed just a 65 percent success rate. Eckstein's seven steals (out of 13 attempts) were the third-lowest total of any regular NL leadoff hitter.
C-R Ramon Castro (.238/.322/.389/.252/0.9)
C-R Gary Bennett (.223/.274/.331/.206/-6.0)
With both lineups affected by injuries, benches will play a key role in this series. As noted above, Chavez stands to see the most playing time if Floyd is unable to go, and at least draw late-inning duty even in a best-case scenario. Long known as HACKING MASS fodder, Chavez enjoyed a career year and actually drew more plate appearances than Floyd due to the latter's nightmare season. It's tempting to dismiss his performance as a fluke, but at the very least he provides welcome speed (12 steals) and defense (9 FRAA) off the bench. Elsewhere, Franco is Randolph's favorite pinch-hitter (at 48 years old, he should be everybody's favorite pinch-hitter); he hit .250/.318/.350 in 66 pinch appearances, and has hit .279/.365/.371 in that role for his career. Tucker continues to hit as though he can't find the contact lens he lost while colliding with the wall in an LCS game nearly a decade ago. Woodward is the team's designated futilityman; he appeared at every position save for catcher and centerfield in 2006. The last-minute inclusion of Hernandez at the expense of another pinch-hitter like Ricky Ledee or a third catcher in Mike DiFelice (allowing Castro to pinch-hit) is likely for pinch-running purposes.
The Cards' bench will probably see more action than that, mainly because the outfield situation is rather fluid. Wilson could spell Duncan in a platoon, particularly when lefty Tom Glavine starts; he's a likely starter if Edmonds can't go. Taguchi's in it for the leather, most likely to serve as a defensive replacement wherever one is needed, though he did homer off the bench against the Pads. Spiezio, wearing a garish, Cardinal-red soulpatch that must qualify as the postseason's most egregious facial hair faux pas, came up big in place of the injured Rolen in the clincher against the Padres. He's no stranger to the postseason, having hit .327/.424/.600 for the 2002 Angels, and as a switch-hitter, his pinch-hitting utility can't be beaten; he hit .222/.326/.389 in that role this year. Rodriguez is La Russa's favorite for that job, making 57 appearances in the pinch in 2006 and hitting .234/.321/.489. Bennett gives the Cardinals the virtue of having two catchers who couldn't hit their way out of a paper bag, but little else; considering that opposing baserunners went 26-for-29 against him, he doesn't even have a claim on the sterling defensive reputation such backup backstops usually are issued with those .220 averages.
Shorn of Pedro and El Duque, the remaining Mets rotation managed less than five innings per start during the team's sweep of the Dodgers; neither improvised Game One starter Maine nor Game Three starter Trachsel even stuck around long enough to earn a victory. One could conclude that the Mets are in trouble here. Nevertheless, the team's sweep of the Dodgers allowed Randolph the luxury of setting his rotation for the series, and at the head of it is Glavine, who's only the all-time leader in LCS starts with 15. Despite battling a circulatory problem late in the year, he closed the season in strong form, posting a 3.38 ERA in 37.1 September innings with 28 strikeouts and just nine walks. He was in vintage form last week, blanking the Dodgers for six innings, and his Game One start leaves Randolph the option of bringing him back on three days' rest for Games Four and Seven (though admittedly, it's a long shot). Add to that the fact that the Cardinals were second-to-last in the NL in OPS against southpaws, and you've got a clear edge for the Mets in the opener.
Though Randolph elected for an early hook, Maine didn't pitch badly in his postseason debut. He gets the call in Game Two, and he'll have to pitch better than he did when he faced the Cards for the first time. Back on August 22, he surrendered seven runs in five innings, but at least he made it memorable, yielding a three-run homer to Pujols in the fourth and a grand slam to him in the fifth-- with 15 gopher balls yielded in 90 innings, he'll do that. Here's a hint, John: ball four.
After that, it's a wing and a prayer for the Mets. Trachsel was much uglier in his start than Maine was in his, letting the Dodgers back into the game after being staked to a four-run lead. He was rocked by the Cardinals the day after Maine was, and if anything his line was more embarrassing, as he surrendered homers to Jose Vizcaino and Preston Wilson, as well as Rolen. He acquitted himself better earlier in the year, coming out on the short end of a 1-0 game, but mid-May is ancient history as far as his command is concerned; in September, Trachsel managed an awful 6/13 K/BB ratio. Sending Perez to the hill is an even more frightening prospect. Circa 2004 he was one of the brightest young pitchers in the game, but a kicked laundry cart and some poor conditioning later, he finds himself in new digs. He did show improved command and a healthier strikeout percentage once coming over (from 1.2 K/BB and 16.8 K% to 2.4 and 24.8%), but he remains incredibly homer-prone. He did manage "only" a 4.82 ERA versus the Cards this year in 19.2 frames, but that was more exposure than he had to any other team, and they could be onto his act.
Not that the Cardinals are in such hot shape either. Having used Carpenter to close out the NLDS, they turn to Weaver, who came up big against the Padres, tossing five shutout innings in Game Two. The Cards have to hope he can continue his recent trend of pitching like a competent major league starter; in September he posted a 4.15 ERA in 34.2 innings; prior to that he'd been hammered for a 6.16 ERA, pitching his way out of Anaheim--and losing his job to younger brother Jered--in the process. He's as homer-prone as they come, yielding 1.78 homers per nine, and there's no question that this Mets team has the fireworks to keep him yelling into his glove.
In Game Two, the Cards could theoretically come back with Carpenter, last year's NL Cy Young Award winner, on three days' rest, and then have him available again on short rest for Game Five. Instead, at this moment it looks as though they'll tap Suppan, who was roughed up by the Pads in Game Three. Though unspectacular in every sense of the word, Suppan came on particularly strong after the All-Star break, posting a 2.39 ERA (as opposed to a 5.83 first half). At this point he's the team's second-most reliable starter, available to come back either on short rest for Game Five or regular rest for Game Six. That leaves Carpenter in the Game Three slot, and either Six (on short rest) or Seven.
Unless Weaver returns on short rest for Game Four, La Russa must choose between the rookie Reyes or veteran Jason Marquis, neither of whom pitched in the previous series. Given the rotation's struggles--Mulder's injury, Suppan's awful first half, Marquis' horrible season, the presence of Sidney Ponson--it's a shame the highly-touted Reyes fired so many of his bullets in Triple-A, where he had little left to prove. He struggled with a tired arm down the stretch, costing him both command and stamina, and he essentially alternated quality starts with disaster ones over the last two months of the season. Seriously, here are his runs allowed during that string: 0, 5, 0, 7, 2, 1, and 4 (in two-thirds of an inning). That said, he's a better bet for success than Marquis, who's best left for long relief in part because he can save La Russa a pinch-hitter; he hit .310/.326/.460 last year but just .179/.210/.256 this year, though he did go 3-for-10 with two extra-base hits off the bench.
Bullpens (IP, ERA, WXRL)
LHP Billy Wagner (2.24, 72.1, 5.9)
RHP Adam Wainwright (3.12, 65.0, 2.82)
RHP Braden Looper (3.56, 73.1, 1.54)
The Mets boast the game's best bullpen; they led the majors in Reliever Expected Wins Added with 17.792. Despite drawing the locals' ire for some early hiccups (most notably a blown 4-0 lead against the Yankees), Wagner finished second in WXRL only to fellow closer Trevor Hoffman, and there's a ton of depth behind the little lefty flamethrower. Heilman (11th), Duaner Sanchez (15th), and the sidearming Bradford (25th) also made the leaderboard, while Mota (0.822 WXRL in just 18 innings as a Met) served as an able substitute for the injured Sanchez after being acquired from Cleveland, thanks to a suggestion from the Mets' statheads that he resume throwing his changeup more often. Southpaw Feliciano was a pleasant surprise, and the Mets even found a way to make Oliver useful; he's by far the team's best bet to induce a double play out of the 'pen. What this all means is that Randoph can manage ballgames backwards, just like his mentor in the Bronx. With two lefty middle relievers on the roster, the Mets skipper can pursue favorable matchups until the cows come home, building a bridge from an early-exiting starter to Heilman and Wagner, as he did last week against the Dodgers.
That will probably drive La Russa, the patriarch of the 12-man pitching staff, completely nuts, given that he's got less to work with; his team ranked just eighth in the NL in WXRL, and they're already without closer Jason Isringhausen (lost to a career-threatening hip injury). Rookie Adam Wainwright has had a scarcity of opportunities to prove his mettle in the role given the team's September tailspin, but he closed out all three wins against the Padres (two of which were actually non-save situations due to four-run leads) with little adventure. Looper, Hancock, and Thompson are the setup guys, but none is the kind of dominant pitcher who can blow hitters away; all three had strikeout rates between 5.0 and 6.0 per nine. Groundballer Thompson is the team's best bet to induce a double play (20.8 percent) should the need arise.
Lefties Johnson and Flores are at least capable of the big K; the former struck out six of the eight hitters he retired in the first round series, and both average about a strikeout per inning. Against a Met lineup vulnerable to southpaws, they'll be key, likely turning around Beltran (who hit just .247/.352/.482 vs. lefties) and then tackling Delgado (.226/.311/.440). Look for La Russa to conserve his bullets in order to get two shots at these matchups in the later innings.
The Mets were second in the NL in Defensive Efficiency at .708, though they were much closer to the sixth-ranked Cardinals (.704) than they were the top-ranked Padres (.718). The Cards actually topped the Mets in Fielding Runs Above Average, 16 to 14, numbers that placed them fourth and fifth in the league, respectively. Particularly against this Mets club, the Cards' top defensive asset may be Molina (+19 runs; all figures referenced here are of the Adjusted for All Time flavor), who cut down 44.6 percent of stolen base attempts, second only to Ivan Rodriguez. He's also 3-for-5 in throwing out Reyes. The Cards are strong at the corner infield spots (Pujols and Rolen a combined +32 runs) but weak in the middle infield (Eckstein +1, Belliard -4 as a Cardinal, and backup Miles at -7 is nothing to write home about). Edmonds is generally a plus centerfielder, but post-concussion he's at the very least more risk-averse, and at worst prone to dizziness that might drive him from the field; the dropoff from him to Taguchi (Rate2 of 90 in CF) or Encarnacion (Rate2 of 70 there) is steep.
Lo Duca is a subpar defensive catcher (-7), but his biggest weakness is the running game; his 24.3 percent caught stealing was 13th out of 17 qualifying catchers. That shouldn't be much of a problem given the Cardinals' lack of speed, however. Clay Davenport's fielding numbers show Delgado (-7) and Reyes (-16, surprisingly) as liabilities, but Wright (+11) and Valentin (+17) make up for that; the latter, whom GM Omar Minaya signed for just $912,500, qualifies as one of the year's biggest bargains. In the outfield, Beltran (+17) gets high marks, and there's a considerable difference between Chavez (113 Rate2) and Floyd (94). Green (-12 runs overall, -4 as a Met) is simply no longer a defensive asset.
Weaned across town in a culture where an October berth is almost taken for granted, Willie Randolph managed the Mets to the postseason in just his second year on the job. Thanks to a hot start, the team's first place finish was a foregone conclusion by Memorial Day, but Randolph managed to keep the Mets sharp throughout the summer patching over injuries, and resting his big guns down the stretch. He played a big role in Reyes' great leap forward, he coaxed career years out of left-for-dead role players like Chavez, Valentin, and Oliver, and he demonstrated a deft touch with running a bullpen. He even found a way to keep Lo Duca fresh for the entire season, a challenge that's befuddled even Nobel Prize-winning scientists. Even more impressively, Randolph spun a disadvantage--the injuries to the rotation--into an advantage in the first round, demonstrating an unflappability that Joe Torre would be proud of.
There's a school of thought which says that due to all of the injuries the Cardinals sustained, this might rank as one of Tony La Russa's finest managerial seasons. That he and his staff were able to patch this team into the NLCS despite a sub-.500 Hit List Factor, the second-lowest of any playoff team ever (the 2005 Padres at .483 are the worst; the 1987 Twins were .0001 higher than this year's Cards), is definitely noteworthy. However, it's difficult to maintain such a sanguine view of the job La Russa has done in light of the team's near-collapse, given the Genius' insensitive reaction to Edmonds' woes and his failure to integrate Reyes into the rotation early enough to save himself the trouble of being served Cream of Marquis every five days.
Still, we are talking about a manager with 11 division flags, four pennants, and a World Championship to his credit, not to mention three straight berths in the NLCS. La Russa not only was able to guide his reeling team past the much hotter and more heavily favored Padres last week, but savvy enough to go for the kill by starting his ace in Game Four. It would hardly be out of character if he pulls off another surprise here.
Ultimately, while no Mets hitter is the equal of Pujols and no Mets pitcher the equal of Carpenter, the kings of Queens have far more weapons at their disposal than the Redbirds, both in the lineup and especially out of the bullpen. Randolph has shown himself to be a quick study for the rules of October, and the feeling here is that his team will prevail. Mets in six.