The St. Louis Cardinals are considered by many to be favorites in the National League heading into the playoffs.
With a record of 92-65, the Cardinals have the fourth-best record in all of baseball and are showing they are contenders once again.
However, the news on Allen Craig isn't so good. According to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Craig is still in a walking boot and will get x-rays on Thursday during St. Louis' day off.
Of course, the question is not when will Craig return, but if he'll return. And for a team that is going to have to fight its way through the NL portion of the playoffs, that's not good.
So, how would not getting Craig back impact the Cardinals' postseason run?
Craig's Impact and His Replacement
Before you can look at the rest of the lineup, you have to look at how Craig affects the lineup. When he starts, the Cardinals are 67-55 on the year. When he doesn't, the Cardinals are 25-10. That's a three-game difference.
This year, Craig is batting .315 with 13 home runs and 97 RBI. His numbers with runners in scoring position are even bigger, batting .454 with four home runs and 83 RBI. Simply put, the guy drives runners in.
But most of his numbers came in the first half of the season. In the season's second half, Craig is batting .275 with three home runs and 23 RBI.
There's no denying Craig's ability to drive runners in, which is something underappreciated when it comes to the playoffs. But the numbers do show he was doing a better job of it in the first half.
Matt Adams is the one who has been filling in for Craig in his absence and he's been doing a pretty good job of it. In 242 at-bats as a first baseman, Adams is batting .277 with 13 home runs and 41 RBI. Now, his power may not be what Craig's is, but he's still doing a decent job.
He's hitting .350 with five home runs and 32 RBI with runners in scoring position, and is hitting .315 with seven home runs and 14 RBI in September. Adams is still trying to catch up to Craig's number of RBI opportunities, but he's just as capable.
While Craig not being in the lineup does hurt the Cardinals in a sense, Adams has shown that he can at least pick up some of the slack. But, he's also been hitting against lower-tier MLB pitching, at least compared to the studs he would face in the playoffs.
Adams has rarely faced the top pitchers in the league this year, which could hurt come playoff time. We won't truly know what Adams is capable of doing against those type of pitchers until the playoffs.
Who Bats Cleanup?
With Craig out of the lineup, the Cardinals have used Carlos Beltran and Adams in the No. 4 spot lately. Once Matt Holliday returns to the lineup, anything can happen.
Beltran is batting .226 with two home runs and 13 RBI in the cleanup spot, showing signs of struggle all year. Where he'll fit best is in the No. 2 hole where he's batting .316 with 19 home runs and 52 RBI.
Adams has been decent in 30 at-bats in the cleanup spot, batting .333 with four home runs and eight RBI. But is he the solution there for the playoffs?
Matt Holliday could also be moved, but do the Cardinals really want to move him out of the No. 3 hole? While he is batting .449 in the cleanup spot, that's only with 49 at-bats. Compare that to 445 at-bats batting third where he's hitting .283 with 18 home runs and 79 RBI. It would be a big mistake for the Cardinals to move him from that spot.
When you look at the starting lineup, the only spots in the batting order you can write in pen are Matt Carpenter in the leadoff role, Holliday in the No. 3 hole and Yadier Molina in the No. 5 hole. All three have played in more than 100 games from that position in the batting order and succeeded.
If I were manager Mike Matheny, I might even consider batting David Freese in the cleanup role, hoping he can recapture the magic of the 2011 postseason. In his postseason career, he's batting .345 with six home runs and 25 RBI.
Having a player who has succeeded in a big spot before is huge. Freese may only be batting .265 with eight home runs and 65 RBI this year, but his postseason success in the past is why I still like him.
How It Affects the Postseason
While we're still unsure who the Cardinals would play in the first round (or if they'll play in the Wild Card Game), my biggest concern would be if/when they meet the Dodgers.
When I look at a rotation consisting of Clayton Kershaw (15-9, 1.88 ERA), Zack Greinke (15-3, 2.67 ERA) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (13-7, 3.03 ERA), I think runs are going to come at a premium.
While the Cardinals have done good this year against Kershaw (six runs in 13 IP), they've gotten a little against Greinke (two runs in 6.1 IP) and nothing against Ryu in seven innings.
In no other round, except the World Series, would the Cardinals face great pitching across the board. So, having someone who is known to basically hit everything with runners in scoring position would be a good thing.
Adams hasn't faced Kershaw, Greinke or Ryu this year. In fact, the only pitcher he has a good amount of experience against that he could face in the playoffs is Ricky Nolasco. And that's only five at-bats, where he struck out three times.
He has done an admirable job at filling in for Craig, but in no way can he replace the injured first baseman. Everyone likes the numbers, but they forget that it's not against guys like Kershaw, Greinke, Cliff Lee, Jose Fernandez or any other top starter in the league.
Craig had at least seen all of those pitchers on multiple occasions and knows what to expect when he gets to the plate. That doesn't mean he'll get a hit, but at least he would know what he's getting in to.
In the end, it comes down to having a bench player fill into a key position in the postseason. First base and (possibly) the cleanup role are big areas for any ballclub and I don't see Adams having as much success given his limited experience.
The postseason is all about players performing their roles in high-pressure situations. Adams hasn't done that.
Craig's injury hurts because he's sustained results over a longer period of time. For Adams, we've seen results in a short amount of time. But will it last?
That's the biggest question mark right now. And if I'm the Cardinals, the last thing I want entering the playoffs is question marks.
*Note: All stats used were taken from baseball-reference.com.
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