When you get right down to it, the National League Championship Series that could provide the most drama is the one we will get when the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals meet starting on Friday at Busch Stadium.
The Dodgers have spent a truckload of money in the last 16 months for the purpose of getting to this spot. It also helps that they have the best pitcher in the sport on their side, who can make up for any flaws there might otherwise be.
The Cardinals remain the best and most consistent franchise in baseball. This is their third consecutive appearance in the NLCS, though they have done it this year thanks in large part to tapping into that incredible farm system. Rookies like Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez have been as important to this team as anyone.
You want to see the two best teams battle it out for the right to play in the World Series, which is what we get to see. But which team holds the edge? Will the Dodgers make their first trip to the Fall Classic since 1988? Are the Cardinals going to capture their second NL pennant in the last three years?
Here is our full breakdown of both rosters heading into the NLCS.
Los Angeles Catcher: A.J. Ellis
Ellis fits into the generic definition of what an MLB starting catcher looks like. He can't hit or get on base (.238/.318/.364), but is a good-enough defender behind the plate. He rated sixth out of 11 NL catchers with at least 400 at-bats with a 10.1 defensive rating, according to Fangraphs.
One thing to pay attention to is Ellis' performance on the road. Dodger Stadium is notorious for sapping power because it is a big park. Yet Ellis managed to put up strong numbers on the road with a .263/.349/.420 line and eight of his 10 home runs in 56 games away from home.
As long as Ellis isn't costing the Dodgers runs behind the plate, he is doing the job that everyone expects from him. That's not very exciting, nor is it going to win him any awards, but it's enough to make him a starter in the NLCS.
St. Louis Catcher: Yadier Molina
The superlatives used to describe Molina are vast, so I won't run through everything he can do. We know he is the best defensive catcher in baseball and has transformed himself into a great hitter over the last three years.
His offensive splits are nearly identical, with an .883 OPS against lefties and .823 against righties. No catcher in baseball can match his combination of offense and defense, giving the Cardinals a huge edge in this series.
Advantage: St. Louis
Los Angeles First Baseman: Adrian Gonzalez
The days of Adrian Gonzalez being a superstar talent in MLB are over. He hasn't been worth more than 3.3 fWAR since 2011, but his high RBI totals cloud our judgement of him.
That sounds like I am bashing him, which I guess to some extent I am. But Gonzalez is still a really good hitter. A lot of teams in baseball would love to have a first baseman who hit .293/.342/.461 with 32 doubles and 22 home runs.
He is about as one-dimensional as a hitter can get, with no added value through speed or on the bases. Keep a close eye on matchups late in games, as Gonzalez had an OPS 82 points lower against lefties than righties in 2013 (.747 to .829).
Even though the overall defensive metrics don't like Gonzalez as much as they used to, he still saved 11 runs and posted a solid 5.7 UZR.
St. Louis First Baseman: Matt Adams
Adams is only starting for the Cardinals because Allen Craig has been sidelined with an ankle injury.
Craig was hoping to make it back for the NLCS, according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. but was left off the roster when Mike Matheny released it on Friday.
It also makes the decision easier for the Cardinals that Adams has been tearing the cover off the ball with a eight home runs and .315/.344/.609 line in September and a game-clinching two-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS.
Despite Adams' run of success, he doesn't provide the defensive value Gonzalez does at first base. That is enough to give the Dodgers a slight edge in this category, even though the gap between the two offensively isn't as wide as one might think.
Advantage: Los Angeles
Los Angeles Second Baseman: Mark Ellis
Among everyday players for the Dodgers in 2013, Ellis had the worst slugging percentage (.351), OPS (.674) and OPS+ (92). He also tied with Carl Crawford for the fewest home runs on the team with at least 450 plate appearances (6).
Unlike Adrian Gonzalez, Ellis thrived at home and against left-handed pitching. He hit .302/.361/.387 at Dodger Stadium and .282/.331/.412 against southpaws.
The two Ellises in the Dodgers lineup are there to not screw things up offensively and play solid defense. Mark turned in a strong season at second base, which is nothing new, saving 12 runs and making 27 plays out of the zone.
St. Louis Second Baseman: Matt Carpenter
Before the season started, there was some doubt about whether Carpenter could handle being an everyday player and do so at second base. Today, while not a favorite to win the award, the 27-year-old is a top-five MVP candidate in the National League.
Carpenter doesn't overwhelm you with tools, nor is he going to be the best player on the field at a given time. But he does so many things well. He doesn't have a lot of power, but can barrel the ball enough to become a doubles machine. He doesn't have great range at second, but does enough to be passable.
He struggled in the NLDS, going 1-for-19 with six strikeouts, and the offense struggled at times. Carpenter needs to get on base consistently for the Cardinals to put crooked numbers on the board against a good Dodgers rotation.
Advantage: St. Louis
Los Angeles Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez
It's amazing what a healthy, motivated Hanley Ramirez can do when he's on a good team. After wasting away with the Marlins, the 29-year-old shortstop is having easily his best season since 2009.
Ramirez was a monster in the Division Series against Atlanta with eight hits in 16 at-bats and six extra-base hits (four doubles, one triple, one homer). That fits with his regular season performance of .345/.402/.638. He was so good that in just 86 games he tied for the team lead with 5.1 fWAR.
Even more important than his hitting, because we knew that was always in there, Ramirez has found his groove defensively. He is credited with saving the Dodgers three runs with the glove, which, combined with the offense, makes him one of the most valuable players in baseball.
St. Louis Shortstop: Pete Kozma
This is one of the few volatile spots in the Cardinals lineup. We don't know whether Pete Kozma or Daniel Descalso will start a majority of the games. I will put Kozma in here because I think manager Mike Matheny will look at the two great defensive plays he made in Game 5 against Pittsburgh.
Kozma can't hit at all and isn't a great defender, though he did have a strong year with the glove, saving eight runs and making 69 plays out of the zone, per Fangraphs. As long as he defends well in this series, the Cardinals will be fine.
Advantage: Los Angeles
Los Angeles Third Baseman: Juan Uribe
Juan Uribe is like that friend who hangs around the group who you don't really understand why he's there until he reminds you in grandiose fashion.
He did it with San Francisco in the 2010 NLCS by hitting the game-winning homer in the eighth inning of Game 6. He struck again in 2013, this time for the Dodgers, with a two-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the Division Series against Atlanta.
Owner of the best follow-through in baseball, Uribe had the best year of his career in 2013. He had a career-best .331 on-base percentage, 117 OPS+ and was also the best defensive third baseman in the NL with 15 runs saved and a spectacular 24.0 UZR.
Uribe's always been a fascinating hitter because he doesn't walk, but at the same time doesn't strike out at the rate a lot of free swingers do. He's going to put the ball in play and finds the barrel a lot for someone with such an uncontrolled swing.
St. Louis Third Baseman: David Freese
Depending on how you look at things, the Cardinals could have a huge advantage at third base. If you think that David Freese has magic powers to turn up his game in the playoffs, like hitting a two-run homer in Game 5 of the NLDS, he is your man.
But if you go by his performance, or lack thereof, in the regular season, Freese is barely above a replacement-level player. He had a terrible year defensively, though admittedly one-year samples for defense can be inaccurate. He hasn't hit for any kind of power this year, save for that one hit against Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
I imagine this will be controversial because Freese is building a nice October resume for himself, but it's not like Uribe has been a slouch this season or in past playoff games.
Advantage: Los Angeles
Los Angeles Left Fielder: Carl Crawford
It's obviously a much greater sample size than the 31 games he played with Boston in 2012, but Carl Crawford has essentially been the same player with Los Angeles this year that he was last year. He has the same 108 OPS+ with a 23-point edge in OBP this year (.329 to .306) but 72-point decline in slugging (.407 to .479).
No one is talking about Crawford being the worst signee in history because the Dodgers are winning. (It also helps that the L.A. media has many other things to focus on than the production of the Dodgers' leadoff hitter, which is not something you can say for Boston.)
The point being, Crawford still has some elements of his game that work well. He did add five runs on the bases, per Fangraphs, and is an adequate defender in left field. But the speed isn't what it once was, which severely limits what he can do on offense and defense.
Power has been a big part of Crawford's game in the postseason, with three home runs in four games against Atlanta, including two in the decisive Game 4. Don't expect that to continue moving forward since that total was half of what he hit in 435 regular-season at-bats.
St. Louis Left Fielder: Matt Holliday
It's funny to think about now, but there was a time when we were concerned that the Cardinals spent too much money to keep Holliday and wouldn't be able to pay Albert Pujols. Even if I think they gave Holliday too many years, he is still a really good player.
Holliday does remain a liability in left field, but that's not a position where you need a dynamic talent. Especially when you have a player who can hit balls off the end of the bat over the fence in center field at PNC Park.
One thing to watch is how Holliday does against left-handed pitching in this series. He only slugged .397 against southpaws in 2013 with one of his 22 home runs.
That said, Holliday still crushes right-handed pitching to the tune of .301/.384/.519 with 44 extra-base hits in 399 at-bats.
Advantage: St. Louis
Los Angeles Center Fielder: Skip Schumaker
Look, Skip Schumaker has carved out a nice MLB career for himself. He's strictly a utility player who will continue to get jobs until he decides it is time to retire because those kinds of players are invaluable, especially for NL teams that need deeper benches.
But Schumaker has been thrust into a role that doesn't suit him due to circumstances and injuries. Matt Kemp is done for the season with a shoulder injury. Andre Ethier has filled in for Kemp in the past, but an ankle injury has relegated him to pinch-hit duty.
This is the biggest area of concern for the Dodgers because Schumaker can't hit for any kind of power and his defensive limitations really shine through when he's asked to play five or six straight days.
Note: Since this article was written before lineups were announced, Andre Ethier gets the start in center field for Game 1 of the NLCS. It still wouldn't change the advantage for the Cardinals because of Ethier's health and limited value as a platoon player.
St. Louis Center Fielder: Jon Jay
Jon Jay very quietly rebounded from a rough first half to hit .311/.379/.412 after the All-Star break to push his season numbers up to .276/.351/.370. He fits very much into the Matt Carpenter mold, where he won't walk a lot and doesn't have a ton of power but makes enough hard contact to be a solid offensive player.
While not a good defensive center fielder, Jay does more than enough to hold his own. He doesn't have a great arm or the best range, so there will be times he's forced to cheat in order to make plays that an average defender would make routine.
But a center fielder who posts a .351 on-base percentage is a tremendous asset, though it tends to go unnoticed in a lineup this deep.
Advantage: St. Louis
Los Angeles Right Fielder: Yasiel Puig
One way or another, Puig is going to have a large part in the outcome of this series. That could be good or bad, but we won't know until things have played out.
As generic as that sounds, no player can go from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde as fast as Puig. He has the potential to hit four home runs in this series, steal four bases and make three spectacular plays in right field no one else can.
Puig's progress this season has been remarkable. It seemed like he would be one of those lucky BABIP guys who never worked a count early, then his approach got much better with 61-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half.
The numbers did level off after the All-Star break, but Puig still .273/.373/.481 with 11 home runs. He needs to have a great series for the Dodgers to advance.
St. Louis Right Fielder: Carlos Beltran
If you thought that Carlos Beltran's second-half slump in 2012 was the beginning of the end for the then-35-year-old, you were wrong. He may not be the five-tool talent he was in his prime, but he still knows how to hit.
I do think Beltran's days as a switch-hitter, if not completely over, are nearing their end. He hit just .252/.281/.448 as a right-handed hitter this season, compared to .315/.362/.509. That does give the Dodgers a matchup to exploit late in games and when Kershaw is on the mound, but there will be opportunities for Beltran to have a huge series.
He did struggle in the second half this season as well, but still hit a respectable .277 and slugged an okay .429.
These are two very good right fielders, one at the beginning of his career and the other still playing at a high level nearing the end of a long, illustrious career.
Advantage: Los Angeles
Los Angeles Projected Rotation
Game 1: Zack Greinke
Game 2: Clayton Kershaw
Game 3: Hyun-Jin Ryu
Game 4: Ricky Nolasco
Even with the controversy of Clayton Kershaw over Ricky Nolasco in the rear-view mirror, it is still worth pointing out here because the Dodgers are limited to starting Kershaw twice this series in Games 2 and 6 instead of potentially having him for three games (one, four, seven).
I have no doubt Kershaw would be available out of the bullpen in a Game 7, if needed, but it's still a huge risk Don Mattingly took when he really didn't need to.
Plus, while he did look better in Game 2 against Atlanta than in past playoff starts, Zack Greinke wasn't exactly dominant, giving up two runs in six innings.
Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ricky Nolasco are volatile right now. Ryu got lit up in Game 3 against Atlanta and has allowed a .738 OPS to lefties this season. Nolasco got passed over for the Game 4 start after posting a 6.66 ERA in September and gave up 12 runs on 17 hits in 10.2 innings in his last two starts of the season.
St. Louis Projected Rotation (All Unconfirmed)
Game 1: Shelby Miller
Game 2: Michael Wacha
Game 3: Adam Wainwright
Game 4: Lance Lynn
The Cardinals have yet to announce their Game 1 starter, though the team's official website lists Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn as the top three choices. I listed Miller just because Lynn and Kelly didn't have great starts against Pittsburgh, though Kelly wasn't terrible, giving up two runs in 5.1 innings.
Miller gets the nod, at least from me, basically by having the freshest arm. He did struggle in the second half, giving up 10 home runs in 68.2 innings. But I would also point out that he dominated at home with a 1.75 ERA and 90-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92.2 innings. If you are going to get a good start out of him, it's probably going to happen in St. Louis.
After that, things start falling back into place for the Cardinals. They had to exhaust their two best starters in the last two games against Pittsburgh to get here, but that could set them up well in the middle part of the series.
Suppose they can get Miller to throw five quality innings in Game 1 and beat Greinke. I wouldn't concede Game 2 to Kershaw, because Wacha has been incredible of late and can match Kershaw pitch for pitch, but I understand why most people would, because the Dodgers' lefty is the best pitcher in baseball.
Then the Cardinals go out to Los Angeles with their best pitcher on the mound, likely against Hyun-Jin Ryu or Ricky Nolasco. At worst, you figure the Cardinals can go up 2-1 and know that they can lose on the road and come back home again.
But both of these staffs are really close. The Dodgers clearly have the single best starter, but Wainwright is no slouch. Greinke and Wacha basically cancel each other out, though Greinke has a longer track record. Lynn and Miller have more upside than Ryu and Nolasco, so that's why the Cardinals get a tiny edge.
Advantage: St. Louis
Los Angeles Bullpen
Closer: Kenley Jansen
Setup: Ronald Belisario, Carlos Marmol, Brian Wilson
Relievers: J.P. Howell, Edinson Volquez, Chris Withrow
Kenley Jansen doesn't get the credit he deserves, but the hard-throwing right-hander has been a monster this season with a 111-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76.2 innings.
The setup crew is also strong for the Dodgers. Belisario is the most volatile in the group because he gives up a lot of hits, but has done a good job of keeping the ball in the park.
Brian Wilson might be one of the great late-season signs this year. He has pitched three innings and given up three hits with four strikeouts in the postseason. He's getting hitters from both sides of the plate out and hasn't shown any significant control issues that usually plague pitchers in their first year back from Tommy John surgery.
As for the other relievers, they're not a great group, which is why they aren't likely to pitch in high-leverage spots. Chris Withrow might have the best arm, but he has also been prone to giving up the long ball with five in 34.2 innings during the regular season.
J.P. Howell is a good matchup lefty who can bridge the gap from the fifth or sixth inning to the latter stages of the game. Carlos Marmol and Edinson Volquez should not pitch in a series unless the Dodgers are ahead or behind by 10 runs.
Surprisingly, Chris Capuano and Paco Rodriguez did not make LA's bullpen in the NLCS. Capuano did a solid job relieving Ryu in Game 3, pitching three shutout innings. Rodriguez has been murder on left-handed hitters this season and far more effective than Volquez was at any point in the season.
St. Louis Bullpen
Closer: Edward Mujica
Setup: Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist
Relievers: Joe Kelly, John Axford, Randy Choate, Seth Maness
Edward Mujica doesn't fit the traditional profile of a closer because he's an extreme command guy with an average fastball who doesn't miss a lot of bats (46 strikeouts in 64.2 innings). That could be one of the reasons why Matheny used Trevor Rosenthal, who can roll out of bed and hit 100 with a knockout breaking ball, at the end of Game 4 against Pittsburgh.
Rosenthal is the key to the Cardinals bullpen because he gets used in the biggest spots late in games, which is how you want to use your best reliever. Carlos Martinez has also taken on a more prominent role late in games, though he is still refining the command to help that 100 mph fastball miss more bats.
Kevin Siegrist is St. Louis' matchup lefty, though he only allowed a .479 OPS to right-handed hitters this season, giving the team more options late in games.
Joe Kelly or Shelby Miller will end up being the swing man in the series, depending on which one doesn't start Game 1. I'd use Kelly in that role because his stuff plays better going through a lineup once instead of three times.
John Axford, Randy Choate and Seth Maness are matchup specialists, though Maness was used effectively in the NLDS going 1.1 scoreless innings.
Again, both teams are very close in this group. Rosenthal and Jansen are at the top of the ladder, though I give the Cardinals the overall edge because I think Matheny will turn to his best reliever in non-save situations before Don Mattingly does.
Advantage: St. Louis
Los Angeles Bench
Catcher: Tim Federowicz
Infielders: Mark Ellis, Dee Gordon, Nick Punto, Michael Young
Outfielders: Andre Ethier, Scott Van Slyke
St. Louis Bench
Catcher: Tony Cruz
Infielders: Kolten Wong, Daniel Descalso
Outfielders: Shane Robinson, Adron Chambers
Bench players in the postseason are hard to evaluate because they are going to be used more sparingly than they were in the regular season. Neither catcher is going see action, unless an injury happens to Ellis or Molina.
The only position players I would expect to see notable action are Dee Gordon, Michael Young, Andre Ethier and Daniel Descalso. Gordon will only be used as a pinch runner. Young and Ethier, if he's healthy enough, are going to hit for the pitcher in a big spot. But Ethier is limited because of the injury and an inability to hit left-handed pitching (.221/.275/.338 in 2013).
Based on potential value, I guess the Dodgers get an edge because they are going to tap into their bench more than the Cardinals.
Advantage: Los Angeles
Before the postseason started, I was one of B/R's lead MLB writers who made predictions. I had the Dodgers going to the World Series to play the Red Sox.
I will admit that I struggled with which team to pick in the NLCS because I figured Clayton Kershaw would get three starts. It's possible he still gets into three games, but I would be shocked if he is able to start that many times.
Plus, I have always felt that the Cardinals were the deepest team in the NL. That benefits a team more over the course of a 162-game regular season than a five- or seven-game postseason series, but it can still play an integral role in the outcome.
So I am changing my prediction. Call me fickle or a hypocrite or a coward or whatever you want. I just think the Cardinals are the best team in the NL and are on their way to another World Series.
Prediction: St. Louis in six games
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