Position breakdown: NLCS evenly matched
Cards feature postseason experience; Dodgers pack one-two punch
The 2013 National League pennant comes down to a best-of-seven series between the Cardinals -- owners of the league's best record -- and the Dodgers -- owners of baseball's best second half.
If the regular season is any indication, this year's NL Championship Series should be an absolute thriller, as the Dodgers took four of seven from the Cardinals this year.
But the two clubs haven't met since August, and each has evolved since then, with a handful of players breaking out down the stretch and several others going down to injury.
A panel of MLB.com's experts broke down the coming NLCS, position by position:
In terms of overall value behind the plate, it doesn't get much better than Yadier Molina and A.J. Ellis. Molina is a five-time Gold Glove Award winner and could be on his way to a sixth. Ellis, meanwhile, actually threw out a higher percentage of baserunners than Molina this year. Both have sterling reputations for handling their pitching staffs. But Molina's excellent offensive numbers (.319/.359/.477 during the regular season) and his postseason experience give him the obvious edge behind the plate.
Matt Adams' presence in the middle of the St. Louis batting order has almost negated the loss of Allen Craig to a left foot injury. But Adams posted a batting average of just .213 with a .564 OPS against lefty starters during the regular season, and the Dodgers boast two southpaws in their NLCS rotation. Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez has held his own against left-handers, and he has raked against righties. Plus, a solid NL Division Series for Gonzalez has his career postseason batting average at .344.
Matt Carpenter's career year has not yet carried over into October, as the St. Louis second baseman notched just one hit in 19 at-bats against Pittsburgh. During the regular season, Carpenter led the league in runs (126), hits (199) and doubles (55). The Dodgers' Mark Ellis offers a solid glove and was able to reach base in seven of his 18 NLDS plate appearances. But he isn't the threat that Carpenter can be, and Carpenter is too good of a hitter for his struggles to continue much longer.
Both David Freese and Juan Uribe hit the go-ahead home run for their respective clubs in the Division Series clinchers. They are also two of the most notable clutch performers of the past few postseasons. Until Freese's home run off Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole on Wednesday, he had struggled mightily this October, however. Uribe offers a much better glove at third base, plus he entered the postseason on a roll and stayed hot, hitting .375 in the series against Atlanta.
There might not be a hitter in baseball swinging a hotter bat right now than Hanley Ramirez. After a career year at the plate in which he hit .345 and slugged .638, Ramirez somehow managed to get better entering October. He went 8-for-16 with six extra-base hits against a Braves pitching staff that had the lowest ERA in the Majors. For the Cardinals, Pete Kozma got 10 at-bats in the Division Series and Daniel Descalso got nine. Kozma is easily the better defensive option, but he also showed some pop at the plate against Pittsburgh, hitting .400.
Matt Holliday struggled in the playoffs last year, and he got off to a slow start to the 2013 edition as well. But the Cardinals' left fielder came through when it mattered most, hitting the decisive homer in Game 4 and notching a pair of hits in Game 5. Carl Crawford, meanwhile, seems to be hitting anything and everything these days. He launched three home runs against Atlanta and served as an ideal leadoff man in the series, posting an on-base percentage of .421 and scoring six times. On paper, Holliday may have the slight edge, but Crawford is simply too hot right now.
With Matt Kemp out for the season and Andre Ethier nursing a left ankle injury that has limited him to pinch-hitting duties, the Dodgers called upon former Cardinal Skip Schumaker to play center field. He hit just .231 against Atlanta, and all three of his hits were singles. St. Louis' Jon Jay had some similar NLDS struggles, but Jay is an established big league center fielder and is far more dangerous at the dish than Schumaker. If Ethier were healthy, this would be a no-brainer for Los Angeles, but heading into the series, Ethier remains a question mark.
Carlos Beltran is a man on a mission in search of his first World Series ring. He continued his postseason dominance with a pair of homers against Pittsburgh, bringing his career total in the postseason to 16. Yasiel Puig, meanwhile, was everything the Dodgers could have hoped for and more in his first taste of the playoffs. Not only did he hit .471 in the NLDS, but he played fundamentally sound baseball and used his speed to his advantage on several occasions. Puig is the five-tool player Beltran once was, but Beltran's ability to hit in the clutch and his veteran plate approach give him the edge right now over the Dodgers' phenom.
One of the Cardinals' most glaring weaknesses also happens to be one of the Dodgers' strengths. The midseason acquisition of Michael Young gives the Dodgers an experienced right-handed bat to go along with the lefty Ethier, who can still hit even if he can't play the field. They also have a handful of quality role players like speedster Dee Gordon and utility man Nick Punto. St. Louis lacks any late-inning pop off the bench with Adams forced into the starting lineup in Craig's absence.
Neither club has its ace lined up for Game 1, as both Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright pitched NLDS clinchers this week. But the Dodgers' No. 2 starter Zack Greinke, who will start the opener, would qualify as an ace almost anywhere else. Michael Wacha's emergence has added some depth to an already-tough Cards rotation, which also features Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn. But even with Hyun-Jin Ryu's struggles against Atlanta and the uncertainty surrounding Ricky Nolasco, the Dodgers' rotation ranked first in the Majors in ERA, and it's tough to bet against their one-two punch of Kershaw and Greinke.
The Dodgers have certainly developed a winning formula for the eighth and ninth innings, in which Brian Wilson sets up Kenley Jansen. But getting to the eighth has been a major problem for them, with Paco Rodriguez, Ronald Belisario and Chris Withrow all struggling in the NLDS. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have been almost flawless in relief, and their 'pen is loaded. Against Pittsburgh, middle relievers John Axford, Randy Choate, Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist and Edward Mujica combined to throw six innings, allowing only an unearned run on four hits.
The past two seasons have seen Jansen develop into one of the best closers in the game, and he was flat-out untouchable against Atlanta in the NLDS. Jansen faced nine hitters and struck out seven, including the side in the ninth inning of a one-run game on Monday to send the Dodgers to the NLCS. Trevor Rosenthal, meanwhile, has been phenomenal for the Cardinals, setting the franchise strikeout record for a relief pitcher with 108. But he's only been closing games since taking over for Mujica in September, while Jansen has been doing so almost flawlessly for nearly two years now.