Playoff Preview: Cardinals – Dodgers

TEAM                W      L     WIN%      RS      RA     ExW-L
St. Louis         105     57     .648     854     657    101-60
Los Angeles        93     69     .574     761     684     90-71
OFFENSE            RS/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB       SO
St. Louis          5.28     .278     .344     .460     319     214     548     1085
Los Angeles        4.70     .262     .332     .423     226     203     536     1092
DEFENSE            RA/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB       SO
St. Louis          4.06     .251     .308     .402     280     169     438     1029
Los Angeles        4.22     .253     .318     .405     252     173     518     1060

The Dodgers, a team few people thought had a chance to win the National League West coming into this season, hired a new GM just months before the beginning of the year, survived a big midseason trade that went about as badly as could possibly have been imagined, and ended up winning 93 games, their most since 1991. The reward for a such a good and unexpected season is that they now face the St. Louis Cardinals, winners of 105 games and owners of the best record in baseball, in the opening round of the playoffs.

When the Dodgers made their midseason deal with the Marlins, sending Paul LoDuca, Guillermo Mota and Juan Encarnacion to Florida for Brad Penny, Hee Seop Choi and a prospect, Bill Murphy, I said: “They strengthened their starting rotation with Brad Penny, added to their offense (and their future) with Choi, and later used Bill Murphy, the third player acquired from the Marlins, in the trade for Steve Finley.”

A couple months later, that statement looks rather ridiculous. Penny barely pitched for the Dodgers, as a nerve injury in his pitching arm knocked him out of action after just two starts and then knocked him out for the year after he unsuccessfully came back in late September. Choi, while healthy, provided just as little since the trade. Put into the lineup on a fairly regular basis upon joining the Dodgers, Choi slumped badly, completely lost the confidence of manager Jim Tracy, and found himself as nothing more than a spectator down the stretch, never starting and rarely even pinch-hitting.

The fact that Finley remained healthy and productive after coming over from Arizona, hitting .263/.324/.491 in 58 games as LA’s centerfielder, is the only thing that kept GM Paul DePodesta‘s deadline deals from being complete disasters. However, it is, I think, easy to see why the deals were made and just as easy to see why they were, at the time, very sound maneuvers. If you look at the Dodgers now, as they enter the postseason, you can see that they lack two main things: starting pitching and power.

In theory, Penny was to provide help in the rotation and likely would have been their #1 or #2 starter in the playoffs. And, in similar theory, Choi was to provide some power and would have, had he kept hitting like he did with the Marlins, been LA’s first baseman throughout the playoffs. Neither of those things happened, which leaves the Dodgers with the same holes DePodesta attempted to patch at midseason. The really bad news comes when you consider that, in unsuccessfully trying to patch those holes, he traded away a very good starting catcher and a very good late-inning reliever, both of whom would obviously help the team a lot more than Penny and Choi right now.

Had Penny stayed healthy and Choi continued to play as well as he did with Florida, the Dodgers would be a much stronger team heading into the playoffs than they were when the deals were made. As it stands now, they are a weaker team, having lost two impact players and gained only one, in Finley. I still believe it was a good trade, but no amount of believing that changes the fact that, for this year and for this postseason, it was a pretty big disaster.

Without Penny in the rotation, the Dodgers will go with Odalis Perez, Jeff Weaver and Jose Lima in the first three games of the series. While those three combined to go 31-24 with a 3.81 ERA in 89 starts this year, the idea of facing them surely isn’t scaring St. Louis’ top-ranked offense. The schedule for the series allows them to go without a fourth starter, which means they won’t have to further stretch themselves by relying on Kaz Ishii, whose 4.71 ERA was the second-highest of any pitcher with at least 25 innings on the staff.

The idea of Lima, in particular, starting a postseason game against an offense like the Cardinals’ is almost unbelievable, but he is arguably the best Game 3 option the Dodgers are left with at this point. Similarly, you could have won a lot of money betting people this time last year that Weaver, who had a 5.99 ERA with the Yankees in 2003, would be starting the second game of a division series this week.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals do not feature a dominant ace in their rotation, but the group as a whole was outstanding, ranking second in the league in innings pitched (996.1) and fifth in ERA (4.08). They are one of the few teams in baseball that can go five deep in the rotation without any sign of a dropoff, as Matt Morris, Jason Marquis, Woody Williams, Jeff Suppan and Chris Carpenter each started 28+ games, threw 180+ innings, and had an ERA between 3.46 and 4.72. With Carpenter out with an arm injury, the depth comes into play right off the bat, although the schedule would have allowed them to go with just three starters. Early indications are that they will use four anyway, starting Williams, Marquis and Morris in the first three games, followed by Suppan in Game 4.

St. Louis’ success all year has come from their starters’ ability to give the team quality performances, enabling the offense to do its damage and the bullpen to slam the door late in games. That is certainly the plan of attack in October, where their deep and talented bullpen can shorten the game, as Steve Kline, Ray King, Julian Tavarez, Cal Eldred and Kiko Calero bridge the gap from the starters to Jason Isringhausen in the ninth inning, who had a 2.47 ERA and converted 47-of-54 (87.0%) save chances.

Interestingly, the Dodgers’ plan is very similar, in that they’d like to be able to keep the game close and hand it over to Eric Gagne and Yhenzy Brazoban in the bullpen. While that’s an outstanding plan, the problem is that their offense isn’t nearly as strong as St. Louis’ and their starting pitchers aren’t nearly as likely to keep them in games through six or seven innings, especially having to face Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Larry Walker and the rest of the St. Louis offensive machine.

While I think the Dodgers are a stronger team than most people are giving them credit for, particularly in a series where Gagne and Brazoban can both pitch in every game thanks to the schedule (assuming Gagne is healthy), I can’t in good conscience pick a team to upset the club with the best record in baseball when they figure to start Weaver and Lima three times in five games The Cardinals will score enough runs off LA’s starters to make the Dodgers chase them from behind all series, which isn’t going to work when the St. Louis bullpen is involved and LA’s strength is their ability to bring Gagne in with late leads.

Cardinals in four.

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