Playoff Preview: Cardinals-Padres

TEAM                W      L     WIN%      RS      RA     ExW-L
San Diego          82     80     .506     684     726     76-86
St. Louis         100     62     .617     805     634    100-62
OFFENSE            RS/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO
San Diego          4.22     .257     .333     .391     269     130     600     977
St. Louis          4.97     .270     .339     .423     287     170     534     947
DEFENSE            RA/G      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO
San Diego          4.48     .259     .322     .408     318     146     503    1133
St. Louis          3.91     .257     .318     .398     267     153     443     974

The Cardinals’ outstanding season has largely been overlooked this year, in part because of their lackluster performance against the Red Sox in last year’s World Series and in part because of how quickly they pulled away from the rest of the pack in the National League Central. But make no mistake about it, St. Louis was once again the best team in the NL and should be considered heavy favorites to advance to the World Series for the second season in a row.

Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and the rest of St. Louis’ lineup tends to get the bulk of the credit for the team’s success over the past two seasons, but the Cardinals’ pitching staff has been every bit as good at shutting down opposing offenses. After allowing the fewest runs in the league last year, Cardinals pitchers ranked second in the NL this season while actually allowing 23 fewer runs to score. Meanwhile, the offense that led the league in runs scored last season lost 49 runs on their way to also ranking tied for second this time around.

YEAR      RS      RA     DIFF     ExW-L
2004     854     657     +197    102-60
2005     805     634     +171    100-62

As you can tell from their run differentials and expected records, both teams were powerhouses. With that said, there is reason to think that this year’s version is not quite as strong as last year’s. First, third baseman Scott Rolen, who played outstanding defense while hitting .314/.409/.598 with 34 homers and 124 RBIs last season, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in late August. While utility man Abraham Nunez has done a solid job replacing him in the lineup, Rolen’s absence significantly hurts the Cardinals’ offense and also weakens their defense.

Rather than feature the murderer’s row of Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen, and Larry Walker that they had down the stretch last season, the Cardinals are now a little less frightening to opposing pitchers. In addition to Walker and Reggie Sanders each missing about one-third of the season with injuries, Rolen missing all but 56 games and not playing particularly well when he was on the field is a big part of how the offense suffered a 49-run decline.

While Walker and Sanders have returned to the lineup in time for the postseason, the pitching staff is now sagging a bit. Chris Carpenter was unbeatable for much of the year, going 21-4 with a 2.21 ERA through his first 29 starts while reeling off a 13-game winning streak that began June 14. However, Carpenter struggled down the stretch, going 0-1 with a 9.14 ERA in his final four starts. To put his end-of-season struggles in perspective, consider that Carpenter went 22 straight starts without allowing more than three earned runs and then allowed at least four in each of his final four outings.

In addition to Carpenter looking human for the first time all season, Mark Mulder has also struggled of late. Mulder was rocked for seven runs in 2.2 innings against the Brewers on September 24 and then lasted just four innings in his final start of the year, walking seven of the 21 Cincinnati hitters he faced. Carpenter and Mulder combined to go 37-13 with a 3.20 ERA in 446.2 innings and the Cardinals went 49-16 in their 65 starts, so whether or not they are able to regain their footing at the top of the rotation is a huge factor.

Carpenter missed last October with an injury, leaving St. Louis with a playoff rotation consisting of Woody Williams, Matt Morris, Jason Marquis, and Jeff Suppan. All four are capable starting pitchers, but they would be best described as middle-of-the-rotation guys and each had an ERA between 3.71 and 4.72 last season. If Carpenter and Mulder are healthy and effective this time around they will give the Cardinals a dimension they didn’t have last October, when St. Louis’ lack of dominant starting pitching put a lot of pressure on the offense and bullpen throughout the postseason.

While the Cardinals have arguably been the best team in baseball over the past two seasons, their first-round opponents in San Diego are the worst of this year’s eight playoff teams and arguably one of the worst teams to make the postseason in baseball history. The Padres narrowly finished the season above .500 despite playing in baseball’s worst division, were outscored by 42 runs in the process, and went 34-39 after the All-Star break. They are simply not a great team any way you slice it.

However, when assessing their playoff chances it is important to separate the Padres from their extreme home ballpark. San Diego’s raw numbers show a team with an average pitching staff and a sub par lineup, but no ballpark in baseball deflates run scoring, and particularly power hitting, more than Petco Park. In many ways it is like a bizarro Coors Field and because of that the Padres look like a team straight out of the 1960s in half their games.

The good news is that San Diego’s offense, which ranked 13th out of 16 NL teams in runs scored this season, is a lot better than it looks on paper. Their overall numbers are dragged down by the fact that they ranked 15th in runs scored at home (3.8 per game), but amazingly only the Cardinals scored more runs on the road (4.6 per game). In other words, an argument could be made that in the games played as Busch Stadium during this series we’ll be looking at the two most productive offenses in the league.

Of course, the flip side is that those same raw numbers overstate how good the Padres are at preventing runs. The Padres’ pitching staff ranked right in the middle of the pack in runs allowed this year, but they were fifth in home ERA (3.55) compared to 13th in road ERA (4.79). In other words, put San Diego’s pitchers in a ballpark that doesn’t severely cripple power hitting and they are suddenly very easy to knock around.

So this series should be a cake walk for the Cardinals, right? Well, maybe not. The Padres’ offense is a lot more capable than most people think and their pitching staff will benefit quite a bit from the postseason schedule. Part of the Padres’ problem this year is that they were unable to find capable pitchers to fill out the back end of their rotation and bullpen, cycling through young guys like Tim Stauffer and Tim Redding, and old guys like Darrell May, Chan Ho Park, Dennys Reyes, and Paul Quantrill without much success.

Now they can rely more on their front-line pitching, which is actually quite good. San Diego’s ace, Jake Peavy, went 13-7 with a 2.88 ERA, led the league with 216 strikeouts in 203 innings, and was tough to hit at home (2.81 ERA) and on the road (2.98 ERA). Peavy made 18% of the team’s regular-season starts, but can potentially pitch twice in this five-game series. The Padres can also lean heavily on a streamlined bullpen of closer Trevor Hoffman and setup men Akinori Otsuka, Scott Linebrink, and Rudy Seanez. That four-man bullpen had an ERA of 2.75 and 268 strikeouts in 251.2 innings of work, while the rest of the Padres’ relievers had a 4.19 ERA.

In the games Peavy starts, the Padres’ pitching is as good as any team in baseball. Unfortunately the dropoff to the rest of their starting rotation is huge, and unless Peavy can get the best of Carpenter in both of their ace-versus-ace matchups San Diego is going to have a tough time finding two more wins. The Padres are a better postseason team than their regular-season resume indicates and this series will be more competitive than most people think, but they’re still not as good as the Cardinals if Carpenter and Mulder are pitching well.

Cardinals in five.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

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