I think maybe I speak for a lot of us when I say that while I’m thrilled to have the Dodgers back in the playoffs, I’m not particularly excited to face the Cardinals again. There’s no shortage of reasons for that, really. There’s the endless “Best Fans in Baseball” business, to the point that even the Wall Street Journal says the Cardinals are the most hateable team in baseball. There’s the not-insignificant amount of Dodger fans who care less about winning a playoff series than they do about “getting revenge” on Joe Kelly breaking Hanley Ramirez‘ ribs last year, despite the fact that Kelly doesn’t even play for St. Louis any longer. Mostly, there’s the fact that the Cards are still just a really good baseball team, and while we all want the Dodgers to steamroll them on their way to the NLCS, it’s not like losing to Adam Wainwright is a travesty.
That said, this is still a different Cardinals team than we knew last year. I’m not going to even tell you their in-season record against the Dodgers this year, because it doesn’t matter. Let’s take a trip around the St. Louis offense, and check in on the pitching tomorrow.
Yadier Molina is still among the best, obviously, but finally, at 32, are we seeing some signs of decline? After years of 126, 138, and 133 wRC+, it was merely 102 this year. He hit only seven homers. Those numbers are dragged down, somewhat, by the fact that he injured his thumb in July and missed nearly two months, hitting only .267/.309/.317 in 110 plate appearances after returning. Molina’s ability to add offense made him an elite catcher, and perhaps that’s not what he is right now. But it’s what he does with the gear on that makes him a great catcher regardless — the offense was basically gravy — and the idea of Dee Gordon running on him is fascinating. We all love A.J. Ellis; I don’t think even Ellis himself would argue when I say the Cards have an edge here.
When Molina got hurt, the Cards added A.J. Pierzynski to help out backup Tony Cruz. Neither did much in limited time, and it’s uncertain right now which makes the roster. Barring a catastrophic injury to the starter, I can’t express enough how little a backup catcher impacts a short series.
1B: Matt Adams is a big strong guy who just never seems to hit for as much power as you’d think he would. In nearly 1,000 career plate appearances, he has 34 homers, which is… fine, I guess? Not that a 116 wRC+ isn’t valuable, because it is. He’s just not yet the guy that scares you. There’s also this: Adams has a huge platoon split, hitting .318/.349/.505 against righties, and .190/.231/.298 against lefties. That’s enormous. The Dodgers could potentially throw lefty starters three times in five games, Clayton Kershaw twice and Hyun-jin Ryu once. But with Allen Craig off to Boston, the Cards don’t really have a great righty alternative at first. Mark Ellis and Daniel Descalso have both made starts at first. So has Xavier Scruggs. Will that happen in the postseason? This is potentially a hole for St. Louis.
2B: It took a while, but this is the Kolten Wong show now, partly because old friend Ellis — and remember when we all wished the Dodgers had kept him? — has been so bad, hitting only .180/.253/.213 in an injury-plagued season. He might actually not make the roster, because Pete Kozma can hit just as terribly as that and play shortstop, too. Wong made 100 starts with a 90 wRC+, but added value on the bases and on defense. As a lefty swinger, this might end up being a platoon situation, with Kozma or Ellis starting against righties.
You might also remember Wong from such World Series moments as this:
SS: Remember how awful the St. Louis shortstop situation was last year, when Kozma and Descalso tried their best to single-handledly sink the Cardinals offense? You might say they upgraded, just a bit. Jhonny Peralta received a surprisingly large free agent contract, then justified it and more, putting up a five-win season with a 120 wRC+, 21 homers, and defense that continues to impress the defensive metrics even when the eye test says otherwise. This is one of the larger upgrades any playoff team made this year.
3B: Matt Carpenter moved from second to third this year to replace David Freese, who was traded to Anaheim, and he had a good season, but not a great one. Let’s be clear on that — Carpenter was worth 4 WAR, and that’s fantastic. No complaints there. It’s just that last season, he was worth 7 WAR, and while you can argue about the value of defensive metrics all you want, there’s no case to be made that .318/.392/.481 is better than .272/.375/.375. He still gets on base, raising his walk rate by three percent, but the power hasn’t been there this year. Still, I love that a guy like this, who gets on base a ton but doesn’t have wonderful speed, gets to hit leadoff. I love that a lot.
LF: Fine, let’s just get this out of the way:
Poor Matt Holliday. That was five years ago, and we’re still thinking about it. at 34, Holliday just keeps ticking along, into a decline phase that is going ever so mildly: Since 2010, his first full year with St. Louis, his WAR numbers are 6.2, 4.8, 4.5, 4.5, and 3.8. He’s no longer a superstar. His defense is increasingly an issue. He’s still dangerous, though. Don’t overlook him.
CF: Speaking of defense, part of the reason the Cards traded Freese to the Angels was to get Peter Bourjos, who isn’t much of a hitter, but is a fantastic outfielder. Anyone remember how much fun Jon Jay was in center last October? The two have basically platooned this year, with Jay getting more time because he’s the lefty hitter, and the results have been largely as expected. Jay outhit Bourjos by a not-small amount (115 wRC+ to 82), while Bourjos had more defensive value. Neither one of these guys is Yasiel Puig. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.
RF: This has been an interesting spot for the Cardinals, because looking at it from a full-season standpoint, it’s been a disaster, especially compared to the first half Puig/second half Matt Kemp duo the Dodgers have been killing everyone with. That’s also a little unfair, because 70 early-season starts went to Craig, who was a total train wreck before he was traded, and so his contributions no longer matter. Jay has had some time there, but this has mostly been a split between top prospect Oscar Taveras and rookie Randal Grichuk, also acquired in the Freese / Bourjos deal. Taveras’ talent is undeniable, but he’s also struggled badly in his time in the big leagues. (As I wrote at ESPN a few weeks ago, this isn’t surprising, nor is it surprising that Gregory Polanco had issues, or that Joc Pederson didn’t light the world in fire in limited time. Young hitters often need time to adjust.) Grichuk has been better, but only in the sense that .245/.278/.400 is “better.” Having two unproven right fielders (unless they go with Jay) is a risk for the Cardinals, though not without the possibility of big reward.
We’ve already touched on most of these guys, because second base, center field and right field might all be platoons, and we don’t know which catcher makes it. Let’s say Pierzynski, Descalso, Kozma, Bourjos, and Grichuk. Is that better than Drew Butera, Scott Van Slyke, Justin Turner, Miguel Rojas, and Andre Ethier? I’d submit that it is not. It’s been a really, really long time since a Dodger bench didn’t make you want to tear your hair out.
This Cardinals lineup isn’t without their problems. That’s why, by wRC+, their active non-pitcher lineup was only about average. In the second half, they outscored their opponents by only two runs — but they also went 38-28. There’s something about this team that makes me very uneasy. With Kershaw and Greinke lined up to throw three times, I should feel really good about this. I don’t. I can’t stand the Cardinals.