Divison Series Preview: National League

by Rich

MLB’s second season kicks off at about 3:00 Eastern today, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve been in playoff mode for over a week now, because let’s face it: this was one of the most exciting final weeks in recent memory. The Rockies and Phillies haven’t lost since the Clinton administration, or so it seems, and the Cubs are set to pit baseball’s last surviving curse against an Arizona team that was supposed to be a year or two away. The American League might have the stronger teams top to bottom, but the senior circuit should be a lot more interesting and relevant this October than last year. And yes, I know the trainwreck Cardinals did in fact win it all last year, but has there been a less relevant champion in any sport in the past decade?

Anyhow, everyone who’s ever paid attention to cliche-spewing announcers surely knows that “anything can happen in October.” With that in mind, you should probably take my predictions with a grain of salt, and maybe a shot of tequila and a lime.

Rockies vs. Phillies

On paper, this looks like a series that’ll end with a lot of football scores. Two great offenses, two launching pad ballparks, and pitching staffs that aren’t thought of among the game’s elite. Thing is, it might end up like that. Or, it might not. (Yes, I have been taking lessons from the Cal Ripken school of commentary) Seriously, though…this series looks like a crapshoot. There’s a lot of pressure on Philly’s Cole Hammels to step up and be “The Man” at the top of that rotation, and you never know how a guy that young is going to react to that kind of pressure. On the other hand, the Fightin’ Phils have been playing high-stakes baseball since the second week of September and they’ve held up pretty well so far. Of course, it would be foolish to sleep on the Rockies, who are the one team in baseball that can legitimately say they’re hotter than the Phillies coming into the postseason.

A whole lot depends on the pitching in this series. I give the edge there to the Phillies, because the way I see it, 80% of both teams’ pitching staffs are more or less interchangeable. There’s no real advantage in the bullpen for either team, and the #2 through 4 starters are all the type whose outings generally range from “Wow, that was surprisingly solid” to “What the hell, is this guy doing his Jeff Weaver impression?.” The bottom line is that Philly’s best pitcher (Hammels) is better than Colorado’s best guy (Francis). In a short series, Having Hammels available for 2 starts may be the difference.

Advantages:

  • Hitting: Colorado. The Phillies’ best guys (Howard and Rollins) might be better, but the Rockies have five legitimately scary hitters in the lineup. In the uncertain world of October baseball, one player’s slump can kill a team. If Rollins goes 2-for-the-series, Philly will lose. One of Colorado’s big bats can slump and they might be able to work around it with the other four.
  • Pitching: Philadelphia. The bullpens are about the same, and the back end of the rotation is a trainwreck question mark for both teams. Cole Hammels gives the Phils the advantage here.
  • Defense: Colorado. Troy Tulowitzki is one of the best defensive players at the most important defensive position in the game. Todd Helton has a stack of Gold Gloves at first base, and the rest of the team is above average by most defensive metrics. By the same metrics, the Phils are below average.
  • Momentum: Neither. Both teams are hotter than Jessica Alba in Belize right now, and while it makes for good baseball, it doesn’t give either squad much of an advantage.

Prediction: Phillies in 4. The Rockies will get one at home, but for some reason I have more faith in Philly’s pitching and depth. Of course, I will not be surprised at all if the Rockies win Game 5 in the 26th inning.

Cubs vs. Diamondbacks

This is another strange series, matching a bipolar Cubs team against an Arizona team that somehow won its division (and ran off the best record in the National League) while being outscored by their opponents to the tune of about 20 runs. Run differential is apparently the single most important metric of a team’s ability to win, or so say the People Who Know Things. That’s not a great sign for Arizona. On the other hand, rumor has it that the Cubs are cursed or something.

Pitching is always important in a postseason series, but I think this one will be determined by who can get a hit when they need it; both teams have a good bullpen and a couple of quality starters. On the other hand, the Cubs have so little on the left-handed side of the plate that I could probably make the team as a platoon guy. Oh, and apparently the guy who led the D-Backs in batting average, slugging, and OPS is a pitcher. I feel like that’s a bad thing.

Advantages:

  • Hitting: Cubs. This isn’t a serious question, right? The best hitter on the Diamondbacks was Micah Owings. The pitcher! This Arizona team hits less than Deion Sanders.
  • Pitching: Cubs. Brandon Webb is filthy, there is no room for debate on that point. Unfortunately for the D-Backs, there’s only one of him. Lilly and Hill are more solid than their Arizona counterparts at the #2 and 3 spots, and we haven’t even mentioned the fact that Carlos Zambrano is such a talented basket case that he could strike out 15+ tonight and shut out Arizona or give up 7 runs in 3 1/3 and neither would surprise me at all.
  • Defense: Neither. This is basically a push; although Lee provides an advantage in defense, it’s at first base…one of the least important defensive positions in the game.
  • Momentum: Neither. Again, pretty much a push. The Diamondbacks clinched first, but both teams took care of business in the season’s final week without catching fire or stumbling too signifacantly.

Prediction: Cubs in 3. Arizona has the look of a “We’re just happy to be here” team, and on top of that I just cannot back a team whose most effective hitter is a guy who doesn’t get paid for his bat.