Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Playoff Predictions: The NLDS

Yesterday I looked at the ALDS and made some obversations and predictions. Today, let’s take a look at the National League Division Series.

For a while there there was some doubt that either of these teams would make the playoffs. The Braves, who once had a pretty decent lead (at one point it was 7 games) over the Phillies in the NL East, gave it all up and finished 6 games in back of them. They also then coughed up the Wild Card lead a few times in late Sept and on the 2nd to last day of the season before winning it on the last day. The Giants also flirted with both 1st place in the NL West and the Wild Card lead a few times in September before manging to take control in the last week and then almost coughing it up and the Padres (needing a sweep in the last series of the regular season against SF) won the first two games and held their destiny in their own hands before the Giants prevailed with a 3-0 win on the last day of the season.
Both teams have very simular characteristics. Both pitch very well. Both have strong bullpens. Both struggle at times to hit and score runs. Both have highly touted rookies (Buster Posey and Jason Heyward) that are big parts to their offenses.
The Braves have had two huge injuries that create some stress on their lineup. First they lost the face of their franchise in 3rd Baseman Chipper Jones to a season ending injury over the summer, then they lost All-Star Martin Prado in September. Without either one of them, the Braves really have some serious offensive holes. Basically they have to mostly rely on Heyward, thrust into his first postseason in his rookie year as basically “the man” and All-Star catcher Brian McCann. The Braves added a few bats at the trade deadline (and after) in outfielder Rick Ankiel and 1st Baseman Derrek Lee but besides a few nice hits here and there, neither has really gotten hot. It’s not hard to pitch around the Braves lineup.
The Giants aren’t too much better off at first glance. 2009 phenom Pablo Sandoval couldn’t seem to hit anything but buffet tables, Aaron Rowand continued his downward spiral since he signed as a free agent, and Freddy Sanchez has no power and seems to be able to only hit fastballs. However, Posey was brought up and hit almost immediately, Aubrey Huff found he liked the NL much better than the AL and refound his power stroke, Pat Burrell suddenly remembered how to hit again and Andres Torres’ bat control and power helped the Giants hit 39 more home runs in 2010 than they did in 2009.
Both teams have solid starting pitching. The Braves won’t be able to pitch team ace Tim Hudson until game three (as they needed him to get them INTO the playoffs) but Derek Lowe has been spectacular in September and Tommy Hanson has improved his control enough this year to be a solid top of the rotation guy, even if baserunners are able to steal at will off of him. The Giants had a scare from ace Tim Lincecum who struggled early in the season and then had a horrific August (0-5 with a 7.82 ERA, with NL hitter getting a .415 batting average off him) but he recovered to have a strong Sept (5-1 with a 1.94 ERA and a .242 average against) . Matt Cain has #1 stuff as well and youngster Jonathan Sanchez is solid. Both closers have put in good years, with Brian Wilson leading the NL in saves and Billy Wagner returning to an overall strong season despite some mid-season struggles.
Like the Rangers and Rays in the ALDS, these two teams are very evenly matched. Unlike those two teams they have the same weaknesses and strengths so it will be interesting to see how they counter each other. The Braves biggest concern is their offense and unless McCann and Heyward are lights out they will seriously striuggle to put runs across the plate. They need Omar Infante, Matt Diaz and/or Lee to step up. The one-two punch from Lincecum and Cain is almost as good as the one-two punch of the two Roys over in Philly. That and a stronger offense in the end will really be the difference here.

At first glance this seems to be the most lopsided of the four Division Series. The Phillies recovered from injuries to Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard to have a great second half and finish with the best record in the MLB. They have been to the World Series twice in the last two years (winning it once) and added an ace (Roy Oswalt) when they already had one (Roy Halladay).
However, while the odds are certainly in the Phillies favor, the Reds are no pushovers.
The Reds have a formidable rotation themselves. Edinson Volquez has electric stuff, had a great September (a 1.95 ERA) and is very rough on lefthanded hitters like the Phillies Utley and Howard. Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto both had solid seasons. The Phillies, however, have three guys who are just pitching lights out right now. The two Roys and #3 Cole Hamels were a combined 13-1 in the last month of the season. The Phillies don’t have a #4 they can rely on, but in a short series they don’t need one. Their 1-2-3 punch is the best in all of MLB and should throw a serious scare into any opponent.
Both teams can certainly hit. The Reds are led by likely NL MVP Joey Votto who not only tore up the NL, but also was murder on the Phillies this season going 11-for-28 with three home runs and six RBIs in seven games. Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce round out an offense that lead the NL in runs this season so while the Phils may look to pitch around Votto they don’t exactly have a creampuff lineup behind him. The Phillies had an off season from Utley and Jimmy Rollins’ health is in doubt which is a factor for a team that boasts an almost AL worthy lineup, but they have enough weapons to have a possible different hitting hero each night.
While neither team’s bullpen is lights out, the Reds closer is a major weakness. Philly closer Brad Lidge seems to have found his way again and looked much stronger in the second half than he looked earlier or all of last year. Francisco Cordero blew eight saves and had an ERA bordering 4.00 for a chunk of the season. The Reds’ not-so- secret weapon in Aroldis Chapman, who hit as high as 105 MPH on radar guns might be just what the Reds need if Cordero falters, which I think he will.
The Reds can hold their own, and are a strong team and would likely have been a favorite against the other two NL playoff teams, but the Phillies 1-2-3 rotation punch and their offense and playoff experiance will be too much to overcome.

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