In the National League, pitching rules the day. All five contestants from the senior circuit are in the top eight in the Majors in ERA, and many of the game’s top pitchers – Gio Gonzalez, Matt Cain, Craig Kimbrel – will be on display.
But beyond the pitching, each team has its own style. The Nationals have youth, the Giants have experience, the Reds have hitting, the Braves have motivation and the Cardinals have history. No matter which way the series break, they are bound to be exciting and close. Which teams will have the best shot at making it to the Fall Classic? Let’s find out.
1. Washington Nationals
The team that cruised its way to an NL East title also has the best chance to win it all this October. The Nats’ success this year wasn’t necessarily a surprise – they had the pieces in place to potentially have a strong team – but the leadership of experienced manager Davey Johnson and exceptional performances by members of the team’s pitching staff have put the team in the pole position in the National League.
Much of the team’s success in the regular season was due to starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who posted a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 159.1 innings. However, in a much-publicized and controversial decision, the team decided to shut down the right-hander due to concerns about him potentially reinjuring his pitching elbow, which underwent Tommy John surgery last year.
But the hype surrounding the Strasburg saga has obscured the fact that the Nationals are the deepest team in the NL. Starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez went 21-8 this year and is a strong candidate for the Cy Young; meanwhile, first baseman Adam LaRoche had a 33 home run and 100 RBI campaign and center fielder Bryce Harper continues to justify his phenom status with a strong rookie campaign. In short, the team with the best record in the Majors should have no problem staying at the top when the playoffs end.
2. San Francisco Giants
Though the Giants will enter the playoffs as the third seed, they certainly have the weapons to compete in October and go all the way. Their recipe for success begins on the mound. While former team ace Tim Lincecum has had an off year, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have become the best trio of pitchers in the league.
But for the 2010 World Series winners, the offense will determine how far the team goes in the playoffs. The Giants’ best offensive player this season was outfielder Melky Cabrera, who posted a .346 average. But the former Yankee was suspended for 50 games by the league for using performance enhancing drugs and will not appear in the postseason.
Besides Cabrera and standout catcher – and batting title-winner – Buster Posey, the Giants are an incredibly weak offensive team for a playoff qualifier, finishing dead last in the NL in home runs by a wide margin. For the team by the bay, it’ll come down to whether the offense can provide enough production to back the pitching staff. If that happens, watch out for the Giants to be World Series contenders.
3. Cincinnati Reds
The Reds are an interesting case. They’ve racked up 97 wins this season, second in the Major Leagues, while using two everyday players (shortstop Zack Cozart and center fielder Drew Stubbs) that both compiled on-base percentages of .288 or less. Essentially, the strong production of the other hitters on the team allowed the Reds to win in spite of Cozart and Stubbs, as well as manager Dusty Baker, who refused to bench the underperformers.
Regardless, the Reds have a balanced team that should prove tough to beat in October. They blasted the third-most home runs in the National League and recorded the third-lowest ERA, leaving no weaknesses to be exploited. But while the Reds can give any team in the playoffs a good fight over a long series, they just don’t have the firepower or the stellar pitching to outgun some of the better teams in October.
4. Atlanta Braves
The first of the Wild Card teams will feel fortunate to get to the playoffs this season, as last year’s epic collapse by the Braves ranked among the worst in the history of baseball. Unlike the Red Sox, though, the Braves rebounded from the meltdown with a strong season, and in third baseman and team legend Chipper Jones’ last year, the Braves will try to play the role of the dark horse in the playoffs.
Although the Braves have a strong pitching staff, their lack of overall offensive production may ultimately be their downfall. Atlanta ranks outside the top 5 in the NL in nearly all major offensive categories, including average and on-base percentage. Their production from the middle-infield positions has been among the worst in the majors. The team’s got talent and depth on the mound, especially in closer and Cy Young candidate Craig Kimbrel and starter Kris Medlen, but in the end, they probably won’t be able to keep up with the strong teams in a long series.
5. St. Louis Cardinals
The playoff team with the worst record in the regular season also happens to be the defending champions, the St. Louis Cardinals. In their typical underdog style, the Cardinals have slogged through a difficult regular season without their old star Albert Pujols, but still have a shot to repeat their title, while Pujols and his Angels stay home.
But just like last year, it’s hard to see how the current team could make a run for a title, especially since they aren’t entering the playoffs with the type of momentum they had last season. Much of the core from last year remains, including standout catcher Yadier Molina and third baseman and World Series hero David Freese, but the team is rough on the edges, not possessing much pitching depth or a reliable bullpen. Of course, the Cardinals could shock everyone again and go on another extended run this year, but based on the rosters, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.