The St. Louis Cardinals wrapped up their second straight National League Central title Sunday afternoon while finishing off warm-ups. After failing to close the door Saturday night, the division championship came down to the last day of the season, and for perhaps the first time ever, had St. Louis fans rooting for Johnny Cueto and the Reds against the Pittsburg Pirates. Separated by three time zones, and with Cueto picking up his twentieth win of the season, the Cards were able to secure the division without having to win Sunday’s game (a game they won anyway). This marks the ninth division title for the Cardinals since the inception of the NL Central during the 1994 realignment.
The season began with lofty expectations from both local and national pundits. Many considered the Cardinals to have a 100 win potential and easily capture the division crown. Nothing in baseball, however, seems to go as planned. The club battled an underachieving offense, inconsistent play most of the season, and injuries to key players, but finished the season strong. Taking over the Central division lead at the start of September, the Cardinals at a .654 clip (17-9) the final month to end the season 18 games over .500, with a record of 90-72.
Now, with the 162-game MLB season in the rearview mirror, the team can focus on baseball’s “second season,” which starts Friday night in Los Angeles in a rematch of last season’s NLCS. The teams may be the same, but there are several differences between this year’s and last year’s series. The Cardinals come in as the clear underdog. The Dodgers, as the higher seed, own home-field advantage and the Cardinals have not been good on the road, playing three games under .500 as the visitor. The Dodgers won three out of four games from the Cardinals in Los Angeles earlier this season, outscoring the Cards 17-4 in that series, shutting them out in two games. The Cardinals offense was at times anemic this season, finishing last in the NL in home runs (105), second to last in stolen bases (57), and tenth in runs scored (619). The 619 runs the Cardinals scored are the lowest of any playoff team and 99 less than the Dodgers scored. If the Cardinals want to advance past the NLDS, they are going to have to find a way to generate some offense against a pitching staff that features Cy Young award winners Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
The Cardinals are not without pitching, though. In fact, pitching is what carried this team to the post season. The Cardinals mound men had a 3.50 team ERA and pitched 23 shutouts, the third highest total in team history, behind the 1944 (26) and 1968 (30) clubs, both of which made it to the World Series. The St. Louis bullpen was solid this year as well, leading the league in saves with 55 total and a record of nine games over .500 in one run games (32-23), a good augury for the NLDS since the Cards and Dodgers have split the last 20 games in the pitching-dominated regular season. Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn should match up well against Kershaw and Greinke in games one and two. Both Wainwright and Lynn were in the top 10 in wins, innings pitched, ERA, and complete games. Wainwright held opposing batters to a .222 and Lynn to a .238 batting average, good for fourth and twelfth in the league respectively. Shelby Miller and John Lackey should hold down the third and fourth spots in the rotation. Miller has pitched effectively over the last 30 days, posting a 2-0 record and a 1.48 ERA.
Perhaps one of the most interesting story lines leading up to game 1 of the NLDS will be the finalizing of the Cardinals post season roster. Needing four starters at most in the rotation, the first question Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and GM John Mozeliak will have to address is what the role of starting pitcher Michael Wacha will be. Wacha is still not 100% recovered from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for much of the 2nd half of the season. Does a bullpen role make sense? Typically, shoulder injuries don’t allow for the quick bounce back that is needed by a reliever to pitch games in quick succession. The remainder of the pen is likely to be: Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, and Pat Neshek, all locked in from the right side; and Randy Choate and Kevin Siegrist from the left. Wacha would be the seventh pitcher in the pen, with only one spot left to be decided between Jason Motte, Sam Freeman, and Nick Greenwood. Freeman should be the favorite; the left-hander has pitched well during the final weeks of the season, and a third lefty may be crucial in key situations against Dodgers slugger Adrian Gonzalez.
The battle for bench spots could be close as well. At catcher, the incumbent backup Tony Cruz will likely get the nod over long-time veteran (but Cardinal newcomer) A.J. Pierzynski. In 30 games Pierzynski only managed a .244 batting average with one home run during regular season. Additionally, since Pierzynski bats from the left side of the plate, he may not fit well into pinch hitting roles with a lineup that already includes four lefties. Another roster question focuses on backup infielders: will Mark Ellis or Pete Kozma join Daniel Descalso on the playoff roster? Kozma should have the edge over Ellis in this battle. Ellis has been below the Mendoza line all season, hitting .180 with no home runs in 73 games. It is true that Kozma is not a huge improvement offensively, but his hits do seem to come at clutch times. He also has more versatility, defensive range, and speed. Kozma has a good history against Kershaw as well. In a very limited sample size, Kozma is four for five off Kershaw and may have a slight edge over left-handed-hitting Kolten Wong at second base in the first game of the series. The final tough roster decision has been made easier over recent weeks. At the start of September, the question of the final outfield spot between Randal Grichuk and Oscar Taveras seems to have been answered with Grichuk consistently taking on a larger role as the month came to a close. The question now is will Cardinals top offensive prospect Taveras even make the roster? There may be some temptation to go with a shorter bench and carry a thirteenth pitcher, which would likely leave Taveras off the team. There may also be a need to carry an additional first baseman to back up Matt Adams if his sore oblique continues to nag him, which again, leaves Taveras on the outside looking in.
These questions will all be addressed Thursday afternoon when the Cardinals announce their NLDS roster and have a brief workout at Dodger Stadium. Game one of the NLDS will be played on Friday October 3rd at 5:30 CST.
Dave Sanders is a sports economist and instructor of economics at St. Louis University. He can be contacted at [email protected]