NLDS: Cubs-Cardinals position by position
The Cardinals and Cubs -- who will square off in the National League Division Series beginning Friday at 5:30 p.m. CT on TBS -- combined to win 197 games this season. It's the most combined wins by Division Series opponents since the Cards and Dodgers won 198 in 2004.
St. Louis and Chicago faced each other 19 times during the season, with the Cardinals winning 11 of those matchups. Those three extra wins proved to be the difference between the two clubs in the NL Central, and the Cardinals will open the NLDS at home with a fully rested pitching staff, as a result. The Cubs, meanwhile, beat the Pirates, 4-0, in the NL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser on Wednesday, meaning one of the greatest rivalries in sports will take center stage over the next week.
Here's a position-by-position breakdown of the Cubs-Cardinals NLDS:
Catcher: There's no denying the brilliance of Yadier Molina when he's healthy. But while Molina will return for the NLDS, it's hard to envision him being the same player. A bad thumb is an awful injury for any ballplayer, let alone a catcher. Meanwhile, in the other dugout, Miguel Montero has batted .301/.373/.370 since the start of September, and he knows how to handle a staff, too. Advantage: Cubs
First base: Before the season began, Anthony Rizzo predicted a division title for the Cubs. They may not have won the NL Central, but he certainly established a swagger that Chicago played with all season. And he backed it up with his play, too, posting an .899 OPS and launching 31 homers. For the Cardinals, it's been a bit of a revolving door at first, with Mark Reynolds and Stephen Piscotty seeing playing time. Piscotty, typically an outfielder, has been especially impressive, hitting .305 with a 130 OPS+ as a rookie. But there aren't many players in the game more impactful than Rizzo. Advantage: Cubs
Second base: There's no shortage of options for the Cubs at second base. Tommy La Stella, a left-handed hitter, owns a .286/.343/.429 slash line against righties. Starlin Castro, meanwhile, has hit .369 with five homers since the start of September. Both are very solid options. So, too, is Kolten Wong for the Cardinals, despite some late-season struggles. Wong owns an .879 career postseason OPS, including a walk-off home run in the lone Cardinals victory in the 2014 NLCS. Advantage: Cardinals
Third base: There might not be a better positional debate in the entire postseason than: Kris Bryant vs. Matt Carpenter. Bryant has had an unreal rookie season, batting .275/.369/.488 and setting a Cubs rookie record with 26 home runs. Carpenter's numbers (.272/.365/.505, 28 homers) are right on par with Bryant's, and he's proven himself to be an unshakeable pest at the plate in the postseason. Just ask Clayton Kershaw. It's almost a toss-up, but the slight edge goes to the 23-year-old wunderkind. Advantage: Cubs
Shortstop: Make no mistake, Addison Russell is going to be a star. The 21-year-old finished fifth among Major League shortstops with 10 defensive runs saved -- and played half as many innings as the top four. Plus, after a rocky start, Russell showed some offensive potential at the plate, posting a .744 OPS in the second half. Jhonny Peralta, on the other hand, has managed to sustain his peak for quite a while now. He hit .275 with 17 homers -- his 10th consecutive season with a double-figure home run total. Among shortstops, only Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken Jr. and Miguel Tejada have more. Advantage: Cardinals
Left field: It's not completely clear whether Kyle Schwarber will spend more time in right field or left field this series, but we'll put him in left for the purposes of this exercise. And given the bat Schwarber swung in Wednesday night's NL Wild Card Game, how could anyone pick against him? The No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 Draft, Schwarber launched 16 homers in 242 at-bats with an .842 OPS. Schwarber's opposite number, Matt Holliday, is a grizzled postseason veteran, who owns 13 playoff dingers and a .757 OPS. When Holliday's locked in, he can be one of the most dangerous hitters in the game. But since returning from a right-quad injury in mid-September, Holliday has batted just .182. Advantage: Cubs
Center field: Randal Grichuk has made strides with the strained right elbow that bothered him late in the season, and there haven't been many rookies more impactful than Grichuk, who batted .276/.329/.548. But he remains a question mark, and if he ends up playing at less than full strength, the Cubs will be sure to take advantage of his injured arm. One of those Cubs sure to test Grichuk's arm would be center fielder Dexter Fowler, who has a knack for getting on base and some wheels to go with it. He pounded out three hits in the NL Wild Card Game, including a back-breaking fifth-inning homer off Gerrit Cole. Advantage: Cubs
Right field: There aren't many defenders that match up with Jason Heyward, who led all right fielders in both DRS and Ultimate Zone Rating. That's not to mention Heyward's .318/.397/.469 second-half slash line. The Cubs will put Schwarber, Bryant or Austin Jackson in right -- none of whom come close to the all-around impact of Heyward. Advantage: Cardinals
Starting rotation: If this series goes five games, chances are Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta will start three of them. Arrieta has been on another planet in the second half of the season, having given up just four earned runs since the start of August. (Yes, you read that right.) That includes Arrieta's nine shutout innings against Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Lester has been quite good, too, posting a 2.36 ERA and a 0.786 WHIP during September.
But while the Cubs rotation is very good, the Cardinals' staff is at another level -- an historic level. St. Louis allowed 478 earned runs this season, 44 fewer than the closest competitors, and the fewest by any team in a non-strike-shortened season since the 1988 Mets. With Arrieta starting just once this series, the decisive edge goes to St. Louis' rotation of John Lackey, Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn. Advantage: Cardinals
Bullpen: The Cardinals' relief corps was a massive part of their historic season on the mound, too. Among NL teams, only the Pirates' bullpen had a better ERA than the Cardinals' 2.82 mark. And that doesn't factor in the boost given to the bullpen by ace Adam Wainwright, who returned from an Achilles injury that many thought would sideline him for the season. The Cubs' bullpen hasn't been nearly as effective. Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm have filled their roles nicely, but the depth in St. Louis is tough to beat. Advantage: Cardinals
Closer: St. Louis went 87-1 this season when leading after eight innings, in large part because of closer Trevor Rosenthal (2.10 ERA). The Cubs' Hector Rondon, on the other hand, uses a completely different approach, as he threw three pitches -- his two-seamer, his four-seamer and his slider -- almost equally. Rondon posted a 1.67 ERA and a WHIP of exactly 1. Still, Rosenthal boasts a 0.75 ERA in 21 career postseason appearances, and his stuff is as nasty as it's ever been. Advantage: Cardinals
Bench: The strength of the Cardinals this season has been their depth. Not many teams could lose a starting first baseman (Matt Adams), a starting center fielder (Grichuk), a middle-of-the-lineup bat (Holliday) and an ace (Wainwright) and still win 100 games. It's an unbelievable feat. But those injuries have shortened their bench a considerable amount in the postseason.
The Cubs, meanwhile, possess an extremely versatile bench for manager Joe Maddon to tinker with. La Stella, Jackson, Javier Baez and David Ross could all be starting one day and coming off the bench in a late-game situation the next. If both clubs are healthy, the nod goes to St. Louis here. But they aren't, and Chicago gets the slight edge. Advantage: Cubs