The Nationals didn't win the NL East, settling for the Wild Card Game, where they advanced in some part due to a monumental Milwaukee fielding mistake. Then, they toppled the mighty 106-win Dodgers in a thrilling extra-innings Game 5 topper to the NLDS, which earns them the prize of facing the Cardinals ... who finished off their own five-game NLDS by putting up a 10-run first inning on their way to a 13-1 blowout of the Braves.
You may not have expected these teams to reach the NLCS -- or for them to have made it to this point in the way they did -- but here they are, and it makes for a surprisingly even pairing and a possibly very entertaining series. Who has the edge? Let's go through each position to find out.
In name value, the St. Louis edge here is obvious, though Yadier Molina hasn't actually done all that much in 2019, posting a regular-season line of .270/.312/.399 that was 15% below league average and then collecting only three hits in 23 NLDS plate appearances. Still, we know his value to the Cardinals goes beyond the baseball card numbers, while Kurt Suzuki's availability for the NLCS may be in question after getting hit by a Walker Buehler pitch on Wednesday. Not to mention, Molina (+2 framing runs) is superior to Suzuki (-5 runs) behind the plate. It's not like Washington's other catcher, Yan Gomes (.223/.316/.389), lit things up this year. There are catchers who are better than Molina, but none of them will play be in this series.
Let's call this one "a moving target" on the Washington side. Ryan Zimmerman didn't play much this year (190 plate appearances) and didn't add a lot when he did (.257/.321/.415, 86 OPS+), but 36-year-old Howie Kendrick had a career year (.344/.395/.572, 142 OPS+), except he made numerous fielding and running mistakes in the NLDS, except then he became the hero when he hit a game-winning grand slam in the 10th inning of Game 5. Oh, and the player who got the most plate appearances at first base for the Nationals this year was actually Matt Adams, who got all of two pinch-hitting opportunities in the NLDS.
Anyway, all of that is a long way of saying that even though Paul Goldschmidt (.260/.346/.476, 113 wRC+) didn't have one of his better years, he pounded the ball both in September (.954 OPS) and in the NLDS (nine hits in 23 plate appearances, six for extra bases), and since Kendrick will see time at second base as well, the edge goes to Goldschmidt.
Bring back the powerful Kendrick, who started three times at second in the NLDS, along with some Brian Dozier, who hit 20 homers in the regular season, though with a .238/.340/.430 line that came out to a slightly below-average 95 OPS+. Either way, you have two bat-first players who are no longer assets on defense. For the Cardinals, it's the opposite: Kolten Wong is probably baseball's best defensive second baseman and a likely Gold Glove winner, but is more of a league-average bat (.285/.361/.423, 106 OPS+). He's definitely a better all-around player than Dozier; whether you prefer him to Kendrick comes down to what flavor of player you like. Since the Nationals will mix and match, this goes to the reliable Wong.
Again, this comes down to what kind of player you prefer.
Do you like a league-average bat (.233/.318/.444, 97 OPS+) with excellent defense (+14 DRS)? Then you're a fan of St. Louis's Paul DeJong.
Do you like a better bat (.298/.353/.497, 113 OPS+) with elite speed (35 steals) but below-average defense (-10 DRS?) Then you'd go with Washington's Trea Turner.
There's maybe not a wrong answer here. It's something like a tie -- a matter of preference. But for our part, we're mostly worried about the next week of play, and it's a little concerning that after a red-hot first month (1.010 OPS), DeJong spent the remaining five months hitting only .206/.297/.403, somewhat neutralizing his defensive advantage. You could really pick either side here; we're giving a small edge to Turner.
Small advantage: Nationals
There's no such argument here, of course, no matter what Matt Carpenter or Tommy Edman do. Both are fine players with their own strengths and weaknesses, but neither of them are Anthony Rendon, a legitimate MVP candidate on the strength of a 34-homer, .319/.412/.598 (153 OPS+) monster season, not to mention the .350/.423/.650 he's posted in October so far.
Big advantage: Nationals
Here in left, it's somewhat similar to the situation at third base, though Marcell Ozuna has been good enough, especially in the postseason (nine hits in 23 plate appearances, including five for extra bases) that the gap isn't so large. But similar to Rendon, Juan Soto is very clearly one of the best hitters in the game (.282/.401/.548, 138 OPS+, 34 homers), he's had a few of the biggest hits of the postseason, and, at 20, he's off to what is legitimately one of the best starts to a career ever. Ozuna is good. Soto is great.
This one comes down to who is playing, because we really don't know who is going to be out there. Victor Robles was the primary Washington center fielder this year, and he paired OK-ish offense (.255/.326/.419, 88 OPS+, and 28 steals) with elite, best-in-baseball outfield defense. But Robles injured his hamstring in Game 2 of the NLDS and missed the final few games, making his availability for the NLCS uncertain. He was replaced by Michael A. Taylor, who is also a strong defender, but hasn't hit at all over the last two years (.231/.291/.358, 69 OPS+) and spent much of 2019 in the Minors.
The Cardinals counter with their own center-field duo, in that Dexter Fowler is a league-average bat (.238/.346/.409, 98 OPS+) who is a below-average fielder (minus-6 Outs Above Average), while Harrison Bader is an elite fielder (+13 Outs Above Average, fourth-best in baseball) who wasn't able to hit this year (.205/.314/.366), 78 OPS+.
Of the four, Robles is the best player, but you'd take Fowler/Bader over Taylor.
Advantage: Nationals if Robles is healthy, Cardinals if he isn't
Fowler will see time here, too, though the Cardinals are taking a different approach in the postseason. The only other Cardinal to start more than a dozen games in right field this year aside from Fowler was José Martínez, who, after two very strong offensive years, hit a mere .269/.340/.410 (97 OPS+) this year with cover-your-eyes defense. In the postseason, he's been limited to pinch-hitting duties, while Tommy Edman flips back and forth between third and right; he was a very productive bat this season (.304/.350/.500, 120 OPS+).
For the Nationals, this is the Adam Eaton show, and he's been about as average of a player as you could build -- .279/.365/.428, 101 OPS+, and +1 Out Above Average on defense -- understanding that "average" is a compliment, not an insult. Still, he doesn't have a carrying tool, while the Cardinals duo has more weapons to offer.
Small advantage: Cardinals
St. Louis's Jack Flaherty was one of baseball's most elite pitchers in the second half of the season, and he pitched effectively in two postseason starts, but after throwing 104 pitches in Game 5 despite the huge Cardinal lead, he won't be available until NLCS Game 3.
In his stead, St. Louis will have Miles Mikolas start Game 1, while Adam Wainwright will get the call in Game 2. And while all have their pluses -- Wainwright in particular delivered a vintage start in NLDS Game 3 -- none is Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg or Patrick Corbin. The rotation has been Washington's strength all year, and that won't change in this series, even if they're starting their No. 4 -- Aníbal Sánchez -- in Game 1. Then again, the Cards won't have Flaherty until Game 3.
Big advantage: Nationals
Conversely, as you've surely seen, the Washington bullpen remains a huge sore spot. It's not entirely fair right now to point out that they had the 10th-worst bullpen ERA of any team since the divisional era began in 1969 -- not all of those pitchers are active on the playoff roster, of course. But they do have a 6.63 mark in the playoffs, and if the Nationals trusted any of their relievers aside from Sean Doolittle or Daniel Hudson, you wouldn't see all of their ace starters in relief so often, and that's harder to do in a seven-game series compared to a five-gamer.
Now, we couldn't necessarily call the St. Louis bullpen a strength, either, because it's not, really. Carlos Martínez walked quite the tightrope in the Braves series, and Andrew Miller hardly looks like the dominant relief ace we saw in Cleveland a few years ago. The best Cardinals relief arms right now might be John Brebbia and Giovanny Gallegos, and look, let's be honest here: Neither relief group is great. The Nationals relievers are just a whole lot less great.
Advantage: Cardinals, for not being the Nationals
This is an even enough matchup that it's difficult to choose a side, but the Nationals have the two biggest stars in the lineup (Soto, Rendon) and the two biggest stars on the mound (Scherzer, Strasburg), and we're betting that will be enough to overcome some obvious bullpen concerns. As Washington GM Mike Rizzo said following the win in Los Angeles: "Our stars were stars tonight, and I think that carried us through."
Nationals in 6.