The Padres were maybe the most exciting team to watch in baseball this season, and Slam Diego is ready for the playoffs. The Cardinals had to fight their way in on the last day of the regular season, but they've been here before -- this St. Louis team looks a lot like the one that made it to the National League Championship Series a year ago.
Now the Padres (37-23), the No. 4 seed in the NL, host the No. 5-seeded Cardinals (30-28) in the best-of-three Wild Card Series at Petco Park, starting with Game 1 on Wednesday. The winner will move on to the NL Division Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington to face the winner of the Dodgers-Brewers matchup.
But first things first. Here's how the Padres and Cardinals stack up for the Wild Card Series in San Diego, position by position.
The Padres set up a nice little catching platoon with Austin Nola and Jason Castro by trading for both of them at the Deadline, but with all due respect, only one of these teams has a potential Hall of Famer at the position. Yadier Molina might be 38, but he can still play and he's been through it all. His leadership is invaluable to the Cardinals, and he's had more than his share of big postseason moments, including last year.
Eric Hosmer (nine home runs, .287 batting average, .517 slugging percentage) just had his best season by far since joining the Padres, but Paul Goldschmidt is playing like the perennial superstar he was in Arizona. Goldy finished the season hitting .304 with a .417 on-base percentage. His Weighted Runs Created Plus was 146 (league average is 100), making him the best hitter on the Cardinals and a tier above Hosmer (127 wRC+).
San Diego might have the NL Rookie of the Year in Jake Cronenworth. The versatile 26-year-old was an excellent hitter (.285/.354/.477, 125 wRC+) and defender (+4 Outs Above Average, tied for seventh-best among MLB infielders). That gives him the edge over St. Louis leadoff man Kolten Wong, who's the reigning Gold Glove winner himself but has dropped off a little from his stellar 2019 season, when he got MVP votes.
When baseball fans look back on 2020, they'll remember it as the season Fernando Tatis Jr. took over the game. Tatis crushed 17 home runs and stole 11 bases in 59 games, he's electric in every part of the game, and all eyes will be on the Padres' 21-year-old phenom for his first postseason. All due respect to Paul DeJong, but he's up against an NL MVP frontrunner.
Tatis' partner on the left side of the Padres infield has an MVP case himself. Manny Machado finished the season hitting .304 with 16 homers, one behind Tatis, and is an offensive and defensive superstar just like his younger teammate. Matt Carpenter is an important veteran for the Cardinals, but he struggled at the plate this season (.186 batting average, four home runs). Even if St. Louis played Tommy Edman here, Machado gives San Diego a commanding edge.
The red-hot Jurickson Profar (.373 average over his final 24 games) seems likeliest to draw the start for the Padres in left. But whether the Padres play Profar there or Tommy Pham, they should be in more solid shape than the Cardinals, who have been rotating through Tyler O'Neill, Edman and Dylan Carlson.
Trent Grisham has been great in his first season in San Diego, both on offense (10 home runs, 10 steals, 121 wRC+) and defense, as he plays a superb center field (+5 Outs Above Average, tied for second-best among MLB outfielders). Harrison Bader plays an elite center field himself, and Carlson is the Cardinals' top prospect for a reason, but Grisham's all-around play with both the bat and glove gives San Diego the edge in center.
The Padres have a choice to make at DH. They could use Pham (if Profar plays left field), even though he hasn't looked like himself this year, especially since returning from a broken hamate bone on Sept. 18. Or they could try lefty slugger Mitch Moreland (10 home runs) for a platoon advantage against the Cardinals' righties, even though Moreland has slumped since San Diego traded for him. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have used Brad Miller as their primary DH, but after a red-hot start he ended the season in a weeks-long slump just like Moreland. When it comes to DH, there are a lot of question marks on both sides.
This one's close. The Padres' rotation might be better at full strength, but are they healthy? Staff ace and NL Cy Young contender Dinelson Lamet (2.09 ERA, 93 strikeouts) is dealing with right biceps tightness, and trade acquisition Mike Clevinger (2.84 ERA) has a right elbow impingement. Those are their top two starters; if either is unable to go in the Wild Card Series, Chris Paddack (4.73 ERA) or Garrett Richards (4.03 ERA) would be pushed into starting duty. Then the Cardinals, led by Jack Flaherty (4.91 ERA), Adam Wainwright (3.15 ERA) and Kwang Hyun Kim (1.62 ERA), would look stronger. Flaherty's still one of the league's top young starters and was impressive in the 2019 playoffs, even though he scuffled down the stretch this season.
Advantage: Padres if Lamet and Clevinger are healthy; Cardinals if they're not
Trevor Rosenthal has been brilliant (three saves, 0.00 ERA, 17 strikeouts in 10 innings since the Padres traded for him), and Drew Pomeranz (1.45 ERA, 29 strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings) is back from his left shoulder strain. So San Diego has a little more lights-out potential than a Cardinals bullpen led by the likes of Giovanny Gallegos, Génesis Cabrera, Alex Reyes and Andrew Miller. But postseason bullpen usage is always a little unpredictable.