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NL Wild Card position-by-position: Cubs-Pirates

The Cubs and Pirates battled each other all season in the National League Central, and now comes their most important matchup yet.

The winner of the NL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, set for 8 ET tonight on TBS at Pittsburgh's PNC Park, will advance to face the NL Central-winning Cardinals in the Division Series. This is a familiar position for the Bucs, who beat the Reds in the inaugural NL Wild Card Game in 2013 before falling to the Giants last year. The Cubs, on the other hand, are tasting the postseason for the first time since '08.

:: NL Wild Card Game: Cubs vs. Pirates -- Tune-in info ::

Chicago won the season series, 11-8, and went 6-4 against them at PNC Park. Here's a position-by-position breakdown of their next confrontation.

Catcher: Both teams made important additions behind the plate before this season. The Cubs brought in Miguel Montero, who has been solid, especially since returning from the disabled list in August. The Pirates, however, truly struck gold with Francisco Cervelli, who trails only Buster Posey among catchers in wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs. Cervelli ranks in the top 10 in the NL in on-base percentage, while Baseball Prospectus data pegs him -- as well as Montero -- as an elite receiver behind the plate. Advantage: Pirates

First base: Chicago's Anthony Rizzo is among the top 10 in the NL in on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, home runs, RBIs and walks. He has even raked against lefties for the second straight year. The Pirates have a major power threat in team home run leader Pedro Alvarez, but he's also a defensive liability who finished with more than twice as many errors as any other NL first baseman. Look for Pittsburgh to go to its bench for a glove if it takes the lead. Advantage: Cubs

Second base: Cubs manager Joe Maddon has options at second. Starlin Castro tore the cover off the ball down the stretch after being supplanted at shortstop, Tommy La Stella offers the lineup another left-handed bat against Bucs righty starter Gerrit Cole, and power-hitting prospect Javier Baez impressed with his approach and glove after a September callup. Still, Pittsburgh has a steady presence in Neil Walker, who just finished off his sixth straight season of above-league-average offensive production. Walker, a switch-hitter, is always more of a threat from the left side, where he will start for this game. Advantage: Pirates

Third base: Unfortunately for the Pirates, they lost standout rookie Jung Ho Kang -- an option at third or short -- for the season when the Cubs' Chris Coghlan took him out on a slide into second base on Sept. 17. That left Aramis Ramirez as the primary third baseman. The 18-year-veteran plans to retire after the season, but he just might have a few more big hits left in his bat. Cubs rookie Kris Bryant, who was 11 when Ramirez and the Cubs went to the 2003 NLCS, has lived up to the enormous hype surrounding him. He looks like a good bet for NL Rookie of the Year honors after hitting .275 with 26 home runs and 99 RBIs. Advantage: Cubs

Shortstop: It was a tough season at the plate for Pittsburgh's Jordy Mercer, who is a solid defender but finished with a career-low .613 OPS, a number that improved only slightly after he came back from a month-long DL stint in late August. The Cubs didn't hand over the regular shortstop job to rookie Addison Russell until early August, but he still finished in the top 10 in the Majors at that position in both defensive runs and ultimate zone rating, making several flashy plays along the way. Russell also showed some pop, with 43 extra-base hits. Advantage: Cubs

Left field: The Cubs can mix and match at the corners in the outfield, with Kyle Schwarber and Coghlan batting from the left side, and Jorge Soler, Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia from the right. Schwarber offers the most offensive potential, considering the rookie's .953 OPS against righties this season. Pittsburgh's Starling Marte is the superior defensive outfielder and reached 30 stolen bases for the third straight season. But Schwarber's power gets him the nod, with the potential for one big swing against Cole to decide the game. Advantage: Cubs

Center field: Nothing against Chicago's Dexter Fowler, who nearly pulled off a 20-20 season, but Andrew McCutchen is a superstar coming off another top-notch campaign. After dealing with a knee issue this spring, McCutchen produced a .571 OPS through 26 games. Since then, he's looked like the same MVP-caliber hitter the baseball world has come to expect. Advantage: Pirates

Right field: Coghlan produced better than an .800 OPS against righties this season, and Soler has hit three homers since coming off the DL on Sept. 18. It was a difficult season at times for Pittsburgh's Gregory Polanco, but the 24-year-old improved considerably at the plate in the second half and fares much better against righties. He also nearly joined Marte in the 30-steal club, and his strong arm helped him rank among the best right fielders in the Majors by defensive runs saved. Advantage: Pirates

Bench: If he's not starting, Josh Harrison gives Bucs manager Clint Hurdle a versatile bench piece who can play around the infield and outfield while contributing offensively. Michael Morse has swung the bat well since joining the club and provides big right-handed power to complement lefty Travis Snider. But as mentioned in regard to second base and the corner-outfield spots, the Cubs have a lot of depth. That will give Maddon plenty of choices if he wants to gain the platoon advantage in a big at-bat or upgrade his defense late in the game. Meanwhile, pinch-running specialist Quintin Berry stole five bases in five attempts during the postseason from 2012-13. Advantage: Cubs

Starting pitcher: Cole would be favored in a lot of pitching matchups after going 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA, including a 2.13 mark in four meetings with Chicago. He also will be pitching on six days' rest. But it's hard to pick against Jake Arrieta these days, considering the run the Cubs righty has put together. The NL Cy Young Award candidate closed the regular season with a 0.86 ERA and three shutouts over his final 20 starts. In five outings against the Pirates this year, he allowed three total earned runs and held batters to a .368 OPS. Advantage: Cubs

Bullpen: Pirates relievers were among the best in the Majors in ERA, and it wasn't just Major League saves leader Mark Melancon. Righty Joakim Soria, a Trade Deadline acquisition, finished strong and forms an effective setup tandem with southpaw Tony Watson, who shuts down hitters from both sides of the plate. Antonio Bastardo has also dominated left-handed hitters this season. The Bucs get a slight edge over the Cubs, who can deploy of trio of tough-to-hit righties in Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop and closer Hector Rondon, though Grimm struggled with control late in the year. Veteran pickups Fernando Rodney and Trevor Cahill also have pitched well since arriving. Advantage: Pirates

Closer: Rondon lost his job for a time before getting it back in late July, but still finished with 30 saves. From the beginning of June on, he blew only one opportunity and allowed a total of five earned runs. Still, Melancon gets the nod after going 51-for-53 in save chances, the 15th 50-save season in history. Advantage: Pirates

Andrew Simon is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.
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