Position-by-position breakdown for Cardinals-Dodgers
LOS ANGELES -- The regular season is in the books, and with that, the postseason is upon us. In Los Angeles, the Dodgers begin the playoffs against the St. Louis Cardinals, the same team that sent them packing last year en route to the Fall Classic.
The Dodgers and Cardinals open their National League Division Series on Friday (6:30 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1) at Dodger Stadium with two of the best pitchers in baseball on the mound in Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright.
The Cards clinched the NL Central with a 90-72 record on Sunday, the final day of the regular season. This is their fourth consecutive postseason appearance.
The NL West-champion Dodgers won 94 games this year -- their most since 2009 (95-67) -- and have reached the postseason five times in the past nine years. They enter October as the NL's No. 2 seed, having won five straight.
Below is position-by-position analysis for the best-of-five series.
This isn't to say A.J. Ellis is not a fine big league catcher; Yadier Molina is just among the best, if not the best, in the game. Even though he spent a sizable portion of the year on the disabled list and his numbers at the plate dropped off -- from .319/.359/.477 in 2013 to .282/.333/.386 in '14 -- Molina, a six-time Gold Glover, is still in a league of his own defensively. Ellis hit just .191/.323/.254 this year while also missing significant time due to injury.
Adrian Gonzalez reasserted his place among baseball's elite this season, edging out Mike Trout for the RBI title with 116. Gonzalez also finished the year ranked among the top 10 in the NL in slugging percentage (.482), doubles (41), home runs (27), total bases (285) and extra-base hits (68). In his first season as the Cards' everyday first baseman, Matt Adams hit .288/.321/.457, but he still struggles to hit left-handed pitching (.190). He had a quiet postseason last October, batting .222 with one home run and four RBIs.
Dee Gordon enjoyed a breakout campaign this year, earning his first All-Star nod. The 26-year-old speedster paced the Majors in both stolen bases (64) and triples (12) while hitting .289 with a .326 on-base percentage. In St. Louis, rookie Kolten Wong came on strong over the final three months of the regular season, hitting 11 of his 12 home runs and raising his average from .228 to .249. But Gordon's ability to alter a game on the basepaths gives him a sizable lead here.
St. Louis leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter put together a respectable season but, much like his team, his numbers dipped in nearly every offensive category compared with last year's stellar campaign. And while Carpenter's production has steeply declined in his brief postseason experience, Juan Uribe has no shortage of big moments on the October stage. Uribe, a two-time World Series champion and a veteran leader in the Dodgers' clubhouse, has hit .378 (31-for-82) since coming off the disabled list on Aug. 31. In Game 4 of last year's NLDS vs. Atlanta, it was Uribe's two-run homer in the eighth inning that put the Dodgers ahead in the series-clinching victory.
In most other years, this positional matchup would favor the three-time All-Star Hanley Ramirez. But the oft-injured Dodgers shortstop has been a liability defensively, prompting many late-game substitutions for Miguel Rojas, whose bat is lacking. St. Louis entered the year with a massive question mark at shortstop, but the club's offseason acquisition of Jhonny Peralta quickly became the answer. Peralta led all MLB shortstops with a 5.8 WAR and set the Cardinals' record for home runs by a shortstop with 21, the most on the team.
Carl Crawford hit .421 (51-for-121) over his last 39 games and is still a threat to steal a base, but he missed six weeks with a severe ankle sprain and started fewer than half of the Dodgers' games this year. For St. Louis, Matt Holliday turned in a solid performance in the second half, batting .281 with 14 of his 20 home runs and 45 RBIs. Although his defense can be suspect at times, Holliday brings a steady veteran presence and is always dangerous at the plate.
Jon Jay had a consistent and impressive bounce-back campaign, splitting some time with defensive standout Peter Bourjos in St. Louis. Jay really hit his stride in the second half, batting .323/.406/.392. But Yasiel Puig's game-changing potential, for better or worse, is the difference here. The sometimes-reckless Puig has extraordinary raw skills -- from his cannon of an arm, to his potent bat, to his striking athleticism.
Absent from last year's postseason with an ankle injury, Matt Kemp enters October healthy and on a tear. He led the Majors in RBIs (23) during the final month of the regular season and tied for first in home runs (nine). The Cards' rookie tandem of Oscar Taveras and Randal Grichuk may be the future in St. Louis, but this October at least, they're a distant second to the proven two-time All-Star in Los Angeles.
On any other club, Andre Ethier and Justin Turner would likely be everyday players. But in Los Angeles, they've been pushed into reserve roles, providing an advantage off the bench. Turner got red hot after the break, hitting .383 through the end of the season and posting .419 (26-for-62) average with RISP on the year, while Ethier has hit .290 (9-for-31) with eight RBIs as a pinch-hitter. St. Louis role player Daniel Descalso provides flexibility and depth, and when Bourjos isn't starting, he has value as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner, but they ultimately don't offer quite the spark L.A.'s reserve talent can.
There aren't many pitchers who would be favored over Wainwright, but Kershaw is one of them. Los Angeles' ace and NL MVP Award candidate just earned his fourth consecutive ERA title (1.77) and won an MLB-best 21 games in 2014, including his near-perfect no-hitter back in June. Lance Lynn is a formidable No. 2 for St. Louis, but behind Kershaw looms Zack Greinke, who is unbeaten in his last eight starts (5-0, 2.34 ERA). Dan Haren (13-11, 4.02 ERA) has been solid for Los Angeles, although with Hyun-Jin Ryu's status in question, Roberto Hernandez might represent a weak spot in a rotation that posted the second-best starters ERA this season (3.20). Last year's NLCS MVP Award winner Michael Wacha hasn't been as dominant since that series, and he's been hampered with a shoulder issue as of late. The Cardinals will fill out their final two spots with two of Wacha, John Lackey and Shelby Miller.
The Dodgers' bullpen picture is cloudy, particularly in the eighth inning, where a go-to setup man has yet to emerge while inconsistency plagues Brian Wilson. Rookie Pedro Baez has been excellent since his Aug. 7 recall, posting a 1.27 ERA and a .164 opponents' batting average, but the converted third baseman has just 23 1/3 big league innings under his belt. Meanwhile, the Cards boast one of the strongest back ends in the Majors with Carlos Martinez and first-time All-Star Pat Neshek leading the way. St. Louis will also boost their relief pitching by adding one of Wacha, Lackey or Miller, whomever doesn't make the rotation, to the mix.
Both Trevor Rosenthal (45 saves, 3.20 ERA) and Kenley Jansen (44, 2.76 ERA) had comparable seasons, ranking second and third, respectively, among NL closers in saves. Though this is just his second full season in the Majors, Rosenthal has already pitched lights-out in two postseasons; he's yet to allow a run through 20 1/3 October innings, allowing just six hits and five walks against 33 strikeouts. The righty has overpowering stuff that often flirts with triple digits and has been particularly effective when rested, which the postseason schedule allows for. Jansen has a more versatile arsenal of pitches and has been at his best in the second half, converting 17-for-19 in save opportunities with a 1.75 ERA and a .191 opponents' batting average. It's close, but Jansen edges out the 24-year-old fireballer by a slight margin.