The Cardinals were again wire-to-wire winners in the NL Central, led by a Cy Young-level campaign from Chris Carpenter and another all-world year from the ethereal Albert Pujols. The Padres had one excellent month (22-6 in May) and never really needed to find that level again as none of the competition in the NL West could break .500. San Diego making the playoffs with the most losses ever for a postseason team isn't the end of the world, as the team does boast a genuine ace in Jake Peavy and a star bat in Brian Giles. Add that to closer Trevor Hoffman, who recorded his 400th save earlier in the season (against St. Louis), and the Padres have enough to at least win a game in this series, which begins Tuesday afternoon at Busch Stadium. Or do they?
Starting pitching. The case against the Cardinals last year was that having a deep rotation with no standout ace is all well and good for the regular season, but of little use in the playoffs. Problem addressed. Walt Jocketty traded for Mark Mulder (16-8, 3.64 ERA, 1.38 WHIP) in part to get that guy for the Cardinals, but as it turned out they had him in the organization all along: Chris Carpenter (21-5, 2.83, 1.06) will probably win the NL Cy Young this year. But two guys alone will not get you a major-league best 3.49 staff ERA. That takes good work from the likes of Jeff Suppan (16-10, 3.57, 1.38) and Matt Morris (14-10, 3.94, 1.25), a strong bullpen, and a pitcher-friendly home ballpark. Fifth starter Jason Marquis (13-14, 4.13, 1.33) outpitched Morris in September but Tony LaRussa will want him on the bench for the strategic implications of his bat -- Marquis has a .786 OPS on the season and he swings lefty.
There's nothing wrong with the Padres' #1. If Peavy (13-7, 2.88, 1.04) played for a team with a more prolific offense (and Roger Clemens still played for the Astros), he'd be in the thick of the Cy Young discussion himself. It gets somewhat dicier for San Diego after that. Adam Eaton (10-5, 4.51, 1.50) is a talented guy but for whatever reason he's never really "put it together." Brian Lawrence (7-15, 4.83, 1.37) and Woody Williams (9-12, 4.85, 1.41) are as vanilla as it gets. In fact, since the Padres seized him off of the scrap heap in July, former Rockies hurler Pedro Astacio (4-2, 3.17, 1.34) has been San Diego's second-best starter. Bruce Bochy will start Astacio in Game Two and turn to Eaton for Game Three. Should there be a Game Four, take your pick between Williams and Lawrence. Lawrence has pitched better against the Cardinals (a 4.05 ERA in 6 2/3 IP, compared to Williams' 6.00 in 6), so I guess he's your guy. But this isn't a choice that a playoff team should have to make. Advantage: Cardinals.
Bullpen. Well, if this was all there was to it, this series would be quite a barnburner. St. Louis has the third-ranked bullpen in the majors and San Diego has the 6th. The Padres' late-inning group of Scott Linebrink, Akinori Otsuka, Rudy Seanez, and Hoffman is the strength of the team. They also have well-traveled lefty specialist Chris Hammond and rookie Clay Hensley contributing. Williams, whose "value" is mostly as an innings sponge, won't add much if he moves down from the rotation. If he even makes the postseason roster, Chan Ho Park, whose only known talent is convincing Scott Hicks to give him enormous amounts of money, is also now a Padre. It's hard to see how this not entirely unique ability could help San Diego advance to the NLCS. I doubt Albert Pujols can be bought.
The Cardinals counter with their usual balance of star power and depth. Jason Isringhausen is the closer and he's legit. Ray King and Julian Tavarez aren't going to win any beauty contests, but they get the job done. Randy Flores is the resident lefthander. Al Reyes, who has been terrific this year (2.15 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in 62 2/3 innings) hurt his elbow in the last regular season game. Marquis and young Brad Thompson will try to compensate but that loss costs the Cardinals one of their edges. Advantage: Push.
Catcher. The Cardinals let longtime backstop Mike Matheny leave for the Giants after the World Series last year, and with good reason. Yadier Molina is basically the same player for much cheaper. St. Louis has an organizational distaste for offense from the catcher position, and to this end they couldn't have picked a better backup than Einar Diaz. The Padres have the far more threatening Ramon Hernandez and as his backup the intriguing talent of Miguel Olivo. Advantage: Padres.
First base. Nothing against Mark Sweeney, who has been San Diego's second-best rate hitter this year (.295/.396/.468) as a part-timer, but he's simply not on the same planet as Albert Pujols. I'm not going to waste any more time telling you things you already know. Advantage: Cardinals.
Second base. Perhaps if Mark Loretta had been healthy all year, San Diego wouldn't be saddled with all this Worst. Playoff. Team. EVER stuff. Loretta is a team leader, a plus fielder, and a trustworthy on-base guy. Both the Dodgers and the Cubs gave up on Mark Grudzielanek, and at age 35 he's had something of a career renaissance as a regular in St. Louis. Grud has slightly more pop than Loretta, but he gives up thirty points of OBP and Loretta is the superior defender. Advantage: Padres.
Shortstop. The Red Sox paid the Cardinals' old shortstop, Edgar Renteria, more than St. Louis was willing to part with. The Angels in turn gave Boston's old shortstop, Orlando Cabrera, a pretty nice chunk of change himself. That left St. Louis without a shortstop and David Eckstein without a job. How fortunate for them both. Eckstein doesn't look like a shortstop, but his decent offensive numbers (.294/.364/.397) came at a huge discount compared to those other two guys. Khalil Greene is billed as one of the Padres' young stars but his OBP in his second full season (.297) leaves a lot to be desired. Greene is massively better with the glove than Eckstein, but he still tends to make rookie mistakes and he's quite fragile. Advantage: Cardinals.
Third base. Scott who? Well, not really. The great Rolen's lost season was one of the few stormclouds hanging over the Cards' 100-win NL Central campaign. However Abraham NuÃ±ez has played well over replacement level (.285/.343/.361) in preventing the hot corner from becoming a complete black hole for the Redbirds. NuÃ±ez has established career highs in every imaginable category this season after an undistinguished eight years with the Pirates. Sean Burroughs by contrast has been so bad in 2005 that he spent part of the year trying to rediscover his swing in AAA Portland. Like a lot of San Diego's roster, Burroughs has a chronic lack of power for a guy who plays at a power position. Of course, NuÃ±ez doesn't have any pop either. Scott Seabol would probably get a start in the series if the Padres had any lefty starters, but they don't. Likewise Joe Randa is around to spell the lefty-swinging Burroughs (and the Cardinals do have a lefthanded starter in Mark Mulder). Randa hasn't exactly set the world on fire since coming over from Cincinnati, but the Padres' duo has the edge when it comes to experience. Advantage: Padres.
Left field. Ryan Klesko is the Padres' biggest power threat (he leads the team with 18 homers). Reggie Sanders is the "weak link" in the Cardinals' outfield, and he has 20 jacks. Neither is a great defender but Sanders looks infinitely less like a tank with a glove. Advantage: Cardinals.
Center field.Dave Roberts created maybe the single biggest play in 2004's postseason with his steal off of Mariano Rivera in Game 4 of the ALCS. However for San Diego he's not in the role of late-inning speed replacement, he's a starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter. He's had one of his best years (.275/.356/.428) but he should have quit while he was ahead with the basestealing (23 steals against 12 caught-stealings). In any case he's nowhere near a match for Jim Edmonds even in one of Edmonds' lesser years (.263/.385/.533). Edmonds has 29 homers and is the premier highlight-reel centerfielder in the National League. Advantage: Cardinals.
Right field.Larry Walker has been playing hurt all year and has talked often about retirement. Still, .289/.384/.502 with 15 home runs is not bad. Brian Giles is the Padres' offensive MVP with a .301/.423/.483 line and 15 homers of his own. Walker is a plus defender when healthy; he's not. Advantage: Padres.
Bench. I couldn't find the postseason rosters anywhere (they may not have been finalized yet) but my best guesses are Seabol, John Mabry, Hector Luna, and So Taguchi for the Cardinals and Randa, Eric Young, Damian Jackson, and Xavier Nady for the Padres. San Diego's group has a lot more speed, pop, and versatility. The Cardinals are not sweating their bench and they probably don't need to. Advantage: Padres.
Manager. Tony La Russa and Bruce Bochy are two of the longest-tenured guys in the game, but La Russa is the Hall of Famer. He sees the game from more angles than anybody, but he's not going to do anything stupid like call for Pujols to bunt. Bochy has been driven by his team's lack of offense to overmanage at times this season. The Padres are 18th in stolen base percentage and 8th in sacrifices. They don't want to be giving outs away left and right against the mighty Cardinal pitching staff. Advantage: Cardinals.
That's six nods to the Cardinals, five to the Padres, and one push. As close as that may seem, I don't think it's going to be that tight of a series. Some elements (starting pitching) are far more important than others (catcher, bench). Plus the Cardinals' huge advantages at first base and center field rather trump tiny San Diego edges at third and in right. And looking at the series another way, which is the game that the Padres are going to win? Peavy is their money starter, but he will be facing off against Carpenter. Can Astacio beat Mulder at Busch? What about Eaton vs. Suppan with St. Louis up 2-0? I don't see it. Cardinals in three is the pick, but don't be astonished if it goes four or even five -- these short series can be wild.