Can Cardinals overcome injuries? Big questions for the NL playoff field

Can the St. Louis Cardinals overcome their injuries? A look at the biggest questions for the NL playoff field.
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The National League playoff field has been decided, but each of the five teams enters the postseason fray with at least one burning question. The teams are listed in order of their playoff seeding.

Are the Cardinals’ injuries enough to derail them?

Perhaps even more impressive than putting together the best record in baseball is that the Cardinals did it despite injuries to so many key players. Adam Wainwright is back from his torn left Achilles tendon, albeit as a reliever, and Matt Adams (right quad surgery) and Matt Holliday (recurrent right quad strain) are active as well, though they haven’t resumed everyday play. Still, a new wave of injuries has threatened to destabilize the team, and while it has the outfield depth for manager Mike Matheny to mix and match if Randal Grichuk’s elbow injury and Stephen Piscotty’s concussion linger, two issues stand out: the loss of Carlos Martinez for the season and the question mark regarding Yadier Molina’s condition and status, which may not be determined until just before the division series starts.

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In his first year as a full-time starter, Martinez pitched to a 3.01 ERA and 3.22 FIP with 9.2 strikeouts per nine in 179 2/3 innings, but he’s done for the year due to a shoulder strain. That still leaves the team with an enviable four-man rotation that includes John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, but Wacha’s late season performance—a 6.30 ERA and 7.20 FIP over his last six starts—is unsettling. His 181 1/3 innings are well beyond last year's 109 1/3 (including minor leagues and postseason) and just beyond his 2013 career high of 180 1/3. If he's out of gas, it's a significant step down to likely replacement Tyler Lyons (4.10 ERA and 4.56 FIP in eight starts).

Beyond that is the torn ligament in Molina’s left thumb, an injury he sustained on Sept. 20, and one that general manager John Mozeliak termed “a severe injury” last week. He’ll be reevaluated soon as to whether he can be on the division-series roster. The 32-year-old backstop is hitting only .270/.310/.350 for an 80 OPS+ this year (his worst showing since 2006), he’s thrown out 41% of baserunners, has been six runs above average according to Defensive Runs Saved and 7.9 above average according to Baseball Prospectus’s pitch framing metrics. The team is 38 wins above .500 in his starts, compared to just one above .500 in those of backup Tony Cruz, who’s a drop-off in every phase of the game: .209/.240/.317 for a 50 OPS+ at the plate, a 15% caught stealing rate, -4 DRS and just 0.6 runs above average in framing. Recall that the Cardinals struggled in their seven weeks without Molina last year when he needed surgery on his right thumb, and they didn’t win another NLCS game against the Giants after he departed with a strained oblique.

Does Dodgers manager Don Mattingly have enough pitchers he trusts?

The Dodgers ranked second in the league with 3.69 runs allowed per game, but so much of that owes to the stellar performances of aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, both of whom are Cy Young candidates. Kershaw finished with 301 strikeouts, the highest total in the majors since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling (334 and 316) in 2002, while Greinke finished with a 1.66 ERA, the lowest in the majors by a qualified pitcher since Greg Maddux’s 1.563 in 1995. Beyond that pair and closer Kenley Jansen, just about everybody else on staff is a question mark, including likely division-series starters Brett Anderson and Alex Wood, who each averaged less than six innings per start, and everybody in between the two aces and their closer.

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The erratic performances of the pitchers who make up the bridge to Jansen—lefties J.P. Howell and Luis Avilan and righties Juan Nicasio, Yimi Garcia, Pedro Baez and Chris Hatcher—are a chilling reminder of last year’s division-series woes against the Cardinals, when Mattingly was damned if he stuck with his starter (Kershaw running out of gas in the seventh inning of Games 1 and 4) and damned if he didn’t (the mostly reliable Howell allowing the Cardinals to tie after Greinke was pulled from Game 2 and the since-departed Scott Elbert allowing the Cardinals to go ahead after Hyun-Jin Ryu got the hook). At least the Dodgers won’t cross paths with St. Louis, which eliminated them the past two years, until the second round, but they still have to find ways to shut down the Mets, whose offense hummed over the season’s final two months, and whose rotation is deeper than their own.

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Will the innings catch up to the Mets’ rotation?

Matt Harvey has spent the past month at the center of a sideshow largely of his own making, but in the end, his competitive instincts won out. Slotted to start Game 3 of the National League Division Series at home against the Dodgers, he finished the regular season having thrown 183 1/3 innings, a career high but right in the neighborhood of the Mets’ expectations at the outset of the season. What’s more, he finished on a roll, allowing just two earned runs and one walk while striking out 24 in his past 17 2/3 innings following a skipped turn in mid-September.

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Harvey’s not the only Met heading into uncharted water innings-wise, but it remains to be seen how the Mets’ efforts to slow down the pace of their other starters will play out. Game 1 starter Jacob deGrom’s 191 innings are just ahead of last year’s combined total of 178 2/3. He was sharp in his Sept. 27 start against the Reds after skipping a turn, but prior to that, he had been touched for 18 earned runs in 26 2/3 innings over his previous five starts, only one of which came against a club that finished above .500. deGrom also went four no-hit innings on Sunday vs. the Nationals and struck out seven, but was lifted in a meaningless game with the Mets’ sights set firmly on the playoffs. Game 2 starter Noah Syndergaard’s 179 2/3 innings (counting the minors) are significantly ahead of last year’s 133. He’s had two dud starts out of his last five, including his first after a skipped turn, but even including that one, he has a 29–1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last 20 2/3 innings.

Meanwhile, a question mark hovers over potential Game 4 starter Steven Matz, whose innings count (141) is just one more than last year but who has been limited by various injuries. He hasn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 24 due to back spasms for which he received an injection on Friday, and the team won’t know his status until Wednesday, when he’s slated to throw 90–100 pitches in an instructional league game. If he doesn’t pass that test, manager Terry Collins will turn to 42-year-old Bartolo Colon, who spent the season fattening up at the expense of the NL East’s mediocrity, posting a 2.85 ERA and 3.22 FIP while averaging 6 2/3 innings in 17 starts, compared to a 6.04 ERA and 4.76 FIP while averaging 5/23 innings in 15 starts outside the division.

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Can the Pirates get past Jake Arrieta in the NL Wild-Card Game?

Despite the majors’ second-highest win total (98), the Pirates are in the knockout round for the third year in a row, and to advance to the NLDS, they have to get past the hottest pitcher in baseball. Arrieta’s 0.75 ERA in 107 1/3 innings since the All-Star break is a major-league record, he’s allowed runs in just four of his past 12 starts and in 36 innings over five starts against the Pirates, and he’s posted a 0.75 ERA without allowing a homer.

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All of that strongly suggests that the Bucs will stop here, but don’t dismiss them just yet. Arrieta’s second-half performance benefited from an unsustainable .207 batting average on balls in play, while his FIP was 2.00—still dominant, but not historic. The Pirates' offense was significantly stronger against righties (.262/.326/.401) than lefties (.250/.313/.373), and they averaged 4.42 runs per game against righty starters compared to 3.89 against lefties. Wild-card starter Gerrit Cole put up a strong season himself (2.60 ERA, 2.66 FIP), and fared well against the Cubs (2.13 ERA in 25 1/3 innings over four starts).

Admittedly, these numbers are somewhat cherry-picked, but like any pitcher in the postseason, much of what’s on Arrieta’s stat line came against patsies who are irrelevant to October. In one game, anything can happen, and if the Pirates survive this test, the gap between them and the Cardinals is close enough to make their series a toss-up. Their October doesn’t have to end here.

Will the Cubs’ postseason inexperience be a factor?

The Cubs are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and their roster turned over entirely since then. Their batters are the league’s second-youngest in terms of average age (26.9 years, weighted by plate appearances), and their lineup features three rookies (Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber), with just two regulars (Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler) and two reserves (Austin Jackson and David Ross) with postseason experience. Of course, among the pitchers, starter Jon Lester, who helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2007 and ’13, is as battle-tested as they come, and this isn’t virgin territory for starters Jason Hammel and Dan Haren or relievers Tommy Hunter, Fernando Rodney, Pedro Strop and Travis Wood—most of whom is likely to be on the division-series roster if the Cubs survive the wild-card game. Manager Joe Maddon is no stranger to October baseball either, having piloted the Rays to four postseasons, including the 2008 NL pennant.

The position players’ ages and experience levels shouldn’t matter. In the 2006 Baseball Prospectus book Baseball Between the Numbers, analysts Nate Silver and Dayn Perry found no significant correlation between postseason success and either team average age or level of previous postseason experience. A 2013 study by BP’s Russell Carleton found no consistent pattern either: “There is no evidence that postseason experience (and I attempted five different definitions of ‘experience’) has any effect on players in the postseason over and above their previously established talent levels. The idea that postseason experience confers some sort of advantage on a player or team is not supported by the data.”