NLDS preview: Cardinals, Cubs renew rivalry in first ever playoff meeting
The Cubs and Cardinals have been regional rivals for 130 years, dating back to the championship series played between the then-Chicago White Stockings and the American Association’s St. Louis Browns in 1885 and ’86 (St. Louis won in ’86, ’85 ended in a 3-3-1 tie). The Browns joined the National League in 1892, and the eventual Cubs and Cardinals have played 2,363 games against each other in the 124 seasons since, with the Cubs holding a surprising 1,197–1,147 edge. But because they have always been in the same league and division, the two were unable to meet in the playoffs until the introduction of the wild card in 1994, and until this year, they had never made the playoffs in the same season during the wild-card era. This is thus the first postseason meeting between the two in baseball’s second-oldest rivalry (the Dodgers and Giants go back to 1883).
This is also a classic David-and-Goliath matchup. The Cubs own the longest pennant and World Series droughts in baseball; they haven't made the World Series since 1945 and haven't won a title since 1908. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have won more World Series than any other NL team, taking home 11 championships and 19 pennants, all of which have been claimed since the Cubs last won the World Series. This year’s Cubs are Chicago’s first playoff entry since 2008; the Cardinals are in their fifth straight postseason and have won two pennants and a World Series during that run. In fact, the Cardinals have as many World Series titles in the 21st century as the Cubs have in their entire existence.
Much of that inequality melts away when you look at the current season. The Cardinals won the NL Central, edging the third-place Cubs by three games, and won the season series between the two teams by the same margin, 11–8. They only outscored the Cubs by five runs over those 19 games (84–79), however, and the Cubs were victorious in both of their series in the second half of the season, going 4–2 against St. Louis in those games; they also had a much stronger finish to the regular season than the Cardinals did, playing 7 1/2 games better than St. Louis since July 31. Finally, the Cubs are coming off a big wild-card game win over the Pirates, while the Cardinals' last action was a season-ending sweep at the hands of the lowly Braves in which they were shut out in three straight games. Given the strength of both organizations, this rivalry could be entering a peak period unlike anything it has experienced since these two teams combined to win seven of eight NL pennants from 1928 to '35.
On the season as a whole, the Cardinals had the weakest offense of any of this year’s ten playoff entrants: They averaged just 3.99 runs per game, posting a team OPS+ of 94 and ranking 25th in the majors in both home runs and stolen base percentage (64%). Some of that was due to injury. Matt Holliday, Matt Adams and Jon Jay all missed more than half of the season, and Adams and Jay never really got their bats going when they were healthy. Adams struggled so much that he was left off the Division Series roster; he hit just .226/.273/.387 after returning from his quadriceps injury in early September. Yadier Molina’s continued decline in his age-32 season was not tied to the torn ligament in his left thumb that put his availability for this series in doubt, but one can’t expect much from him at the plate given the combination of those two things.
The team’s best hitters during the regular season were Matt Carpenter, who led the league in doubles in is age-29 season, and new addition Jason Heyward. Manager Mike Matheny seems to have confused their places in the lineup, however. Coming down the stretch, he had Carpenter, by far the team leader in home runs with a career-best 28, leading off, and Heyward, the team leader in stolen bases with a career-best 23 in 25 attempts, batting third or fourth.
With Molina, who hasn’t played since Sept. 20, making the Division Series roster, the Cardinals finally appear to be healthy. That means Matheny will have his work cut out for him in assembling a lineup. Rookies Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty—who had injuries of their own—and Tommy Pham all impressed in filling in spots in the outfield and, in Piscotty’s case, at first base. With Heyward able to play center or rightfield and Piscotty able to play the outfield or first, look for Matheny to mix and match his first basemen and non-Heyward outfielders, with righties Holliday, Piscotty, Grichuk, Pham and Mark Reynolds, as well as lefty Brandon Moss, all a possibility to draw starts in this series. Among the Cardinals’ outfielders, only Jay, who hit .159/.288/.227 since returning in early September and is likely on the roster as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner, seems unlikely to find his name on the lineup card. Then again, he and Moss are the only lefties in that bunch.
As for the Cubs, their strong finish (45–18, .714 after July 28) was in large part thanks to an offense that scored 4.9 runs per game over that span. Though the Cubs didn’t do much at the trading deadline, they did make two big in-season upgrades by adding wild-card game hero Kyle Schwarber to the lineup on a permanent basis in late July and delivering a wakeup call to Starlin Castro by giving his shortstop job to rookie Addison Russell on Aug. 7. Since Russell moved to shortstop, both members of the Cubs’ double-play combination have seen their production improve, with Castro breaking out of a season-long slump to become one of the team’s hottest hitters, hitting .367/.391/.651 over his final 35 games. On the season, Russell and Castro are the only members of the Cubs’ typical starting lineup to have on-base percentages below .341 this season, but since Aug. 7, they have combined for a .343 OBP.
Schwarber, meanwhile, joins with likely Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and 25-year-old veteran Anthony Rizzo to give the Cubs a dangerous trio of sluggers in the second, third and fourth spots in the lineup. Bookending them are leadoff man Dexter Fowler, who hit a career-high 17 home runs this year and added one off Gerrit Cole in the wild-card game, the hot-hitting Castro and Chris Coghlan, who hit a career-best 16 homers of his own this season.
The flip side of all of that power is that the Cubs led the major leagues in strikeouts this season with 1,518, 126 more than the second-place Astros. That’s the byproduct of a patient, three-true-outcomes approach. The Cubs led the majors in three-true-outcome percentage this year, striking out, walking or homering in 36% of their plate appearances, the second-highest percentage by any team in major league history after the 2010 Diamondbacks (37.2). Chicago also led the majors in pitches seen per plate appearance with 3.97; while the Cubs may not wear out opposing defenses, they do wear out opposing starters. EDGE: Cubs.
The Cardinals have announced their four-man rotation, as have the Cubs. Here are the matchups:
This is a much closer matchup than it probably should be both because of the injuries to the Cardinals’ rotation (ace Adam Wainwright missed most of the season with an Achilles injury and will be limited to relief duty, All-Star Carlos Martinez is done for the year due to a Grade 2 shoulder strain) and the Cubs’ need to use Cy Young candidate Arrieta in the wild-card game. Fortunately for the Cubs, they have a backup ace in Lester, a lefty who matches up well against a lineup led by lefthanded hitters Carpenter and Heyward.
Lackey actually matches up well against his former Red Sox teammate: Both have excellent postseason track records and finished the season strong. Lynn and Wacha, however, have been hit hard by the Cubs this season: 14 runs in 11 2/3 innings in three starts for the former, two of those coming in September, and 15 runs in 15 innings in three starts for the latter, again with two coming in September. On top of that, Wacha had a 7.88 ERA in five September starts, allowing two home runs in each of his three games against an eventual playoff team (the Cubs twice and Pirates once) on the month.
On the Cubs’ side, Hammel struggled down the stretch, but his one quality start in September came against the Cardinals. Meanwhile, Arrieta has been unbeatable since June, with the Cubs’ only loss in his last 19 starts coming in the game in which they were no-hit by Cole Hamels. EDGE: Cubs.
We don’t know yet how prominent a role Wainwright will play in St. Louis' bullpen, but as their rotation ace and as the postseason closer for the 2006 World Champions, he could have a huge impact and significantly upgrade the Cardinals' end-game. Wainwright appeared in just three games down the stretch, giving up a run in the first, then working hitless innings in the next two, and has struck out just two men in those three innings of work, so it’s not a given that he’ll be a dominating presence, but he’s certainly a big dog in the yard.
Even without Wainwright, the Cardinals got a better performance out of their bullpen this season than the Cubs did. Still, Chicago is strong with lefty Travis Wood and righties Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop setting up closer Hector Rondon. Isolating Wood’s relief work, those four have combined to post a 2.38 ERA and struck out 10.6 men per nine innings in 245 2/3 innings this season. That’s better than any quartet you can assemble from the Cardinals’ bullpen. One might lack confidence in the reclamation projects in the Cubs' relief corps, but Fernando Rodney was a dominant closer as recently as last year and posted a 0.75 ERA with strong peripherals in his 14 appearances as a Cub; Trevor Cahill struck out 22 men in his 17 innings; and Clayton Richard has held lefties to a .234/.269/.266 line (then again, righties are slugging .495 against him).
The strength of the Cardinals’ bullpen this season, beyond excellent seasons from closer Trevor Rosenthal and lefty Kevin Siegrist, has been its depth, thanks in large part to a farm system that has allowed the team to rotate quality young arms up from Triple A as needed. With a set playoff roster, however, that depth is largely irrelevant and the ability of the end-game relievers to hold leads is emphasized. Matheny’s confidence in Rosenthal wavered last October, and in the closer’s penultimate appearance of 2015, he blew his first save of the second half in spectacular fashion (single, hit by pitch, walk, grand slam). That appearance looks like a fluke from here, but it sowed a seed of doubt. Sixth starter Tyler Lyons will be the second lefty in the St. Louis pen behind Siegrist, as veteran sidearmer Randy Choate was left off the Cardinals’ roster. EDGE: Cubs.
The Pick: Cubs
Picking against the Cardinals in a postseason series is folly, and you’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now. The Cardinals have been to the NLCS four straight times, and the only team to defeat them in a postseason series in the last four years has been the eventual world champion Giants (in 2012 and ’14). Still, this is a beat-up Cardinals team taking on a red-hot Cubs team that is playing with house money. The Cubs have out-played the Cardinals, both head-to-head and overall, since the end of May and enter this series as the better team on paper.