The Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals are the powerhouses of the National League, this side of World War II. Branch Rickey’s legacy lays most heavily on these two teams, one for whom he built the first-ever modern farm system, and one to whom he brought Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe, breaking the color barrier, but also ensuring a lasting competitive advantage through superstar-level talent infusion.
It’s been over 60 years and a cross-country relocation since Rickey left the Dodgers, but beginning Friday, the 2013 National League Championship Series will play out something like an homage to Rickey. The Cardinals have drafted and developed a juggernaut, making its third consecutive trip to the NLCS, picking one gem after another from their minor-league affiliates.
It would be unfair to overlook the fact that Matt Holliday’s contract (briefly viewed as an overpayment to a player who hadn’t yet proved he could hit outside Coors Field) has so far been a bargain, or that Carlos Beltran is about the fourth straight guy to make the front office look very savvy on a short-term free-agent deal. This team is where it is, though, because they’ve drafted better (over a 10-year period) than any other club in baseball, and have been very good at finding creative outlets for the talent of players who struggle to develop.
On the other hand, the Dodgers are all about stars. While it would be misleading (not to mention offensive) to draw too close a parallel between the guys Ned Colletti went out and found and Jackie Robinson, there’s a common thread: immensely talented players in whom, for various reasons, other teams had less interest than Los Angeles had.
Take Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, the critical cogs in an offense that can be lightning. Seriously, take them. That was what their former teams begged of the Dodgers during the summer of 2012. The Miami Marlins were in the midst of a thoroughly disappointing season, and they blew up a roster they had only just spent lavishly to build. It started with Ramirez, whose problems of injury, attitude and (near the end of his time in Miami) performance made his very presence—let alone his eight-figure salary and two and a half seasons of remaining obligation—onerous to the team. They went looking for a trade partner, but because of their ownership-imposed budget limitations, they needed someone who would take on Ramirez’s whole salary. The Dodgers, rolling in money after an ownership transition in May of 2012, happily pounced.
Crawford and Gonzalez followed in August of 2012. They came along with Josh Beckett and Nick Punto. The story of the Red Sox team from whom the Dodgers plucked them is different from that of Miami, but also, kind of the same. The architects of the roster that was then in the midst of falling flat had moved on. The clubhouse situation was a nightmare. Most importantly, Gonzalez was experiencing a power outage, just a year into a $161-million deal, and Crawford (after a miserable 2011) was hurt, and looking like a bad bet to ever recover the form that had led the Sox to commit $142 million to him. There was talent there, but the Red Sox wanted a fresh start, and with a new front office in place, they had the public-relations cover to give up on deals they didn’t like. No other team in baseball history could have even considered taking on those deals, while surrendering solid minor-league talent, but the Dodgers did it without blinking.
There are two other examples of Los Angeles finding prodigious talent that other teams valued less highly than they did. One is Yasiel Puig, who, along with the aforementioned troika, drives the Dodgers offense. In late June 2012, the end of the free market for players like Puig was nigh. New restrictions on spending for amateur free agents were going into place. Puig was the last can of Spaghetti-Os on the shelf, and the bombs were already falling. It was a perfect time for a player and his agent to extort undeserved millions. It was a bad time to be hungry.
But the Dodgers were hungry. With other teams shying away from a player they saw as slightly out of shape, unpolished and overhyped, Colletti paid $42 million for what he and his scouting staff saw as a phenomenal athlete with a good feel for hitting. It was, according to some reports, over double the next-best offer. Nonetheless, it’s been a steal so far.
The last player in this mold is Hyun-Jin Ryu. While the novelty of a pitcher being plucked from the Pacific Rim faded long ago, Ryu is an interesting case. For one thing, while the posting system MLB teams must use to bid for negotiating rights with Japanese players is now familiar, Ryu was the first player to come from the Korean Baseball Organization to the big leagues through that system. For another, Ryu is hardly the typical Asian hurler. He’s six-foot-two, weighs over 250 pounds and employs a changeup that didn’t need any adjustment to work in the Major Leagues.
Ryu cost the Dodgers a total of nearly $62 million over six seasons, the huge majority of that upfront, since the posting fee (nearly $26 million) was paid to his Korean team as soon as he signed with the club. Given the uncertainty inherent in the transition we’re talking about, and the massive, disproportionate transaction cost that is the posting fee, it’s hardly surprising that the Dodgers were the top bidders.
What happens when these two teams, constructed so differently, collide? Actually, it’s hard to say, in part because they’re not as different stylistically as they are structurally. Both teams rate among the best 10 teams in baseball at making contact, but both also rate fairly highly in striking out opponents. The most extreme matchup is Cardinal batters (with a 17.9-percent strikeout rate, the fifth-best in baseball) against Dodger pitchers (with an NL-high 21.4-percent whiff rate), and that battle could decide the war that is the series.
Both teams walk about 7.6 percent of the time. Both issue walks to opponents about 7.0 percent of the time. No team separates the two in a top-to-bottom listing of the league’s walk rates, on either side of the ledger. Both pitching staffs induce many ground balls. In fact, they rank second and third in MLB in ground-ball rate. Neither offense relies on home runs, although the Cardinals are the least dependent team in baseball on them, and the Dodgers aren’t quite that extreme.
Here’s why I’m picking the Dodgers:
- Starting Pitching – Adam Wainwright could, theoretically at least, come back on three days’ rest to pitch Game 2 against Clayton Kershaw. I doubt he will, though, and assuming he doesn’t, one has to like the Dodgers to win each of the first two contests. Zack Greinke has a big edge over Joe Kelly in Game 1. Kershaw’s might actually be smaller than Grainke’s, if we accept Wacha as something at least close to the stud that he’s been his last two outings, but he still has an edge. It’s hard, even though home-field advantage isn’t all that large in baseball, to envision St. Louis losing two games at home and winning the series. After Wainwright, it’s sort of surprising how much the Cardinals’ rotation feels like a liability, not an asset. Shelby Miller’s disappearing act during the second half has something to do with that. Ditto Lance Lynn’s inconsistency.
- Short-Sequence Offense – Crawford hit three home runs during the NLDS, a somewhat shocking power surge. No one should be surprised, though, if Gonzalez, Puig and Ramirez keep hammering the ball. It doesn’t show up in seasonal leaguewide numbers, but this offense has a lot of punch. You need that this time of year. You have to be able to hit home runs and doubles. These guys can. The Cardinals can, too, but there’s a measurable difference.
- The Battle for the Strike Zone – I mentioned that the crucial point of contention will be when the Dodgers pitchers go after the Cardinals, trying to strike out a team that never does.
I think they will, though. Allen Craig made a lot of contact, but he’s hurt, and the guy in his place in the lineup now—Matt Adams—strikes out a quarter of the time. It’s always important to recognize what a team is built to do right now, not what they were built to do over the course of the season. The Cardinals are more strikeout-vulnerable than they were at their best, and the Dodgers have the personnel to give them fits from a platoon perspective.
Here are three perfectly valid reasons to pick the Cardinals:
- The Cardinals’ Right-Handedness – All the starters St. Louis will use in this series are right-handed, and their best relief options—Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, Seth Maness, John Axford—are, too. The Dodgers rely heavily on Ramirez and Puig, so getting the platoon edge against them is huge. The Cardinals can also trot out Kevin Siegrist and Randy Choate to get Adrian Gonzalez out at the ends of games.
- Superior Management – I’m no Mike Matheny apologist, but he hardly ever bunts anymore, and he won’t run the team out of innings. Don Mattingly is much more mistake-prone. Matheny seems to have a better feel for handling his pitchers, too.
- Steadiness of Approach – The Cardinal offense is hard to shut down. They simply refuse to be coaxed out of the game plan they take to home plate, and even a very good pitcher can get walloped if he gets off—in terms of command, in terms of mechanics, in terms of mentality—for just a fistful of pitches. The Cardinals don’t give you margin for error.
This should be a long and competitive series. St. Louis has the perfect depth balance for October. Their top 17 roster spots are filled with talent, and the last eight (although putrid) just don’t matter in the postseason. Los Angeles has the better top five or six guys on their roster, and the better bottom six or seven, but a softer middle.
I have to go with the Dodgers, because it isn’t three hitters and two pitchers who drive them: It’s four and three. Gonzalez, Ramirez, Puig and Crawford, Kershaw, Greinke and Kenley Jansen, it’s just a little too much for the Cardinals, as I read the tea leaves.Next post: Anibal Sanchez Stumps Red Sox, Leads Tigers to 1-0 Win, ALCS Lead
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