Cardinals: Sizing Up the NLCS

Oct 7, 2019; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinalssecond baseman Kolten Wong (16) celebrates with third baseman Matt Carpenter (13) as he scores on an RBI sacrifice fly hit by catcher Yadier Molina (not pictured)in the tenth inning to defeat the Atlanta Braves in game four of the 2019 NLDS playoff baseball series at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

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Friday night, the Cardinals will host Game 1 of the 2019 NLCS at Busch Stadium.

Excuse me, what?

Yes, our Cardinals have not only moved on to the 2nd round of the postseason, but thanks to the Wild Card Nationals doubling down on the NLDS upset trend, the Cardinals will hold home field advantage in the 7-game series.

How crazy is that? I mean, it’s not that crazy. Moving on to the NLCS was not in and of itself crazy. Considering their starting pitchers, the Nationals beating the Dodgers is not that outlandish. But it sure seems crazy.

Both NLCS participants were down 2-1 in their respective NLDS, so there was improbability that either, let alone both, would advance to the NLDS.

Of course, there is also the fact that the Cardinals were a middling team at the All-Star break before a 2nd half surge allowed them to outlast the Brewers and Cubs in the Central division. They are actually 2 games worse than the Nationals in terms of regular season record. The caveat is that division winners hold home field advantage over wild card teams in the LDS and LCS rounds.

So it’s pretty wild that they have arrived at this point.

Home field advantage is actually a rarity for the extremely successful Cardinals.

Including the upcoming NLCS, the Cardinals will have played in 14 postseason series* this decade (2010-19), which trails only the Giants 15 for the most in baseball.

*This includes the Wild Card Game. For Equality, the Giants have appeared in 2 WC games, so they both have 13 actual series, which is still tops in baseball.

Of those 14 series, the 2019 NLCS will be only the 3rd time the Cardinals have had home field advantage, with the other two being the 2014 NLCS and 2011 World Series.

No wonder we have an inherent underdog mentality.

Setting Up The Roster

The NLCS roster shouldn’t be drastically different than the NLDS roster, though there will be a few nuanced changes.

UPDATE: Mike Shildt announced on Thursday afternoon that the NLCS roster will remain the same as the NLDS roster, per Jeff Jones.

On the position player side, there may be a couple adjustments on the bench.

Because Kolten Wong has proven his health and Edman doubles as a backup SS/2B, Yairo Muñoz might be left off. He would give way to a more robust pinch hitting option, such as Rangel Ravelo or Tyler O’Neill.

Randy Arozarena — who failed to run on a dropped 3rd strike (he thought he foul tipped it, but still) and then went live on Instagram during Mike Shildt’s rousing, expletive-laden, private clubhouse address to his team — may find himself on the outside of the roster. He may not, but he was on bubble anyway. O’Neill provides the same defensive flexibility and speed as Randy, with more power. If the Cardinals stick with Carpenter in the lineup, then you also have Bader on the bench, making Randy a little less valuable, again.

A wild card option with Muñoz is adding Andrew Knizner to the roster, which vicariously adds a pinch hitter via Matt Wieters. Shildt wasn’t shy about using Wieters in that capacity in the NLDS, even as the lone backup catcher, so this idea might be irrelevant.

Or they may just leave it as is. I would prefer adding a little more thump to the bench with both O’Neill and Ravelo.

As far the pitching goes, the only changes should be at the back-end of the bullpen.

I expect John Gant to replace Genesis Cabrera, as the Nationals are a heavy right-handed lineup, unlike Atlanta. A 3rd lefty is not worth carrying solely for Juan Soto.

The last change revolves around the health of Michael Wacha. He has been throwing bullpen sessions and if he is cleared to pitch, he will likely replace Daniel Ponce de Leon as the emergency long reliever. If they aren’t comfortable with Wacha’s health, then Ponce stays. We are talking about a pitcher that only throws if a game reaches the 11th or 12th inning or is a blowout, so the impact is low. Unfortunately, we have seen the hasn’t-pitched-in-two-weeks-coming-off-injury use of Michael Wacha before, though I don’t think Shildt would go that route.

Lining Up The Rotation

Personally, I think the rotation setup is very straight forward. I’ll present and then explain.

Game 1 – Mikolas
Game 2 – Wainwright
Game 3 – Flaherty
Game 4 – Hudson
Game 5 – Mikolas
Game 6 – Wainwright
Game 7 – Flaherty

UPDATE: According to MLB.com’s Anne Rogers, this the exact rotation the Cardinals will use, at least for the first 4 games.

So the Cardinals rotation is both pitching well and relatively balanced, as it’s Flaherty at #1 and then everyone else on about the same level. What that allows is a straight rotation where they don’t have to get cute with short rest. The only instance where short-rest would be a factor would be if they were facing elimination in Game 6. At that point, you could bump Flaherty up to extend the series, and push Wainwright back for Game 7.

Mikolas has been better at home this season, but his road struggles were largely in the first half. Giving him the 1-home/1-road alignment works well.

Home/road splits are often flukey and skewed by one or two games. However, Wainwright has been so much better at home that you can’t ignore the splits. As much as we would like to believe Wainwright would rise up on the road, the better play is to pitch him at home. There is an argument for pitching Wainwright in Game 1, but I think he should pitch Games 2 and 6, both at home. Additionally, holding him until Game 2 would allow an extra day of rest, 5 days instead of the usual 4, before both starts. This season, Wainwright carried a 3.61 ERA in 12 starts with exactly 5 days of rest, that’s compared to a 5.15 ERA on 4 days of rest. He made his NLDS start on 6 days of rest. At this point of his career, the extra down time has a significant effect.

Flaherty is restricted to pitching no earlier than Game 3 due to pitching Game 5 of the NLDS. However, this lines him up for a potential Game 7, or — if things go really well — the first game of the next round.

Hudson was the team leader in wins this season, but I was clear from some major lapses in command in his final few starts that he is running low on fuel. It’s fair, considering he is 35 innings beyond his 2018 total of 139 innings, and 23 innings passed his minor league high of 152. He is not the guy that you push for 2 starts. He will do well to receive the extra rest, and he fits well as the roaming starter than is available in the bullpen, if needed, during Games 1 and 2, and then again in 6 and 7.

In addition to how well this sets up for the Cardinals based on personnel and splits, I like the likely match-ups.

Washington announced Anibal Sanchez as the Game 1 starter, so this is how I would image the series looks, based on Scherzer and Strasburg’s schedule.

Miklolas vs Sanchez
Wainwright vs Scherzer
Flaherty vs Strasburg
Hudson vs Corbin
Mikolas vs Scherzer
Wainwright vs Strasburg
Flaherty vs Corbin

Now, the Nationals got wild with the use of their starters out of the bullpen during the NLDS. We will likely see some of that, specifically with Corbin in Games 1 & 2. The interesting part of this alignment is that should the series go beyond 4 games, the Nationals will either have to give Sanchez a 2nd start and push Scherzer and Strasburg back, or they will have their starter pitching on 3 days rest in each of Games 5-7. However, the extreme use of their starters seems like it will fail eventually. We’ll see.

I would guess that the situation will dictate. If the Nationals were up 3 games to 1, there would be no reason no to start Sanchez. If they were facing elimination, they likely push it with the short-rest. Interesting dynamic is what they would do in a tied series. They could push with Scherzer in Game 5, and if they take the 3-2, start Sanchez with a regular-rest Strasburg waiting for a Game 7. Or you roll the dice with Sanchez in Game 5, knowing you have Scherzer and Strasburg on regular rest for games 6 & 7.

Alot of scenarios at play in the postseason, though I believe the Nationals have much tougher decisions than the Cardinals in this series.

Final Notes

If it feels like the Cardinals always make it to the NLCS, it should. Since the birth of the Wild Card and the LDS series, the Cardinals have reached 14 playoff tournaments. They are 11-3 in the NLDS round. That’s astounding…and outstanding. This is why people hate us.

Although Harrison Bader took some good swings in the Game 5 rout, I believe the Cardinals should continue to go with Carpenter at 3B and Edman in RF at the onset of games. Mid-game, they can make the change to the superior defensive alignment, but Carpenter has resembled his past self lately and his offensive upside is massively greater than Bader’s.

Overall, this should be a really good series. It has the makings of a series with a lot of pitcher’s duels and games being decided late. The Nationals bullpen isn’t great, although Daniel Hudson has been rock solid as their closer.

I believe the Cardinals, through home field and their bullpen, have the edge in this series. It will be another series sponsored by TUMS, as neither team is clearly better than the other.

Love that playoff baseball.

Thanks for reading.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Cardinals9171.562 -
Brewers8973.5492.0
Cubs8478.5197.0
Reds7587.46316.0
Pirates6993.42622.0

Last updated: 09/30/2019

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