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National League Playoff Preview

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The regular season is over: now it's time for the post-season. Diamondbacks fans - like most those of most other teams in the league - will be watching from the couch, but that doesn't mean we can't have an opinion...

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Schedule

Oct 1: Wild-card, Giants @ Pirates
Oct 3-9: NLDS (2-2-1), Wild-card @ Nationals
Oct 3-9: NLDS (2-2-1), Cardinals @ Dodgers
Oct 11-19: NLCS (2-3-2), lower seed @ higher seed

Pennant odds from Bovada.lv
  • Los Angeles Dodgers - 2/1
  • Washington Nationals - 21/10
  • St. Louis Cardinals - 17/4
  • Pittsburgh Pirates - 13/2
  • San Francisco Giants - 13/2
Cardinals

Record: 90-72 (3rd)
OPS+: 93 (9th)
ERA+: 105 (3rd)
Best player: Adam Wainwright, 6.1 bWAR
Strength: Shortstop
Weakness: Other hitting

The most consistent team of late in the National League, St. Louis will be making their fourth consecutive trip to the post-season, having won the NL pennant in both 2011 and 2013. While they started slow this season, being at .500 after 62 games, they are rounding into form at the right time, going 17-9 in September. Behind Wainwright, the Cardinals have a strong pitching staff, but their offense is questionable, especially if Jhonny Peralta isn't hitting well. They only scored 16 more runs than their opponents this season, and outperformed Pythagoras by seven wins. On the other hand, they had the best record (39-33) in the NL against other winning teams.

Dodgers

Record: 94-68 (2nd)
OPS+: 110 (1st)
ERA+: 103 (4th)
Best player: Clayton Kershaw, 7.5 bWAR
Stength: All-round offense
Weakness: Relief pitching

You'd be forgiven for thinking Los Angeles are all about the pitching, and certainly facing Kershaw twice in a five-game series is a formidable threat to start with. As the stats above show though, the Dodgers have been more reliant on offense for their success, with the catcher's spot the only below-average position. Questions also have to be asked about their relief pitching: as good as their starters have been, the bullpen ranks only 12th in ERA, so if games are close in the late innings, that could be their Achilles heel. But for as long as Kershaw and Zack Greinke are out there, opponents won't find it easy.

Giants

Record: 88-74 (=5th)
OPS+: 99 (4th)
ERA+: 99 (11th)
Best player: Buster Posey, 6.2 bWAR

Strength: Relief pitching
Weakness: Outfield

San Francisco will be hoping they continue to emulate Star Trek films - the even-numbered ones are good - having won the World Series in 2010 and 2012. But they have a tough route, first facing the Pirates in a win or die contest. The (dubious) legend of the Giants pitching strength died entirely this year, with Madison Bumgarner, who'll start the wild-card game, their only pitcher worth more than two bWAR for them. However, trade acquisition Jake Peavy adds valuable depth to their rotation that will be especially vital through the NLDS, and Santiago Castilla has done well as closer since taking over from Sergio Romo,

Nationals

Record: 96-66 (1st)
OPS+: 96 (6th)
ERA+: 125 (1st)
Best player: Anthony Rendon, 6.4 bWAR

Strength: Pitching. All of it.
Weakness: Lack of post-season experience

Only one NL team since 2003 has had a better ERA+: the 2011 Phillies (127). But as they saw, that isn't enough to guarantee anything in the playoffs, and while the Nationals pitching is extremely solid, top-to-bottom, the lack of an obvious "ace" may hurt them, going up against other aces. However, Jordan Zimmermann put an exclamation point on his season with a no-hitter Sunday, and he probably isn't even their best starter. The franchise hasn't won a playoff series since 1981 in Montreal, and rookie manager Matt Williams will be in an intense spotlight. Will they handle the pressure, or will closer Drew Storen melt again, as in the final inning of the 2012 NLDS?

Pirates

Record: 88-74 (=5th)
OPS+: 107 (2nd)
ERA+: 102 (7th)
Best player: Andrew McCutchen, 6.4 bWAR
Strength: Offense
Weakness: Starting pitching

When you have the reigning MVP, who then improved his OPS by 41 points this year, you're always going to have a chance in the post-season. While there are legitimate question-marks about their rotation, Francisco Liriano had an excellent final month, with a 1.16 ERA. However, neither he nor Gerrit Cole will be available for the wild-card game, the team turning instead to Edinson Volquez: while he has a 3.04 ERA this year, his FIP is 6th among those who've started for Pittsburgh this year, and a career ERA+ of 88 doesn't inspire much confidence either. If they can get through against SF, they will be in better shape - but that is a very large "if".