The Cardinals and Dodgers are two of the most historic franchises in baseball. This year, they'll face off in the NLCS for the right to represent the Senior Circuit in the World Series. I recently spoke with Tom S. of Viva El Birdos to see what he thought of St Louis' 2013 season, its NLDS series with Pittsburgh, and its chances against the Dodgers. Here's what he had to say...
DAVID: Who was the Cardinals' MVP this season?
TOM: The Cardinals MVP award has a lot of good candidates, but only one real winner. Matt Carpenter should probably finish second in the MVP running to Andrew McCutchen for the National league, and he should definitely take the Cardinals' team MVP.
TOM: For one, Carpenter has earned the award on paper. He has played solid defense at second base while narrowly trailing Matt Holliday for best offensive performance by most advanced stats. He turned in a 7 WAR performance, which is MVP grade.
TOM: On a second, less tangible basis, Carpenter deserves the award for finally solidifying the second base position under extremely difficult conditions. The Cardinals have run through second basemen like Spinal Tap drummers for years. Aaron Miles, Adam Kennedy, Daniel Descalso, and Skip Schumaker have spent varying amounts of time being terrible second basemen. To have someone come forward and put together an MVP caliber season at second is nothing short of miraculous to St. Louis fans.
TOM: Last, Carpenter did all this after learning the position this off-season. He came up through the minors as a third baseman. When he joined the team from spring training, the club planned for him to split time with replacement-value utility man Daniel Descalso. That's how low the collective expectations were. He might be a butcher at second, but he'd probably hit enough to justify a part-time role. His emergence as a credible second baseman and outstanding hitter took everyone by surprise, except maybe him.
DAVID: What about Cy Young?
TOM: Adam Wainwright is the no-question Cy Young award winner for the team. He probably ought to finish second or third to Clay Kershaw in the overall Cy Young contest. He had a career year in 2013 and thankfully shows no signs if slowing down.
TOM: And watching him throw a curveball is baseball pornography.
DAVID: Rookie of the year?
TOM: Picking among Wacha and Miller is incredibly tough. Miller fought his way into a starter's role in spring training and stuck while other pitchers were lost to injury and ineffectiveness. But he also stagnated somewhat mid-season, after an amazing start. I think I'd probably pick Wacha, an opinion almost certainly too colored by his recent success. His peripherals look much better than Miller's.
TOM: So many rookies deserve mention, though. Kevin Siegrist emerged from nowhere to be an outstanding reliever. He set a record for being the first rookie reliever to go 35+ innings while allowing only one run. I've probably garbled that a bit, but that's about right. John Gast and Tyler Lyons helped replace innings lost from Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook. Carlos Martinez and Kolten Wong had promising starts to their careers.
DAVID: What was the most surprising thing to happen to St. Louis this season?
TOM: Matt Carpenter is the most surprising thing to happen to the club in a long time.
DAVID: Do you think the Cardinals played well against the Pirates in the NLDS?
TOM: I was pleased, generally. I thought the teams were very well matched and was not surprised to see a close series. We struggled in game 2 against Gerritt Cole, who looks like an up-and-coming ace, and in Game 3 when our worst starter (Joe Kelly) faced the Pirates' best (Liriano). I don't think there was any shame in that. I was glad to see us pull out wins in game 4 and game 5.
DAVID: What's the biggest thing St. Louis needs to fix that it did poorly in the NLDS?
TOM: I'd like to see the rotation focus on throwing strikes. Our two NLDS losses came in games where our starters walked four or more Pirates. Potential starters Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn, and Shelby Miller all walk more than their share of batters.
DAVID: Is not having Allen Craig going to hurt the Cardinals a lot in the NLCS?
TOM: Losing Craig has not hampered the club as much as one might have thought. Matt Adams had been a very good replacement, but no one has replaced Adams on the bench. There is some talk that Craig might be available to pinch-hit. If not, our cast of pinch hitters for the NLCS will be weak. Adams is has a strong platoon split, so we could be exposed against left-handers.
DAVID: Los Angeles was 4-3 against St. Louis this season. What was the biggest reason behind that outcome? Do you think it could foreshadow the outcome of the NLCS?
TOM: The Dodgers pitching is a great asset. Clayton Kershaw is a monstrous talent. I don't particularly recall our series with the Dodgers, but I love the LA rotation.
DAVID: Do you think it was a smart decision to leave Adam Wainwright in for the ninth inning of game 5 with St. Louis up 6-1 seeing as he won't be able to pitch until game 3 probably?
TOM: I don't have a huge problem with leaving Wainwright in for the ninth. On paper, it probably would have been better to pull him after the seventh, just because our relievers are better than Adam Wainwright facing batters for the third and fourth time.
TOM: But Adam, like his mentor Chris Carpenter, takes enormous pride in pitching. I would not have wanted to try to take him off that mound. After the game, Wainwright noted with obvious gratitude the fact that Matheny trusted him enough to leave him in for the ninth inning. That gesture meant a lot to Adam.
TOM: Wainwright is very resilient. I doubt that throwing 100+ pitches impacts his ability to pitch in game 3.
DAVID: Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw are scheduled to start games 1 and 2 of the NLCS. What do the Cardinals need to do to win at least one of the games? Do you think they can win both?
TOM: I think the Cardinals are fully capable of taking at least one of the first two games. Kershaw is outstanding, and Greinke remains a great pitcher, but the Cardinals may have the best offense in the National League. Playing at home, I'd think they have a plausible chance at winning either game. I don't see either team sweeping. I think this is probably a 6 or 7 game series.
DAVID: What is the Cardinals' biggest strength?
TOM: Biggest strength: the Cardinals have a solid lineup, with excellent performance through and through. We've abandoned the late-aughts Pujols model of one offensive giant and some okay bats around him. We now have a bunch of guys who are good hitters. And we also have Pete Kozma.
DAVID: Biggest weakness?
TOM: Biggest weakness: our team defense is very poor, and it showed in the NLDS . We flashed some great leather in Game 1, but some fumbles in the field in Game 2 helped set the stage for a blow out. We have two aging stars in corner outfield spots, and two younger corner infielders who are just bad. Defensive miscues make for big innings.
DAVID: Do you think home field advantage could have a big effect on the outcome of the NLCS?
TOM: Somewhat. The Cardinals had great success at home, but were one of a few teams with a winning record on the road (the Dodgers were another). I don't fear playing on the road, but Busch Stadium is a good venue for us.
DAVID: Series prediction?
TOM: Cardinals in seven.