Less than a year after St. Louis knocked Los Angels out of the 2013 playoffs, the Dodgers look to avenge that loss in the 2014 NLDS. I caught up with Ben Humphrey, the manager of Viva El Birdos to preview the series and talk about the Cardinals' 2014 season.
DAVID LAUTERBACH: Adam Wainwright had another great year on the mound going 20-9 with a 2.38 ERA. But, his August wasn't so great as he went 2-4 with a 5.17 ERA in six starts. What went right for him the rest of the season and what went wrong in August?
BEN HUMPHREY: August 2013 was similar (4.78 ERA over 32 IP) in that Wainwright struggled. There's seemingly something about the summer's dog days that saps his effectiveness. To hear Wainwright tell it this year, he suffered from a bout of the "dead arm" in August before returning to form in September. The biggest difference for Wainwright from August to September was quality of contact. In August, opponents laced line drives against Wainwright at a rate a big over 30% and that resulted in a .328 BABIP that fueled a .282/.341/.395 line against Wainwright. In September, opponents' LD% dipped to 22.4% and they managed just a .248 BABIP and corresponding .213/.240/.305 slash line.
DL: Looking at the bullpen, will it look similar to last year's pen in the NLCS? Or are there a lot of big changes?
BH: Hopefully, there won't be two relievers in the 2014 NLDS bullpen that the manager refuses to use. Last year, Edward Mujica (dead arm) and Shelby Miller (innings limit and ineffectiveness) were ostensibly members of the postseason relief corps. But Matheny called on Mujica for 2.0 IP in all of the postseason and Miller for just 1.0 IP (vs. Pittsburgh in the NLDS). Bizarrely, Miller actually threw more innings during the 2012 postseason after totaling just 13 2/3 regular season MLB innings than in 2013 after tallying 173 1/3 regular season MLB innings. Matheny's usage of the two righties made their inclusion on each of the 2013 postseason series rosters baffling. Presumably the Cards won't be carrying such dead weight on their 2014 NLDS roster.
BH: The big difference is the emergence of submariner Pat Neshek (whom the Cardinals signed to a minor-league deal with a spring training invitation in January). The righty has had a terrific season as a member of a relief corps that has gone through its share of struggles. Neshek has K'd 68 in 67 1/3 IP this year while walking just seven batters unintentionally. Hence his 1.87 ERA (52 ERA-) and 2.37 FIP (65 FIP-). Neshek might very well be Matheny's most trusted reliever at this point in time.
DL: Back at the deadline the Cardinals acquired John Lackey and Justin Masterson, but traded away Joe Kelly and Allen Craig. Do you think that could end up hurting them in the NLDS?
BH: The Boston-St. Louis trade created a head-versus-heart dilemma for me. On paper, the trade makes sense. But I've long been a fan of Allen Craig and Joe Kelly. So seeing them traded was difficult. That being said, I'm not too disturbed that neither will be playing for the Cardinals this October.
BH: Not in the least. Whether it's due to injury or something else, Craig looks like a shell of his former self. After hitting .237/.291/.346 for the Cardinals, Craig hit .122/.233/.189. The decision to trade Craig was classic addition via subtraction. The Cardinals are a better team without Craig on it, especially because Matheny refused to bench the former slugger in favor of other outfield options. The absence of Craig has freed Matheny to mix and match Jay, Bourjos, Grichik, and Taveras, so right field is no longer an offensive black hole.
BH: Kelly is a solid pitcher, but his repertoire's results never seemed to match. On the year, Kelly posted a 4.20 ERA and 4.37 FIP this year, the season in which his ERA finally shot up to around the same level as his FIP. In the long run, Kelly's athleticism and stuff might allow him to evolve into a top-notch starter. But that was unlikely to happen in August, September, and October 2014 and might never happen.
BH: The Cardinals will be better off in the NLDS without Craig and are probably better positioned to win with Lackey starting a game rather than Kelly.
DL: Transitioning to the lineup, what kind of lineup should the Dodgers and their fans expect to see? How similar is it to last year's in the NLCS?
BH: Matt Adams started in the NLCS last year because Craig was injured, so that's nothing new compared to last October. But there's no Carlos Beltran or David Freese. The difference will be stark because the Cards will like replace those two postseason heroes with youngsters. Kolten Wong is likely to get the majority of the PAs, but maybe not vs. Kershaw because Wong bats lefthanded. Right field will likely be manned by a combination of rookies: Oscar Taveras (age 22) and Randal Grichuk (who just turned 23). Both struggled early on in their initial MLB promotion, but Grichuk has taken off since his recall to the majors and Taveras put together a decent September as well. Another option for Matheny: starting all-world defender Peter Bourjos in center and shifting last year's primary center fielder Jon Jay to right.
DL: Staying on the topic of the lineup, will Oscar Taveras be a consistent factor in St. Louis' NLDS lineup?
BH: Taveras will get his share of pinch-hitting appearances and might start against Greinke. If I were a betting man, I'd put my money on Randal Grichuk getting more (and more consistent) PAs than Taveras.
DL: Looking back at the 2014 regular season, who was the Cardinals' top rookie?
BH: Kolten Wong was the Cardinals' top rookie in 2014. His .249 BA and .292 OBP aren't just underwhelming—they're bad. But he slugged for a .149 ISO and so managed a 90 wRC+ that was slightly above the MLB second baseman wRC+ of 88. Where Wong makes his WAR is on the bases and afield. Wong reached the 2.0 fWAR plateau exactly in 2014. It was a very good rookie campaign despite having to battle Matheny, Mozeliak, and a shoulder injury early on.
DL: Cy Young?
BH: Adam Wainwright tied with James Shields at fifth in MLB in innings pitched. Wainwright made 32 starts while Shields and everybody above the two righties employed by Missouri clubs made 34 starts. Wainwright posted a 2.38 ERA (66 ERA-) and 2.88 FIP (79 FIP-). This even though he suffered from a bout of forearm tendinitis in June and "dead arm" in August. Wainwright appears to be over his ailments and is looking every bit the staff ace Cardinals fans know and love.
BH: Jhonny Peralta. The Peralta signing proved a team-saver in 2014. Peralta has hands down been the top all-around player on the Cardinals. He has soft hands and decent range at shortstop and has hit for solid power while getting on base at a decent clip. Peralta posted a .263/.336/.443 (.343 wOBA, 120 wRC+) while playing excellent shortstop defense. That combination was worth 5.4 fWAR. I shudder to think where the Cardinals would've been this year had they signed [Stephen] Drew last Hot Stove instead of Peralta.
DL: Prediction for the NLDS?
BH: Cardinals in five.