By Matt Snyder
Talk about your clashes in historical pedigree.
The St. Louis Cardinals franchise began all the way back in 1882 (as the St. Louis Brown Stockings). After having just won the 2011 NL pennant, the Cardinals now have 18 NL titles and 10 World Series championships -- looking to add No. 11 in the next week and a half or so. The history of the franchise is loaded with Hall of Famers and transcendent personalities, and the city is often said to be one of the best baseball towns in the country. Manager Tony La Russa has been playing bullpen matchups since before Al Gore invented the Internet.
The Rangers' franchise, on the other hand, has only been around since 1961 (as the Washington Senators -- they moved to Texas and became the Rangers in 1972). Prior to 1996, the Rangers/Senators had never been to the playoffs. Prior to last season, they'd only won one playoff game in franchise history. The only individual Hall of Fame plaque with a Texas Rangers cap is Nolan Ryan's. Sitting right in the middle of die-hard football country, Arlington hasn't exactly been romanticized as a baseball hot spot. Manager Ron Washington took his first managing job in 2007.
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The Rangers are now making their second consecutive trip to the World Series and there's no doubt they're a current baseball powerhouse. Anyone who watched Game 6 of the ALCS can attest that the fans are as great as anywhere, too, because Rangers Ballpark was rocking.
These two teams have lots of similarities, too.
Both lost an ace before the season even began. The Rangers lost Cliff Lee to free agency while the Cardinals lost Adam Wainwright to a torn UCL in his throwing elbow -- requiring season-ending Tommy John surgery. Both offenses feature several power hitters while the bullpens got stronger down the stretch on the strength of midseason acquisitions and some roster/role tinkering. And both teams have been scorching hot for the past six or so weeks.
Sure, the Cardinals late surge got lots of attention and rightfully so. It's because they were running down the Braves from a double-digit deficit in the NL wild-card race. But check this out:
Rangers' September record: 19-6
Cardinals' September record: 18-8
Rangers' October record: 7-3
Cardinals' October record: 7-4
So if you're going to argue for the hotter team winning the series, you're picking the Rangers -- not the Cardinals. Since a Sept. 10 loss to the A's, the Rangers are 21-5. To put that in perspective, that's a 162-game pace of 131 wins. To reiterate, the Cardinals are playing exceptional baseball right now and deserve all the credit they've gotten for the huge comeback in the regular season and run in the playoffs, but let's not be fooled into thinking they come in hotter than their Texas-sized opponent.
Texas Rangers (host Games 3, 4, 5*)
96-66, AL West winner.
ALDS: Beat Tampa Bay three games to one.
ALCS: Beat Detroit four games to two.
Manager: Ron Washington
Offensive ranks: 3rd in R, 2nd in HR, 1st in AVG, 5th in OBP, 2nd in SLG
Pitching ranks: 13th in ERA, 12th in K, 5th in WHIP
St. Louis Cardinals (host Game 1, 2, 6*, 7*)
90-72, NL wild card winner.
NLDS: Beat Philadelphia three games to two.
NLCS: Beat Milwaukee four games to two.
Manager: Tony La Russa
Offensive ranks: 5th in R, 13th in HR, 5th in AVG, 3rd in OBP, 6th in SLG
Pitching ranks: 12th in ERA, 21st in K, 15th in WHIP
[Note: All rankings were regular season and for the entire MLB]
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN -- WHO HAS THE EDGE?
Catcher: Mike Napoli vs. Yadier Molina
Big offensive advantage to Napoli here, but Molina can hit, too. Big defensive advantage to Molina here, but we've seen what Napoli can do behind the plate this postseason. This is a tough call for many reasons. We're weighing Napoli's power stroke (30 HR in 369 at-bats this season) against Molina's ability to completely eliminate the opposing running game. Ultimately, it's a toss up between two really good players.
First base: Michael Young vs. Albert Pujols
Young is a very good hitter. A great one at times, including most of the 2011 season. He just became the first player in LCS history to record two extra-base hits in one inning. He's gotten some noise in the AL MVP argument. It's just that he's not Albert Pujols in any aspect of the game.
Second base: Ian Kinsler vs. Ryan Theriot
Theriot's a scrappy singles hitter who makes lots of baserunning mistakes. He's not a defensive liability at second like he was at short, but he's still not much more than just an average player. Even if Skip Schumaker can return at full health, the upgrade is pretty minor. Kinsler had 32 homers and 30 stolen bases in the regular season and is far superior with the glove.
Shortstop: Elvis Andrus vs. Rafael Furcal
Andrus is a solid defender and base stealer, but not a very good hitter. Furcal has provided St. Louis a bit of a power-speed combo atop the order since his acquisition. It's a really close call here, but Furcal seems to be providing his team more of a spark at this point in time. Things could easily change by the second inning of Game 1, but we're going Furcal by a nose for now.
Third base: Adrian Beltre vs. David Freese
A healthy Freese has been a monumental boost for the Cardinals' offense, especially as Matt Holliday has dealt with some injuries. Freese was a really good hitter in the regular season and absolutely exploded in the NLCS. Beltre can match and exceed his firepower, though. Beltre had 32 regular-season homers and then went yard three times in the clinching ALDS Game 4 at Tampa Bay. He's also a great defender. Before the NLCS, Freese was underrated, but let's not overcorrect based upon six games. He closed the gap, but is still slightly behind Beltre overall.
Left field: David Murphy vs. Matt Holliday
When healthy, Holliday is an elite player. He's starting to look healthy based upon the last few games, too, so this is an easy call.
Center field: Josh Hamilton vs. Jon Jay
Jay isn't a bad player by any stretch, but he's out of his league here. When Hamilton can keep himself on the field, he's one of the most feared sluggers in the league, and will also sell out his body to make a big defensive play (see Game 6, for example).
Right field: Nelson Cruz vs. Lance Berkman
We cannot discount the season that Berkman, the NL Comeback Player of the Year, put together. He was great, and especially valuable early in the season when Holliday was hurt and Pujols was struggling. But Cruz still almost matched his power production despite playing 21 fewer games in the regular season. In the playoffs, Cruz has been the best hitter in baseball, not to mention that he's a much better defender than Berkman. This one would be a toss up, but Cruz's hot hand pushes him over the top. Put it this way, Cardinals fans: What if you could trade Berkman for Cruz straight up for the series? You'd do it. Don't lie.
The designated hitter for the Rangers is a mix and match thing. Young or Napoli can be used there, which would get Mitch Moreland or Yorvit Torrealba into the lineup. It's also possible Washington goes with Endy Chavez or Craig Gentry in the outfield and uses Murphy at DH. So, essentially, we're judging the bench here. For the Cardinals, the smart money is on Berkman being used as the DH, which then puts Allen Craig in the outfield. So what we're really judging here is which offense benefits more from being able to use a DH and, oddly enough, the NL team here does. Craig is a much better offensive player than Moreland, Torrealba, Chavez or Gentry. So the three games in Texas will actually favor the Cardinals in this one aspect of the game, however small it is.
Starting rotation: C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland vs. Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Edwin Jackson, Kyle Lohse
Both rotations have good ability yet have been shaky at times. Holland and Garcia particularly struggled in their respective LCS'. Wilson and Carpenter both pitched like aces at several points throughout the regular season, but the deciding factor here is that Carpenter has shown he can carry his team in a big game. Wilson, meanwhile, is 1-4 with a 5.40 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in seven career postseason starts.
Bullpen: Neftali Feliz et al vs. Jason Motte et al
The fact that both teams won four of six games against their respective LCS opponents with zero quality starts tells you all you need to know about how good the bullpens are right now. The Cardinals' bullpen has significantly improved down the stretch, as Motte has stepped in as the closer -- despite not being "officially" named as such. Marc Rzepczynski has been a solid left-handed addition just as right-hander Octavio Dotel has gotten some really big outs. Especially after the NLCS, you have to say the Cardinals have a very strong bullpen right now. The way things have gone for Texas of late, though, it's even better. Scott Feldman and Alexi Ogando have proven to be an exceptional duo to bridge the gap from the starters to the potentially dominant Mike Adams and Neftali Feliz at the back-end.
Getting Furcal helped the Cardinals, as will being able to use Craig in right instead of Berkman when the games are played in Texas, but this isn't really a match. The two teams had virtually identical fielding percentages during the regular season, but that doesn't measure range. The advanced metrics that do measure range pretty heavily side with the Rangers here. If you just go by position, only at catcher and first base are the Cardinals clearly better. Everywhere else it's either debatable or definitely the Rangers.
First of all, keep in mind all categories above aren't created equal. Having a slight edge at shortstop, for example, isn't near as important as having an edge in the bullpen. The position-by-position breakdown is just a snapshot at the different strengths and weaknesses of each team. Adding everything together, including the momentum and swagger heading into the World Series, the Rangers have a better offense, defense and bullpen. And while the Cardinals have been having all their happy flights, the Rangers haven't lost consecutive games since August 23-25. The Cardinals' run has been a great story and nothing would surprise us here, but we'll go with the St. Louis run ending when it runs into a more talented buzzsaw. Rangers in six.
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