|Nats vs. Cards. You ready? (US Presswire)|
During the regular season, the Nationals took four of seven contests with the Cardinals and out-scored them by three runs. So it was tight. The same can be expected of this NLDS match-up that pits the defending champs against the team that won the most games (98) in the regular season. Let's dig in with a position-by-position, corps-by-corps comparison ...
Suzuki has been solid since being acquired from the A's (.267/.321/.404 as a Nat), but this one's no competition. Molina is not only continuing on as the best defensive catcher on the planet, but he's also had a career year with the bat. On the season, Molina has hit .315/.373/.501 with 22 homers, 28 doubles and 12 steals in 15 attempts. He's the best all-around catcher in baseball.
With the bat, Craig has been better on a rate basis, but LaRoche has been no slouch (.271/.343/.510, 33 homers, 35 doubles). He also gets the edge on defense. On the other hand, Craig could have a crack at a lefty starter three times should the series go the full five games (he has a career OPS of .940 against port-siders). Call it a highly competitive push.
While Descalso has his share of big hits in Cardinals career, he's really place-holder sort, best deployed as a utility man and lefty bat off the bench. Espinosa, meanwhile, has a solidly better bat. Neither is optimal in the field, but Espinosa's good pop (38 homers over the last two seasons -- strong by middle-infield standards) gives him the nod.
Kozma has been excellent since being called up, but his success over such a limited sample is at odds with his minor-league record of performance. Desmond, meanwhile, has churned out an outstanding campaign (.292/.335/.511, 25 homers, 21 steals) -- one good enough to net him quite a few down-ballot MVP votes. This one's an easy call.
Freese, the reigning World Series MVP who has 20 spanks and an .839 OPS on the season, is better than most at the position, but, well, not Zimmerman. Zimmerman is one of best defenders around, and since receiving a cortisone shot in his shoulder he's been thriving at the plate (.319/.381/.564 in the second half). Zimmerman gets it.
Morse has plenty of raw power (18 homers in 102 games), but Holliday yields to almost no one. The St. Louis left fielder hit .295/.379/.497 in the regular season, and he also gets the defensive edge over Morse.
This one's close. Jay owns a 113 OPS+ for 2012, while Harper checks in at 119. Jay's tendency to take bad routes in tandem with Harper's shutdown arm give the latter the edge with the glove. Close call, but we'll go with the wunderkind.
Werth has enjoyed a solid renaissance this season, as he's notched a .300 average and .387 OBP for the year. Beltran, meanwhile, has tallied 32 home runs, and he's narrowly edged Werth in terms of OPS+. Consider this one a perilously narrow edge for St. Louis.
While there's the potential for excellence in the Cardinal rotation, there's less certainty, what with the fact that Carpenter and Wainwright are coming back from serious injury. Because of the wild-card game, the Cardinals will also be able to use their best pitcher (Lohse) only once. On the other hand, they can arrange things so that Garcia pitches at home, where he's been much better over the course of his career. Still, St. Louis will have a hard time comparing to the Nats' one-two punch of Gonzalez and Zimmermann. Former Cardinal Jackson has shutdown potential, and Detwiler boasts a sub-4.00 ERA on the year.
The Cardinals have plenty of lives, including Mitchell Boggs, who's been outstanding, but as a group they've been inconsistent, particularly from the left side. Washington, meanwhile, has a veritable wrecking crew. Storen, Tyler Clippard, Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen from the right side and Sean Burnett, Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelannay from the left -- they're loaded. Throw in Davey Johnson's outstanding instincts when it comes to deploying relievers, and you've got an obvious advantage for D.C.
In terms of defensive efficiency, which is the percentage of balls in play that a defense converts into outs, the Nats rank third in the NL, while the Cardinals check in at 11th. Once you adjust for park effects, Washington remains third, and the Cardinals nudge up to 10th. So give the Nats the edge.
Nats in five. It comes down the front of the rotation and the bullpen. The Nats are solidly better in all elements of run prevention, and that will make the difference.