This evening, the Cardinals will play a one-game, winner-take-all (actually, winner-take-all is probably overstating things; more like winner-just-doesn’t-have-to-go-home-yet), playoff series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Is a single game also a series? I mean, it is, if the one game is all there is, I suppose, but it doesn’t feel right calling a single game a series, does it? Hmm.
The Cards and Dodgers will meet in the playoffs. Two historic franchises, in many ways the signature franchises of the National League, facing off once again to determine who moves on. The winner will head off to San Francisco to face the shocking Giants, while the loser will head off into the offseason. If it’s the Cardinals who head into the offseason early, everything will be just fine. If it’s the Dodgers, though? Watch out for the slew of middlebrow thinkpieces incoming about why MLB’s playoff format is broken. Someone could get hurt, you know.
The Dodgers did win 106 games, a full sixteen more than the Redbirds’ own more modest win total of 90, making this, on paper, a rather huge mismatch. The Dodgers actually managed the even more impressive feat of winning 106 while also underperforming their Pythagorean record; going by run differential, LA should have been a 109 win club this year. This is what it looks like when the richest team in the sport is also one of the smartest teams in the sport, and is willing to simply outspend the competition when they can’t find any other way to win. The Cardinals’ opening day payroll in 2021 is listed at $163.5 million, which is a respectable number, particularly considering the Redbirds’ reliance on ticket sales for their revenue and the uncertainty surrounding crowd sizes and public reaction this year as baseball returned from the pandemic. The Dodgers’ opening day payroll, on the other hand, comes in at a cool $247.7 million, or nearly half again as much as that of the Cardinals. Yes, the Dodgers are very smart. But just think of how much easier it would be for the Cards to field a great team with another 50% of their payroll available.
The Dodgers are paying David Price $32 million this year to be a reliever. Price made 39 appearances for LA this year, throwing 73.2 inning of 4.03 ERA ball. That’s...not great performance for 32 million bucks. They are paying Trevor Bauer over $31 million to not pitch, due to an ongoing investigation into some very disturbing allegations against him. Clayton Kershaw is on the final year of an extension he signed heading into the 2019 season, and is making $31 million. He is out for the postseason, having had a late-season recurrence of forearm and elbow issues. He’s not yet slated for Tommy John surgery, but it’s obviously worrisome he’s had multiple stints on the DL for the same thing this year. That’s well over $90 million the Dodgers are paying, just to pitchers, who are either not appearing in the postseason or are doing so in relief work. Again, think of where the Cardinals would be if they were staring at $90 million in hugely underperforming payroll right now.
And yet, despite that, the Dodgers have the most terrifying starting rotation in baseball. It’s why at least I, personally, would much rather face the Dodgers for one game then try to win three of five from the Giants, rather than the other way around. The Dodgers can still throw Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, and Julio Urias three games in a row, all three of whom sport sub-3.00 ERAs for the season. Scherzer, the starter in tonight’s tilt, has been on an absolute tear since coming over to the Dodgers, posting a 1.98 ERA and 1.96 FIP in eleven starts, covering 68.1 truly dominant innings.
If there is any good news for the Cardinals, it’s that the Dodgers will be without one of their most productive hitters, as Max Muncy will not play tonight, and is actually unlikely to appear in the postseason following an elbow injury of his own which will also not require surgery, at least at this time. The Dodgers still have Corey Seager (145 OPS+), Trea Turner (152 OPS+ as a Dodger), AJ Pollock (137 OPS+), Will Smith (130 OPS+), and Mookie Betts (128 OPS+), all in the lineup, but at least you’re missing Muncy.
The Dodger bullpen is also dominant, featuring a one-two punch of Kenley Jansen and Blake Treinen at the back of games to shut the door, and a rotating cast of consistently outstanding hurlers to support them.
In other words, the Dodgers do everything well, they have no weaknesses, and there’s really no reason not to believe they won’t steamroll the competition en route to a second consecutive World Series championship. You want to see why a salary cap, a real one, might be a good idea? Look at the Dodgers’ roster. Yes, they’re very smart. They also have the capacity to do things financially that virtually no other team can do.
As for the Cardinals, they are not nearly so strong a club top to bottom, which should come as no surprise, considering they are playing what is, essentially, an all-star team. However, the Cards are also a stronger club than many of us probably realise, considering how bleak much of the season felt in 2021. The pitching staff utterly collapsed; the Cards came into the season with a huge amount of risk on the pitching side, and pretty much every roll of the die came up bad. Jack Flaherty got hurt, Miles Mikolas was barely on the field, Carlos Martinez collapsed totally, John Gant looked like a completely different pitcher as a starter than the dominant relief force he was the past couple years. Johan Oviedo wasn’t ready, Kwang-hyun Kim missed time with multiple nagging injuries, and Daniel Ponce de Leon never could throw enough strikes to be effective. The Cards knew their pitching staff was a risk coming in to 2021, but they also threw snake eyes, with basically one exception.
That exception, of course, was Adam Wainwright, who has now officially added the term ‘ageless’ to his list of descriptors one must use in a baseball column mentioning him. At age 39, Wainwright put together his best campaign in seven years, putting up a 3.05 ERA over 206 innings. He’ll get some down-ballot Cy Young votes, and deservedly so. He was the ultimate stabilising force in the Cards’ rotation this year, and it’s only fitting he should, once again, be the man the Redbirds turn to when they need a pitcher to open a playoff series. Wainwright will be tasked with holding that intimidating Dodger lineup down, at least for a little while. It’s interesting; over the past several years, the Dodgers have gotten the reputation for being as analytically minded as almost any team in baseball sans Tampa Bay, while the Cardinals seem at times to be mired in an old school way of thinking that many fans have come to regard as limiting their ceiling. Tonight, though, if the Cardinals are going to win, it will almost certainly be with a procession of short outings by the their best pitchers, while a Dodger win probably involves seven plus innings of Max Scherzer, the most old school of pitching approaches imaginable.
What the Cardinals do have going in their favour is a very strong core to their lineup, with Paul Goldschmidt, Tyler O’Neill, and Nolan Arenado all capable of producing major damage in the middle of the order, should they be able to get a few runners on against Scherzer, and baseball’s best defense, a unit that essentially lapped the field this year in terms of converting balls in play into outs. It’s no coincidence that the club’s fortunes this year largely turned around when John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch remade the pitching staff, eliminating the walks which had plagued the club so virulently early in the season. When the defense is capable of performances as smothering as this, simply not walking opposing batters can often be enough to win games.
The Cardinal offense certainly doesn’t compare to that of the Dodgers, but it’s also not bad, particularly late in the season. All three of the club’s starting outfielders posted an OPS+ of 116 or better this year, and we know about the defensive excellence of Harrison Bader and O’Neill. Dylan Carlson did not end up grading out well in the field this year, which is very surprising to me given his tools and what were always thought to be good instincts. Carlson ended the season with a 117 OPS+, but at no point in the year, offensively or defensively, did he ever really look like a very confident player. It was extremely strange to see a player with such obvious talent look as if he never really felt right on the field, but that’s the impression I got watching him the whole season.
The Cardinal hitters up the middle are mediocre, but they are both exquisite defenders. Paul Goldschmidt will get some MVP votes, and he deserves them. Nolan Arenado might get some MVP votes as well, but doesn’t deserve them quite as much. Still, it’s easy to see the narrative of Arenado coming over and pushing the Cardinals to new heights both defensively and in an overall way, and so much of the focus will be on him this October, should the Cards manage to slip past the Dodgers tonight.
The Cards’ bullpen is a strength, though not to quite the dominant level of that of the Dodgers. Giovanny Gallegos is a legitimately excellent reliever, Luis Garcia has been mostly great, T.J. McFarland has been puzzingly fantastic, and Kodi Whitley is making good on the dominant promise he showed in the Arizona Fall League a couple years ago. If the Cardinals can get Wainwright through four innings, they should be able to cover the remainder of the game with some combination of those relievers and maybe an inning or two from Jack Flaherty.
In short, the Cardinals are going up against a behemoth tonight, one with basically all the advantages and no real weak point to attack and try to exploit. The Dodgers are smart, and they have more money than anyone, and they have parlayed that combination into a team that should, by rights, just win titles pretty much every year. The Redbirds, meanwhile, are a strong but not great team that does one thing better than any other club in baseball, allowing the rest of the team to just do their jobs and hopefully come out on top. If the Cards are going to slay this particular giant — which, ironically, would only be the preamble to trying to slay the actual Giants — it will almost certainly be the defense that will allow them to do so, turning batted balls into outs and keeping the scoreboard clear of big numbers. If Adam Wainwright and company can keep the ball in the park and avoid free passes, the Cardinals have at least a puncher’s chance. If not, well, I hear vacations in October are very nice.