The Los Angeles Dodgers will face the Atlanta Braves in the National League Divisional Championship Series starting on Thursday.
The MLB playoffs are here, which means it's time for poorly thought out predictions based on my own personal preferences and biases. But whose counting! Let's get to it. Today, the National League.
Wild Card Game: Cincinnati Reds (90-72) versus Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68): If one Wild Card team was fun, then how about a second? It's the second season of the expanded playoffs, and the National League is in for a doozy, thanks mostly to the fact that the Pirates finished with a record over .500 AND managed to make the playoffs. The last time either of these things occurred was in 1992, when the Pirates were in the National League East and Barry Bonds was a scant 185 pounds.
The unfortunate thing about this play-in game is that both the Reds and Pirates are both immensely fun teams to watch play baseball, and it's a darn shame that they'll only face each other once. The Reds have the likes of Joey Votto, Shin Soo-Choo, and pinch-runner extraordinaire Billy Hamilton. They can score runs by the bushel, and they've got enough bullpen arms to turn late leads into wins, thanks in part to the flame throwing Aroldis Chapman.
The Pirates are no strangers to great pitching, thanks to the veteran A.J. Burnett (3.30 ERA), as well as the resurgent Francisco Liriano (3.02), and the rookie Gerrit Cole (3.22). Their bullpen is not to be overlooked, as the late-inning combo of Jason Grilli (33 saves, 2.70 ERA) and Mark Melancon (16 saves, 1.39) has been murder on opposing hitters. While they don't have the offensive firepower of the Reds, they do have MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen (.911 OPS, 21 HR) and Pedro Alvarez, whose 36 homers led the N.L. this season.
And the rest...
Atlanta Braves (96-66, N.L. East Champions): The Braves started the season with a 12-1 record, and that was pretty much all she wrote. They've had their fair share of losing streaks, but the last time the Braves didn't have sole possession of first place was on April 6th. Partially because the rest of the division was garbage, and partially because Justin Upton was inhuman during the month of April (12 homers!), but mostly because the Braves hit more home runs and had a better pitching staff than any other team in the National League.
Top to bottom, the Braves can mash, even if they do strike out an awful lot. While it hasn't all been roses for the Braves hitters – both Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton finished south of the Mendoza Line – there is enough firepower in that lineup to make up for it.
Oh, and they can pitch. Mike Minor (3.21 ERA), Kris Medlen (3.11), and Julio Teheran (3.20) are going to be tough customers in a short series, and the bullpen (anchored by Craig Kimbrel and his 1.21 ERA and 50 saves) is as good as it's ever been.
St. Louis Cardinals (97-65, N.L. Central Champions): The St. Louis Cardinals have proven, time and time again, that they are among the premier franchises in the game, thanks in part to their ability to constantly churn out contending teams. This year is no exception, as they've played themselves into the best record in the National League.
They've done so behind perhaps the best all-around offensive unit in the N.L., with catcher Yadier Molina (.319 AVG, 12 HR), second baseman Matt Carpenter (.873 OPS), and outfielders Matt Holliday (22 HR, 879 OPS) and Carlos Beltran (24 HR, 830 OPS). They are first in the league in runs per game, second in batting average, first in on-base percentage, and third in slugging.
On the other side of the ball, they've got veteran Adam Wainwright, who had a 2.94 ERA in 241.2 innings of work this season. He leads a staff that includes youngsters Shelby Miller (3.06 ERA), Lance Lynn (3.97), and veteran Jake Westbrook (4.63). Their bullpen is sold, with closer Edward Mujica (2.78 ERA, 37 saves), and the young arms of Trevor Rosenthal (2.63), Seth Maness (2.32), and Kevin Seigrist (0.45).
Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70, N.L. West Champions): Perhaps no other team had a more interesting path to the playoffs than the Dodgers, who were 9.5 games out of first place on June 22 and in danger of losing their manager if they didn't right the ship.
And right the ship they did, thanks in part to rookie phenom Yaisel Puig, who hit .319 with 19 homers in 104 games to help spark the resurgent Dodgers. He couldn't do it by himself, as he was aided in part by Adrian Gonzalez (22 homers) and Hanley Ramirez (1.040 OPS). By the end of July, they were in first place, and were in the process of building what would become a double digit lead in the division.
While their offense was good, their true strength is starting pitching. Their 3.25 team ERA was second in the league this season, thanks to Clayton Kershaw's 1.83 ERA in 236 innings of work. Not to be outdone is Hyun-jin Ryu (3.00 ERA), Zack Greinke (2.63), and Ricky Nolasco (3.52). Their bullpen is led by Kenley Jansen, who had a terrific season, with a 1.88 ERA and 28 saves.
It's not all good news for the Dodgers, who will likely be without Matt Kemp for the entirely of the playoffs, thanks to an ankle injury. Kemp, who is a difference maker with the bat, will be sorely missed by the Dodgers.
Cincinnati over Pittsburgh
Dodgers over Atlanta
Cincinnati over St. Louis
Cincinnati over Dodgers