With the 2012 regular season in the books, here is quick recap of the National League playoff teams’ campaigns and a look ahead to the postseason.
While much of the discussion around the Nationals has centered on the Stephen Strasburg shutdown, not much has been made of the fact that Washington still possesses a killer rotation which has the ability to dominate in October. Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, two hard throwers, finished sixth and seventh in the league in ERA, respectively, are as good a one-two punch as any duo that is still playing. Edwin Jackson, who won a ring with the Cardinals last year, has lethal stuff; however, he can be erratic.
Nevertheless, you can do a lot worse as a third starter. When a fourth starter is needed, Ross Detwiler proved this year he is indeed a capable big-league pitcher, posting a 3.40 ERA over 164 innings, while staying healthy for the majority of the year.
Furthermore, Nationals pitchers will not be forced to pitch late into games because their bullpen, a major sore spot in years past, is now a strength. With Drew Storen healthy, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Ryan Mattheus, the Nats can play the match-up game from the seventh inning on.
In addition to their excellent pitching, the Nats boast a stellar offense, as well. Ryan Zimmerman put together a solid year, after overcoming a slow start due to shoulder woes; Michael Morse proved that 2011 was no fluke; Bryce Harper is the most exciting young player in the NL; Ian Desmond is the best shortstop no one has heard of; Adam LaRoche rebounded from shoulder surgery to hit 33 home runs; and Jayson Werth overcame a gruesome wrist injury and proved that he was healthy in September. This is a deep, loaded team that, even without its ace, should wreak some havoc in October.
Unlike last year, the Braves were able to avoid throwing away a double-digit lead in the wild card standings. This Braves team bears a lot of resemblance to last year’s team, personnel wise, with some notable exceptions. Kris Medlen emerged from the bullpen to put on one of the most impressive displays of pitching in baseball history. Over the course of his 12 starts, Medlen put up a 0.97 ERA, a 0.80 WHIP, and a 4.4 WAR, good for fifth-best among pitchers in the National League, which is even more remarkable considering he pitched in the bullpen all year, until those final 12 starts.
The other big difference for Atlanta is the resurgence of Jason Heyward. Heyward, who was benched at times last year for Jose Constanza, stayed healthy all year, and produced – 27 home runs and an above-average 5.5 WAR. While the Braves should advance past St. Louis in the wild card round due to the Medlen vs. Kyle Lohse matchup, I don’t see them advancing in the National League Division Series.
The Reds were one of the surprise teams in baseball this year. The surprising part wasn’t that they won 97 games, it’s that they did it without their star player for a good chunk of the season. On July 15, they were 50-38 when it was announced that 2010 MVP Joey Votto was going to miss two months with a knee injury. In his absence, the team won 33 out of 50 games to shockingly take control of the National League Central. Todd Frazier was one of the unsung heroes for this team; he hit 17 of his 19 home runs during a red-hot, three-month period from mid-May through mid-August. Frazier’s production was one of the ways the team was able to offset the Votto injury.
The other was pitching. All five starters made at least 30 starts, headlined by Johnny Cueto, who will garner some Cy Young votes. Lastly, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Cuban Rocket, Aroldis Chapman, who put together an epic season pitching mostly in the ninth inning. He did, however, succumb to a tired shoulder late in the year, which is something to pay attention to as the playoffs embark. In what should be a highly entertaining divisional series, look for the Reds to advance past the Giants.
Speaking of those Giants, they put together a very impressive season in winning the National League West. How impressive was it? They were forced to overcome the sudden demise of supposed-ace Tim Lincecum, who was arguably the worst starter in the National League; their big rival, the Dodgers, got off to a sizzling 30-15 start and reinforced their squad with Shane Victorino, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Beckett; one of their big bats, Pablo Sandoval, missed a chunk of the year with a hamate bone injury; and star reliever Brian Wilson missed the entire year. The Giants did it with an MVP-caliber year from Buster Posey; a breakthrough campaign from Madison Bumgarner; and some solid midseason pickups in Marco Scutaro and Hunter Pence, both of whom lengthened their previously porous lineup. Ultimately, though, I see the Giants splitting the first two games against the Reds, before losing two out three back in Cincinnati. Pitching Tim Lincecum in that ballpark is not advisable. If the Giants insist on giving him a postseason start, the prudent move would be to pitch him in San Francisco.
Lastly, last year’s darlings, the Cardinals, found a way to get in despite losing Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter missing almost the entire year, and getting next to nothing from Lance Berkman. They persevered behind the best offense in the National League. Yadier Molina finished fourth in the league in batting, Matt Holliday was his usual steady self, and they were joined by breakout stars Allen Craig and David Freese, plus a resurgence from Carlos Beltran. They received a superb year from the aforementioned Lohse, but it’s hard to bet against a guy (Medlen) whose team has won 24 consecutive starts that he’s made.
In the NLCS, look for the Reds, behind MVP Aroldis Chapman, to defeat the Nats in six and represent the National League in the Fall Classic.