National League Aces
Which teams have the studs in the NL race?
By Adam Hoff
Last week we broke down the various AL teams in contention for the playoffs, based on their best starting pitching option. The thinking is that in a five-game series such as the Divisional rounds, an ace starter can take the hill twice, or in 40% of the maximum number of games, and be primed to make a huge difference. To be honest, the American League left a little something to be desired as far as dominant #1 starting pitchers goes, what with Johan Santana missing the playoffs and all. I don’t think we’ll have that problem in the NL race.
St. Louis Cardinals (Central winner). A year ago the Cardinals got killed in this very column. In fact, their pack of journeyman starting pitchers is what prompted the discussion in the first place. My thinking was that despite their ferocious offense, tremendous defense, and solid bullpen, they would get squashed in the playoffs due to the fact that they didn’t have any studs taking the ball to start the game. I was sort of half right. They ultimately paid the price when the likes of Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan, and Jason Marquis couldn’t answer the bell against the Red Sox, but they did reach the World Series, so it wasn’t quite the debilitating problem I had predicted. Such a turn of events should probably cast a shadow over this whole concept, but I am charging on anyway.
This summer the Cardinals were an entirely different team than the 2004 version. Renteria is gone, Rolen missed nearly the entire year, Reggie Sanders missed a huge chunk of the season, and Albert Pujols basically carried the offense by himself. More importantly, St. Louis’ starting pitching was much better this season. On the surface, things look similar: the Cards were second in the majors last year with a 3.75 ERA, this year they are first at 3.43. However, the difference is that now they have a guy at the front of the rotation that can make people swing and miss. Suppan is still decent (and pitching especially well lately) and both Morris and Marquis are capable starters, but they didn’t have anybody last year as good as Mark Mulder, let alone ace Chris Carpenter. The Cy Young candidate is second in the majors in wins with a mark of 21-5, fourth in ERA at 2.71, fourth in WHIP at 1.04, and fourth in strikeouts at 207. What a year it has been for the former #5 overall pick. The only problem for St. Louis is that Carpenter has shown signs of wearing down, giving up 29 hits in his last 16 innings. This isn’t surprising given that he’s already pitched 235 innings this season, or 20 more than he’s ever logged in a single season. The Cards would be wise to rest him down the stretch so that he can get back to going eight dominant innings each time out in the postseason.
Atlanta Braves (East winner). The Braves were another team that just got hammered by my scoring system a year ago, and in that case it turned out to be an accurate prediction of doom: they were routed by the Astros, who had Clemens and Oswalt throwing heat inning after inning. This year the Braves have two far more attractive options at the top of the rotation: Tim Hudson and John Smoltz. No offense to Hudson, but if Smoltz is healthy (he’s out until the playoffs), he’s the guy. All of his numbers are better (14-7, 3.06, 1.15) and he’s come up big many times before in the postseason. However, if Smoltz is too dinged up to go, there are worse options to turn to than Hudson. While his overall numbers for 2005 aren’t that great (3.43, 1.36), Hudson knows how to pitch and will be a better option than the likes of Jared Wright (game one starter in 2004 NLDS).
Now for the NL Mediocre teams, I mean, NL West teams:
San Diego Padres. The Padres are embarrassing themselves right now. If, like me, you are a fan of The OC, just think of Kirsten stumbling around and shattering glasses at her dad’s wake. That should give you a pretty good idea of what is going in down at Petco. At the time this article went through a final edit (makes it sound like a check these, huh?), the Padres were losing to San Francisco 5-3 in the fourth inning and were in danger of seeing their lead in the NL West shrink to 2 games. 2 games! Over the Giants, who have already been assured of a losing record! Wow. Provided the Padres can come back and win this game against Brett Tomko and a depleted bullpen (they need to, because San Fran rolls out Schmidt and Lowry in the next two) and then hold on for the final three games, they could actually be a tough out in the playoffs. The common logic will be to write them off once the postseason starts because they won the crappiest division in recent memory and probably finished the season with a losing record. However, to discount the Dads would be a mistake for one reason: Jake Peavy. San Diego may lack power, they may have a spotty overall rotation, and their bullpen might be tired, but they have one of the best aces in the game. Peavy is young, he’s pitching strong late in the season, and he’s simply one of the best hurlers out there. He’s tied for fourth in the majors in WHIP at 1.04, has a 2.88 ERA, and joins Johan Santana as the only starters in the game to have pitched at least 200 innings with more K’s than innings pitched. He’s twirled three shutouts, proving he can go out and dominant an entire game, and he’s been brilliant in his last two starts. He’s the type of wild card that can throw off an entire first round series.
San Francisco Giants. If the Gigantes pull off the miracle and sneak into the postseason, hundreds of pundits will belabor the health of a key San Francisco player, saying that if he can grit out a few weeks of games, they can strike fear into the hearts of NL favorites. They will have the storyline right, but the player wrong. No doubt Barry Bonds will be the focal point of those stories, but the guy that should be under the microscope is Jason Schmidt. When he’s healthy, there really isn’t anyone better. The one-hitter he threw against the Marlins in the 2003 NLDS (to win 1-0) was absolutely otherworldly. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been completely healthy since. If he can find that 97 mph fastball and pinpoint control, he – not Barry – could single-handedly lead the Giants to an epic upset. However, if Schmidt can’t go or is not himself, Noah Lowry gets the ball. The former Pepperdine Wave is no slouch and is a rising star in the league, but he doesn’t bring the same potential for dominance that Schmidt brings to the table.
And finally, the potential Wild Card teams …
Houston Astros. It appears that the Stros are going to take the Wild Card spot in the National League and that is terrible news for the other NL teams. Conceivably, Houston could have three of the top five starters in the NL playoffs … all on one team! Roger Clemens had a historic season (1.89 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, .197 batting average against, 12-8 despite virtually no run support), Roy Oswalt is 18-12 with a 2.91 ERA, and Andy Pettitte has quietly had an incredible season (17-9, 2.42, 1.04). There are concerns with Clemens’ back right now, but I am convinced he will take the ball and pitch well in October. If he can’t, Pettitte and Oswalt still make up the best 1-2 punch in the league. Scary stuff.
Philadelphia Phillies. Despite the emergence of young players Chase Utley and Ryan Howard and the torrid hitting streak of Jimmy Rollins, it doesn’t appear that the Phillies will be crashing the postseason party (yet again). No offense to Philly fans, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered, based on this method of projection. Who were they going to throw out there for game one? John Lieber? Vincent Padilla? It probably would have been Brett Myers (12-8, 3.71, 1.22), but he’s not in the same class as guys like Clemens, Carpenter, Smoltz, or Peavy.
How does the NL shake out? Well, based purely on the “best #1 starter approach” I rank the National League teams in the following order, starting with the team that is most likely to win a five-game series on the arm of their ace and finishing with the team least likely to pull it off.
1. Houston Astros – Roger Clemens or Andy Pettitte. Carpenter has my Cy Young vote (if I had one, of course), but Clemens has to be the guy. And if he’s not healthy, Pettitte The Postseason Witch is probably still the guy.
2. San Diego Padres – Jake Peavy. The Padres won’t sit this high on any other ranking system, but Peavy is pitching brilliantly down the stretch and has far fewer injury and fatigue concerns than the other big guns on the list.
3. St. Louis Cardinals – Chris Carpenter. His recent shellackings and the massive number of innings are cause for alarm. Otherwise, what’s not to like?
4. Atlanta Braves – John Smoltz. The word is that he’ll be okay to take the ball in game one, which is all that matters. If it is Houston and Atlanta again, we could be seeing Hall of Famers squaring off twice in five games.
5. San Francisco Giants – Jason Schmidt. If he’s 100%, he goes to number two on this list.
6. Philadelphia Phillies – Brett Myers. It’s over.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.