NLCS Prediction and Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

Games, History, Management, Players, Playoffs, Stats, World Series

Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70) vs. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)

Keys for the Dodgers: Get into the Cardinals’ bullpen; stop Carlos Beltran; mitigate the Cardinals’ big post-season performers; coax manager Mike Matheny into mistakes.

The Cardinals’ strength lies in its hot playoff performers and the starting pitching of Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and the potential of Joe Kelly. The Dodgers must get the starting pitchers’ pitch counts up to dig into the Cardinals’ weak point: the bullpen. The Dodgers have the depth in their offense to get to the Cardinals. They might, however, not have the patience to get their pitch counts up. They like to swing the bat and that might not be the best possible strategy against these Cardinals pitchers.

Beltran is a very good to great player during the regular season. In the post-season, he becomes a historic player. For his career against current Dodgers’ pitchers, Beltran has hammered Ronald Belisario and Ricky Nolasco. In the playoffs, it doesn’t matter who’s on the mound, Beltran is a constant threat. To the dismay and disgust of Mets fans, that excludes Wainwright, who he won’t hit against because they’re teammates. If the Dodgers stop Beltran, they have a great chance of stopping the Cardinals.

The other Cardinals’ post-season performers have history of their own against the Dodgers’ pitchers. Matt Holliday has the following numbers against some of the Dodgers’ top arms:

Clayton Kershaw: .303 batting average; .465 OBP; .424 slugging; two homers.

Zack Greinke: .346 batting average; .393 OBP; .577 slugging; two homers.

Nolasco: .462 batting average; .481 OBP; .885 slugging; two homers.

David Freese is hitting .333 vs. Greinke; and 500 vs. Nolasco.

Manager Matheny has done some strange things in his time as manager, especially with the bullpen and he doesn’t have a closer. He could be coaxed into panicky mistakes.

Keys for the Cardinals: Hope the Dodgers pitch Nolasco; lean on their playoff performers; get depth from the starters; hope the games don’t come down to the bullpen.

Nolasco is listed as the game four starter. We’ll see if that actually happens. If the Dodgers are down two games to one in the series when game four rolls around, I can’t imagine them pitching Nolasco with the numbers the Cardinals’ hitters have against him. In addition to Holliday, Beltran, Daniel Descalso, Jon Jay and Freese have all battered him as well. If he pitches, the Cardinals’ history says they’re going to bash him.

With the Cardinals, there can’t be any discussion without referencing Wainwright, Beltran, Molina, Holiday and Freese with their post-season performances. Very few teams can boast these prime time players.

Apparently, Trevor Rosenthal is going to close for the Cardinals. Matheny – with good reason – doesn’t trust seasonlong closer Edward Mujica. Rosenthal throws very hard, but was shaky in his save chance against the Pirates in the NLDS. Matheny will push his starters as deep as he can.

What will happen:

The Cardinals barely got past the Pirates and much of that was due to the Pirates’ lack of experience in games of this magnitude. The Dodgers won’t have the lack of experience going against them. With their lineup, the Dodgers will feast on the Cardinals’ bullpen. Kershaw and Greinke can match Wainwright and Wacha. Kelly is a complete unknown and the Dodgers have the veteran hitters – Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Juan Uribe, Hanley Ramirez – to get at the Cardinals pitchers, especially their relievers.

If this series comes down to a battle of the bullpens, the Dodgers have a distinct advantage with Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen at the back end. The Dodgers’ bats have some post-season experience, but nothing in comparison to that of the Cardinals. The Dodgers’ bats aren’t youngsters, so it’s unlikely they’ll be intimidated. And Yasiel Puig isn’t intimidated by anything. In fact, he’s the type of player who’ll relish the spotlight and want to show off in front of Beltran.

The Dodgers have too much starting pitching, too deep a bullpen and too good a lineup. The Cardinals are a “sum of their parts” team. The Dodgers have the star power and depth where it counts.

PREDICTION: DODGERS IN FIVE

NLCS MVP: YASIEL PUIG




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The Giants Do It Old School

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With the tiered playoff system, single game play-ins, and short series, two World Series titles in three years counts as a dynasty in today’s game. By that metric, the San Francisco Giants are a new-age dynasty. That they accomplished this with decidedly old-school principles in the era of stat-based dominance and condescension, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michael Lewis—the chronicler of the paragon of stat-based theories of Billy Beane in Moneyball—step over Beane and saunter over to Giants’ GM Brian Sabean and declare that he always knew there were alternate methods to success in baseball, but simply forgot to say it; that Moneyball was about more than just numbers and Ivy League educated “geniuses” permeating (or infecting) baseball morphing front offices from cigar-chomping old men using randomness into put their teams together to something resembling a Star Trek convention. It was actually about value and was not a denigration of alternate methods to finding players.

Of course that would be a lie, but truth has never stood in the way of Lewis when he has an ending in mind and is willing to do whatever necessary to get to that ending—accuracy be damned.

The boxing promoter Don King was famous for his sheer and unending audacity in this vein of going with the winner, exemplified early in his career as a boxing promoter (and not long after his release from prison) when he walked to the ring with then-heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and rapidly switched allegiances to George Foreman when Foreman knocked Frazier out. King magically emerged as part of the celebration in Foreman’s corner.

But King is a genius and Lewis isn’t. In fact, King wallowed in his amorality; Lewis doesn’t realize what he’s doing is amoral to begin with. Masked by legitimacy and critical acclaim, Lewis is far worse than King could ever be.

Because the Athletics had a shocking season in which they won 94 games and made the playoffs, losing to the AL Champion Tigers in 5 games, Lewis and Moneyball again entered the spotlight as if the 2012 A’s validated a long-ago disproved narrative. As this Slate article by Tim Marchman shows, such is not the case.

Had the Athletics been as awful as many—me included—predicted, would Lewis have abandoned his vessel out of convenience? Or would have have stuck with Beane still trying to find a reptilian method of explaining away the fall of Moneyball?

I’ll guess on the latter, but don’t discount the possibility of a new book extolling the virtues of Sabean; his veteran manager with the 1880s-style mustache and grumbly voice, Bruce Bochy; and the way the Giants championship club was built.

Before that can happen, let’s get in front of whatever the latecomers and opportunists try to pull and examine how this team was put together.

Players acquired through the draft

Brandon Crawford, SS

Crawford was taken in the 4th round of the 2008 draft out of UCLA. He received a $375,000 signing bonus.

Brandon Belt, 1B

Belt was selected in the 5th round of the 2009 draft out of the University of Texas at Austin. He received a $200,000 signing bonus.

Buster Posey, C

Posey was drafted from Florida State University in the 1st round with the 5th pick by the Giants in the 2008 draft. He received a record (at the time) signing bonus of $6.2 million.

Sergio Romo, RHP

Romo was drafted in the 28th round of the 2005 draft out of Mesa State College in Colorado. Romo took over for injured star closer Brian Wilson and was brilliant.

Madison Bumgarner, LHP

Bumgarner was drafted in the 1st round of the 2007 draft with the 10th pick out South Caldwell High School in Hudson, North Carolina. He received a $2 million bonus.

Tim Lincecum, RHP

Lincecum was drafted from the University of Washington in the 1st round of the 2006 draft with the 10th pick. He received a $2.025 million signing bonus.

Matt Cain, RHP

Cain was taken in the 1st round (25th pick) of the 2002 draft—the “Moneyball” draft that was documented by Lewis as exhibit A of stat guy “genius” from Paul DePodesta’s laptop. He was taken out of high school in Tennessee—exhibit B of “mistakes” that clubs make when drafting players because selecting high school pitchers was presented as the epitome of risk and stupidity.

Cain received a $1.375 million signing bonus. The A’s took Joe Blanton out of college the pick before Cain. Blanton received a $1.4 million signing bonus.

Acquired via free agency

Pablo Sandoval, 3B

Sandoval was signed by the Giants out of Venezuela as an amateur free agent at age 17 in 2003.

Gregor Blanco, OF

The veteran journeyman Blanco signed a minor league contract with the Giants after spending the entire 2011 season in Triple A with the Nationals and Royals. He was an integral part of the Giants’ championship team with speed, defense, and a key homer in the NLDS comeback against the Reds.

Ryan Vogelsong, RHP

Vogelsong’s signing was mostly luck helped along by opportunity and the alteration of his game under pitching coach Dave Righetti. Vogelsong was a journeyman who has become a post-season star and rotation stalwart at age 35.

Jeremy Affeldt, LHP

Affeldt was signed as a free agent from the Reds in 2008.

Ryan Theriot, INF

Theriot signed a 1-year, $1.25 million contract before the 2012 season.

Aubrey Huff, 1B/OF/PH

Huff was a low-cost free agent signing in 2010 and was a large part of the World Series title that year. He re-signed for 2-years and $22 million and didn’t contribute on the field to the 2012 title.

Barry Zito, LHP

The Giants were in need of a star to replace Barry Bonds as they rebuilt from the “Build around Bonds” days and Zito was the biggest name available in the winter of 2006-2007. They signed him to a 7-year, $126 million contract that has $27 million guaranteed remaining for 2013. A pitcher being paid that amount of money is expected to be an ace, but Zito has been a back-of-the-rotation starter at best and was left off the 2010 post-season roster entirely. In 2012, he won 14 games and picked up the slack for the slumping Lincecum and Bumgarner to help the Giants win their 2012 championship.

Santiago Casilla, RHP

Casilla was signed as a free agent in 2009 after the Athletics non-tendered him.

Joaquin Arias, INF

Arias signed a minor league contract before the 2012 season. People forget about this, but in the Alex Rodriguez trade from the Rangers to the Yankees, the Yankees offered the Rangers a choice between Arias and Robinson Cano.

Neither the Yankees nor the Rangers knew what Cano was.

It was Arias’s defense at third base on the last out that helped save Cain’s perfect game in June.

Guillermo Mota, RHP

Mota has been with the Giants for three seasons and signed a 1-year, $1 million contract for 2012.

Hector Sanchez, C

Sanchez was signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2009.

Players acquired via trade

Melky Cabrera, OF

The contribution of Cabrera will be debated forever considering he failed a PED test and was suspended for the second half of the season. He was eligible to be reinstated for the playoffs, but the Giants chose not to do that. It was Cabrera’s All-Star Game MVP performance that wound up giving the Giants home field advantage for the World Series

Cabrera was an important factor in the first half of the season, but the Giants were 62-51 with Cabrera on the active roster and 32-17 without him. The Giants’ success was based on their pitching more than anything else and they won the World Series without Cabrera.

Cabrera was acquired from the Royals for Jonathan Sanchez, who was talented and inconsistent with the Giants and outright awful for the Royals.

Javier Lopez, LHP

Lopez was acquired from the Pirates in July of 2010 and was a key lefty specialist on the two title-winning teams.

Angel Pagan, CF

Pagan was acquired from the Mets for center fielder Andres Torres and righty reliever Ramon Ramirez. Pagan had a fine year at the plate and in the field, leading the majors in triples with 15 and stealing 29 bases including the one in the World Series that got everyone a free taco from Taco Bell.

George Kontos, RHP

The Yankees traded Kontos to the Giants for backup catcher Chris Stewart. Kontos is a solid reliever who’s more useful than a no-hit catcher.

Hunter Pence, RF

Pence was acquired from the Phillies for minor league pitcher Seth Rosin, catcher Tommy Joseph, and veteran big league outfielder Nate Schierholtz. The Giants are set at catcher, so Joseph was expendable. Pence had a .671 OPS in 59 games with the Giants, but it was his stirring, wild-eyed speech before game 3 of the NLDS against the Reds that was widely credited by teammates as waking them up to make their comeback. His teammates were either inspired or frightened by Pence’s intensity, but whatever it was, it worked.

Marco Scutaro, 2B

Scutaro was almost steamrolled by Matt Holliday of the Cardinals in the NLCS, but he came back from that and batted .500 in that series, winning the MVP. Then he had the game-winning hit in game 4 of the World Series.

Scutaro was acquired from the Rockies in late July for infielder Charlie Culberson.

Manager Bochy was run out of his longtime home as a manager, coach and player with the Padres when the front office wanted someone cheaper and more agreeable to the new age statistics and doing what he was told. Then-Padres team president Sandy Alderson allowed Bochy to interview for the Giants’ job—a division rival no less—and made utterly absurd statements of his policy being to allow his employees to seek other opportunities blah, blah, blah.

The Padres didn’t want Bochy back because Bochy didn’t do what he was told by the stat guys in the front office. In exchange, they got a far inferior manager Bud Black, and the Giants now have two championships and the hardware (and parades) to say there are different methods to use to win. Sometimes those methods work better without the fictionalized accounts in print and on film.

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New Age Collisions and Matt Holliday

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The photo you see above is Graig Nettles kicking George Brett in game 5 of the 1977 ALCS. The Yankees eventually won the game and the pennant. A brawl occurred between the two teams following this incident. No one was kicked out of the game. (Get it?)

If that happened today, someone would have to be thrown out. I think. Although Roger Clemens was allowed to fling a projectile—a broken bat—at Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series and didn’t get tossed. It’s a fine line between defending oneself and running the risk of getting ejected.

In last night’s game 2 of the NLCS, on a double play attempt, Marco Scutaro of the Giants was nailed and had his hip injured on a takeout slide by Cardinals’ outfielder Matt Holliday.

You can watch it below.

Holliday was past the base and his specific intent was to hit Scutaro hard enough to prevent the double play. He did it cheaply with a dangerous roll block and raised arm making it doubly treacherous for the infielder. This isn’t little league and there’s a reasonable expectation for hard, clean play. Infielders have their own little tricks they use to prevent this from occurring. In general, they use the base for protection because the runner is technically not supposed to pass the base; they also throw the ball sidearm and specifically aim it at the runner’s head (this is taught) so the runner has to get down to avoid getting beaned. Holliday’s play was arguable in its legality/line-crossing because the ball and Holliday arrived nearly simultaneously and Scutaro didn’t have the time to hop out of the way or use the base as protection, nor could he throw the ball at Holliday’s head. Holliday did go past the base to get Scutaro.

It wasn’t overtly illegal, but it was a legal cheap shot.

On the Fox broadcast, Tim McCarver—a former catcher, no stranger to home plate collisions—compared the play to Buster Posey getting leveled by Marlins’ outfielder Scott Cousins in May of 2011. Posey had his ankle broken, needed surgery, and was lost for the season. It was his absence that set forth the chain-of-events that might have cost the Giants a second straight World Series and forced them to search for more offense and surrender their top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to get Carlos Beltran from the Mets.

There was no comparison between the two hits because what Holliday did was questionable at best and dirty at worst. What Cousins did was within the rules. Rules and propriety don’t always intersect and if that’s the case, then baseball has to step in and clarify the grey areas.

What creates the controversy is that it’s so rare in today’s game. In the Royals-Yankees annual ALCS matchups (4 times in 5 years between 1976 and 1980), Royals’ DH/outfielder Hal McRae took every opportunity to try and send Yankees’ second baseman Willie Randolph into the left field seats and break up a double play. It’s perfectly acceptable for a runner to run into a fielder if he has the ball and is trying to tag him, but the last player I remember doing it was Albert Belle.

With catchers and runners, it’s an old-school play that some former catchers like McCarver, Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi, and Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy would like to see outlawed, while Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia thinks it’s an integral, exciting, and necessary aspect of competition. No one will accuse any of the above ex-players of being wimps. All were tough, but disagree on the subject. Scioscia relished the contact and was the recipient of one of the most brutal collisions I’ve ever seen in 1985 when Jack Clark of the Cardinals barreled into him. Scioscia was knocked out; Clark was staggered as if he’d been he recipient of a George Foreman sledgehammer punch; and Scioscia held onto the ball.

Nobody runs over the catcher anymore. There’s a commercial playing in New York of Derek Jeter crashing into a catcher. When has Jeter ever run into a catcher? It’s almost never done, and when it is, it turns into a national catastrophe if one of the players gets hurt.

The camaraderie and brotherhood among the players also precludes these hard plays. Everyone knows each other now. With the limited degrees of separation and the amount of money at stake, few are willing to take the chance of ruining another player’s career. You don’t see knockdown pitches; you don’t see take-out slides; you don’t see busted double plays; and you don’t see home plate collisions.

It wasn’t an, “I’m trying to hurt you,” play. But an injury was a byproduct. It was legal, yet borderline. If MLB wants to make it illegal or come up with a way to constrain it, then fine. Until then, it’s acceptable. As long as the people in charge fail to make a concrete announcement and provide a clear-cut mandate to the umpires that certain actions won’t be tolerated, there will be players who are willing to do what Holliday did, injured players, and indignant reactions in its aftermath.

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NLCS Preview and Predictions—San Francisco Giants vs St. Louis Cardinals

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San Francisco Giants (94-68; 1st place, NL West; defeated Cincinnati Reds 3 games to 2 in NLDS) vs St. Louis Cardinals (88-74; 2nd place, NL Central; won Wild Card; defeated Atlanta Braves in Wild Card play-in game; defeated Washington Nationals 3 games to 2 in NLDS)

Keys for the Giants: Get depth from their starting pitching; keep the scores low; score tack-on runs; maintain their closer diversity; don’t let Carlos Beltran beat them.

Because they had to win the final 3 games against the Reds to make it to the NLCS, the Giants have listed Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, and Matt Cain as the first three starters in the series. It’s undecided who will go in game 4. I wound start Tim Lincecum, but Barry Zito is an option—a bad option, but still an option. The Cardinals can score in bunches, but the Giants have the starting pitching to turn out the lights on anyone’s offense.

The Giants are no longer the team that couldn’t score and relied on their starting pitching to a desperate degree in recent years. With Buster Posey, the Giants have a weapon in the lineup and behind the plate. That said, they can’t score in bunches with the Cardinals.

Carlos Beltran is a post-season machine. Early in the series I’d pitch around Beltran and make Matt Holliday beat me.

Keys for the Cardinals: Raise the Giants’ starters pitch counts up and get into the bullpen; get a better performance from Adam Wainwright; put up crooked numbers.

The Giants’ bullpen has depth, but they’re still shaky. If the Cardinals can put up big numbers against the starters, they’ll get into the Giants’ bullpen while simultaneously putting a limited offense in the position of having to score a number of runs they’ve shown finite capability in scoring. If the Cardinals put the Giants in a position of playing catch-up, they’ll be in a great position.

Adam Wainwright pitched well in his first start against the Nationals, but got shelled in game 5, nearly costing the Cardinals the series.

What will happen:

The Cardinals escaped the play-in game against the Braves—in part—due to the horrific infield fly call; then they got past the Nationals because the Nats’ bullpen blew up in a stranger-than-fiction manner.

Will that happen against the Giants? The Giants starting pitching is better than that of the Nats and there’s not the bullpen use by rote that doomed the Nationals. If the situation in the ninth inning calls for a lefty, there’s not going to be a “my closer is in the game” from Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy because their true closer, Brian Wilson, is on the disabled list. If the situation calls for Sergio Romo, Romo will pitch; if it calls for Javier Lopez, Lopez will pitch. Some see this as a disadvantage and in the regular season, maybe it is. In the playoffs, it isn’t.

Lance Lynn is starting the opener for the Cardinals. Lynn got off to a blazing first half of the season as a starter, but was sent to the bullpen in August. He seemed to run out of gas. The Giants have an edge in rotation depth and in the bullpen.

The Giants will not let Beltran beat them and if Matt Holliday isn’t hitting, the Cardinals offense is mitigated.

The Cardinals have been functioning with an inexplicable amount of magic and/or luck in the past two years. They’ve gotten by with miraculous comebacks, have lost star players, managers and pitching coaches, taken advantage of unforeseen opportunities, and walked away with a World Series title and are back in the NLCS.

Their luck is going to run out in this NLCS.

PREDICTION: GIANTS IN SIX

NLCS MVP: MADISON BUMGARNER

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Beltran’s Got It Backward

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“Actually, I’m not thinking about the fans, I’m thinking about myself.”

The first line from this New York Daily News article about Carlos Beltran is telling in its inadvertent accuracy.

He may not realize it, but Beltran was always thinking about himself and the fans knew it.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that…until he twists it to lambaste those same fans for not worshipping him.

Beltran doesn’t seem to understand the fan mindset and it’s causing him to take personally what was the negative part of a purely business relationship between him and the fans.

The more thoughtful Mets fan that doesn’t think with his emotions and understands that Adam Wainwright ended the 2006 NLCS by throwing a great pitch that Beltran, even had he swung, wasn’t going to hit. They’re not the ones who are holding a grudge against Beltran for one moment. The business arrangement between player and fan wound up in the simplest of terms: cheer when he does good; boo when he does bad.

It’s not personal and was never more than that.

Not every player is going to be adored by the fanbase, but when he begins his tenure by having offered his services to the bitter rivals across town for less money and fewer years, it’s not going to be taken well when he puts forth the pretense of having been forced to join a team he didn’t really want to join; a team that was, at best, his third choice.

When Beltran was a free agent, he wanted to stay with the Astros. The Mets offered more money—what he and then-agent Scott Boras wanted—but Boras, in a conciliatory gesture to the desires of his client, went to the Yankees and offered his player to them for a better deal.

Think about this from the perspective of a Mets fan. It was as if he was doing the Mets a favor in an “oh, alright I’ll sign with you” manner.

It works both ways. He didn’t really want to be a Met and it was known. It might have been more palatable if he’d gone to the Yankees and told them, “this is the highest offer and if you match it, I’ll sign with you”. That’s what he did with the Cardinals contract this winter and the Yankees, just as they did in 2005, turned him down.

In 2004, he offered himself to the Yankees for less money. The Mets fans would never ever forgive nor forget.

The Mets didn’t engender the “why me?” lament from Beltran that’s still evident in his latest statements on the matter. He never seemed to understand why he was booed every time the Mets went into Houston to play the Astros.

Did he really not get it?

Did his enabled life of being allowed to essentially do what he wanted because of his prodigious on-field talent lead to such a hardheaded inability to comprehend that the Astros felt jilted by his decision to chase every last penny and leave the place he didn’t want to leave? That the Mets fans felt slighted by his pursuit of the Yankees?

From that point on, there was never going to be a warm and fuzzy relationship between Beltran and the Mets fans.

No amount of fan-player love was going to remove the sullen look on Beltran’s face that bordered on suicidal. He forever appeared as if he’d just lost his luggage. His terrific play would never spur the fans to love him because it circled back to the initial emotion of the reality, “you wanted to go to the Yankees rather than join us”.

One positive from the entire episode is that perhaps a team like the Mets has to take the stand that if a player doesn’t want to be a Met, then they shouldn’t go all out to bring him in. In 2007-2008 the Rays began to turn around their fortunes, in part, because they got rid of players who didn’t want to be there and acted like it.

Beltran wasn’t doing the Mets a favor by taking their money, but that’s the perception that’s floating around and it stems from the actions of Beltran and his then-agent.

He was a good-to-great player for the Mets. They came close and didn’t make it over the final hump. There’s no guarantee he would’ve had a better time playing for the Yankees, Red Sox, Astros or anyone else. He chose to come to the Mets. He chose to offer himself to the Yankees. Now he needs to choose to get past whatever bitterness he feels that the fans didn’t embrace him. It was his own fault and it wasn’t due to the Wainwright curveball that will forever be etched in the memory of fans who see that one pitch as the microcosm of the Omar Minaya-built teams that just…barely….missed.

If anyone needs to get over it, it’s Beltran. The fans have moved on already. That’s what happens when there’s no emotional investment. It’s only partially due to him; it’s mostly the overt failure of that entire group that culminated in the collapse of 2007 and the subsequent firings, housecleanings and financial collapse.

The fans are not upset with Beltran.

They don’t care about him.

And that’s because he didn’t care about them either.

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The Brewers Poked The Wrong Bear

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Let’s clear up a few misconceptions about the Cardinals.

Much is being made of the series of trades the Cardinals made at mid-season to drastically alter the configuration of their roster that “led” them to the World Series.

In a sense, the trades in which they acquired Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel and Rafael Furcal were upgrades on and off the field; by now it’s clear that Colby Rasmus and his dad, while not being responsible for the Cardinals inconsistency, didn’t fit into the clubhouse profile and it’s better that both sides moved on.

Absent of the deranged, maniacal, head-rolling fallout in Boston, the Braves collapse was just about as bad as that of the Red Sox; without it, the Cardinals wouldn’t have made the playoffs at all.

The Braves lost 20 of their final 30 games to present the Cardinals with the opportunity to make the run back into the picture; the Cardinals also benefited from the Phillies retrospectively ill-fated decision to play all-out in the last three games of the season in Atlanta and kick the door open by sweeping of the Braves.

They couldn’t have known it at the time and the playoffs can turn on one game (as we saw), but the Phillies would’ve been better off playing any of the other teams among the Diamondbacks, Brewers and Braves had they been their opponents instead of the Cardinals.

When Nyjer Morgan (or his sociopathic alter-ego The Real T. Plush) and the Brewers goaded the fading Cardinals with taunts and other foolish temptations of fate, they behaved as a club that thought they were better than they were and had seen the last of the Cardinals.

This had little to do with the Cardinals searing, breakneck month of desperation, but it didn’t help the Brewers cause. They chose to poke the bear and the bear got up, grabbed them by their throats and ripped their heads off.

Along the way, the Cardinals were assisted by practical matters. It’s a nice, neat story to say the Cardinals were spurred on by an act of disrespect from the Brewers—and to some extent they probably were—but circumstances had to fall in a certain way for the classic denouement of a group of warriors led by their stoic hero Albert Pujols and legendary tactician Tony LaRussa putting the arrogant, loud and obnoxious group of upstarts in their collective places.

And it happened perfectly, just like in the movies.

Now we’ll hear other made-for-dramatic-effect nonsense of how this could possibly be Pujols’s final series as a member of the Cardinals; that the fate of manager LaRussa is in question with his contract on a mutual option for 2012.

Here’s are two flashes of Force Lightning to detonate such stupidity: Pujols isn’t leaving; he knows it, the Cardinals know it and baseball knows it. The Cardinals will make a reasonable offer that they can afford and still be competitive; Pujols won’t be embarrassed by receiving a contract far below those of Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder; everyone will remain together and stay as they are.

LaRussa has no desire (nor a landing spot) to go elsewhere at this point in his life and career; the 2012 Cardinals team is pretty much set with manager and star returning in spite of crafted implications of other eventualities.

These are the Cardinals.

They’re in the World Series.

They’re staying together.

As for the Brewers,  they’re going home; if they don’t realize why, they’re either remarkably stupid; inexplicably blockheaded; or oblivious to reality.

I’ll hedge and say it’s all three.

And I’ll be right.

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NLCS Preview: St. Louis Cardinals vs Milwaukee Brewers

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St. Louis Cardinals (90-72; 2nd place, NL Central; won Wild Card; defeated Philadelphia Phillies in NLDS 3 games to 2) vs Milwaukee Brewers (96-66; 1st place, NL Central; defeated Arizona Diamondbacks in NLDS 3 games to 2).

Keys for the Cardinals: shut the Brewers up early; get depth from their starters; wait for Brewers manager Ron Roenicke to make a mistake and capitalize; maintain their composure.

For a team that’s never won anything, the Brewers have an awful lot to say. There are two ways to handle that: don’t respond to it and respond on the field; or retaliate with similar trash-talk and/or by popping someone.

Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa is simmering and seething at the way the Brewers are talking about his players, notably Chris Carpenter and Albert Pujols, but he’s going to specifically tell his players not to engage and to do their talking with their play. They have to adhere to the mandate.

Jaime Garcia has done well against all the Brewers hitters; Casey McGehee is 5 for 17 vs Garcia so presumably he’ll be back in the lineup.

Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder have hammered Carpenter, but yapping at a fiery competitor and one of the best pitchers in baseball isn’t simply stupid, it’s adding fuel to a fire that didn’t exactly need to be stoked.

Corey Hart, Nyjer Morgan, Jerry Hairston and Weeks all bash Edwin Jackson; McGehee has 3 career hits off of him and all are home runs; expect to see Hairston at shortstop and McGehee at third in game 2. If anyone’s going to retaliate against the Brewers with a brushback (or one between the shoulder blades), it’ll be Jackson.

Roenicke doesn’t seem to have control of his players—something he should’ve learned from his years working for Mike Scioscia with the Angels—and it could be a big problem; he’s made some bizarre, small-ball calls (similar to Scioscia) with his players this season and LaRussa is smart enough to sit back and wait for the mistake, then strike.

The Cardinals can’t let Morgan and the ridiculous “Beast” nonsense—an arms raised, “GRAAARRRR” thing the Brewers do whenever they get a hit—get to them. It won’t be easy, but if they want to win, they have to do it.

Keys for the Brewers: put their performance where their mouths are; get baserunners in front of Fielder and Ryan Braun; hand the ball from the starters to the set-up man/closer; mitigate Pujols.

The Brewers had better put up or shut up. But they’re the type of group that, even if they lose the first two game and look awful, they’ll talk more.

The problem with taking the personality lead from Morgan is that it’s eventually going to catch up to you if you pull it with the wrong people. The Cardinals are those types of people.

Even Zack Greinke has a is talking now. Greinke’s not someone who’s a talker, but he’s joining in on the fun. Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, Yadier Molina and Jon Jay have all knocked him around; and Pujols is Pujols.

Pujols and Rafael Furcal both kill Yovani Gallardo; we don’t know who the Brewers game 2 starter is for some reason; both Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf were better on the road than they were at home; I’d start Marcum in game 2 because he’s better than Wolf and has less of a history with the Cardinals.

It always comes down to Pujols when playing the Cardinals. He can look terrible for 15 at bats, then wreck the game and series with three straight games of ridiculous lightning shows. And it doesn’t help that the Brewers and “Tony Plush” AKA Morgan chose to denigrate this era’s Joe DiMaggio in terms of performance and, just as importantly, pride.

What will happen.

It’s difficult to tell whether the Brewers bravado is false or if they actually believe it. Probably both.

The Cardinals are old-school; they’re not looking for friends on the field and that starts from their manager all the way through the team. They’re not happy with the way the Brewers disrespected them when the Cardinals looked finished in the playoff race; that September run that led the Cardinals to the playoffs happened in part because the Braves collapsed and in part because they wanted another crack at the Brewers.

They’re getting it.

This is a horrible matchup for the Brewers; in retrospect, they might’ve been better off facing the Phillies and the overwhelming expectations of a team for whom anything short of a World Series win was a failure. The Cardinals are playing with house money, are livid at the Brewers out-of-control mouths and will be determined to shut them up on and off the field.

The Cardinals hold a distinct advantage in managers; have been here—in this exact same position before—and came through.

When they upset the Mets in the 2006 NLCS, the Cardinals made it a point to ridicule the soccer chant that the Mets use(d) to celebrate Jose Reyes; those Mets were perceived as arrogant, but in comparison to these Brewers, they were the most professional, quiet, go-about-their-business group on the history of baseball.

It’s one thing to yap; it’s another thing to yap and disrespect.

The Brewers are writing checks with their mouths that their team’s not going to be able to cash.

And they’re going to be made to pay.

The Cardinals are going to slap a muzzle on them and be doing the Beast in the visiting clubhouse when they bounce the Brewers in 7 games.

PREDICTION: CARDINALS IN SEVEN.

NLCS MVP: ALBERT PUJOLS.

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