Records - Cubs 85-77, D-Backs 90-72
Runs Scored - Cubs 752 (7th), D-Backs 712 (14th)
Runs Allowed - Cubs 690 (3rd), D-Backs 732 (6th)
The Chicago Cubs went 40-43 (.482) outside of the weak NL Central, while the Arizona Diamondbacks went an impressive 54-36 (.600) outside of a challenging NL West division. As we examine these teams more closely, it is important to remember that the Cubs put up their statistics against much weaker competition than the Diamondbacks did.
Chris Snyder has the third highest CS% of any NL catcher with over 500 defensive innings, which should effectively immobilize the Cubs' scant running attack. He is also a .316 hitter against southpaws this year, .278 lifetime, making him the clear choice in games two and three. Miguel Montero may be the catcher of the future, but hasn't had a good rookie year. He may get a start against Carlos Zambrano (though Snyder is starting Game 1), as Big Z has limited right handed batters to a .200 average this season.
Cubs catchers batted just .239 with 14 homers this season, but those numbers do not do justice to the current state of the North Sider backstops. Jason Kendall has been solid at getting on base, advancing baserunners, and blocking pitches in the dirt since coming over from Oakland. Geovany Soto has looked incredible in every aspect of the game since being called up in September. This series will hinge on whether Lou Piniella has the guts to go with the rookie over the veteran, as Eric Byrnes and Chris Young will run all over Kendall in any game that Soto does not start.
Injuries have made this Diamondbacks infield really suspect. Mark Reynolds strikes out too often to be considered a consistent threat. Stephen Drew has predictably struggled in his sophomore season, at least offensively. Augie Ojeda is a nice 25th man to have on your roster, but it's almost a joke that he is a starting second baseman in the postseason. Tony Clark and Conor Jackson form an effective first base platoon, but even combined do not bring the same skill set to the table as the Cubs' Derrek Lee.
The Cubs have two of the best corner infielders in the game in Lee and Aramis Ramirez, and they are complimented by Ryan Theriot and Mark DeRosa up the middle, each of whom has done a lot to help the Cubs on offense. Defensively, the foursome doesn't have superb range, but they make just about every play that they are supposed to.
Eric Byrnes carried the offense on his shoulders in the first half, but hit just .258 after the All-Star break, where he now has a career .239 average and .695 OPS. After surpassing his career high in games by 17 this year, it's hard to imagine this Tazmanian Devil has much left in the tank for the playoffs. In contrast, Chris Young slugged .509 in the second half, seemingly getting better every day. The right field platoon of Jeff Salazar and Justin Upton is merely serviceable at this point.
Alfonso Soriano had a .754 slugging percentage in September, and has hit big home runs in Arizona before. Obviously, the Diamondbacks can't just pitch around him to get to Lee and Ramirez, either. Jacque Jones, Matt Murton, Cliff Floyd, and Felix Pie do not strike fear in opponents' hearts individually, but Lou Piniella has figured out how to maximize their talents by playing matchups and using Pie for late inning defense and pinch running.
The Diamondbacks have hit more pinch hit homers than any team in baseball, and whoever is not starting at first base between Jackson and Clark on a given day becomes the most feared inch hitter in the series. Other than that, the Diamondbacks lack depth among their position players, as most of their starters were either backups or minor leaguers at the beginning of the season.
The Cubs' bench is not as strong as it first appears. Mike Fontenot hit just .215 in the second half, Cliff Floyd has hit .172 in his career as a pinch hitter, and Daryle Ward has a sore wrist. Whoever does not start between Soto and Kendall could factor in off the bench, as could Matt Murton. The Cubs elected not to put Craig Monroe on their Division Series roster, meaning that Jacque Jones and Felix Pie, both lefties, are their only options in center field.
Brandon Webb is the best pitcher in the National League not named Jake Peavy, and can curtail the Cubs' power with all of the ground balls he induces. Doug Davis boasts a 3.39 career ERA against the Cubs, who cannot figure out southpaws for some reason. Livan Hernandez is overblown as a big game pitcher, and will likely give way to Edgar Gonzalez in the early innings of Game 3. Micah Owings is hot whether he is on the mound or in the batter's box, and is about as good of a #4 starter as you'll find in this postseason.
Zambrano, Lilly, and Hill form a formidable front three for Chicago. The trouble is that the Diamondbacks had a .630 winning percentage against southpaws this year, while Zambrano matches up against Webb in Game 1, and is expected to come back on three games' rest for Game 4. His only career start on three days of rest came against Cincinnati on September 18th, and the results weren't pretty. With Sean Marshall and his 3.92 ERA bafflingly left off the NLDS roster, that leaves Jason Marquis and his 5.73 second half ERA as the only other Game 4 or long relief option for the Cubs.
The Diamondbacks bullpen has a 3.95 ERA this year, good for 7th best in the NL. Flamethrower Tony Pena has been overworked, however, as his 4.79 second half ERA indicates. Brandon Lyon, Doug Slaten, and Juan Cruz round out an extremely impressive middle relief corps. Closer Jose Valverde may have led the league with 47 saves, but he also blew seven opportunities, giving him a worse conversion percentage than Ryan Dempster.
The Cubs has a 3.75 bullpen ERA, good for third best in the NL. Carlos Marmol had as good of a season as any reliever in baseball this year, and Dempster, Bob Howry, and Michael Wuertz have been dependable cogs for most of the season. Kerry Wood, Kevin Hart, and Scott Eyre have each come up with big second half performances. Eyre is the only southpaw out of the pen, but the Diamondbacks have virtually no left handed presence in their lineup, anyway.
You have to favor the Diamondbacks in every pitching matchup but in Game 3. The Cubs have a superior offense as everyone knows, and a superior bullpen, contrary to what many people believe. That will be enough in what should be an exciting series.
Prediction: Cubs in five
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