NL Playoff Preview: Part I
A Guest Blog by Fanspeak Contributing Writer Andrew Chubb
Cincinnati Reds (91-71) vs. Philadelphia Phillies (97-65)
The Philadelphia Phillies are the prohibitive favorite to represent the National League for the third consecutive year in the World Series. The Phils’ 2010 season was anything but expected as they endured injuries to almost all their core players from the 2008 and 2009 teams. Every positional player with the exception of Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez served stints on the Disabled List, including former NL MVP’s Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins. Even after having to rely on bench players like Ross Gload and Wilson Valdez, and having an underwhelming bullpen, the Phils still find themselves with the best record in the MLB heading into the postseason. The Phils also endured one of their worst offensive slumps in recent memory, which led to the firing of hitting coach Milt Thompson. The real story for the Phillies in 2010 has been their triumvirate of starting pitching in NL Cy-Young Favorite Roy Halladay, 2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels, and 3-Time All-Star Roy Oswalt (H20). Since Oswalt was acquired on July 30, the front end of the pitching staff has been absolutely phenomenal, helping the Phillies to achieve a 21-7 record in September. Even the bullpen, including the oft-shaky Brad Lidge, has been surprisingly consistent since the All-Star Break with Lidge converting 18 of his past 20 saves. Lidge also seems to have found his trademark slider, and his fastball location seems to have improved from last year.
The Cincinnati Reds have been one of the more surprising teams this year. Having not been to the playoffs since 1995, and returning basically the same roster from the year before, not much was really expected out of the Reds in 2010. But the emergence of NL MVP favorite Joey Votto (.324 BA, 1.024 OPS, 37 HR, 113 RBI) and the stellar offensive and defensive play of lead-off man Brandon Phillips has propelled the Reds to the top of the NL Central Division. The other big story for the Reds in 2010 was the arrival of the Fire-baller Cuban Defector, Aroldis Chapman. The 22 year old phenom has hit as high as 105 MPH on the radar gun, and serves as a dangerous left-handed weapon in the bullpen for the Divisional Series. While starting pitching has been shaky, and an issue all year (Starters ERA of 4.05), they greatly benefited from the re-insertion of starter Edinson Volquez after undergoing ligament replacement surgery. The bullpen will also benefit from being able to utilize young starters in left-hander Travis Wood (who one-hit the Phillies earlier in the year) and right-hander Homer Bailey.
As I said earlier, the starting pitching ERA for the Reds this season was 4.05, tenth best in the National League. The Phillies, on the other hand, had a starters’ ERA a half a run lower at 3.55, good for third best in the NL. I think the Reds’ decision to pitch all right-handers when they have a left-handed starter who quite frankly befuddled the Phils’ offense the last time they played, is questionable at best. Even though Wood lacks the experience of Arroyo or Cueto, he is an invaluable left hander against a left-handed heavy lineup. If the Reds can prevent the Phils from scoring in bunches by keeping the game close and making the Phillies rely on their bullpen, they could have a shot to win the series. An interesting statistic here is Cole Hamels ERA against the Cincinnati Reds lifetime: 1.07 in seven starts. Only once has he gone fewer than seven innings or given up more than a run in a single outing against the Reds. If the Phillies want to go deep in the postseason, once again, they will have to get a strong performance from Cole Hamels. It looks as though Hamels has returned back to his 2008 form (3.06 ERA in 2010) after adding a sharp curveball to go along with his excellent changeup and plus fastball. Roy Oswalt has posted a 7-1 record with a 1.74 ERA since joining the Phils in July, and Roy Halladay will be well rested and ready to go.
The Phillies were able to compile such an excellent record in September due in large part to the bullpen’s ability to hold leads late in games, and more specifically the consistency of setup man Ryan Madson and closer Brad Lidge. Much like the rest of the team, the bullpen really gelled in the last few months of the season. The Phillies will also benefit from having starters Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick available to throw from the bullpen. The Reds ranked eighth in the National League in bullpen ERA, but do have a left-handed All-Star setup man in Arthur Rhodes. The wild-card here is the aforementioned Aroldis Chapman, who could bridge the gap nicely between starting pitcher and setup man, or even starting pitcher and closer. Closer Francisco Cordero compiled 40 saves in the 2010 season, and has been reliable for much of the season.
The Reds lead the NL in homeruns, slugging percentage, and runs scored. They have a number of players that are capable of hitting the ball out of the park, and have some offensive veteran leadership in Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen, and Johnny Gomes. Young players like Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs are also making their marks on a deep Reds lineup that, like the Phillies, can score runs in bunches. The Phillies, while wildly inconsistent for most of 2010, are swinging the bats well at the right time. Jayson Werth, in the midst of a contract year, has underperformed, although he has come on as of late. The Phillies need their lone right handed power option to be swinging the bat well in order for the Phillies to avoid falling prey to the Reds left-handers in the bullpen. If Jimmy Rollins can be a factor, whether it’s as the leadoff or further down in the order, the Phillies lineup will be dynamic and hard to stop. Catcher Carlos Ruiz has been incredible in the playoffs, batting .303 in the Phillies three past postseason appearances.
The Reds have sort of taken the National League Central by surprise this year, knocking off the very talented and very much favored St. Louis Cardinals. They did it behind the sensational play of first baseman Joey Votto, and a consistently explosive offense. The attitude of the team, behind Manager of the Year candidate Dusty Baker, has also seemed to become more confident in its youth and talent. However, there is a reason the Phillies are the favorites to reach the World Series for the third straight season. Their starting pitching has been fabulous down the stretch with Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt; the team has displayed a tenacious resilience and desire to win after being nearly depleted by injuries. The Phillies also have the experience of playoff baseball, whereas an overwhelming majority of the Reds do not. How the Phillies come out in Game 1 will be very indicative of how the series will play out and if they can get to the starters early, the Reds will be in trouble. I look for the Phillies to continue their playoff run into the NLCS and win in 4 games.
GAME 1: Edinson Volquez (4-3, 4.31 ERA) vs. Roy Halladay (21-10, 2.44 ERA) at Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, PA
GAME 2: Bronson Arroyo (17-10, 3.88 ERA) vs. Roy Oswalt (13-13, 2.76 ERA) at Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, PA
GAME 3: Cole Hamels (12-11, 3.06 ERA) vs. Johnny Cueto (12-7, 3.64 ERA) at Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati, OH
GAME 4: TBD (If Necessary) at Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati, OH
GAME 5: TBD (If Necessary) at Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, PA