10/2/2013 3:16 A.M. ET
Bucs-Cards showcase youth vs. experience
By AJ Cassavell / MLB.com
As a team, the Cardinals represent the old guard, having won four playoff series in the past two seasons and two World Series titles in the past seven years. The Pirates, meanwhile, have become baseball's newest trend, and the playoff team of choice for many fans whose clubs have been eliminated.
But there is certainly experience on this youthful, yet deep Pirates roster. And there is plenty of young talent in St. Louis, as well.
A panel of MLB.com's experts broke down the coming National League Division Series, position by position:
Russell Martin has been immense for the Pirates this season, handling the rotation almost flawlessly and adding some crucial depth to the lineup. Having played for the Yankees and the Dodgers, he brings 34 games of postseason experience to the table, and he cranked two long balls in Thursday's National League Wild Card game. But Yadier Molina is as good as they come. He has always been rock solid behind the plate. He has always possessed one of the game's best arms. And he has always been one of the best at handling a pitching staff. Over the past few seasons, Molina has also become one of the game's better hitters, as well, and he posted his third consecutive season with a batting average above .300. Simply put, it does not get much better right now than Molina.
The Cardinals' postseason hopes took a hit with the loss of Allen Craig to a left foot injury, but having Matt Adams as a replacement lessens that blow. In his first full season, Adams hit for both power and average, though his numbers against left-handers (.231 OBP in 52 at-bats) are certainly a bit concerning. Justin Morneau has had similar problems this season (.247 OBP vs. lefties), but he offers a much better glove and critical playoff experience. But Morneau is no longer the player he once was. His power numbers are down, and his strikeouts are way up. Adams, who grew up in Philipsburg, Pa., just two hours from PNC Park, gets the edge here for the middle-of-the-order thump he has been able to provide.
SECOND BASE Hometown kid Neil Walker has been a spark for the Pirates and the city of Pittsburgh all season. And he is without question a solid option at second base, both offensively and defensively. But St. Louis' Matt Carpenter worked his way into the MVP discussion this season with an absolutely phenomenal year. In July, Carpenter earned his first All-Star berth, and he got only better after that, leading the league in hits, runs and doubles. And Carpenter has not shown any signs of slowing, either, as he posted a .349/.441/.523 slash line in September.
Arguably the weakest position on the diamond for both clubs, the shortstop play for the Cardinals and Pirates this season has ranged from inconsistent to downright dreadful. In all likelihood, the Cardinals will start Daniel Descalso, sacrificing Pete Kozma's glove for a better presence at the plate. Kozma and Descalso had big hits last October, but they have done very little since. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has not gotten much out of Clint Barmes this year. Backup Jordy Mercer has thrashed left-handed pitchers to the tune of a .410 average and a 1.152 OPS. But with St. Louis throwing five righties, that edge most likely will not come into play.
Pedro Alvarez has quietly become one of the most feared hitters in the National League. Sure, David Freese is a solid third baseman, whose postseason heroics are well documented, but Alvarez's stock finally took off this year, as he launched a league-leading 36 home runs. Thirty-three of those long balls came against right-handed pitchers, and the Cardinals will trot out a righty starter in each NLDS game. Freese, meanwhile, regressed both at the plate and in the field and was especially poor against the Pirates, hitting just .154 in 17 games.
Next month, Andrew McCutchen could very well become the first Pirates player to win the NL MVP Award since Barry Bonds did so in 1992. There is little he does not do right. The Pirates also added Marlon Byrd in August, and since joining the club he has hit .318 with a .404 on-base percentage. But it is hard to top the Cardinals' trio of Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Jon Jay. McCutchen is arguably the National League's best all-around player, and the Pirates' outfield is without a doubt better defensively. But there is just too much thump provided by the Cardinals' outfielders, specifically in the corners.
Few managers in baseball use a bench more effectively than Clint Hurdle, and he has plenty to work with in the Steel City. Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez and Jose Tabata all spent time as starters before general manager Neal Huntington opted to upgrade at the Trade Deadline. Both Mercer and Josh Harrison offer an array of talents, too, making them ideal utility men. The Cardinals' bench, meanwhile, has been one of the club's weaknesses all season, and the loss of Craig does not help. With Adams now slated to spend the postseason in the starting lineup, St. Louis' bench offers next to nothing in terms of late-inning pinch-hit pop.
The Cardinals' and Pirates' rotations ranked second and fourth, respectively, in the National League in ERA and were very strong down the stretch. One through five, the Pirates may be on par with St. Louis, but the Cards hold a distinct edge with ace Adam Wainwright slated to pitch twice in the series. In 13 postseason appearances -- four of them starts -- Wainwright has posted a 2.48 ERA and a WHIP barely above one. Pittsburgh, meanwhile was forced to use its ace, Francisco Liriano, in its Wild Card game victory over Cincinnati. He would not be in line to start again until Game 3 on Sunday. Veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett will get the ball for the Pirates in Game 1, and Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton have also been very solid down the stretch. Lance Lynn will start for St. Louis in Game 2, coming off a September in which he posted a 2.12 ERA.
Want a model to use for how to build a bullpen? Take a look at the "Shark Tank" in Pittsburgh. The Pirates have a reliable closer in Jason Grilli, a lights-out setup man in Mark Melancon, two nasty left-handers in Tony Watson and Justin Wilson and plenty of middle-inning options. Other than youth, there are few glaring weaknesses, though Melancon has been knocked around a bit of late. The Cardinals 'pen is certainly nothing to scoff at, either. Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica and Seth Maness have all been electric at times this year. But Mujica has struggled recently, losing his closer role to Rosenthal late in the season.
Neither Grilli nor Rosenthal was closing at the start of September, yet entering October, the two find themselves at the back end of two of baseball's best bullpens. Rosenthal's ERA is slightly lower (2.63 to 2.70), but Grilli -- an All-Star -- holds a small edge in WHIP (1.06 to 1.10). Rosenthal allowed just two hits in 8 2/3 scoreless postseason innings last year, but this time he will be pitching in high-pressure situations, and he has recorded just three saves all year, to Grilli's 33.