Braves: 96-66, Won NL East.
Astros: 92-70, Won NL Wildcard.
Season series: Tied 3-3.
The Astros lost starting shortstop Adam Everett to a broken wrist in early August, though he’s been around as a pinch-runner the last few games. The Astros caught fire about a week after that. It’s no surprise that they did, since that forced them to re-arrange their lineup. It’s not that Jose Vizcaino is any better of a hitter than Everett, because he’s actually slightly worse. But instead of putting a bad hitter between their leadoff man Biggio and the good hitters, Garner eventually moved Beltran to the two-spot, giving them five (or six, depending on your opinion of Ensberg) good hitters in a row.
The Astros’ best players are Beltran and Berkman; Bagwell is a ghost of his former self, as is Biggio. Berkman put up a .315/.449/.565 season line, a fair approximation of what his counterpart on the Braves did. Beltran, after coming over from Kansas City, hit .261/.372/.565 and played good defense. Bagwell can still get on base (.378) but his power has largely evaporated (.467), and while Biggio and Kent still hit homers and doubles, they posted sub-.350 OBPs. Ensberg didn’t hit a whole lot, but was better than Ausmus and whomever was playing shortstop that day. If they got anything at all from shortstop and catcher, they’d have a great offense. As it is, it’s scary every other inning. If you get past the first five hitters, you have a good chance of an easy inning against the bottom of the order.
3B C. Jones
CF A. Jones
The Braves, of course, platoon at first base and left field, but the Astros got by my count only seventeen starts from the left side this season, fifteen by the injured Andy Pettitte, and will start all righthanders in this series. The Braves, unlike the Astros, start eight players who all contributed something offensively. Like the Astros, their best player is in right field, where Drew hit .306/.437/.571, slightly less than Berkman but in a tougher park to hit in. Leadoff hitter Furcal had the weakest line on the team, .279/.345/.414, but that’s better than three of the Astros’ regulars, and once again there’s the park to consider.
The Braves 4/5 hitters are a study in contrast, both switch-hitters. Chipper Jones hit only .248 for the season, but with a lot of walks and power; Estrada hit .314 but with far less secondary offense; his on-base percentage was only sixteen points higher than Jones’ and his slugging percentage 35 points lower. Jones did most of his damage in the second half (.214/.327/.414 before the break, .281/.389/.562 after), while Estrada declined from his All-Star first half (.332/.382/.481 versus .286/.376/.418). Jones was far more effective righthanded, while Estrada was basically hopeless from that side.
Andruw Jones, as usual, was up and down, and as usual wound up with his normal numbers anyway, .261/.345/.488. The Braves’ two platoons were both effective, but the righthanded halves were better, especially in left field, so that works against them.
The Astros’ best bench players are third baseman Mike Lamb, who outhit Ensberg (.289/.357/.513), and outfielder Jason Lane, who probably should be playing everyday instead of Biggio. Lane played in 106 games but had only 136 AB, hitting .272/.348/.463. Eric Bruntlett replaced Adam Everett on the roster, or rather replaced Vizcaino who replaced Everett, and didn’t do badly at all, slugging .519. Orlando Palmeiro was bad even for a fifth outfielder. Raul Chavez was bad even for a backup catcher. The Astros should have one more player, but hardly anyone else played except for Everett, and Everett can’t swing a bat or throw a baseball.
Marrero and Franco were platoon players who won’t get any starts against the Astros’ righthanded pitchers. Instead, they’ll probably be the Braves’ top pinch-hitters, because righthanded as they are they’re still better than lefty DeWayne Wise or switch-hitter Wilson Betemit. The Braves find themselves without an experienced middle infielder due to the injury to Mark DeRosa and release of Jesse Garcia. Betemit is the only Braves reserve who’s played shortstop, so probably the Braves will be reluctant to use him; if he’s gone, the Braves are an injury away from something weird like Chipper Jones playing shortstop or Julio Franco second base. Green started his time with the Braves very well in place of Giles but has been on a slow decline ever since. Perez looks good only in comparison to Chavez.
I haven’t seen confirmation, but surely the Astros will go with a three-man rotation to cut down the chance that the weaker back of their rotation will hurt them. Clemens will start Game One on long rest after his “flu”, and Oswalt Game Two on normal rest. A lot will depend upon the ability of their big two to bounce back on three days’ rest, should the series go that far. Clemens is, after all, forty years old, and Oswalt has a long injury history. Munro and Backe were the other starters down the stretch; Backe was better, and started the clincher.
Yes, that’s Russ Springer listed as a reliever for the Astros. The listed relievers all pitched well down the stretch, with five sporting sub-2 ERAs. Qualls should be the top man after Lidge — at least, he was the best and most used after the closer. It’s a patchwork bullpen in many ways, but patchwork pens are oftentimes the best. Lidge is very good, saving 28 in 32 opportunities with a 1.93 ERA. It’s a good staff.
RH Thomson (RH Ortiz)
The Braves announced initially that they would use a four-man rotation in the first round. Then it was going to be a three-man anchored by Wright. I think that if they’re up 2-1 after three, they’ll hold Wright out. If they’re down, they’ll bring him back unless he was worked very hard in the first game, and Bobby Cox generally doesn’t work his starters that hard. After that, Thomson is clearly the #2 man, but his health is a concern. I’m thinking Ortiz would step into his spot if he can’t go, with Thomson maybe available for the fourth game.
Smoltz was shaky at times down the stretch, but he finished the year 44 of 49 in save opportunities with a 2.76 ERA, which isn’t bad at all. Reitsma was very bad in the last two months and it remains to be seen if Cox will still use him as the primary setup man or go to Alfonseca, who was the Braves’ most consistently good reliever for the season. Byrd has relief experience, but it’s possible that the Braves could use another pitcher here, perhaps a lefty. The Astros, however, are mostly righthanders and switch-hitters; aruguably, the Braves would be better off dumping Martin and bringing in Roman Colon.
To get one thing out of the way, this Astros team bears little resemblance to the Astros teams routinely wiped out by the Braves in past NLDS. The only Astros left from the last of these (beaten 3-0 in 2001) are Bagwell, Biggio, Ausmus, Berkman, and Vizcaino. (Oswalt was unavailable in that series.) For that matter, the only Braves left are the two Joneses, Giles, Franco, and Smoltz. (That was the year Furcal was out the entire second half.) But the Astros still depend heavily on Bagwell and Biggio. They aren’t the engines that drive the offense anymore — that’s Berkman and Beltran. But they’re key cogs; if they go into their usual postseason funks it will be very hard for the Astros to score many runs.
The Braves look, to me, to be better suited for postseason than last year’s team. Last year, they had an elite offense but one that was heavily righthanded and heavily dependent upon the long ball; take that away, and they were shut down. This year’s Braves team has a weaker offense but a more broad-based one. And the starting pitching is far better, led by Wright. Wright is the Braves’ key player. If he keeps pitching like he did in the second half, when he was among the best pitchers in the non-Santana universe, they’re in great shape. If not, it will turn into a slugging contest, and that will be tough to win against Clemens and Oswalt.
I don’t make predictions as such, because this postseason stuff is too random. I’ll give you percentages, though.
60 percent chance of Braves win.
Most likely outcome: Braves in four.