NLDS 2013 preview: Dodgers vs. Braves

Photo credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports | Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the NL's best clash in a series Mike Bates thinks has a foregone conclusion.

How they got here

The Braves ran roughshod over the NL East, thanks to the disappointing performance of the Nationals. It wasn't always easy, as the club was forced overcome significant injuries on the field and the mound, but their surprising depth and an unexpectedly great season from Freddie Freeman put them over the top. The Dodgers were expected to dominate thanks to an unprecedented spending spree over the last two seasons. However, they were 30-42 after June 21 and people were openly calling for manager Don Mattingly's head. They went 62-28 the rest of the way despite crippling injuries to Matt Kemp -- ¡Viva Puig! -- and won the NL West going away.

Braves Offense

The Braves scored the fourth most runs per game in the National League despite their incredible troubles up the middle. Dan Uggla hit just .179/.309/.362, which included a 10-for-97 stretch with just a single extra base hit over the last two months of the season. He has been dumped from the postseason roster. B.J. Upton, one of the biggest free agent signings of the offseason, hit just .184/.268/.289 in center field. And while he may be a wizard with the glove, Andrelton Simmons hit just .248/.296/.396 at the plate. Thankfully, the production of Freeman (.319/.396/.501), Chris Johnson (.321/.358/.457), and B.J.'s brother Justin (.263/.354/.464) more than made up for it.

182263752Photo credit: Mike Zarrilli

Dodgers Offense

Thanks to the injuries that robbed Kemp (.270/.328/.395 in 290 PA), Hanley Ramirez (.345/.402/.638 in 336 PA), Andre Ethier (.272/.360/.423 in 553 PAs), and Carl Crawford (.283/.329/.407 in 469 PA) of significant playing time and, in Kemp's case, effectiveness, the Dodgers finished with a league-average offense in 2013. With Ramirez and Crawford healthy for the postseason, and with Ethier possibly on the verge of coming back as something more than a pinch-hitter eventually, they hopefully won't be forced to play Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto, and Jerry Hairston. Yasiel Puig (.319/.391/.534) has carried this team at times, but has hit just .214 since September 1.

Edge: The Dodgers are just healthy enough to have a slight advantage here.

Braves Pitching

The Braves have a trio of similarly talented starters at the top of their rotation in Game 1 starter Kris Medlen (15-12, 3.11, 157 Ks), Mike Minor (13-9, 3.21, 181 Ks), and Julio Teheran (14-8, 3.20, 170 Ks). Scrapheap pickup Freddy Garcia is scheduled to start Game 4 instead of Paul Maholm, thanks to three strong starts he had in September. The real strength of this pitching staff, however, is in the bullpen where Craig Kimbrel (1.21 ERA, 50 saves, 98 strikeouts in 67 innings), the best closer in baseball, is backed by righties David Carpenter (1.78, 74 K in 65-2/3 innings), Anthony Varvaro (2.82) and Jordan Walden (3.45, 54 K, 47 innings) as well as lefties Luis Avilan (1.52 ERA in 65 innings) and Alex Wood (3.13, 77 K in 77-2/3 innings). One other name to watch is David Hale, a 25-year-old September call-up who struck out 14 batters in 11 innings over two starts. He made the roster, and could be used in a K-Rod-type role out of the pen.

Dodgers Pitching

20130927_ads_aj4_118Photo credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Clayton Kershaw (16-9, 1.83, 232 K) and Zack Greinke (15-4, 2.63, 148 K) are far and away the best pitchers in this series, and Hyn-jin Ryu (14-8, 3.00, 154 K) is no slouch either. Ricky Nolasco (8-3, 3.52 for the Dodgers) turned his career around after being acquired midseason. The Dodgers bullpen is led by big Kenley Jansen (1.88 ERA, 28 saves in 32 chances, 111 K in 76-2/3 innings), who bounced back from a heart condition to usurp the closer role from Brandon League, who isn't even on the playoff roster. J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez are capable lefties. The Dodgers lack a dominant righty to pitch in the late innings, but could turn to rookie Cory Withrow if Ronald Belisario falters.

Edge: The Dodgers' starters are much better, but they'll need them to go deep into games to avoid exposing their bullpen too much before turning it over to Jansen.

Defense

The Dodgers already weren't very adept at turning hit balls into outs, but they face a significant disadvantage without Kemp to man center field (not that Kemp was exactly Willie Mays out there, mind you). Plus, with Ethier hobbled, they'd be forced to turn to Skip Schumaker or Yasiel Puig, or Dee Gordon, or Scott Van Slyke, which... well, it won't be good. The Braves boasted one of the best defenses in the National League, thanks to their three strong outfielders and the incredible Andrelton Simmons, who was the most valuable defender in the NL according to every defensive metric available.

Managers

There was a lot of concern about Don Mattingly earlier this year, but he's mostly pushed the right buttons down the stretch for the Dodgers. That said, he sacrifice bunts a lot more than Mike Matheny. And he hasn't stopped making careless blunders, like accidentally bringing in Howell instead of Paco Rodriguez in September. A similar brain fart on the national stage would be both humiliating and potentially catastrophic. Fredi Gonzalez has done a better job choosing pinch hitters this year (Dodgers PH OPS: 569, Braves: 687), but a lot of that was just going to Evan Gattis, who had four homers in 13 plate appearances off the bench. All in all, while there's nothing definitive to separate them, I'm going to go with the manager least likely to fill out his lineup card incorrectly, and that would be Fredi.

Breakout Player

Ah, the point of the preview where I seemingly pick a player at random, because damn near anything can happen in a short series like this. It'd be great if Yasiel Puig added to his burgeoning legend in this series, but instead I'm going to go with Andrelton Simmons, regardless of whether his team wins or loses, to provide nightly defensive highlights on a national stage.

Prediction

Dodgers win in four behind their big starting pitchers in Games 1 and 2 and by pummeling Freddy Garcia in Game 4.

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