Why the Cubs will beat the Dodgers

Though it’s been suggested the Cubs most fear the Phillies among NL playoff teams, I’m most wary of the Dodgers. Their .519 winning percentage makes them the worst playoff team in baseball, but that number is deceiving given the team’s trade deadline improvements. Nonetheless, I’m predicting the Cubs beat the Dodgers in five games in the National League Division Series. Let’s break it down.

Offense

The Cubs are first in the NL with a .355 on nase percentage, while the Dodgers are sixth at .333. Those rankings actually held true for August, when the Dodgers had Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake in tow. In September, however, the Dodgers led the NL with a .377 OBP and the Cubs ranked eighth at .334.

Power-wise, the Cubs also lead the NL with a .445 slugging average. The Dodgers are 13th at .400. As expected, however, the Dodgers ranked much better in August and September. Let’s do a position-by-position breakdown to see if we can sort this out.

Catcher: Geovany Soto vs. Russell Martin

Martin has the OBP advantage, while Soto hit for much more power this year. I’m going to call this one a wash.

First base: Derrek Lee vs. James Loney

Neither player had a monster year, but Lee gets the nod here with clearly better offensive stats. Jeff Kent also could see time at first base, but that wouldn’t change the comparison.

Second base: Mike Fontenot vs. Blake DeWitt

Fontenot’s excellent half-season outranks DeWitt’s performance, though DeWitt had a strong September.

Shortstop: Ryan Theriot vs. Angel Berroa/Rafael Furcal

Theriot easily outpaces Berroa, but Furcal is one of the game’s best shortstops when he’s healthy. Furcal’s a bit of a wild card at the time of this writing. Since he may be rusty after missing several months, I’ll give the Cubs the advantage. I think we’ll see at least a decent dose of Berroa.

Third base: Aramis Ramirez vs. Casey Blake

Blake is solid, but Ramirez is star-caliber at the hot corner. The Cubs win this one.

Left field: Alfonso Soriano vs. Manny Ramirez

Manny is a monster, and the Dodgers win this matchup handily.

Center field: Jim Edmonds/Reed Johnson vs. Matt Kemp

Cubs center fielders quietly posted a .291/.375/.486 line this year, which beats Kemp. We’ll probably see Edmonds for the first three games. The Cubs come out ahead here.

Right field: Mark DeRosa vs. Andre Ethier

Both players had the best years of their careers. Ethier edges DeRosa, especially given DeRo’s strained calf and Ethier’s torrid hitting of late.

Summary: I have the Cubs winning five of the eight matchups, with only Manny and Ethier presenting clear advantages for the Dodgers. Still, the Dodgers’ lineup is formidable and presents only one easy out in Berroa. Overall it’s a slight edge for the Cubs assuming DeRosa and Soto are healthy. I won’t dive into the benches too deeply, but the Dodgers can give the Cubs a run for their money if they have both Kent and Furcal available to pinch-hit.

Defense

The Cubs have turned 71.2 percent of batted balls into outs, as opposed to 69.8 percent for the Dodgers. Looking at plus/minus data for infielders, the Cubs are superior at all infield positions aside from third base. The Cubs also rank better at the outfield corners, though Kemp is much better than Edmonds in center. I have to give the Cubs the edge here based on the data.

Starting Pitching

Game 1: Ryan Dempster vs. Derek Lowe

The edge goes to Lowe in this matchup. Both hurlers keep the ball in the yard, but Lowe has better control and a strong postseason resume (and a lower xFIP).

Game 2: Carlos Zambrano vs. Chad Billingsley

I wouldn’t mind Z getting another cortisone shot before this matchup. Zambrano is notoriously erratic; I wouldn’t be surprised by seven scoreless innings, nor by a three-inning, six earned run effort. Both pitchers have shaky control at times, but Billingsley boasts a higher strikeout rate. I have to give Billingsley the nod, especially since Martin and Ethier have hit Zambrano well.

Game 3: Rich Harden vs. Hiroki Kuroda

Even just throwing fastballs and changeups, the injury-prone Harden is nasty. Kuroda is solid, but Harden is better. Harden is more prone to beating himself via the walk, however. I give the nod to the Cubs on this one.

Game 4: Ted Lilly vs. Derek Lowe/Greg Maddux

Lilly was last year’s Game 2 starter, so the Cubs have to like their depth in ’08. I like Lilly over either of the Dodgers’ choices, since Lowe would be on short rest. Lilly has been unhittable of late.

Game 5: Ryan Dempster vs. Derek Lowe/Chad Billingsley

These starters would all be on regular rest. I have to admit, I like the Dodgers’ starters in possible Game 5 matchups.

Summary: Both rotations are excellent, though the Cubs have better depth. The Dodgers have the edge here, unless Good Zambrano decides to show up.

Bullpen

The Cubs will lean heavily on Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol and Jeff Samardzija. The Dodgers will go with Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito in late innings. Saito may not be able to go back-to-back days, and Hong-Chih Kuo is injured. The Dodgers’ pen runs deeper, with Cory Wade, Chan Ho Park and Clayton Kershaw as useful weapons. I think the Dodgers have better depth, but it may not come into play in a best-of-five series where starters will push their limits. It’s arguable, but I’ll call this a wash.

Conclusion: Cubs in five

I consider these teams very evenly matched, so I have them duking it out in a Game 5 at Wrigley. Aside from home field, the Cubs have the advantage on offense and defense. I prefer the Dodgers’ starting pitching, but I don’t consider the gap very wide. Ultimately, predictions aren’t worth much in a short series. If nothing else, this should be a close one.

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