Results tagged ‘ series preview ’

Series 36 Preview: Cubs at Phillies

Ruf

Darin Ruf has been on a tear for Philadelphia. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

The Phillies are aging before everyone’s eyes, and so far, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has seen his team suffer the consequences of sitting idly by. The team’s big offseason acquisition was infielder Michael Young from the Rangers. Though he’s had a bit of a bounce-back season at age 36, his on-field decline over the last several years is obvious. Ryan Howard, 33, is merely an average first baseman now—and one the team is stuck with through 2016. Second baseman Chase Utley, 34, still provides a lot of value when healthy, though he too is on the natural decline player’s experience after their typical late-20s peak. They’ve also been without 36-year-old ace Roy Halladay since May, and he was a disaster before going down with a torn rotator cuff. But never have things looked as dire as they have the last couple weeks: The Phillies have lost 13 of 14 games, scoring 2.4 runs and allowing 5.8 per contest. They’re now 50-61 and 17 games back in the one-horse NL East.

HITTING: 3.8 Runs Scored/Game (14th in NL)
Out are Howard (knee), Dom Brown (concussion) and Ben Revere (foot), leaving the Phillies to throw left fielder Darin Ruf and third baseman Cody Asche into the fire. The former has been on a tear, while the latter has struggled mightily. With Michael Young, Howard and Utley—as well as catcher Carlos Ruiz and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, both 34—all on downward paths, it’s the trio of mid-20s outfielders that was hoped to round out some of the lineup’s rough edges. Only the 25-year-old Brown has fulfilled his promise, and even he has mixed a torrid few weeks in late May/early June with plenty of slower periods. The 20th-round pick in 2006 struggled with low batting averages in auditions the past three seasons, but he finally earned a starting role with a good spring and has been the team’s most valuable offensive player (.271 AVG/.316 OBP/.531 SLG) outside of Utley. Brown is far from a perfect player, however. He’s hacking away more than ever—with 76 strikeouts to 25 walks—and all 24 of his home runs have been pulled. Center fielder Ben Revere, the 25-year-old speedster acquired from the Twins, had an empty .305/.338/.352 line before going down with a fractured foot.

PITCHING: 4.6 Runs Allowed/Game (T-15th in NL)
The Cubs will miss the still-excellent Cliff Lee this series, instead seeing Kyle Kendrick, Cole Hamels and young prospect Ethan Martin take the mound. Kendrick has seen his ERA spike above four for the first time in three years, as the pitch-to-contact sinkerballer has seen more ground balls squeeze through. He won’t issue many free passes or hangers over the plate, however, so Cubs batters will do well to go with pitches and piece together runs. Hamels also has seen his ERA spike, from right around three the past few years to 3.87. Like Kendrick, he’s seeing more balls in play find holes, and the results have been similar to his off-year in 2009. But still armed with one of the game’s most deceptive change-ups, Hamels is performing significantly better than his 4-13 record would suggest. Coming of an inauspicious major league debut against the Braves, Martin is a promising arm acquired in a 2012 trade deadline deal that sent Shane Victorino to the Dodgers. He has a huge fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s as well as a sharp curve and hard slider. But Martin struggles with his command and has historically gotten hit fairly hard by lefties in the minors due to a weaker change-up. Veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon closes things out, set up by a few young, promising arms in lefty Jake Diekman and Justin De Fratus.

Series 33 Preview: Cubs at Giants

Posey

Giants catcher and reigning NL MVP Buster Posey is having another stellar season. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/GettyImages)

World Series champions two of the last three seasons, the Giants are in a tailspin this year. They’re 17-30 since June 1, when they were 29-25, and now sit seven games back of the surging, first-place Dodgers. Even worse is that they’ve been getting blown out more and more in the month of July, as their starting pitching has been an utter disaster except for Madison Bumgarner (and Chad Gaudin’s eight starts). The Giants offense has rarely been able to carry the team, but this year they are outplaying the pitching staff. Unfortunately for them, it hasn’t been enough. That said, they’ve been much better at home, where their mound mistakes can be covered by both a spacious outfield and fielders who can roam it effectively.

HITTING: 3.9 Runs Scored/Game (10th in NL)
Catcher Buster Posey, the reigning NL MVP, is just a slight tick off last year’s pace, but he’s still a one-man wrecking crew. If not for Cardinals backstop Yadier Molina, Posey would easily be the best at the position. Only Posey, first baseman Brandon Belt and right fielder Hunter Pence have double-digit home runs this year. Still, when you take into account their spacious home ballpark, the Giants feature some well-rounded position players. Second baseman Marco Scutaro, 37, has extended his career since being traded to San Francisco, and he pairs an average glove with an all-fields contact bat. Shortstop Brandon Crawford, 26, looks more capable with the stick each year, though his calling card is some of the best range and glove work in the game today. And, when healthy, third baseman Pablo Sandoval still brings average-to-better work at the plate and in the field.  The Giants carry three switch-hitters (Sandoval, Tony Abreu and Andres Torres) and three left-handed hitters (Blanco, Belt and Crawford), so manager Bruce Bochy has options aplenty to load up on the platoon advantage.

PITCHING: 4.5 Runs Allowed/Game (13th in NL)
The Cubs will face what was formerly known as San Francisco’s top three—but is now a top one and two shells of greatness. After six straight seasons with a sub-4.00 ERA (and four of the last five below 3.00), Matt Cain takes the hill tonight with an ERA sitting squarely at 5.00. What was a consistent ability to use his fastball up in the zone to induce lazy pop-ups has become a concerning tendency to leave hittable pitches over the plate. Manager Bruce Bochy has limited Cain’s usage of late (2.1, 0.2 and 5.0 IP over his last three starts) and thrown out a vague sense of “precaution.” What we do know is that Cain is using his fastball less and his slider more than ever, to the diminishing effectiveness of both. Bumgarner starts Saturday’s game, and the young lefty is pitching as well as ever. He has a career-best 2.93 ERA, .193 batting average against, and 25 percent strikeout rate, easily making up for an uptick in walks (to a still below average 7.1 percent). Cubs hitters have a tough assignment against Bumgarner. Righties will have to guard against cutters and sliders inside, while protecting against soft stuff away. Lefties will see fastballs located in all quadrants but will have to stay back on breaking pitches. And Bumgarner often pitches backward. Then there’s Tim Lincecum, coming off a 148-pitch no-hitter followed by an eight-run, 3.2-inning start. After five straight stellar seasons to start his career—including two Cy Young Awards—the diminutive righty is in the midst of his second subpar season in a row. There’s a good chance the Cubs will see plenty of the eight-man bullpen, a good-but-overworked squad capped by closer Sergio Romo and his physics-defying slider.

Series 32 Preview: Cubs at Diamondbacks

Goldschmidt

Paul Goldschmidt has been one of the few consistencies in the Diamondbacks’ order this year. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The leaders of the NL West host the Cubs for a four-game series, with Arizona’s half-game lead over the surging Dodgers potentially on the line. The D-backs team has been somewhat of a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts squad, with a few standouts making up for some major disappointments. It’s little surprise GM Kevin Towers is rumored to be looking for reinforcements by the July 31 trade deadline. There have been only two constants in the Diamondbacks’ lineup so far: first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and a terrible running game. On the latter, Arizona is 29-for-54 in steals, a 54 percent success rate that is alarmingly bad. Their steals leader is Goldschmidt, who does much more than run the bases well. He has turned out to be a superb draft pick for the Diamondbacks, selected in the eighth round in 2009 by former scouting director Tom Allison (now with the Mariners). In the rotation, 23-year-old Patrick Corbin has been the only above-average regular, and the bullpen has been a mixed bag for Towers as well.

HITTING: 4.1 Runs Scored/Game (6th in the NL)
In parts of three seasons in the majors, Goldschmidt has proved himself with an ability to improve across the board. His walks, batting average and power are up this year, and his strikeouts have diminished, adding up to a .309 AVG/.392 OBP/.550 SLG that ranks in the league’s top 10 for each category. Beyond his No. 3 hitter, manager Kirk Gibson has had little consistency in the lineup, employing 82 different batting orders in 95 games. Young shortstop Didi Gregorius, acquired via trade, has cooled off considerably (.227/.303/.277 since June 1) and is now splitting time with a can’t-get-hot Cliff Pennington. The other big trade acquisition, multiposition man Martin Prado, also has been cold all year and a major disappointment along with catcher Miguel Montero. Second baseman Aaron Hill missed two months with a broken hand, but he continues to earn his sizable contract despite now being on the wrong side of 30. There’s little help in the outfield either. Youngsters A.J. Pollock and Gerardo Parra haven’t done much at the plate, while veterans Jason Kubel and Cody Ross have struggled despite being part of a platoon.

PITCHING: 4.1 Runs Allowed/Game (7th in the NL)
The Cubs will face some talented young arms this series. It turns out the first two starters—lefties Tyler Skaggs and Corbin—were part of the bounty that came back from the Angels in the 2010 Dan Haren deal. Skaggs is more of a crafty type, with a low-90s, four-seam fastball that he can use on both sides of the plate and a big, knee-buckling curve. Command has been something of an issue for him in the majors, and his offerings versus righties, notably a change-up and two-seam fastball, are still developing. Selected just a few dozen picks later, Corbin has been the Diamondbacks’ top pitcher by far, with a 2.35 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP and just under seven innings per start. The tall, lanky pitcher can work his fastball up to 94-95 mph with life, before coming back with a hard slider released from a low-three-quarters arm angle. That punch-out pitch has only increased in effectiveness and has the sort of two-plane movement that makes it effective against both hands. The series closes with righty Ian Kennedy—an extreme fly-ball pitcher who has increasingly struggled since his career year in 2011—and lefty Wade Miley. In the bullpen, typically a Towers strength, new closer Heath Bell has been too homer prone to be a true anchor, but sidearmer Brad Ziegler has been Gibson’s most used, and most effective, weapon.

Series 31 Preview: Cubs at Rockies

Tulo

Troy Tulowitzki has anchored the Rockies offensively this year. (Photo by Ryan McKee/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The Cubs start the second half with a three-game set against the Rockies, in the far-from-cozy confines of Coors Field. Though the humidor has tempered home-run rates a fair amount, Colorado’s ballpark still plays heavily toward the offense because of its friendly dimensions. Also tempered has been the Rockies’ hot start: At 11-19 in their last 30 games, they’re one of three teams heading in the wrong direction in the NL West (the Giants and Padres both are 10-20 over that span). Still, the Rockies sit just 4.5 games back of the first-place Diamondbacks thanks to an outstanding outfield and some real bright spots in the rotation and bullpen.

HITTING: 4.4 Runs Scored/Game (2nd in the NL)
As Troy Tulowitzki’s fortunes go, the Rockies’ do too. With 64 games played so far, he’s already 17 games ahead of last year’s entire total. His performance numbers—a .332 AVG/.400 OBP/.608 SLG slash line—once again are excellent. But it’s no surprise that the Rockies’ slide coincided with Tulowitzki hitting the DL in mid-June. He’s back on the field, so the Cubs will be facing a stronger team than the recent record would suggest. Surrounding him in the lineup are left fielder Carlos Gonzalez (.302/.370/.610) and right fielder Michael Cuddyer (.330/.391/.568), two parts of a great outfield that’s completed by leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler (.284/.381/.458). The starting outfielders also deserve special mention for a 35-for-40 success rate in steals. In fact, the entire team has an excellent 82 percent success rate, making this a dangerous on the basepaths. But the lineup’s stars are balanced by a disappointing non-Tulowitzki infield: 39-year-old first baseman Todd Helton, second basemen DJ LeMahieu and Josh Rutledge, and promising 22-year-old third baseman Nolan Arenado each have on-base plus slugging percentages below .720 so far.

PITCHING: 4.3 Runs Allowed/Game (11th in the NL)
The Cubs will see two of the Rockies’ three best starters so far, starting with veteran Jorge De La Rosa tonight and capped by 23-year-old Tyler Chatwood on Sunday. Chatwood, acquired from the Angels for Chris Iannetta a couple years ago, has enjoyed a breakout season after compiling a 4.96 ERA his first couple MLB seasons. The key difference for the ground-ball machine has been command. While Chatwood’s strikeout rate has increased to a slightly below-average 16 percent, it’s his walk rate that has dropped from 11 percent to 8 percent, and his home run rate from 3 percent to 0.7 percent. Cubs hitters should expect to see a pair of fastballs in the low-to-mid 90s, a curve, and either a slider (versus righties) or change-up (lefties). The development of the latter two pitches have helped him improve tremendously against batters on both sides of the plate. The back end of the bullpen has done its job by keeping the ball in the park above all. Lefty Rex Brothers (owner of the team’s best strikeout rate at 26 percent) and righty Matt Belisle set up for unspectacular-but-consistent closer Rafael Betancourt.

Series 30 Preview: Cubs vs. Cardinals

Beltran

Carlos Beltran is having an MVP-caliber season. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

There may be no injury or in-season development big enough to bring down the high-flying Cardinals. No matter what fate has thrown at them, the Birds have turned to one talented rookie after another to plug the holes—all while piling up wins and establishing themselves as one of baseball’s best. Ten of St. Louis’ 13 position players are homegrown, more than one-third of their starts have been made by rookies, and the additions of freshmen Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness have helped stabilize a bullpen racked by injuries and ineffectiveness. But none of this should really come as a surprise by now. These are the benefits of having baseball’s best player development team and part of the reason why the Cardinals may rule the roost in the NL Central for years to come.

HITTING: 5.0 Runs Scored a Game (1st in NL)
The Cardinals’ offense grinds pitchers down with its depth, largely because there are no easy outs in the order. The bats deliver a good amount of walks and power while leading the league in on-base percentage via a high team batting average. First baseman Allen Craig, who is in the RBI race as a function of his reliable execution, might be the best reflection of a lineup stacked with effective contact hitters who can provide line-drive power. While most of the Cards’ talent is homegrown, their two big-ticket free agents—Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday—continue to provide pop from the outfield corners. If there’s a disappointment, it’s third baseman David Freese’s power numbers. The 2011 postseason hero has seen his slugging percentage drop below .400. But if he gets hot along with the weather, the Cardinals’ league-leading offense could get even better.

PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed a Game (3rd in NL)
Losing Jaime Garcia for the year and Friday’s starter Jake Westbrook for more than a month would have crippled most contenders, but nothing seems to faze the powerhouse Cardinals. They simply used these setbacks as an opportunity to test out 2012 first-rounder Michael Wacha—who has had success despite bouncing between the minors and the bigs. He could join Rookie of the Year favorite Shelby Miller and sophomore workhorse Lance Lynn as the core of this young rotation’s future. The Cubs will miss Miller but are expected to see Lynn on Saturday. And it’s tough to ignore Sunday’s starter Adam Wainwright, one of the game’s elite pitchers with a 12-5 record and a 2.30 ERA. Getting quality starts almost two-thirds of the time with the league’s best offense creates a ton of winnable ballgames, but it’s the improvement in the ’pen since a disastrous first couple of weeks that has helped the Cardinals convert winnable games to actual wins. Unconventional closer Edward Mujica might owe some of his success to his forkball coming right after the blistering heat of Rosenthal and Maness.

Series 28 Preview: Cubs at Athletics

Colon

The Cubs will face 40-year-old Bartolo Colon and his 11-2 record Wednesday night. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty)

Halfway into the 2013 season, the Oakland A’s are proving their surprise 2012 AL West title was no fluke. They sit just a half game back of the first-place Rangers and own the league’s second best record at 48-35. To GM Billy Beane’s credit, the A’s have managed to construct a balanced roster that protects against injuries and allows manager Bob Melvin to get creative with lineup platoons and late-inning matchups. And the two-time Manager of the Year winner (2007 with the Diamondbacks and 2012 with the A’s) has proved adept at handling both the bench and the pitching staff. Beane also has proved a master the last few years at adding productive veterans to an otherwise youthful bunch. Amazingly, center fielder Coco Crisp (33 years old), starting pitcher Bartolo Colon (40) and closer Grant Balfour (35) have been among the team’s best players—if not the best. Most of the remaining regulars are right in that 26-28-year-old sweet spot in which the average big leaguer peaks. The iron is hot for this bunch.

HITTING: 4.7 Runs Scored/Game (6th in the AL)
The lineup’s production has been impressive, especially considering they haven’t gotten all that much out of first base, left field and right field. The three regulars in those traditionally offense-heavy positions—Brandon Moss, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick—have combined for a .226 batting average and a .302 on-base percentage. They have, however, also combined for 32 home runs (29 of which are from Moss and Cespedes). Unsurprisingly, the A’s draw walks, and they have enough power to make the base runners count. Former Cubs farmhand Josh Donaldson—a 2007 supplemental first-round pick acquired in the Rich Harden deal—has been Oakland’s real standout so far. His .316 AVG/.384 OBP/.525 SLG line leads the team in all three slash categories, and he’s played a solid third base since being moved out from behind the plate a season ago. Watch out for the platoons. Lefties Chris Rusin and Travis Wood will likely see Derek Norris (C), Nate Freiman (1B), Adam Rosales (2B) and Chris Young (DH/OF); righty Matt Garza will see Stephen Vogt or John Jaso (C), Brandon Moss (1B), Eric Sogard (2B) and Seth Smith (DH/OF). Oddly, the A’s haven’t seen a southpaw starter since June 14.

PITCHING: 4.0 Runs Allowed/Game (3rd in the AL)
This is a staff that pitches at the extremes—the most important margin being a 3.76 ERA that ranks third in the league. Most strikingly, the A’s own the game’s most extreme fly-ball rotation and bullpen. Outside of the injured (again) Brett Anderson and middle reliever Danny Otero, every single Oakland pitcher has a ground ball percentage below the MLB average of 44.5 percent, according to Fangraphs. Wednesday night’s starter Bartolo Colon, seemingly impacted neither by age nor his burgeoning waistline, is the most neutral GB/FB guy of the bunch. But he stands out in another fascinating way, throwing fastballs nearly 84 percent of the time. He’s able to do it by mixing his 92-94 mph four-seamer with an 88-91 mph sinker to all but the low-and-in corner of the zone. Tonight’s starter A.J. Griffin is a 25-year-old righty who has been remarkably solid and consistent in two half-seasons so far. The A’s 13th-round pick in 2010, Griffin’s standout pitch is a big, slow curve that he brings out often when he gets ahead in the count. Finally, on the Fourth of July, the Cubs are expected to face Jarrod Parker, who has rebounded from a disastrous start to the season but was pulled from his last outing with a hamstring twinge. The former ninth-overall pick in 2007 pairs a low-90s fastball with a plus change-up, and he’s been throwing more strikes (especially quality ones) of late. It all leads to a deep bullpen, with closer Grant Balfour putting the pedal to the metal in the ninth.

Series 26 Preview: Cubs vs. Brewers

Segura

(Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty)

Not much has gone right for the Brewers this season, as Milwaukee continues its tumble from perennial contender to NL Central also-ran. The Brew Crew suffered a huge power outage in the early going thanks to a rash of injuries, starting with preseason surgeries to two first basemen—Corey Hart and Mat Gamel. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez was also shelved for most of April as he battled knee issues. But as stagnant as the offense has been, the pitching has been even worse. Milwaukee’s starters own a combined 5.00 ERA, by far the highest in the NL, and the bullpen has had troubles as well. To add insult to injury, former MVP Ryan Braun continues to deal with questions about a possible PED link to the Biogenesis Clinic in Florida. A suspension for Braun would put an exclamation point on an already disappointing season in Milwaukee.

HITTING: 4.0 Runs Scored/Game (9th in the NL)
Despite their middle-of-the-road offense, the Brew Crew have profited from one of the top one-two punches in the game, with Norichika Aoki leading off and Jean Segura having a breakout season in the second slot. Aoki’s .367 on-base percentage is one of baseball’s best from the top of the order, while Segura has been doing it all. He’s tied for the league lead in triples, leads the league in hits and is third in stolen bases. And Segura is not the only hitter who has developed In Milwaukee when given a chance to play every day. Center fielder Carlos Gomez has finally become the player many expected him to be when the speedster was a top prospect in Minnesota. On a less positive note, second baseman Rickie Weeks’ game continues to be in free fall, and the Brewers have yet to find a playable bat to man first base when Hart misses time with injury.

PITCHING: 4.6 Runs Allowed/Game (15th in the NL)
The Brewers’ initial decision to go with a youth movement in the rotation was moderated by their late-spring signing of veteran free agent Kyle Lohse. But whatever their master plan is—or was—none of it has worked in a rotation that ranks close to the bottom in quality starts. Expected ace Yovani Gallardo hasn’t been able to pitch reliably past the sixth inning; youngsters Hiram Burgos and Wily Peralta have struggled to get their ERAs south of six; and last year’s rookie breakthrough Mike Fiers lost his starting job in early April and hasn’t given the Brewers any reason to think he might earn it back in the near future. Matters aren’t much better in the bullpen, as John Axford pitched his way out of the closer’s role, and replacement Jim Henderson lost time due to injury. Despite being the relievers most often used to put out midgame fires, Burke Badenhop and Mike Gonzalez have struggled to strand even half of their inherited base runners.

Series 25 Preview: Cubs vs. Astros

Altuve

Jose Altuve brings his .293 average and 16 stolen bases to Wrigley Field. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Remember the Astros? No longer a divisional rival of the Cubs, they’re making what they can of their move to the AL West. The organization has come under fire recently for blasting their talent down to the foundation in a full-scale rebuild under GM Jeff Luhnow. It’s a gambit that might cause the team to threaten the single-season record for losses, but it’s also long overdue so many years after the disappearance of the old “Killer B” squad of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman. And there are already signs that Luhnow’s management team has assembled a tremendous collection of talent. That might be cold comfort to Astros fans if their team loses 120 or more games this season, but the new ownership seems more interested in building a lasting winner than notching a fourth-place finish.

HITTING: 3.8 Runs Scored/Game (23th in MLB)
Diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve should once again be the Astros’ lone All-Star—although he’s more than a token, as he provides good power and an OPS around .700. Former Cub Carlos Peña is drawing walks, and third baseman Matt Dominguez can flash some nifty leather at third. Still, the roster is very much a work in progress. Longtime power prospect Chris Carter slugged .535 in the minors for the White Sox and Athletics organizations without getting a chance to play every day in the major leagues. The Astros gave him a long-overdue opportunity, and he’s leading the team in home runs with 14. Of course, he might also strike out 200 times, but in a lineup that whiffs 9.5 times per game, that doesn’t stand out much.

PITCHING: 5.0 Runs Allowed/Game (30th in MLB)
The pitching staff has been brutal from the outset, but the Astros are more than willing to turn over the organization in search of a few acceptable arms. They still have Bud Norris (5-7, 3.64 ERA) atop the rotation, but that may not last beyond the All-Star break, as he’s one of the few bargaining chips the team has left that could return some young talent. Veteran Jose Veras (14 saves in 17 opportunities) is making the most of his opportunity to close for the first time, and he’s supported by serviceable lefties Wesley Wright and Travis Blackley. In other words, the Astros can hold a lead in the odd event that they get one. But with the team struggling to average one quality start by someone other than Norris every turn through the rotation, leads have been exceedingly rare. The absence of quality talent at the upper levels of the farm system suggests that while the names of the pitchers getting pounded might change, the results likely won’t vary anytime soon.

—Christina Kahrl

Series 24 Preview: Cubs at Cardinals

Carpenter

Matt Carpenter has been a big contributor this year for the Cardinals. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Is there any organization more indestructible than the Cardinals? In recent years, they’ve managed to replace Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal in the lineup without missing a beat. Plus, the pitching staff has weathered losing co-aces Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in consecutive years. But mounting injuries in the rotation could bring the Cards back to the NL Central pack this season. The man trying to hold the staff together is the rock the team has leaned on through all of the previous changes: catcher Yadier Molina, now in his ninth season as the Cardinals’ regular receiver. Yadi not only intimidates opposing running games out of existence (he sees less than one stolen base attempt every two games, and throws out more than 40 percent of runners), he’s also an irreplaceable staff manager and a critical offensive cog.

HITTING: 5.0 Runs Scored/Game (1st in the NL)
Though the Cardinals lack a single signature strength in the lineup, they more than make up for it with balance and depth. The team exploited that depth this season when they moved slugger Matt Carpenter to second base, and he’s shown a fine aptitude around the bag. They also have slugging rookie reserve Matt Adams cooling his heels on the bench. Moving Allen Craig from first to an outfield corner would create playing time, but with Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday manning those spots, there’s little room to cram everyone into the lineup. If there’s one thing the Cardinals lack, especially with Furcal out, it’s speed. They’re last in the league in steals and stolen base attempts, a far cry from the days of Whitey Herzog and Vince Coleman. Still, the Cards’ offense could be primed for a big second half once Holliday and third baseman David Freese start slugging the way they can.

PITCHING: 3.6 Runs Allowed/Game (3rd in the NL)
Few clubs can contend with a healthy Cardinals starting rotation. Wainwright has undergone a remarkable transformation since completing his recovery from 2011 Tommy John surgery. This year, he’s drastically cut his walk rate while pushing his strikeout rate to an eye-popping 24 percent. And right-hander Shelby Miller, building off a strong 2012 major league debut, is one of the leading candidates to snag Rookie of the Year honors. If there’s a concern beyond the injury to rotation regular Jaime Garcia, who is out for the year after having shoulder surgery, it’s the bullpen. After losing closer Jason Motte for the season, manager Mike Matheny sifted through multiple alternatives before settling on journeyman Edward Mujica to protect ninth-inning leads. Mujica lacks the pure velocity typically associated with a shutdown closer, but he uses his splitter to good effect. If he struggles, you can bet the Cardinals will be in the market for a closer at the deadline.

—Christina Kahrl

Series 23 Preview: Cubs at Mets

Wright

David Wright has kept the Mets offense together this season. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Mets’ rebuild continues to hit alarming lows, with the team’s youth mired in some severe struggles. The demotion of first baseman Ike Davis and his .161 average, after a season in which he hit 32 home runs but batted .227, is just the tip of the iceberg. Infielder and leadoff hitter Jordany Vadelspin has a .281 on-base percentage, shortstop Ruben Tejada was batting .209 before going down with a quad injury, and left fielder Lucas Duda barely supplies enough walks and power to justify being the team’s No. 5 hitter. At 24-37 and with few solid indications of bad luck, the Mets occupy fourth place in the NL East only due to the presence of the replacement-level Miami Marlins.The lone bright spot has been the breakout season of 24-year-old ace Matt Harvey.

HITTING: 3.9 RS/G (10th in NL)
The Mets lineup has benefited from a handful of strong veteran performances. Some have been expected—cornerstone third baseman David Wright continues to be the team’s all-around best—while others—like the comeback effort of 35-year-old former Cub Marlon Byrd—have been much more of a shock. Second baseman Daniel Murphy continues to provide high batting averages, though little else in terms of secondary skills. But the Mets haven’t been close to enough to overcome outright poor hitting elsewhere. As a team, they are batting for a .229 AVG/.297 OBP/.380 SLG slash line—and that’s excluding the pitching staff. Still, it’s the struggles of their once-promising young position players that are causing the most long-term concern. At least they’ll have top catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud back soon, following a two-month recovery from a foot fracture. Like the few other bright spots so far, he still won’t be able to do it all by himself.

PITCHING: 4.7 RA/G (14th in NL)
The Mets pitching has been a disaster so far, and the staff the Cubs will see this weekend will be considerably worse because it won’t include phenom Matt Harvey. That said, a fielding crew with the worst defensive efficiency (percentage of balls in play turned into outs) and the fact that Mets pitchers have the majors’ lowest strikeout rate has compounded the problems. It’s a vicious cycle that, in the end, has led to lots and lots of runs. Tonight’s starter, veteran righty Shaun Marcum, has the rotation’s second-highest strikeout rate (21 percent), as he continues to rely on a mid-80s fastball that he can sink or cut, a good change-up he uses heavily against lefties, and a couple of breaking balls. But despite his ability to miss bats and avoid free passes, his 4.96 ERA has been the product of hard-hit fly balls and poor defense. Lefty Jon Niese and righty Jeremy Hefner keep the ball on the ground a great deal more but allow many more balls in play as well. Closer Bobby Parnell has done well with his power fastball/curve combination, but the Mets have had considerable trouble building a link to him with anyone from the farm system.

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