<
>

Will fatal flaws haunt NL teams?

On Thursday, we looked at the fatal flaws of the four American League playoff teams. Now let's check out the National League teams and how these issues may end their postseason runs.

Washington Nationals: Bullpen

It's more difficult to find a flaw with the Nationals than any other team. They spent much of the season playing through injuries to Wilson Ramos, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman and still finished third in the NL in runs scored. They allowed the fewest runs, and their rotation was particularly dominant down the stretch, with a 2.25 ERA in September.

Overall, the bullpen was very good: 3.00 ERA, fourth best in the majors. With the quality of the rotation, it wasn't overworked, as Craig Stammen threw the most innings at 72. Still, there are a couple of issues to be concerned about. First, Rafael Soriano pitched himself out of the closer role with blown saves in consecutive appearances in early September (his sixth and seventh of the season), with Drew Storen taking over. Now, Storen had terrific numbers: 1.12 ERA, 56.1 innings, 44 hits, 11 walks, 46 strikeouts, 2 home runs. The numbers aren't as good as the ERA, however, with a 2.76 FIP, although his fastball/slider/changeup combination does generate a fair amount of ground balls instead of the killer strikeout rate you see from other closers.

The question with Storen is: Will Game 5 of the 2012 Division Series loom like a dark and ugly cloud on his mind? That was the game where Storen couldn't hold a 7-5 lead in the ninth, the Cardinals rallying for four runs to win the series.

The other possible weakness is the quality of Jerry Blevins and Matt Thornton, the two lefties in the pen. The Giants will have a string of left-handed batters in Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Travis Ishikawa, so you may see some matchups there. Interestingly, the Nationals will be carrying 12 pitchers, which seems odd considering the strength of the rotation. It seems more likely they would have benefited from an extra position player than an eighth reliever who may never get into a game.

San Francisco Giants: Bench

The biggest concern for the Giants in the division series is that Madison Bumgarner will receive just one start after pitching in the wild-card game. That's not necessarily a problem moving forward as Bumgarner would then be lined up to start the first game of the NLCS should the Giants advance.

While there are some concerns about the depth of the rotation behind Bumgarner -- Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong don't miss a lot of bats for 2014 era baseball -- I'm looking at the team's depth and wondering how the injuries to Angel Pagan and Mike Morse will affect the offense. Gregor Blanco, normally a solid fourth outfielder, will have to start in center, and Ishikawa will start in left. He made just his fourth career start out there in the wild-card win over the Pirates.

By starting Blanco and Ishikawa, the bench has been depleted and looks like one of the worst playoff benches in years. The best pinch hitter is probably Andrew Susac, whom Bruce Bochy may not be inclined to use because he's the backup catcher. The second-best pinch hitter may actually be Bumgarner, who hit four home runs. He's certainly better than the rest of the bench. Infielder Joaquin Arias hit .254 with no home runs in over 200 plate appearances. Infielder Matt Duffy had a nice season at Double-A, although with little power (three home runs). Outfielders Gary Brown and Juan Perez are strictly pinch runner/defensive replacement types.

All this means Bochy has little to work with, so Matt Williams should be able to get all the favorable pitching matchups he wants late in games.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Setup guys

With Hyun-Jin Ryu apparently healthy and ready to go in Game 3, the rotation after Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke should be less of an issue (not that Ryu is guaranteed to pitch well after having not pitched since Sept. 12). Closer Kenley Jansen had another solid season and is a dominant strikeout guy, but it's the pitchers in front of him who will cause Dodgers fans to worry. You know Don Mattingly would love to get Kershaw and Greinke straight to Jansen (or all the way, in Kershaw's case), but that's a perfect scenario and perfect scenarios rarely come into play.

That means at some point the Dodgers will have to win games with some other relievers getting involved. Brian Wilson and J.P. Howell had become the righty-lefty setup combo but both had terrible Septembers. Hard-throwing rookie Pedro Baez has just 24 big league innings but may be called upon for some key outs. Either way, Mattingly has hinted that Jansen is likely to be called upon for some four-out saves (but not five!). "I'm mentally prepared for that," Jansen told MLB.com. "I just have to make sure I don't get surprised, that I have plenty of time to get ready. I know I might pitch in the eighth, and I know I might pitch in tie games. It's that time of year."

St. Louis Cardinals: Power

The Cardinals hit just 105 home runs; only the Royals hit fewer. The Cardinals also had their lowest slugging percentage of any month in September, so it's not as though the power has come on of late. Cardinals fans will point out that last year's club hit only 125 and was 27th in the majors in home runs and reached the World Series. The Cardinals also beat the Dodgers in the NLCS while hitting just two home runs in the six-game series.

Like the Royals, the Cardinals do excel at putting the ball in play, finishing with the fewest strikeouts in the NL. Unlike the Royals, they don't have much team speed, finishing next-to-last in the league in steals. It's an offense that relies on contact and timely hitting. It worked last year; it didn't work to the same success in the regular season this year. We'll see what happens in October.