10/2/2013 6:28 P.M. ET
Braves, Dodgers quite a matchup for NLDS
By Paul Casella / MLB.com
Both the Braves and Dodgers spent the final weeks of the regular season nursing injuries to multiple key players, leaving each club with some question marks at certain positions entering their National League Division Series matchup.
Los Angeles will be hampered by injuries to key offensive players, while Atlanta is hoping some late-season rest will have its key starters ready to go on Thursday. Given some of the Dodgers' missing pieces, Atlanta is left with an edge at a number of different positions. Still, the Dodgers hope their starting rotation can help to pick up some of that slack and, in turn, notch an upset against the No. 2 seed Braves.
With all of that in mind, a panel of MLB.com experts weighed in to provide position-by-position analysis and ultimately determine, on paper, which team has the advantage at each spot heading into Game 1 on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET on TBS.
In what has seemingly become a routine season, seven-time All-Star Brian McCann eclipsed the 20-homer plateau for the sixth straight year despite being limited to 102 games. The Braves' veteran catcher has been dealing with tightness near his right groin muscle for the past week, but is expected to be ready for the NLDS. Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis hit just .207 after the All-Star break and recorded more strikeouts (17) than hits (14) in September.
In a season in which Los Angeles was seemingly constantly dealing with injuries, Adrian Gonzalez provided some stability in the middle of the lineup. The veteran first baseman hit 22 home runs and reached the 100-RBI mark in 157 games. Even still, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman will garner his share of MVP votes after hitting .319 with 23 homers and 108 RBIs, while also making his first All-Star appearance.
Despite being the highest-paid player on the Braves' roster this season, Dan Uggla's struggles led to Elliot Johnson assuming second base duties. Johnson has played well in 32 games with the Braves since being selected off waivers from the Royals in late August, but Dodgers infielder Mark Ellis has the edge in experience and stability. An 11-year veteran, Ellis previously made the postseason three times (2002, '03 and '06) as a member of the Athletics.
Chris Johnson did about as well as anyone could have expected in his attempt to fill the vacancy left by Chipper Jones. Acquired as part of the Justin Upton blockbuster deal in January, Johnson excelled at the plate and provided much-needed consistency at the hot corner to start the post-Chipper era. Dodgers veteran Juan Uribe brings two World Series rings (2005 White Sox, '10 Giants) to the table, but Johnson's consistency earns him the nod.
There is no question that Hanley Ramirez played a pivotal role in the Dodgers' turnaround and put up MVP-type numbers in the process. However, Ramirez's health is an ongoing concern as he spent the past month trying to avoid further irritating a sciatic nerve condition in his lower back. On the other side, Andrelton Simmons is simply the best defensive shortstop in the league right now and he is also coming into his own, offensively.
Dodgers veteran Carl Crawford has a superior edge defensively, but Braves rookie Evan Gattis is a potential game-changer at the plate. Taking the league by storm with his early-season heroics, Gattis seems to have once again found his swing after a midseason slump led to a brief three-game demotion. The 27-year-old returned to the Braves' lineup on Sept. 3 and hit six home runs with 18 RBIs in 25 September games.
Matt Kemp is out for the postseason and Andre Ethier seems unlikely to be able to serve as anything more than a pinch-hitter. Braves center fielder Jason Heyward, meanwhile, flashed his Gold Glove Award talents in taking over center field while doing a similarly remarkable job slotting into the top of Atlanta's lineup. Heyward provided a much-needed spark for the Braves, helping Atlanta to a 23-7 record in games in which he hits leadoff.
It seems that Yasiel Puig could just as easily cost the Dodgers a game in this series with a fundamental lapse as he could win a game with his bat and unbridled enthusiasm. Yet Puig's high-risk, high-reward style of play just might bring the offensive spark the Dodgers need. Braves right fielder Justin Upton hit a team-best 27 home runs and makes this a near tossup, but "Puigmania" steals the spotlight on the big stage.
Though his ankle injury will prevent Ethier from playing center field for at least Game 1, the Dodgers slugger will be available off the bench. Despite being hobbled by the bothersome left ankle, Ethier still gives the Dodgers a dangerous bat to use off the bench in clutch late-game situations. They could also have the veteran presence of Michael Young and a solid blend of speed and power. With Uggla left off the NLDS roster, Atlanta's bench options are highlighted by fellow 2013 underachiever B.J. Upton.
Nothing against the Braves' rotation, but perhaps no other team boasts a 1-2 punch as dangerous as Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. A Game 1 starter on almost any other team, Greinke will give way to Kershaw, the National League Cy Young Award favorite, in the series opener. Being a five-game series, Atlanta will need to find a way to win at least one game against the daunting Dodgers' duo in order to advance.
Even with Jordan Walden's ineffectiveness down the stretch following his return from a strained groin, Atlanta's bullpen may just be its biggest weapon. Left-hander Luis Avilan and righty David Carpenter have been lights-out all season, and rookie Alex Wood has been impressive during his limited time in the bullpen.
Kenley Jansen has been superb since assuming the Dodgers' closer role in mid-June, converting 28 saves while posting a 1.88 ERA. No closer, however, has been as dominant as Craig Kimbrel. The Braves righty posted a 1.21 ERA this season -- best among NL relievers -- en route to also leading the NL in saves for the third straight season with a career-best 50.