In the American League playoffs, the wild-card matchup was between teams with low payrolls — obviously one of them had to advance. But in the National League wild-card game, the team with the higher payroll — in fact, it was almost twice as high — handily won Wednesday night, making the NL Division Series contests a battle of some of the richest teams in the game.
Not only are these NLDS matchups seeded by regular-season record, but they’re also seeded by money spent this year — a sad and strange commentary on the state of MLB today. The top-seeded Washington Nationals take on the wild-card winner San Francisco Giants; those two teams are ninth and seventh, respectively, in baseball in terms of payroll. In the other matchup, the second-seeded Los Angeles Dodgers entertain the St. Louis Cardinals; L.A. was No. 1 in salary this year, the Cardinals 13th.
It’s a final four in more ways than one in the National League, and here’s what to keep an eye on in these best-of-five series that start Friday.
1. The Nats Are Primed
Back in 2012, the Nationals were everyone’s favorite; the team made the playoffs after a long journey from Montreal, and they had up-and-coming stars everyone wanted to see. But Washington collapsed in Game Five of the NLDS that year against St. Louis, blowing a six-run lead at home with their best pitchers on the mound — including giving up four runs in the ninth to lose the game and the series. And then the Nats missed the postseason last year. They won 98 games in 2014, and this could be their year, finally.
2. Can the Dodgers Buy a Championship?
It’s been 26 years since L.A. won the World Series, and the Southern California darlings have watched their Northern California rivals win two championships recently. That has to sting the Dodgers, so we all know they’ve spent crazy money in an effort to win. Well, they have another NL West title, but they need to win the Series in order to truly justify the expense, right?
3. Cards Want to Remain Flagship NL Franchise
The American League has the New York Yankees, and the National League has the St. Louis Cardinals. And the Redbirds would like to keep it that way by claiming their fifth NL pennant in the last 11 seasons. Plus, after losing the World Series last year to the Boston Red Sox, perhaps St. Louis is on a mission to wipe out that memory. Remember, they lost to Boston in 2004 before winning the championship in 2006.
4. San Francisco Likes Even Numbers
Forget 1962 and 2002; these current San Francisco Giants believe even-numbered seasons belong to them now, after winning the World Series in 2010 and 2012 — but missing the playoffs in 2011 and 2013. They beat the Pittsburgh Pirates handily in Wednesday’s wild-card game, and now they’ll have to pull off another upset against the Nationals. But S.F. knows all about upsets, as they weren’t really favored to win any of the six series they did on their way to those two championships noted above.
5. MLB Does Need a Salary Cap
It’s somewhat ridiculous that these final four NL teams averaged $159M Opening Day payrolls, because teams like the Pirates (with their paltry $78M payroll) just cannot compete, realistically. Yes, the Kansas City Royals (and their $92M payroll) still fight on in the AL playoffs, but the other three teams they have to get past average almost $142M each in payroll. And remember, none of these numbers include midseason acquisitions, which are usually pricey. Commissioner Bud Selig is retiring, and the next commissioner has a chance to correct a lot of Selig’s mistakes — and this should be one of top priorities for the future competitive balance of the major leagues.
6. Kershaw, Kershaw, Kershaw
He’s just one starter, but the Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is amazing. Like Justin Verlander in AL playoff series past, L.A. should be able to get Kershaw two starts against the Cardinals. But St. Louis has a deeper rotation, so there may not even be a Game Five. But if there is, L.A. would have the edge. And after losing to the Cards last year in the NLCS, the Dodgers might be on a mission, too. It’s hard to pick a winner in this series, but home-field advantage is the primary reason L.A. will advance here.
7. Rotation, Rotation, Rotation
The Nationals have the best postseason rotation left in the playoffs, and they’re healthy, too. Perhaps you have heard of Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmerman threw a no-hit game on Sunday to end the regular season. Doug Fister — formerly with Detroit — isn’t too shabby, either, and Gio Gonzalez was the Nats’ star ace in 2012. The Giants don’t have the same stable of horses they had in 2010 or 2012: Matt Cain is out, Tim Lincecum is banished, and Tim Hudson’s second-half ERA is sky high. While it’s hard to ever count the Giants out, they burned their ac e— Madison Bumgarner — in the wild-card game. Expect Washington to win this series relatively handily, especially considering the S.F. hitting problems for half the season.