The American League boasts three evenly matched playoff teams that, if they suddenly jumped ship to the Senior Circuit, would run roughshod over the competition. The National League has four evenly matched teams, one of whom will survive a two-round playoff gauntlet and will immediately be tabbed as an underdog in the World Series.
The Dodgers are a more well-rounded team, but the Cardinals boast three starters that give them a puncher's chance in any series they play. Chris Carpenter came back from two injury-plagued years to claim the mantle of best starter in the National League. He is the ace of the St. Louis staff, but is capably backed up by emerging star Adam Wainwright and reclamation project Joel Pineiro. The front three in the rotation combined for a 51-24 record; they hold the key to St. Louis's postseason fortunes.
Los Angeles had the best team ERA in the National League, but the pitching staff is in flux. Hiroki Kuroda will miss the Division Series with various ailments, paving the way for a Game 3 start from punching bag Vincente Padilla. Chad Billingsley has fallen apart since mid-June, but he should be on the mound for Game 4. The Dodgers really need Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw to win the first two games of the series, and then will hope that they can steal a win in St. Louis.
The Dodgers may have the best lineup in the National League, but manager Joe Torre has to shuffle the lineup to get Rafael Furcal out of the leadoff spot. Torre has written Furcal's name at the top of his lineup card 105 times this season, which means he has batted his eighth or ninth worst hitter at the top of the lineup each and every time he has done so. The Dodgers can no longer afford to make this mistake, especially in a short series.
Other than Furcal and Russell Martin, who is inexplicably regressing at age 26, the Dodgers have solid, professional hitters at every other spot on the diamond. Manny Ramirez still inspires fear, even if he has not been the same since returning from his drug suspension. Andre Ethier may be the best hitter on the team, even if Matt Kemp still has the biggest upside. Kemp still hasn't completely solved right-handers yet; expect Carpenter, Wainwright and Pineiro to control him throughout this series.
The Cardinals have Albert Pujols, of course, which means they have the best hitter in baseball in their lineup. Matt Holliday was rejuvenated after a mid-summer trade from Oakland, and he put up a .353/.419/.604 line as a Cardinal. It makes for a devastating combo, but St. Louis simply doesn't have anyone else in the lineup to be feared. Ryan Ludwick started hitting after July 1, but even then only put up an .802 OPS. Yadier Molina had a career year offensively, and still finished with a .383 SLG.
To make matters worse, the Cardinals have struggled against left-handers this season - and they will be facing southpaws Wolf and Kershaw in the first two games of this series. They will absolutely need to beat one of the lefties in L.A. to win this series. I just can't see a scenario where the Cardinals come back to Dodger Stadium in Game 5 and beat a rested Wolf or Kershaw. I also can't see a scenario where the Cardinals lose a game at home against Padilla and Billingsley.
Prediction: Cardinals in 4.