Astros-Cardinals: Position analysis
Intangibles appear to favor NL Central champ St. Louis
CATCHER EDGE: ASTROSBrad Ausmus is hardly considered an offensive force, but he delivered the game-tying homer in Game 4 of the Division Series for the Astros. Ausmus remains above-average defensively, though not quite as good as he was three years ago or so. He earns high praise from the pitching staff for his game-calling and defensive skills. Yadier Molina's arrival behind the plate for the Cardinals was much heralded, and you can't say he disappointed. Molina, younger brother of Angels tandem Bengie and Jose, clearly will continue the defensive legacy Mike Matheny left behind, and Molina has the higher offensive upside. That part didn't pan out completely in his first full season, which was interrupted by a broken hand, but it's there.
FIRST BASE EDGE: CARDINALSWith Jeff Bagwell limited to pinch-hitting duties, Lance Berkman ended the season as the everyday first baseman. After a slow start following knee surgery, the switch-hitting slugger finished strong, hitting .300 with 11 homers and 27 RBIs in the season's final 30 games and was among the league leaders in on-base percentage (.411). But while others emerged as Triple Crown threats, all Albert Pujols did was have his normal year -- and that means being a Triple Crown threat. He finished second in average (.330), third in homers (41) and tied for second in RBIs (117). Pujols continued to build his resume as one of the game's ultra-elite, an offensive powerhouse who has become an excellent first baseman. Two words suffice: total stud.
SECOND BASE EDGE: CARDINALSHouston's Craig Biggio set a career high with 26 homers, though his average dropped for the second consecutive season to .264. Biggio's skills have deteriorated from their lofty levels of the 1990s, but he remains a productive player and a clutch hitter if not the baserunning and defensive standout he once was. Mark Grudzielanek was perceived as an upgrade over Tony Womack at second base for the Cardinals, and he's definitely lived up to that promise. He battled knee and back issues down the stretch, but he delivered 134 games of strong play at second this year, setting a career best in RBIs and leading all National League second basemen in fielding percentage.
THIRD BASE EDGE: ASTROSAll-Star Morgan Ensberg (.283, 36 homers, 101 RBIs) was Houston's best player this season. He filled much of the right-handed power gap left behind by Jeff Bagwell's injuries and Jeff Kent's departure and delivered with runners in scoring position both during the season and in the Division Series. The Cardinals miss Scott Rolen terribly, but Abraham Nunez softened the blow and showed in the Division Series that he can contribute. Nunez, a non-roster invitee in Spring Training, stepped up once Rolen was gone for the year and delivered clutch offensive performances and solid defense. A totally different player than Rolen, obviously, but he's turned into a good backup plan.
SHORTSTOP EDGE: CARDINALSAdam Everett is Houston's best defensive player, but he hit below .250 and struck out too often. Everett missed the playoff roster last season because of a wrist injury, but he is completely healthy this time. David Eckstein was exactly as advertised for the Cardinals: a shortstop and leadoff hitter who brings instant energy and some very strong play to both sides of the game. With numbers very similar to what he put up as a core player in the Angels' 2002 run to the World Series title, Eckstein has fit right in with St. Louis.
LEFT FIELD EDGE: CARDINALSChris Burke became the hero in the 18-inning NLDS clincher with his walk-off homer. Eight different players started in left for the Astros, but they went with the rookie, normally a second baseman, about half the time. Burke has played fewer than 140 career Major League games, and though he is a high-ceiling prospect, he's still learning his way. Reggie Sanders set a Division Series record with 10 RBIs against the Padres, following up another strong season for the veteran. There's a reason Sanders found a home after a nomadic existence for several years: The Cardinals know a good thing when they see it. He missed about two months with a broken leg, and the Cards got good work out of John Rodriguez and So Taguchi in his absence.
CENTER FIELD EDGE: CARDINALSHouston's Willy Taveras is a Rookie of the Year candidate and one of the fastest men in the game. Taveras is a blur and may steal 100 bases someday. He also flirted with a .300 batting average this season (.291). In Jim Edmonds, the Cardinals have a surefire highlight reel and excellent power numbers over the course of the season. A three-time All-Star, Edmonds can anchor the middle of the Cardinals' lineup or hit in the No. 2 spot.
RIGHT FIELD EDGE: ASTROSAn everyday player for the first time in his career, Jason Lane's season has been one of stops and starts. The streaks evened out as the season progressed, and the Houston outfielder became a solid starter with power (26 homers) and his 78 RBIs ranked third on the team behind Ensberg and Berkman. When the Cardinals have had Larry Walker at full strength, he's the guy who was so very valuable in the run to the World Series a year ago. But neck pain has kept his status pretty much day-to-day. He's backed up admirably by Rodriguez and John Mabry.
BULLPEN EDGE: ASTROSThe Astros have the best young closer in the game in Brad Lidge and an underrated setup man in Dan Wheeler. When his slider is working, Chad Qualls can be nasty. But the quality drops off after those three. The Astros are particularly thin from the left side. No National League team had a better ERA than the Cardinals, and closer Jason Isringhausen led the way with a career low. Holdovers Ray King and Julian Tavarez pretty much did what was expected of them, as did Cal Eldred as part of an experienced group of relief men. The loss of Al Reyes to injury was big, however.
BENCH EDGE: CARDINALSOrlando Palmeiro and Jose Vizcaino give Houston two of the more versatile and skilled veteran pinch-hitters around. Add in Jeff Bagwell, 3-for-9 as a pinch-hitter since his return, and the dangerous Mike Lamb, and the Astros have the most formidable bench they've had in years. Having not only survived but also thrived without Scott Rolen for most of the year, Larry Walker for about half and Reggie Sanders and Yadier Molina for big chunks tells you all you need to know about the Cardinals' bench. From Taguchi and Rodriguez in the outfield to Hector Luna in the infield to catcher Einar Diaz and veteran bench guy Mabry, the Cards' bench retained a sense of excellence this year.
MANAGER EDGE: CARDINALSPhil Garner took a team that was 15 games under .500 in May to 15 over and a playoff spot in September. As good as Garner's second-half managing job was in 2004, this season may have been the finest work of his managerial career. Garner pushed all the right buttons and was a key in getting this team back to the playoffs. Tony La Russa's record speaks for itself. One of the best and almost certainly the most prepared, La Russa moved into third on the all-time managerial wins list this season. His 43 postseason wins are second only to Joe Torre and Bobby Cox. Beyond that, his attitude that nothing short of October will do echoes through the clubhouse.
INTANGIBLES EDGE: CARDINALSWith 43-year-old Roger Clemens, the 39-year-old Biggio and the 37-year-old Bagwell, this playoff series has a certain swan-song sentiment surrounding it. The Astros took the Cardinals to the very limit last year -- and that was without Andy Pettitte. The Cardinals might not have a chip on their shoulder after losing to Boston in the World Series, but they've clearly been focused on returning for another try.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. Jim Molony contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.