Do I have to say it? Are you really going to make me say it? Fine, I’ll say it: These are not the same Mets that went 0-7 against the Cubs this season. Of course, the Cubs aren’t the same team either. The young Cubs have developed into a powerhouse offense—they added Kyle Schwarber’s thunder, while Dexter Fowler and Starlin Castro were totally different players in the second half and Kris Bryant found another level—and Jake Arrieta has became one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Meanwhile, the Mets got healthy (David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud), called up some kids (Michael Conforto and Steven Matz), made some trades (this guy Yoenis can apparently flip a bat with the best of them), and had some youth of their own develop. So ignore the regular season. Heck, it's October and a short season and it's the Cubs and the Mets. Sometimes just ignore everything.
CF-S Dexter Fowler (.250/.346/.411/.281)
OF-R Jorge Soler (.262/.324/.399/.263)
3B-R Kris Bryant (.275/.369/.488/.317)
1B-L Anthony Rizzo (.278/.387/.512/.328)
2B-R Starlin Castro (.265/.296.375/.243)
LF-L Kyle Schwarber (.246/.355/.487/.307)
C-L Miguel Montero (.248/.345/.409/.279)
SS-R Javier Baez (289/.325/.408/.268)
RF-L Curtis Granderson (.259/.364/.457/.314)
3B-R David Wright (.289/.379/.434/.315)
2B-L Daniel Murphy (.281/.322/.449/.283)
CF-R Yoenis Cespedes (.291/.328/.542/.308)
1B-L Lucas Duda (.244/.352/.486/.320)
LF-L Michael Conforto (.270/.335/.506/.315)
C-R Travis d'Arnaud (.268/.340/.485/.312)
SS-R Wilmer Flores (.263/.295/.408/.262)
Both teams will go through this series without their starting shortstops, as Ruben Tejada is out with a broken fibula and Addison Russell is nursing a strained hamstring. Both have capable backups, with former top prospect Javier Baez stepping into the six-spot for the Cubs. He brings more power with less contact than his predecessor, and while he plays solid defense, he has more lapses than one would have seen from Russell, who was darned near Gold Glove levels. The Mets' understudy Flores has pop at the plate, but he’s prone to chase, especially if you pound him up, and he’s a liability on defense.
The rest of these offenses are a fascinating study. Every single player in the Cubs lineup is capable of going yard, even their leadoff man. Fowler managed the third-highest ISO of this career (.161)—despite playing six previous seasons in Colorado—and has two home runs and a double in the postseason. Schwarber is averaging one gasp-inducing home run per series. Jorge Soler was riding the pine for much of September after returning from injury, but in the postseason has gone 4-for-7 with six walks, two home runs, and a double; it’s unlikely he’ll find the bench any time soon.
The Mets offense has transformed from a liability into one of the strongest units in baseball. In the second half, the Mets were tops in the NL in home runs, runs, and ISO; the second-place team in each of those categories was the Cubs. Cespedes gets all the love, and deservedly so, as he slugged .604 and 17 home runs in 57 games with the Mets. However, when it comes to second-half slugging percentage, along with Cespedes, you also get to Duda (.591), Granderson (.506) and Conforto (.506) before finding the first Cub (Bryant at .505). And we haven’t even mentioned NLDS hero Daniel Murph,y and one of the game's best hitting (and most unheralded) catchers, Travis d’Arnaud. This offense is much more than just one terrific bat flipper; it’s a deep and talented group that can drive the ball all over the place.
One key factor could be the weather, particularly the wind at Wrigley. The Cubs have scored 18 of their 24 runs this postseason via the home run; if the wind is blowing in on the North Side, their elite power could be limited. Of course, this affects the Mets equally and could come down to which team pitches better and which offense can scratch across a few runs here and there. The Cubs struggles to score runners from third with less than two outs (their 40 percent conversion rate was far and away last in baseball) could end up being the difference in a game or two this week.
INF-L Tommy La Stella (.269/.324/.403/.269)
OF/INF-L Chris Coghlan (.250/.341/.443/.279)
OF-R Austin Jackson (.236/.304/.375/.247)
OF-R Chris Denorfia (.269/.324/.403/.249)
C-R David Ross (.176/.267/.252/.203)
OF-R Michael Cuddyer (.259/.309/.391/.272)
INF/OF-L Kelly Johnson (.265/.314/.435/.280)
INF- Matt Reynolds (DNP in regular season)
OF-R Juan Lagares (.259/.289/.358/.245)
C-R Kevin Plawecki (.219/.280/.296/.241)
OF-L Kirk Nieuwenhuis (.195/.270/.375/.256)
When Conforto isn’t starting, he’s the top bat off the bench, but once the Mets get past Game One starter Jon Lester, Cuddyer should be the one sitting. Johnson provides versatility and a solid pinch-hitter late. The bench is most hurt by the loss of Tejada, which puts Flores in the starting lineup and throws the inexperienced Reynolds into the fire at a critical time.
The Cubs’ depth also suffers with the loss of Russell, as they’ll either bolster their bullpen or add Jonathan Herrera to the roster. Neither does anything for the offense, but Herrera’s presence could provide a competent veteran infield glove they can use if needed late in the game. Tommy La Stella and Chris Coghlan could each find themselves starting a game here and there if Maddon finds a matchup he likes; both can play multiple positions in the infield. Ross starts Game One (and whichever other games Jon Lester throws), but otherwise won’t be seeing much playing time unless something unexpected happens.
The Mets starters can throw some heat and the Cubs bats love to attack fastballs. It’s an interesting matchup, but the keys will be pitch count. The Cubs bats lead all of baseball with a 24.5 percent strikeout rate. However, they also walked at a 9.1 percent rate (tied for second in the bigs) and see the most pitches per plate appearance (3.97) of any team. So while the Mets pitchers may rack up the Ks, the Cubs could also run into some of those fastballs, and if they don’t, they should be able to do a good job of piling up the pitches for the young Mets starters and get into a leaky Mets ‘pen. Of course, this is key for Harvey, who is apparently no longer on any sort of innings limit, but still won't be ridden like a true postseason horse. deGrom was dominant for much of the season, but in his final seven starts he averaged less than six innings per start and posted a 4.91 ERA. He has been strong again in October, though he seemed to be working in and out of trouble throughout Thursday’s Game Five victory. Collins’ decision to have Syndergaard get up and down in the pen multiple times Thursday, reportedly throwing 100 pitches before working his inning (on 17 pitches), likely means Matz works Game Two against Arrieta.
After that, deGrom and Syndergaard will face Hendricks and Hammel, two huge mismatches that will likely mean quick hooks from Maddon, who has shown he’ll go to his bullpen quickly with either pitcher toeing the rubber.
The key for the Cubs could be Hendricks, who gave up a home run to the first batter he faced in Game Three against the Cardinals, then looked strong before being pulled after back-to-back home runs in the fifth. Keep in mind, the Cubs were up by five runs and Hendricks was trying to pound the zone, avoid any walks, get early contact. Between those home runs, he faced 15 batters, struck out seven and allowed just one hit. His changeup has proven to be a nasty swing-and-miss pitch, and if Hendricks can just manage to stay on the edges of the zone with his fastball he can give the Cubs five to six innings of very strong work. His performance could be the swing game in this series.
Relief Pitcher (Innings, ERA, DRA)
RHP Hector Rondon (70, 1.67, 3.18)
RHP Pedro Strop (68, 2.91, 2.67)
LHP Travis Wood (100.7, 3.84, 3.91)
RHP Justin Grimm (49.7, 1.99, 3.53)
RHP Fernando Rodney (62.7, 4.74, 5.61)
LHP Clayton Richard (42.3, 3.83, 4.86)
RHP Trevor Cahill (43.3, 5.40, 4.76)
RHP Jason Motte (48.3, 3.91, 3.90)
RHP Jeurys Familia (1.85, 78.0, 2.99)
RHP Tyler Clippard (2.92, 71.0, 3.45)
RHP Addison Reed (3.38, 56.0, 4.06)
RHP Hansel Robles (3.67, 54.0, 3.68)
RHP Erik Goeddel (2.43, 33.3, 3.08)
RHP Bartolo Colon (4.16, 194.7, 4.57)
LHP Jon Niese (4.13, 176.7, 5.47)
New York has a dominant closer, and probably the best reliever in the series, with Familia. The righty has faced 16 batters this postseason and retired all of them. After him, it’s suspect. Clippard has a long history of success, working late-inning, high-leverage situations for much of his career. However, he had a tendency of late to give up the long ball, which will have the Cubs on attack. Reed has been great in Flushing, and unless his previous home run issues reappear it’s likely he could find himself supplanting Clippard in those big spots.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Mets deploy Robles, and if the power righty leans on his fastball against a thunderous lineup. Niese as the only lefty is certainly an intriguing scenario considering the Cubs trust two lefty bats on the bench—Coghlan and La Stella, and some nights even Schwarber.
Maddon showed against the Cardinals that he’ll go to his ‘pen quickly when one of Lester or Arrieta isn’t on the mound. Cahill, Richard and Wood give him the length to pull that off. Rondon had some hiccups in the NLDS, but still got the job done when called upon. Grimm had just one outing in the NLDS, but it was an impressive one, as he bounced back from a late-season swoon by striking out three batters in a row in a critical appearance. Once again, look for Cahill to see some high-leverage situations, where he’ll get some whiffs on his changeup and curve and induce grounders on his sinker.
These were two strong defensive units, as the Cubs have improved steadily throughout the year and the Mets have remained consistent throughout. Injuries to their plus shortstops do hurt both teams, with the Mets likely taking a bigger hit with the glove. Add in the fact that Baez is not available as a defensive replacement late, and suddenly things get a little murkier for the Cubs.
The Mets do have Cespedes playing center and Daniel Murphy at second, which makes the up-the-middle defense quite questionable for New York. Conforto has surprised many with his strong play in the outfield, but that’s countered by Wright’s struggles in the field since returning from injury. d’Arnaud is a great framer, but is trumped by Montero in that department, with Ross hardly a negative but a slight drop off from both.
Schwarber and Soler are both inexperienced and can look awkward when manning the corners, but both have looked better of late, with Schwarber occasionally making the spectacular play out of nowhere. When the Cubs are leading late, look for either to be lifted—with Maddon being particularly aggressive with replacing Soler once he’s gotten his third at-bat—for Jackson or Denorfia. Kris Bryant is no longer a negative on defense.
Collins makes some head-scratching moves occasionally, and while pitching Syndergaard in a must-win game is the right move, getting him up multiple times and having him throw so many warm-up pitches is going to be questioned by many. He’s managed to keep things in his clubhouse happy, but winning certainly helps factor into that equation.
While some may wonder what Maddon is doing at times, there’s usually (always?) a method to his madness. He rides the hot hand in the ‘pen, which is why we’ve seen Cahill and Wood get so many critical outs of late, and why Grimm may suddenly be back in on a regular basis. He’ll be quick to pull Hendricks and Hammel, and he’ll lean on Lester and Arrieta, the latter in particular. If he has a lead late, he won’t hesitate to pull a hot bat out of the lineup if it means an upgrade defensively. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who creates a better clubhouse atmosphere and gets his players to buy in and play harder than Maddon does.
These are two closely matched teams. While some would argue the Cubs have the advantage on offense and the Mets with the pitching, I’d say it’s much closer in both departments than it appears. The Cubs get a big edge in manager, and a slight one with the bullpen, and the defense is probably a wash depending on which units the managers throw out there. As I mentioned earlier, I think this series swings with how Hendricks performs in Game Three. It’ll be a highly charged Wrigley Field atmosphere, but the even-keeled Hendricks likely won’t notice. If his fastball command is where it needs to be, he’ll be able to keep hitters off balance with his changeup, giving the Cubs offense a chance to wear down Syndergaard, jump on his heat, and possibly work the Mets bullpen. Of course, it’s very possible Hendricks leaves that fastball over the plate and the Mets pounce.
The Cubs don’t get a break with any of these Mets starting pitchers, as they’re all very talented and could front many rotations now and in the future. However, the fact that the Cubs have Lester and Arrieta topping their staff pushes things ever so slightly in their favor, giving them the series in what really is a coin-flip matchup.