Baseball is a game of uncertainty, but even today we know that whatever the outcome of these two final weeks of play, we will see a long streak of futility come to an end. This season there are no dynasties coming out of San Francisco, no Yankees or Cardinals threatening to add to their history, and not even Red Sox fans looming around the corner. Instead, we have four franchises who have legitimate cases to be considered “tortured” or even “cursed”.
Those adjectives get a bit more extreme in the National League, where we are about to see a dream matchup. The first to clinch a spot in this NLCS was Chicago, who probably has its best shot to break their 70-year drought without a World Series appearance, or even go the full distance and win their first Fall Classic in 107 years. After being blanked by John Lackey and the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLDS, the Cubs erupted for 20 runs in their last 3 games, which was more than enough to overcome subpar pitching and thwart any St. Louis threat.
The Mets were second to join the party as they vie for their first title since the miracle of 1986, or at least get their first trip the World Series since 2000. They entered their NLDS knowing that they´d get to face Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke twice if the series went the distance, and the Mets overcame their underdog status by beating each of them once (both times in Los Angeles). The team was opportunistic and had tremendous pitching mostly throughout the NLDS, with Jacob deGrom winning Game 1 and the clinching Game 5 in impressive fashion.
The biggest storyline for this NLCS may come from how similar these teams are. Both of them entered the 2015 season with tempered expectations, as both seemed primed to have a learning year for their young cores with the possibility of contention if everything broke right. The Cubs rode their impressive young hitters and a Cy Young season from Jake Arrieta to win 97 games, while the Mets trotted out a precocious rotation of power pitchers that was boomed by Yoenis Cespedes´ arrival at the trade deadline to zip past the Nationals and take the NL East.
As they face each other in what should be a riveting NLCS, which team has the edge to reach the World Series? Today we take a look at the most important factors surrounding this matchup, which should be a ratings darling for MLB and a nail-biter for fans in Chicago and Queens.
While the Cubs have probably the hottest pitcher in the world as of now in Jake Arrieta, they have chosen to give the ball to playoff veteran Jon Lester in Game 1, allowing Arrieta to pitch Games 2 and 5, while becoming a potential relief ace if the series extends beyond that. While that presents the possibility of riding Lester in short rest for Game 4 or a possible Game 7, the Cubs also have other reliable options in the likes of Liam Hendriks, Jason Hammel, and veteran lefty Travis Wood, who came in relief in Games 2 and 3 of the ALDS to pitch through several key stretches.
The duo of Lester and Arrieta led the Cubs to having the league´s most valuable starting rotation in terms of WAR, while being third in ERA, and second in strikeout rate. With the playoffs being the ultimate test of matchups, it is likely that manager Joe Maddon will ride his powerful duo as much as he can. As insurance policy, the Cubs have also featured a solid bullpen that has meshed well under Maddon´s guidance. Closer Hector Rondon tends to be lights-out, and he is backed up by a strange mix of Pedro Strop, Clayton Richard, Tim Cahill, and even Fernando Rodney. While Chicago may not have the most talented relief corps, they should be fine.
On the other hand, the Mets appear to have a more stable situation in regard to their rotation, which should go 4-deep with quality arms. As upper management and Terry Collins have tried to balance their young hurlers´ workload, it seems likely that no Mets starter will pitch more than twice in this series, and instead follow the same path that was used to oust the Dodgers in the NLDS.
Matt Harvey has been announced for Game 1, while it would seem likely for lefty Steven Matz to go for Game 2 with Bartolo Colon ready to back him up from the bullpen. Games 3 and 4 will be divided accordingly between Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom, likely being placed depending on how the first two games go for New York. deGrom has become the team´s #1 pitcher, so he will probably get the first look at Wrigley Field. As for the bullpen, the Mets have found a formula that sticks in what could be a light version of the 2014 Royals. Tyler Clippard and Jeurys Familia form a formidable 1-2 punch for the late innings, while other arms such as Hansel Robles and Addison Reed should provide quality innings if they are summoned to the mound.
While both teams used key homeruns to advance to this stage, it is important to note that both of these staffs ranked in the top 10 for lowest homerun rate in MLB.
In terms of raw talent, the Cubs may have the best young lineup the game has seen in years. With default veteran Anthony Rizzo leading the way, the Cubs welcomed Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Jorge Soler to the 2015 team, all of which have exceeded expectations and were essential to eliminate the Cardinals. The Cubs hit a postseason record 6 homers in Game 3 at home, and power has been their calling card for most of the season. Chicago finished fifth in the NL with 171 dingers, but that may undersell what this lineup looks like nowadays. They also finished fifth in steals, which may be something to consider with Joe Maddon´s creativity from the dugout.
For their part, the Mets had a well-documented turnaround in the second half of the season, switching from a moribund offense to a potent attack with a few tweaks. The arrival of Cespedes has been the key, but so have been the promotion of Michael Conforto, and the DL returns of David Wright and Travis d´Arnaud. Aside from their 13-run explosion in Game 3 of the NLDS, the Mets only scored 9 runs across their other four games, but they made them all count. Daniel Murphy is now part of Mets lore for all time, while it should be noted that the team finished third in the NL with 177 homers.
Defense, Managers, and Intangibles
While both teams finished in the NL´s top 10 for defensive rating, none of them can stake a claim as an elite defensive squad, and should be considered mostly adequate. However, both teams do scout well and tend to play smart defensive shifts, which could prove quite beneficial for the two of them. The contrast from spacious Citi Field to small Wrigley will be interesting to analyze as the series shifts back and forth, even as it is unlikely that this series will be decided by defensive genius or miscues.
In terms of managing, the Cubs seem to have a clear edge in having Joe Maddon at the helm. Having the benefit of young talent but also the kind of payroll he never had in Tampa Bay, Maddon has been able to mix all factors working in his favor to produce what looks like a sustainable contender for years to come. However, Terry Collins may be underrated for all he´s had to endure during his Mets tenure. After years of mismanagement and low expectations, the veteran manager has been able to get the most out of a mishmash roster that could signal the start of a new period of success for the Mets. By the way, it is also important to give a special mention to pitching coach Dan Warthen, who has turned a bunch of inexperienced hard-throwers into star pitchers in a very short span.
Both stadiums will be rocking from Game 1 to wherever this series takes us, so this series has the potential to be special while also leaving a lot of heartbreak for the team that loses. As if the curse of the Billy Goat and the ghosts of Bernie Madoff are not enough, now they have to face each other for a chance at history. Trust me: it will be a treat.
It is hard to root against any of these teams from a neutral standpoint, as they are both full of exciting, young players that will be part of the future of baseball for years to come. They are also both trying to break long droughts, and their status as big-market franchises is certain to bring a lot of attention to an NLCS that would have been almost impossible to predict a mere six months ago.
Having said that, I do think the Mets have looked like a team of destiny since early August, and they appear to have the pitching edge now that Jake Arrieta will be limited to a Game 2 start. Even when Theo Epstein and his crew were able to break the Curse of the Bambino in Boston, they had to endure a couple of traumatic playoff losses on their way to glory. I can see the Cubs ending their drought sometime this decade, but for now, it will have to wait another year.
Mets in 7.