The 2015 NLCS – a very predictable Cubs vs. Mets matchup – is only days away from being history, which makes it a good time to look at things from 30,000 feet.
Regardless of what happens in Games 3, 4 and (hopefully) beyond, there will be a team in the World Series that, before the season, had no business being there. Just look at ESPN’s preseason MLB predictions.
Only two pundits had the Chicago Cubs making the playoffs, and just one had the New York Mets playing October baseball. Naturally, nobody had the Cubs or Mets getting past the NLDS – much less a Cubs vs. Mets rendezvous in the NLCS.
And that’s not a shot at ESPN’s “baseball experts.”
Far from it, actually. Predicting how a 162-game season will go down, with zero foresight into injuries, is the ultimate crapshoot. (Props to Pedro Gomez for having both the Cubs and Mets in the playoffs).
No, the fact nobody saw a Cubs vs. Mets NLCS coming merely highlights the multi-million-dollar question: How the hell did this happen?
That depends on which team you’re talking about.
See, when looking at this series in the big picture, you’ll realize the Cubs and Mets have each built a budding NL power that came to fruition earlier than we expected.
I can’t speak for Mets fans, but I’ll guess they had a similar outlook as us Cubs fans did before the 2015 season: Compete at a level we haven’t seen in awhile and hope for the best.
And at the All-Star Break in July, that outlook was still intact – with the 47-40 Cubs one game ahead of the 47-42 Mets for the NL’s second wild card spot.
Both teams hit their stride in the second half, riding the NL’s first (Cubs) and fourth-best (Mets) records to relatively easy playoff berths. But despite the plethora of surface parallels, the Cubs and Mets got to the NLCS in very different ways.
Unless you haven’t watched baseball in a few years, you know the Cubs are built on their core of young bats and the Mets are built on their core of young arms.
In the interest of clarification, let’s define those ‘cores.’
Matt Harvey (26)
Jacob deGrom (27)
Noah Syndergaard (23)
Steven Matz (24)
Zack Wheeler (25)*
Jeurys Familia (26)
Hansel Robles (25)
*- missed 2015 season due to elbow injury
Anthony Rizzo (26)
Kris Bryant (23)
Kyle Schwarber (22)
Addison Russell (21)
Jorge Soler (23)
Javier Baez (22)
Starlin Castro (26)
Obviously, a Cubs vs. Mets NLCS didn’t happen solely because of those 14 players. That collection simply illustrates the narrative best.
For instance – Jake Arrieta might win the Cy Young this year, but in the grand scheme of things – he was initially viewed as a potential piece in the Cubs’ starting rotation of the future. A starting rotation that would, by design, supplement the Cubs’ homegrown wrecking crew at the plate for years to come.
And ‘homegrown’ is the key word here.
The Cubs drafted Baez, Bryant, and Schwarber – with Rizzo and Russell coming to Chicago in trades when the organization was still in rebuild mode. Soler and Castro were signed in international free agency.
Like Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks was acquired in a trade deadline selloff. Then Jon Lester – Theo Epstein’s first big free agency signing – and Jason Hammel (a much less lucrative free agent target) rounded out the patchwork rotation.
Similar logic was applied to Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero (both offseason trades) on the offensive side of things.
Build a foundation and fill in the holes around it.
The Mets, of course, did things inverse. Harvey, deGrom, and Matz were all drafted by the organization – with Syndergaard and Wheeler joining via trades when the Mets were still a less-than-competitive franchise. Familia and Robles were signed in international free agency.
With the deepest young rotation in baseball and a couple more young arms in the bullpen, the Mets leaned on existing in-house options (David Wright, Curtis Granderson, Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, Wilmer Flores, Juan Lagares, Travis d’Arnaud) for their offense.
Calling up top draft pick Michael Conforto and getting Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline was all the Mets needed to fly past the Washington Nationals and into the postseason.
Once Kyle Schwarber (taken six picks ahead of Conforto) settled into Joe Maddon’s lineup, the Cubs offense clicked and Arrieta/Lester carried the rotation – launching the North siders to baseball’s third-best record.
So who built their burgeoning powerhouse better, the Cubs or Mets?
My Cubs fan bias rarely allows me to crown another MLB front office over Epstein’s – but Sandy Alderson and the Mets have shown that there are multiple ways to construct a blossoming, perennial contender.
The fact this season’s NLCS matchup is Cubs vs. Mets – who had a combined five postseason appearances since 2000 before the season – is all the evidence we need to confirm that notion.
Because they’ll probably be doing this again in the near future.