NEW YORK – The New York Mets have a completely different dynamic with Yoenis Cespedes flipping bats, barging into the MVP conversation, loving the bright lights and the big city.
The Cubs went 7-0 against the Mets during the regular season, but that was before Cespedes and the trade-deadline dealing that transformed a fringe team hovering around .500 into a potential pennant winner.
“I take zero stock in that,” manager Joe Maddon said Friday. “We won some close games. Things just happened to work in our favor in those moments. Their offense wasn’t nearly what it is right now. I’m not even looking at that as being pertinent.”
This is the National League Championship Series you didn’t see coming this year with Game 1 on Saturday night at Citi Field. Maybe by 2017 or 2018 as two big-market franchises slowly rebuilt with homegrown talent, big-picture trades and targeted free agents.
But when the Cubs completed a three-game sweep at Citi Field on July 2, the Mets dropped to 40-40 after scoring one run across 29 innings, leaving for a West Coast trip as a dead team walking.
The next day, the New York Daily News took aim at the Mets general manager on the back page: “Hey Sandy, stop joking and DO SOMETHING to fix embarrassment you built: GET OFF YOUR ALDERSON!”
Alderson’s front office made a series of incremental moves, acquiring Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson from the Atlanta Braves on July 24 to diversify the lineup. On the same day, the Mets promoted Michael Conforto from Double-A Binghamton, fast-tracking an outfielder the Cubs considered with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft before taking Kyle Schwarber.
Within the same week, the Mets added an All-Star reliever from the Oakland A’s (Tyler Clippard) and landed the big bat at the July 31 deadline, sending two minor-league pitchers to the Detroit Tigers for Cespedes, a two-time Home Run Derby winner who’s making a salary drive before hitting the free-agent market.
“He’s a huge threat,” said Jon Lester, who got traded from the Boston Red Sox to Oakland in another Cespedes deal at last year’s deadline and will start Game 1 for the Cubs. “That was a really good pick-up for these guys.”
Starting Aug. 1, Cespedes put up 17 homers, 44 RBI and a .942 OPS in 57 games with the Mets, making the hitters around him better and giving this lineup a jolt. A 53-50 team that had been averaging 3.54 runs per game jumped to 5.39 runs per game during a 37-22 finishing kick.
“He’s obviously a guy you can’t make mistakes (with),” Lester said. “What makes him even tougher is he can cover both sides of the plate at any given time, so it’s not like you have him set up for a location later in the at-bat.
“It’s just a matter of trying to make a quality pitch and hopefully he hits it at somebody. But he’s such a good hitter, being able to cover both sides of the plate (and) also expand and cover the ball down and up and all that.”
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There was a point in the rebuild where the Cubs thought they might sign both Cespedes and Jorge Soler — until Oakland made a surprisingly aggressive offer (four years, $36 million) for the older Cuban outfielder.
To be honest, the Cubs probably didn’t think Soler would be that good that fast, producing 23 homers and 82 RBI in 129 games for an Oakland team that won the American League West in 2012.
The Cubs didn’t have the financial flexibility to sign both Cespedes and Soler, an elite international prospect who made so much more long-term sense. Seeing how many win-later trades the Cubs made to get into this position — and with Cespedes already on his fourth team — that looks like another flip deal in hindsight anyway.
But Cespedes — who has an .883 OPS in 60 postseason at-bats — should make his presence felt in what should be a classic NLCS.
“We all believe that we’re a completely different team,” said Matt Harvey, New York’s Game 1 starter. “We’ve developed so much as a team. We’ve obviously added a lot of key parts, and we’ve really grown. I don’t think any of us have really looked towards any series in the past. We’re really going into this with a new mindset – a new team basically – (and) we’re all ready for it.”