Cubs know Mets are different NLCS team with Yoenis Cespedes


Cubs know Mets are different NLCS team with Yoenis Cespedes

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.

[MORE: Cubs vs. Mets NLCS Preview - Young pitching vs. young hitting]

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.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.