Cubs vs. Mets NLCS Preview: Young pitching vs. young hitting


Cubs vs. Mets NLCS Preview: Young pitching vs. young hitting

Once upon a time, the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets were bitter rivals.

But that was a generation ago. The 1969 season is in the past and so, too, is the dreaded black cat that ran in front of Ron Santo in the on-deck circle at Shea Stadium.

In fact, the Cubs' 7-0 record against the Mets in 2015 even feels like ancient history at this point as the two teams get set to square off in the National League Championship Series.

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"I feel like New York is a lot like us," Cubs veteran catcher David Ross said. "They've grown up over the year. They're a much different team than when we played them earlier in the year."

That's something of an understatement.

When the Cubs put the finishing touches on their season sweep of the Mets July 2, the "other" New York baseball team was just 40-40 and managed only one run against the Cubs in the three-game series at Citi Field.

The Mets beat Zack Greinke and the Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-2, Thursday night with a lineup that featured four key players who, combined, did not take one at-bat in any of the seven games against the Cubs this season.

Third baseman David Wright and catcher Travis d'Arnaud were injured and missed both series against the Cubs while rookie left fielder Michael Conforto didn't make his big-league debut until July 24 and centerfielder Yoenis Cespedes wasn't even acquired until right before the trade deadline.

This truly is a different Mets team - one that can put up runs in bunches and a far cry from the squad Cubs pitching limited to just 11 runs in seven games in the regular season.

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Add in the Mets' young pitching and this will be quite a tough test for the Cubs.

Young pitchers vs. young hitters

The foundation of the Mets' team is a core of young arms - Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. All four are 27 or under, with both Syndergaard (23) and Matz (24) making their MLB debuts this season.

Those four guys are making up the Mets' postseason rotation and combined to sport a 2.77 ERA in the regular season, striking out 593 batters in 566 innings. The Mets' pitching staff as a whole struck out 54 batters in 44 innings in the postseason.

The Cubs' young hitters, meanwhile, led all of baseball with 1,518 strikeouts in the regular season, more than 100 above the next team (Houston Astros - 1,392).

So even though the Cubs clubbed 10 homers in the four-game NLDS and have shown off impressive power this postseason, they have their work cut out for them against the Mets pitching staff.

How they got here

The Mets obviously rode their young pitching to the NLCS, but they really took off when they traded for Cespedes. The 29-year-old outfielder didn't even join the NL until late July, but he was so awesome in 57 games with the Mets (.941 OPS, 17 HR, 44 RBI) that some actually believed he should be the league's MVP.

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Cespedes gave the Mets lineup a new look, but they also got healthy and hot at the right time, going bold by calling up top prospect Conforto and getting Wright and d'Arnaud back from injury. Add in Lucas Duda's hot second half (.955 OPS), Curtis Granderson's steady veteran presence and Daniel Murphy's underrated skillset and the Mets are a scary team on offense, too.


Speaking of Murphy, he could be the key to the series. Anybody watching Game 5 of the NLDS Thursday night could see the impact Murphy can have on a game. He collected three hits and accounted for all three Mets runs, including arguably the smartest play of the postseason when he took advantage of the Dodgers' shift and stole third to set up d'Arnaud's sacrifice fly in the fourth inning.

Murphy also performed well against the Cubs, hitting .360 with an .865 OPS against them in the regular season, though he didn't score or knock in a run in any of the seven games.

Game dates/Probables

Game 1: Saturday, Oct. 17, 6:30 p.m. (@ Citi Field, New York) - Jon Lester vs. Matt Harvey

Game 2: Sunday, Oct. 18, 6:30 p.m. (@ NY) - Jake Arrieta vs. TBD

Game 3: Tuesday, Oct. 20 (@ Wrigley Field), time and starters TBD

Game 4: Wednesday, Oct. 21 (@ Wrigley Field, time and starters TBD

Game 5: Thursday, Oct. 22 (@ Wrigley Field, time and starters TBD

Game 6: Saturday, Oct. 24 (@ NY), time and starters TBD

Game 7: Sunday, Oct. 25 (@ NY, time and starters TBD's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.

Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy


Even with an entire spring schedule to go, guessing the Cubs' 25-man roster is pretty easy

MESA, Ariz. — The frequent mission of spring training is to iron out a 25-man roster.

But at Cubs camp, that mission seems to already be completed.

With an entire Cactus League schedule still to play, the Cubs’ 25-man group that will leave Arizona for the season-opener in Miami seems pretty well set.

The starting rotation: Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

The position-player group: Willson Contreras, Victor Caratini, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist.

The bullpen: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Brian Duensing, Justin Wilson and Justin Grimm.

Boom. There’s your 25.

Joe Maddon, do you agree?

“You guys and ladies could probably write down what you’re seeing and be pretty accurate,” Maddon said Thursday. “I can’t deny that, it’s true. Oftentimes, when you’re a pretty good ball club, that is the case. When you’re not so good, you always get auditions during spring training.

“I think what the boys have done is they’ve built up a nice cache in case things were to happen. The depth is outstanding. So you could probably narrow it down, who you think’s going to be the 25, and I won’t argue that.”

It’s the latest example in a camp that to this point has been full of them that the Cubs are one of baseball’s best teams and that only a World Series championship will fulfill expectations. Had the front office stuck with a starting rotation of Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood and Montgomery, then there would’ve been a spot open in the bullpen. But the statement-making signing of Darvish jolted the Cubs into “best rotation in the game” status, sent Montgomery back to the bullpen and further locked the roster into place.

Guys like Grimm and La Stella have been forced off the 25-man roster at points in recent seasons, though even their spots seem safe. Maddon even said that a huge spring from someone else wouldn’t mean as much at what guys have done at the major league level in recent memory.

“Spring training performance, for me, it’s not very defining,” Maddon said. “You’re going to be playing against a lot of guys that aren’t going to be here, more Triple-A guys, even some Double-A guys. Some guys come in better shape, they normally look better early. The vibe’s different. You play a couple innings, you don’t get many at-bats, the pitcher doesn’t see hitters three times and vice versa. So I don’t worry about that as much.

“It’s more about, guys that might be fighting for a moment, what do they look like, does it look right, does it look good, how do they fit in? Is there somebody there that you scouted? Because what matters a lot is last year and what you did last year and the last couple months of last year.

“So of course guys that have been here probably have a bit of an upper hand, but we’re very open-minded about stuff. And I think when you look at the guys, you’re right, it’s probably pretty close to being set. But stuff happens.”

Could the recently signed Shae Simmons give Grimm an unexpected challenge for the final relief spot? Maddon said guys who have been with the Cubs in the recent past have a leg up. Could Chris Gimenez turn his experience with Darvish into a win over Caratini for the backup catcher spot? Maddon threw cold water on the "personal catcher" narrative last week.

Of course, Maddon left the door open the possibility of an injury that could open up a roster spot and even shake up the depth chart. But barring the unforeseen, this 25-man group looks locked into place.

That gives the Cubs an edge, perhaps, in that they can specifically find ways to tune up those guys rather than focus on getting enough at-bats for players who are fighting for roster spots. But most of that edge came during the winter, and in winters and summers past, when the front office built this team into a championship contender.

There have been plenty of years when the fans coming to Mesa to watch the Cubs play in spring training saw the blossoming of a big league player thanks to a monster spring or a surprise tear during March. That’s going to be unlikely this spring, a reflection of just how far this team has come.

“It’s easy for me to reflect on this because when I started out with the Rays, wow,” Maddon said. “That was a casting call trying to figure it out. You had very few settled positions when you walked in the door. And then as we got better, it became what we’re talking about. As we moved further along, you were pretty much set by the time (you got to spring training) except for one or two spots.

“So I think the better teams are like that.”

The Cubs are most definitely one of those better teams.