NLCS

Scouting the Cubs' competition: Are the Mets back in contention?

mets_scouting_report_slide_image.jpg
USA TODAY

Scouting the Cubs' competition: Are the Mets back in contention?

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

New York Mets

2017 record: 70-92, 4th place in NL East

Offseason additions: Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Adrian Gonzalez, Anthony Swarzak, Jason Vargas, Jose Lobaton, A.J. Griffin

Offseason departures: Neil Walker

X-factor: Pitching health

For everybody.

The Mets pitchers are suddenly not-so-young and they have zero World Series rings to show for it. In major part because they haven't all been healthy at the same time since that 2015 season in which they shut the Cubs right down out of the NLCS.

Will they ever be healthy again? Who knows? But if — somehow — Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Robert Gsellman are all healthy at the same time and pitching like they're capable of, it's gonna be tough to keep this Mets team at bay (even with an aging lineup).

Of course, expecting that to happen is probably foolish, but it's definitely within the realm of possibility.

Projected lineup

1. Brandon Nimmo - CF
2. Yoenis Cespedes - LF
3. Jay Bruce - RF
4. Todd Frazier - 3B
5. Adrian Gonzalez - 1B
6. Asdrubal Cabrera - 2B
7. Travis d'Arnaud - C
8. Amed Rosario - SS

Projected rotation

1. Noah Syndergaard
2. Jacob deGrom
3. Steven Matz
4. Matt Harvey
5. Zack Wheeler

Outlook

We've already discussed the starting pitching health. The Mets also have a solid bullpen that will be improved with Jeurys Familia avoiding suspension and Swarzak's arrival after a breakout 2017 with the White Sox and Brewers.

This lineup has been productive in the past, but it's very old. The 2-through-6 hitters are all on the wrong side of 30 and on the bench, Jose Reyes is 34. 

Rosario (22), Nimmo (24) and Michael Conforto (25) inject some youth into this club, but Conforto is hampered by a shoulder injury and doesn't expect to join the team until at least a few weeks into the 2018 season.

Still, if they can stave off Father Time, this lineup should score some runs, even if they're a station-to-station bunch of slow-footed fellows. 

If the rotation is spinning the way they are capable of, the lineup should score enough runs to win a decent amount of ballgames. Thanks to depth on the bench (Reyes, Wilmer Flores, Juan Lagares), the Mets should be OK even if one or two of their old guys hit the 10-day DL.

But this all hinges on pitching. Syndergaard and deGrom are a dynamic 1-2 punch, but MAJOR question marks follow. 

The Mets will probably be a part of the wild card race in the NL, but ultimately won't be playing come October. Too many "ifs".

Prediction: 2nd in NL East, no playoffs

Complete opposition research

Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres
Miami Marlins
Philadelphia Phillies
Atlanta Braves
New York Mets

After making qualifying offers, now comes the hard part for Cubs, Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis

After making qualifying offers, now comes the hard part for Cubs, Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis

Making qualifying offers to Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis before Monday’s 4 p.m. deadline might have been two of the easiest decisions the Cubs will face all winter.

It guaranteed draft-pick compensation if the Cy Young Award winner and the All-Star closer decline the one-year, $17.4 million contract offers within the next 10 days – and that looks like obvious moves given their reputations and strong platform seasons – and sign elsewhere as free agents.   

Now comes the hard part for two 30-something pitchers and a front office that needs to do a lot of heavy lifting for a team that has won 292 games, back-to-back division titles, six playoff rounds and a World Series across the last three seasons.

We’ll find out how close super-agent Scott Boras can get to his bulletin-board quote from Opening Night 2016, when Arrieta set the tone for a championship season with seven scoreless innings in a 9-0 win at Angel Stadium of Anaheim: “Every Cy Young Award winner I know got a seven-year contract.”

We’ll see if last winter’s record-setting deals for closers become the norm – or an anomaly – after another October where relievers took center stage and managers constantly got second-guessed for those bullpen decisions.

Don’t expect anyone to hand Arrieta a megadeal that runs through his age-38 season, but this a top-of-the-rotation starter who won almost 70 percent of the time with the Cubs (68-31, 2.73 ERA), put up a 3.08 ERA in nine career playoff games and took control of his career by developing his own training program and visualization process.       

As someone who notched the final out of the 2015 World Series for the Kansas City Royals, went 32-for-33 in save chances as a Cub and threw 92 pitches (!!!) combined in his last two playoff appearances, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Davis to shoot for Mark Melancon’s four-year, $62 million contract (a deal the San Francisco Giants must already regret).  

[MORE: For the second straight year, Munenori Kawasaki is a world champion]

You know the Cubs will stay in touch with the Arrieta and Davis camps – just in case a certain market doesn’t develop or a player is left out in the cold – because that’s how this front office operates and how much this team needs pitching.

“We’d love to have Wade Davis back, and same with Jake,” team president Theo Epstein said the day after the Los Angeles Dodgers bounced the Cubs from the National League Championship Series. “They’re two quality pitchers, guys who are elite at what they do and have tremendous track records.

“When it comes to free agency – and starting to talk about prospective free agents – I always stop and recognize just how hard it is to get to free agency and how much work these guys put in to get to this point.

“It’s a right that they’ve earned and that they deserve. You may only get one crack at it in your whole career. It’s an important time for them. They have to do what they should do to put themselves in a great position going forward with their families.

“From our end, it’s easy to sit here and say we’d love to have them both back, because we would, for what they do on the field, and for what we think of them off the field, and what they contribute off the field. But it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

Just look at next season’s projected arbitration salaries on MLB Trade Rumors and the rising costs for 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant ($8.9 million), World Series Game 7 starter Kyle Hendricks ($4.9 million) and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell ($2.3 million).

Keep in mind next winter’s banner class of free agents, which includes Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and potentially Clayton Kershaw and David Price.         

This is also where the Cubs are going to feel the squeeze from the final six years of Jason Heyward’s $184 million contract. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist will make $28 million combined during his age-37 and -38 seasons, possibly as a part-time player. Jon Lester is only halfway through his totally-worth-it $155 million contract and the Cubs already know how nine-figure deals for pitchers usually end.  

So it won’t be a surprise if the Cubs try to trade for and coach up the next Arrieta, and get a little more creative with the ninth inning than simply making Davis an offer he can’t refuse.    

“You have tough choices to make,” Epstein said. “We have a lot of players getting to a different point in their careers with respect to salary structure and players getting raises. And looking even beyond next year, and considering future free-agent classes and different things we need to do to try to keep this consistent winner (going).

“We’re going to go in open-minded with an obvious desire to keep both guys, but knowing it will be complicated and seeing what we can do.”

How Theo Epstein sees Cubs identity entering 2018

javy_cubs_identity_2018_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

How Theo Epstein sees Cubs identity entering 2018

One year ago today, it finally happened.

The Cubs erased 108 championship-less years in its franchise history, battling through — and coming out on top — one of the greatest baseball games ever played.

2016's Game 7 was far more entertaining than 2017's iteration, even if this fall's World Series was undeniably epic in its own right.

Watching as the Houston Astros reveled in all their euphoria late Wednesday night, the Cubs and their fans obviously wished it was the boys in blue celebrating a second straight world championship.

The Cubs are no longer defending or reigning champs. But as 2017 gets further in the rearview mirror and the focus shifts to 2018 and beyond, Theo Epstein knows exactly what he's got in his team.

"I'm proud of the players because to me, now, the identity of the organization is: This is a team you can count on to play into October, you can count on them to play deep into October, you can count on them to play some epic games in October and you like their chances of winning those games," Epstein said on Oct. 20, the day after the Cubs' season ended.

"And that's a hard-fought identity that our players and a lot of guys behind the scenes have worked really hard to attain. I'm proud of them for that.

"And part of our job is to help create that identity and put them in position to achieve as many of those goals as they can."

Epstein's point about the Cubs' epic games is an interesting one.

Obviously the contest known simply as "Game 7" is up there, with the most famous rain delay in sports — and Chicago — history. 

But then there's Game 5 of the NLDS this fall, when the Cubs somehow outlasted the Washington Nationals in a winner-take-all game of epic proportions. 

There was a time not too long ago when it was even a question if the Cubs would put together three straight winning seasons, let alone three trips to the playoffs (done for the first time since 1906-08) or three straight years as one of the top two teams in the National League.

That task was much tougher in 2017, when the entire organization was nursing a World Series hangover that they know publicly admit was as real as the 108-year drought. And they were able to somehow play 10 postseason games despite a historically bad offensive showing.

The memories of 2003, 2007 and 2008 are in the distant past, with expectations now that this Cubs team challenge for the title each season.

"The identity of this organization has changed in a lot of ways that are meaningful and positive," Epstein said. "Looking around at those guys, any year in which we went to our third straight NLCS, if we're being honest — there was a tinge of disappointment, obviously.

"And to have disappointment in a year in which you reach the NLCS for the third straight year shows just how much the expectations have been raised around here and how high the bar is. That is a great thing.

"...We didn't reach our ultimate goal, but there's real value in getting back to October, to winning a series, to giving your fans thrilling baseball."