NEW YORK – For all the talk about power hitters vs. power pitchers, the Cubs and New York Mets view players through similar lenses. Imagine how different this National League Championship Series would look if the Cubs took Michael Conforto instead of Kyle Schwarber.
The Cubs wouldn’t be here without Schwarber, last year’s No. 4 overall pick out of Indiana University and already a playoff legend for blasting a two-run homer out of PNC Park in that wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates and helping eliminate the St. Louis Cardinals with another home-run ball that landed on top of Wrigley Field’s video board in right.
Schwarber connected again on Saturday night at cavernous Citi Field, blasting a home run to right-center off Matt Harvey during a 4-2 Game 1 loss to the Mets. With that eighth-inning shot, Schwarber became the fifth player in major-league history to hit four postseason homers before his 23rd birthday. The others: Mickey Mantle, Andruw Jones, Miguel Cabrera and Bryce Harper.
There is so much young talent on display here in this best-of-seven matchup. The Mets already got their own shot of adrenaline with Conforto, who jumped from Double-A Binghamton, made his major-league debut on July 24 and put up nine homers and an 841 .OPS in 56 games.
The Cubs scouted Conforto extensively at Oregon State University and also spent a lot of time on a high-school shortstop with great bloodlines (Nick Gordon, Tom’s son) and a fast-track college pitcher (Aaron Nola, who made 13 starts for the Philadelphia Phillies this year). The Mets grabbed Conforto – who played with Schwarber and Kris Bryant on Team USA – with the No. 10 overall pick.
“We liked him,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development. “We definitely had him as obviously one of the top three college bats for that year. (But) we had a pretty strong feeling we were getting Kyle, so we didn’t have to really delve too much into it.”
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There are no do-overs in the draft, but the perception had been the 2014 class revolved around three high-profile pitchers and the Cubs reached with Schwarber, a designated hitter with questions about his ability to catch at the major-league level. A below-slot deal – Schwarber got a $3.125 million signing bonus – only reinforced that idea.
“I expected that to be the reaction,” McLeod said. “Just because we all know the whole beauty’s in the eye of the beholder thing. But we felt so strongly about who he is as a player, who he is as a person. Totally get why there would be naysayers because of the body and what they thought the position might be.”
But McLeod and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein remembered taking a scrappy Arizona State University infielder in the second round of the 2004 draft and watching Dustin Pedroia develop into an American League MVP winner for the Boston Red Sox four years later.
The Cubs believed the hard-charging Schwarber – a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school – could impact their clubhouse culture in the same way.
“It takes me back to Pedroia,” McLeod said. “It was the same thing. People saw the body. Didn’t run fast. But we knew the player so well. He had always (been an) elite (performer). The guy’s just a winner and he refuses to lose. Competing is everything. And Kyle is that same guy with power.”
The Cubs Way is not that much different from The Mets Way. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson graduated from Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School and helped shape the Oakland A’s into a “Moneyball” franchise.
Paul DePodesta – New York’s vice president of player development and amateur scouting – once worked for the San Diego Padres alongside McLeod and future Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer. New York’s big arms like Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz were drafted during the Omar Minaya administration. The Alderson regime has used five first-round picks on hitters since 2011.
Here’s Epstein’s scouting report on Conforto, the son of a Penn State University linebacker and an Olympic gold-medal winner in synchronized swimming:
“Compact powerful swing,” Epstein said. “Uses the whole field. Very disciplined hitter. Ability to elevate the ball with backspin and plenty of raw power. Hangs in there well against lefties.
“In the field, he wasn’t always the prettiest out in left field, but he was a playmaker. When a big play had to be made, he could leave his feet and make those plays at the end of his range.
“He’s a team-first player. Seemed like a great character guy. Really (those) left-handed bats (are) hard to find. It wasn’t too hard to project it to succeed against the best pitchers in the world.”
It’s hard to project where the Cubs would be without Schwarber right now, a gutsy decision that might tilt an NLCS featuring two teams positioned to be contenders for years to come.