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Cubs vs. Mets: Big bats, power pitchers and how to build a contender

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Cubs vs. Mets: Big bats, power pitchers and how to build a contender

The Big Bat Theory led the Cubs to load up on young hitters at a time when power became a rare commodity and so many other forces tilted the game toward high-velocity pitching.

The New York Mets – another big-market franchise with their own financial issues – looked at the long-term rebuild and wound up stockpiling young arms.

This is an oversimplification, because Mets general manager Sandy Alderson is a “Moneyball” pioneer who inherited Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom from the previous regime. And Cubs president Theo Epstein has overseen the construction of a sturdy pitching infrastructure.

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There will be no instant judgments here, because the Cubs and Mets could both prove to be right (or wrong) across the next several years as they shift gears into win-now mode.

But the Cubs took Round 1 on Monday night at Wrigley Field, knocking out deGrom in a 4-3 victory and seemingly saying to the rest of New York’s heavyweight pitching staff: What else you got?

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo crushed back-to-back pitches from deGrom – the National League’s 2014 Rookie of the Year – in the first inning. Bryant nearly hit the video board in left field, driving a ball toward the top of the newly reopened bleachers for a two-run homer. Rizzo then slammed another 94 mph fastball into the empty right-field bleachers to give the Cubs a 3-0 lead.

Within the first three years of the Epstein administration, the Cubs spent first-round picks on position players Bryant, Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber. They flipped potential big-time pitchers Andrew Cashner and Jeff Samardzija for a future All-Star first baseman in Rizzo and a possible franchise shortstop in Addison Russell. They gave Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler a nine-year, $30 million major-league contract before a new collective bargaining agreement changed the international rules of engagement.

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The Cubs pounced on hitters because they understood all the injury risks with pitchers and realized offense is suffocating right now with tougher testing for performance-enhancing drugs, specialized bullpens, extreme defensive shifts and sophisticated scouting reports.

“Pitching and defense got all the toys right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “And that’s why you’re seeing them dominate the game. And it’s going to stay that way for a bit. I don’t know what the next item is that’s going to come along that’s going to benefit the offense. But it isn’t here yet.”

For all their natural talent, combined Bryant, Russell and Soler have struck out almost 36 percent of the time this season. In the age of Big Data, this will be an ongoing issue for a Cubs team (16-15) with swing-and-miss issues anyway.

The next two nights, the first-place Mets (20-12) will have their top prospect (Noah Syndergaard) make his big-league debut and then give the ball to The Dark Knight of Gotham (Harvey).

“Now you do scout every game, every day, everybody,” Maddon said, “so you’re building up this really larger cache of information that can really help break somebody down.

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“That’s what these young hitters are facing, because nothing helps the young hitter now. Nothing. Zero.

“I don’t know that there’s anything out there to really accelerate hitters. So when you see a young hitter that’s really good…that’s pretty significant. Because that doesn’t happen, obviously, very often.”

The Cubs understood they would eventually have to overpay for pitching and they found their match in Jon Lester, who’s starting to look more and more like a $155 million ace after a brutal April.

Lester gave up three runs in six innings to improve to 3-2 with a 4.10 ERA. If the Cubs want to start rolling this summer, they will need the All-Star lefty who won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox.

“Now to be kind of the old guy, it’s weird,” Lester said. “I can go back to my days and just how naïve I was to the game and not understanding the game and understanding how to actually pitch. But these guys understand the game.

“That’s a testament to the farm system. The coaches down there, the front office, have done a great job in bringing these guys along and teaching them the game, how to play the right way.

“These guys are impressive. To see ‘KB’ come up – and ‘Addie’ and Soler – and to see the adjustments they make day to day and how hard they work, it’s just a testament to the organization on what they do down there, how they prepare these guys for this stage.

“This is a tough stage, especially in a town like this. When you get here, there’s expectations. You’re expected to do the things that people talk about.”

At some point during Lester’s six-year megadeal, the Cubs and Mets figure to be on a collision course toward late October. That’s where you can settle the hitter vs. pitcher debate.

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching for better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto