The tabloids are already asking the questions, even before the Fourth of July traffic starts, two weeks out from the All-Star Game. It’s on the New York Post’s website: “Is there anything else that can go wrong for the Mets?” And there’s this Daily News headline: “Will this week be the downfall of the 2016 Mets?”
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson delivered his “Panic City” line to the New York media last summer, right around the time Cubs manager Joe Maddon green-lit “Simon the Magician” for a performance inside Citi Field’s visiting clubhouse.
At the time, this looked like a potential National League Championship Series matchup, a made-for-TV, big-market battle between power pitchers and power hitters…maybe in 2017.
On July 2 last year, the Cubs finished off a three-game sweep in New York, giving them a 7-0 regular-season record against the Mets, who dropped to 40-40 before heading out to the West Coast to face Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke at Dodger Stadium and the defending World Series champs in San Francisco.
The Cubs responded to getting swept by the Mets in the NLCS with a spending spree in free agency that approached $290 million, fueling World Series-or-bust, Embrace-The-Target expectations, moving to 25 games over .500 with a 9-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday at Great American Ball Park.
The Cubs (51-26) and Mets (40-37) will now play seven times between Thursday night in Queens and July 20 at Wrigley Field, which should give us a better idea of whether or not Alderson can pull another rabbit out of his hat at the trade deadline, if Maddon should be pressing the panic button on his bullpen phone and how realistic an October rematch might be. Setting the scene for this four-game series at Citi Field:
• The “Panic City” state of mind returned with this week’s revelations that Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard have been pitching through bone spurs in their elbows, showing how fragile New York’s championship hopes might be. This is why the Cubs have been so focused on building with young hitters, the idea that it’s too unpredictable to plan around elbows and shoulders and when pitchers might feel healthy.
The presence of Cubs coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode has almost created a cavalier attitude toward pitching and an extremely optimistic view of change-of-scenery guys and bounce-back candidates. And the Cubs understood Jon Lester had a bone chip in his left elbow when they signed him to a six-year, $155 million megadeal after the 2014 season.
But the Cubs have prioritized spending so much capital on their lineup – first-round picks, trade chips, free-agency dollars – because Theo Epstein’s regime sees hitters as more robust investments.
• The Mets saw what Ben Zobrist did for the Kansas City Royals in the World Series last October, toured him around the affluent suburbs in Westchester County and Connecticut during the offseason and even offered him a four-year contract that came with more guaranteed money ($60 million) than the deal the Cubs put together ($56 million).
Zobrist has cooled off in June (.672 OPS) after a red-hot May (1.137 OPS), but is in position to be the NL’s starting All-Star second baseman. The Mets quickly shifted gears at the winter meetings, trading a spare pitcher (Jon Niese) to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Neil Walker, who’s already hit 14 homers in his final season before free agency. The balance of power in the NL East, however, might have shifted when Daniel Murphy (.349 average, .964 OPS) – the Mr. October who crushed the Cubs in the playoffs – signed a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Washington Nationals (who just swept a three-game series against the Mets).
• A full season of Yoenis Cespedes (18 homers, 45 RBI through 70 games this year) hasn’t dramatically changed New York’s offensive profile. The Mets entered Wednesday ranking 13th out of the NL’s 15 teams in runs scored (274, or 129 less than the Cubs). Corner infielders David Wright (neck surgery) and Lucas Duda (stress fracture in his lower back) are on the disabled list while catcher Travis d’Arnaud missed almost two months with a strained rotator cuff.
• The owners of professional sports franchises and the executives running those teams always talk about doing things the right way – and then act out of self-interest. It will be that way if the New York Yankees actually sell and the Cubs put a second-chance spin on closer Aroldis Chapman, who began this season serving a 30-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s new domestic violence policy.
The Mets already felt desperate enough to bring back Jose Reyes on a minor-league deal after he was arrested on domestic violence charges, served a 52-game suspension and got released by the Colorado Rockies. Reyes – a homegrown Met who turned 33 this month and is five years removed from his last All-Star selection – could join the team this weekend in New York.
• As a polished, left-handed college hitter, Michael Conforto certainly fit the profile as the Cubs weighed their options with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft. But the Cubs wanted Kyle Schwarber, with Epstein in particular developing a man crush on the Indiana University catcher/outfielder. The Mets grabbed Conforto with the No. 10 pick and watched the fast-track outfielder from Oregon State University become a catalyst for last year’s World Series surge.
Well, the Mets just demoted Conforto to Triple-A Las Vegas over the weekend, another reminder to appreciate how many young players the Cubs have graduated to the big-league level, without taking it for granted (see Schwarber’s recovery from season-ending knee surgery).
“This year, I think we have a little more confidence, a little more swagger,” said Kris Bryant, the Rookie of the Year/All-Star third baseman who has lived up to the hype. “But the Mets are going to be a really good team for a long time, especially with that staff.”