Cubs

Setting the 'Panic City' scene for Cubs vs. Mets: Is this it for the defending NL champs?

Setting the 'Panic City' scene for Cubs vs. Mets: Is this it for the defending NL champs?

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.”

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

As the Cubs managerial search continues, the Astros are vying for their second World Series championship in a three-year span.

Coincidentally, the man leading Houston once envisioned himself doing the same thing on the North Side of Chicago. It’s strange how baseball works sometimes. 

A.J. Hinch — who interviewed for the Cubs managerial job in 2013 — was disappointed when Theo Epstein and Co. chose Rick Renteria to take the reins of the club instead, especially given his managerial experience. But then again, Hinch recognizes he still could have been pushed out a year later for Joe Maddon the same way Renteria was. So, maybe things did work out best for everyone.

Between that history and Hinch's time with Jed Hoyer in San Diego, it explains why Hinch knows a thing or two about what the Cubs brass is looking for in their next manager and the process they are taking to find the right guy to steer the ship.

That guy might end up being Hinch’s current bench coach Joe Espada, who had a second interview with Epstein's front office this week.

“Joe and I were Triple-A roommates back in Oakland,” Hinch said. “I tried to hire him in Arizona as a first- or third-base coach when I became manager in Arizona and he immediately got promoted to the Marlins coaching staff. So when he was with the Yankees and we eliminated them in the ALCS in 2017, Cora was just about to be named the manager of Red Sox. I immediately asked for permission to speak to Joe and he was my choice; he was my hand-picked guy [to take over as Astros bench coach] immediately.”

And it appears, Espada will soon become someone else’s “hand-picked guy” to manage.

Will that be with the Cubs?

“He’s a well-rounded baseball man,” Hinch said. “He’s been in a few places and so he’s seen and done virtually everything to prepare himself to manage. From coaching in Miami to being with the Yankees on successful teams, to being a bench coach here. He’s been around decision-making, he’s been around high end winning and he’s intellectually curious.” 

Besides his coaching resume, Espada is thought to bring other innate characteristics to the table that would appeal to any organization. The Cubs liked what they saw and heard enough to bring him in for a second interview, which was no surprise to Hinch.

“He’s organized, diligent, he’s very fair to people, he’s a good family man.” Hinch said. “All attributes that help you build something in the clubhouse that ultimately leads to winning. The only thing untested in him is managing. And any time you talk about someone without managerial experience, I think you’re just going to have to learn on the job, period. There’s been plenty of examples of guys that have done it and Joe is really good. The potential could be very quick for him. A lot of teams have asked about him.” 

Naturally, the same could be said for David Ross, a candidate Hinch also spoke highly about.

“I think he’d be really good," the Astros manager said of Ross. "If he’s all in, I’ll love it because I think he could learn quickly. He’s got immediate credibility. I think the player buy-in is there and it would be interesting to build a staff around him.”

The intrigue will continue to grow in what now seems to be a two-horse race, but with the World Series getting underway the Cubs will likely wait for an off day or the conclusion of the Fall Classic to make an announcement. And even though their team isn’t playing, Cubs fans can still keep an eye on Espada as well as former Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez as the Astros and Nationals take center stage in the baseball world. 

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

The stats don't lie: Pedro Strop is one of the best relief pitchers in Cubs franchise history.

No pitcher has come close to the 120 holds Strop has notched in a Cubs uniform (Carlos Marmol is second with 83) and he also ranks sixth all time in appearances, ahead of Fergie Jenkins and Ryan Dempster.

Strop even has a better ERA (2.90) and WHIP (1.05) with the Cubs than Lee Smith (2.92, 1.25), who was just inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. 

But at the moment, Strop won't have an opportunity to build upon those numbers as he enters free agency for the first time in his career following the final year of his $17.6 million extension he signed prior to 2017.

He hopes he'll get another chance in Chicago, repeatedly calling the Cubs clubhouse "home."

"I gotta say the Cubs are a priority [in free agency] and I'll work with them first and see if we can work something out," Strop said after the Cubs' final game of the season. "If not, then Plan B — whatever is best for the rest of my career. Right now, I just want to come back and stay home."

Anthony Rizzo is the only player who currently boasts a longer tenure with the Cubs and the team got together after the season finale in St. Louis to toast to Strop, Ben Zobrist and Joe Maddon.

Maddon's departure was already official and while it's still possible Strop and Zobrist return, the Cubs wanted to pay tribute just in case this was the end for them, too. Strop called it an emotional and "sad" moment that he may have to leave the family he built in Chicago, but maintained hope that a reunion was in the future. 

The Cubs think so highly of Strop and his impact behind the scenes (especially on younger players like Javy Baez), Theo Epstein said last fall he hopes the veteran "can be a part of this organization when he's done playing."

Don't start lining Strop up for a coaching gig or a job as a special assistant in Epstein's front office. Not yet, anyway.

Still only 34, he believes he has something left in the tank and the final month or so of 2019 backs him up. Continued issues with his hamstring dragged down his overall season numbers (4.97 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but Strop seemed to find his rhythm again in September with a 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 14 strikeouts in 9 innings (though much of that work came in low-leverage situations).

In summing up his season, he wished he had been able to contribute in that way earlier in the year, but felt like he proved a lot in the final month. That could be a nice sales pitch to teams in free agency.

"If I'm starting a negotiation with the Cubs, it doesn't have to be that difficult," Strop said. "They already know what I'm capable of doing when I'm right and they know this is my house here. But I still don't know what's gonna happen."

The Cubs are undergoing a complete renovation of their bullpen this winter, with veterans Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Brandon Morrow ticketed for free agency and Derek Holland and David Phelps likely to follow. 

Right now, it appears only Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck are locked into relief spots for 2020, opening up a plethora of options. Kimbrel is a giant question mark after his debut season on the North Side and the other three just enjoyed breakout 2019 campaigns, so there isn't much of a track record there to trust.

There's plenty of room for Strop to come back, but will the Cubs come calling? Is it prudent to chalk up his struggles to the leg injuries and not just overall wear and tear that also saw Strop's fastball velocity drop nearly 2 full mph?

If the price is right, Strop could be a good low-risk/high-reward option for the Cubs to add some veteran depth to the bullpen. Relievers don't often become huge factors in the clubhouse chemistry of a team, but the Cubs have always fed off Strop's relentlessly upbeat attitude and brutal honesty.

Plus, he feels like he has some unfinished business with the Cubs next year.

"We had a contending team [in 2019]," he said. "Teams are getting better in our division. We gotta realize that and we gotta be honest that they're getting better. We just need to come back hungry and try to win. Just go out there, not thinking about whatever happened this year and just compete. We got the guys, we got the group. It's gonna be a really good 2020 Chicago Cubs team."