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What Cubs learned from playoff loss to Mets

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What Cubs learned from playoff loss to Mets

The Cubs and New York Mets endured the kind of slow, painful rebuilds that once would have been unthinkable for a big-market team.

But both franchises collected enough blue-chip talent that last year’s National League Championship Series felt more like the beginning than the end. 

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This is exactly the kind of potential rivalry Major League Baseball and its TV partners dream about – young stars, the world’s biggest media market and Wrigley Field as one of the backdrops.

So with the Cubs and Mets getting an Opening Day tune-up on Friday in Las Vegas, here are four takeaways from that four-game sweep last October:

Don’t take it for granted: In the immediate aftermath of Game 4, Miguel Montero stood at his locker in the old Wrigley Field clubhouse and remembered being a rookie catcher on the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks team that swept the Cubs, advanced to the NLCS and assumed that young core in the desert would be back for more.

“You can’t take it for granted,” Montero said. “You have to perform on the field. Obviously, for a lot of young guys, they thought it was easy to get there. Because they got to the big leagues and immediately they were there. So it’s like: ‘Well, how hard could it be?’ Especially now with this team: ‘How hard could it be?’

“You can’t take it for granted because it’s harder than it looked last year. So with that being said, my biggest advice is go out and play, take one game at a time and don’t take any other team like they’re not as good as you are. You got to play every team at your highest level in order to get to where you want to go.

“It’s easy to play a team with a (bad record) and you (show up) and they whip your ass. Because they’re all big-league players.” 

Get hot at the right time: The Cubs didn’t overreact to a four-game sample size. But the NLCS clearly highlighted some of the softer areas within a strong foundation.

The Cubs spent almost $290 million this offseason trying to upgrade the outfield defense (Jason Heyward), diversify the lineup (Ben Zobrist) and strengthen the rotation (John Lackey). The Mets also exposed those nagging issues with controlling the running game. Theo Epstein’s front office understands the coin-flip nature of the wild-card game.     

“I thought the Mets played almost four perfect games against us,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I can’t imagine they could play a better four games – in all phases of the game. Their starting pitching was fantastic. They kept us off-balance. They scored in the first inning of four straight games to sort of put us on the defensive. Their defense played great. Their bullpen threw great.

“We didn’t play our best. But certainly we ran up against a team sort of playing as well as they could. And that happens. To me, it just underscores the value of winning your division.”

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The Mets didn’t stay hot against the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. But the Cubs can’t just bank on the hottest pitcher in the world shutting down the Pittsburgh Pirates again, so they built a stronger, deeper team around Jake Arrieta.

“We won the one-game playoff,” Hoyer said. “But I think we’re realistic enough to realize that you go up against a great team like that on the road, you’re not going to win every one of those. The nature of that game makes you want to win the division.

“What you really want to be is the hot team. You make it every year, and you have much better odds of being that hot team that can sustain three straight series and win the title.”

Xs and Os matter: The Cubs have built a strong scouting system that combines video, raw data and human intelligence. But Cubs officials credited the Mets for knowing the 2015 team inside and out, identifying and preying upon weaknesses.

“It still blows my mind,” pitcher Jon Lester said, “the game plan they (followed), attacking our guys soft so much and surprising us with the heater. We’re such a good fastball-hitting team that it’s hard to surprise us with heaters. They did an unbelievable job.

“Sometimes, you have to sit back and you have to just tip your hat. We got beat. They beat us. They had a better game plan – and they executed a little bit better than we did.”

The Cubs hit .164 as a team, struck out 37 times and never led at any point during the NLCS. The Mets didn’t build their lineup around speed, but they still saw opportunities and stole seven bases. New York’s power pitchers – Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom – allowed five runs in 20-plus innings while closer Jeurys Familia finished all four games.  

“They’re an exciting pitching staff,” Lester said. “They’re young, which is a little bit scary. The fact that those guys are going to be around for a long time – that’s exciting, too.

“They’re obviously going to be in it probably every year. And probably the team that we’re going to have to go through to get where we want to go.”

The Undercover Boss is not a fan of The Dark Knight of Gotham: Board member Todd Ricketts – who’s probably best known for his right-wing politics and going on that reality TV show – used a Cubs Convention stage to say “Mets fans are really, really obnoxious” during a Q-and-A session with ownership.

That wound up becoming the main story on the New York Post’s website in the middle of January, showing the crossover appeal of these two teams and how much heat this could generate if really becomes a rivalry again.   

Ricketts explained how his French-Canadian wife, Sylvie, is a huge hockey fan who rooted for the Blackhawks and viewed the Cubs as more of a family business until that playoff ride.    

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“We continued to watch baseball,” Ricketts said, setting the scene for World Series Game 5 and the Mets leading Kansas City in the ninth inning. “My wife and I are sitting in our living room. It’s 10:30 at night. We’re in our pajamas. I don’t know if you guys remember – Matt Harvey refused to come out of the game.

“He did a show on TV. He did his own little drama on TV to show that he was the tough guy and he was going to win this game for the Mets. He went back out on the mound – and I think three batters later the Royals had scored two runs.”

Kansas City tied the game when Eric Hosmer alertly hustled on a groundball, and then scored five runs in the 12th inning to win its first World Series in 30 years.    

“When Hosmer’s left hand went across home plate,” Ricketts said, “my wife jumped up, pointed at the TV and she said: ‘Screw you, Matt Harvey! Screw you, Mets fans!’

“So I’m not certain that she’s adopted baseball as her favorite sport. And I’m not certain that she still would say that the Cubs are her favorite team, because she loves the Blackhawks so much. But I know this for sure: She really, really hates the Mets.” 

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

Is this the offseason that Cubs executive Jason McLeod finally becomes an MLB general manager?

According to Bruce Levine, the Giants are reportedly interested in McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development, for their vacant general manager position.

McLeod joined the Cubs' front office in 2011 alongside Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Before the Cubs, he spent six years in the Red Sox front office and two in the Padres' (with Hoyer, who was San Diego's general manager from 2010-2011). 

Of course, the Giants' reported interest in McLeod doesn't necessarily mean that he will interview for the job. However, it's worth noting that McLeod interviewed for the Twins' general manager job in 2016; he also withdrew his name from consideration for the Padres' general manager job in 2014. 

In addition to the Giants, McLeod's name has been linked to the Mets' general manager vacancy. This is more speculation, but the point is that it seems to be only a matter of time before McLeod is hired as general manager elsewhere.

For what it's worth, though, McLeod is under contract through 2021 and has previously said that he is grateful to be with the Cubs. 

“I’m exceptionally grateful,” McLeod said. “All of us are. Look at where we are at this moment in time with this team," McLeod said in 2016. "I can’t imagine a better environment, a better culture to work at in baseball.

"We’ve been together a long time. We’re friends. We’re good. We embrace the fact that we are good. And we challenge ourselves to be even better.”

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.