Friday, October 16, 2015

2015 NLCS Preview

By Rick Morris

NOTE: Playoff picks thus far are 3-3, 3-1 in the LDS round.

Chicago Cubs vs. New York Mets: In the ALCS, organizations that have been pointing for this opportunity are matched.  Kansas City culminated a long rebuild last year with the pennant and is trying for more right now.  Toronto has been in full-on “big market, win now” mode since 2013, utilizing aggressive trading to build a contender on a compressed time frame.  But the NLCS offers a complete contrast: two young teams who might have hoped to be in this spot by 2017, but are here now.  For further context: imagine Kansas City in this spot in 2012, when they still sucked (72 wins) and were going with all of their potential young studs.  That’s how far ahead of schedule the Mets and Cubs are.

Of the two stories, New York’s is more unlikely.  Yes, they’ve been building the best young pitching staff they’ve had since the cursed “Generation K” of 1996, but this much domination this soon is a lot to ask.  And their lineup at the beginning of the year looked like the sad joke that it’s been for most of the Citi Field era – and that’s before David Wright, a vaunted player although a glorified slappy at this stage, went down with a potential career-ending injury.

But then, as the pitching staff rocked it, the hitting actually moved towards them on the positive side of the ledger.  Wright returned and contributed.  Curtis Granderson minimized the hole in his swing from one that you could drive a Mack truck through to one that you could drive a compact car through.  Prospect Michael Conforto added some punch after his callup.  And, most importantly, Yoenis Cespedes was acquired in the first real “go for it” move since the end of Willie Randolph’s tenure and he played at an MVP pace – minimizing, as did Granderson, the all-or-nothing tendencies.  He truly has been, in the famed Tweet of Jerry Seinfeld, “a Cespedes for the rest of us.”

The upset of the Dodgers should not have been completely shocking, though, because the biggest factor in New York’s rise was the inexplicable collapse of perhaps the most talented team on paper in the game, the Washington Nationals.  Over the course of 162 games, the Mets beat down a team better than themselves in the eyes of the experts, only to find another team with the “great squad that can’t close” reputation in LA.  There certainly are substantial similarities in the teams left in the Mets’ wake.

In the other dugout, there’s amazing irony in the fact that the first Cubs team ever to win a postseason series at home – the one chasing the franchise’s first world championship in 107 years – is, like the Mets and also Houston in the American League, ahead of schedule.  Actually, given how awful they were in 2014, they’re well ahead of schedule.  It’s an incredibly young team and also incredibly explosive, as the power demonstration against St. Louis just proved.  As strange as it seems, for a team and fanbase starving for the title, this squad is playing with house money this year.  Granted, you never know for sure that you’ll get another look this good, but with the growth curve ahead of this sensational core and Joe Maddon at the helm, they’re set up better than anyone in baseball (again, with the possible exception of Houston) to get multiple looks at the whole ball of wax through at least 2020.  The Mets, Cubs and Astros are, stylistically, the poster children for baseball in 2015, with the amazing breakthrough of so many players under 25 years of age this year.  In this new era of extreme youth not being a handicap, Chicago carries no inherent limits due to their composition.

They seem like the kind of team to be very streaky the rest of the way – with everyone really mashing and feeding off of the positive energy, or being shut down with multiple strikeouts.  Neither extreme would feel very surprising at the moment.

What does help them in terms of having a dependable anchor in the middle of the lineup is the preternatural maturity that Kris Bryant has shown in his rookie year.  Already, he’s neck-in-neck for best hitter on the team with Anthony Rizzo, who emerged in the past two years as one of the top stars in the National League.  The arms, collectively, sans Jake Arrieta, are simply above-average.  The ace cooled off a bit in Game 4 and had to start regressing to the mean from his superhuman level at some point, but he’s still the best bet in the postseason on any night that he pitches.  Still, you have to like the Mets’ depth among starters more – their top three could give you a shutdown performance on any given night – but the innings are piling up rapidly for a group unaccustomed to the toll.  Minus the questions about whether they’ll hold up for another grueling round (or two), you’d have to like their chances to go all the way with a staff that can deliver the performances that you need in October.  But those questions do exist and as such, the super-young Cubs are actually the safer pick.  In 2003, in the aftermath of the Steve Bartman incident, the Cubs lost to the modern game’s poster child for a young team “winning before its time,” those Florida Marlins.  Fittingly enough, a Wrigley Field team built in the likeness of those conquerors finally gets over 12 years later. Pick: Chicago Cubs in 6.

World Series

Toronto over Chicago Cubs in 7

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