Mets-Cubs. Remember when that was a thing?
Remember, before Andrew Friedman finished turning the Dodgers into Major League Baseball’s preeminent superpower, when the National League’s Big Apple and Windy City representatives served as the two guinea pigs in a classic baseball debate?
This is no longer a thing, which explains the lack of fanfare as the Mets open a three-game series with the Cubbies Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. Yet with the Mets enjoying a strong start to the Steve Cohen era, with their worries low — all the more so thanks to the Yankees cratering on the other side of the RFK Bridge — you can afford to take a moment and notice the change in this intermittent rivalry:
The 2021 Mets are the 2015-16 Cubs.
OK, maybe not apples for apples. But the similarities are striking.
Flash back to what Theo Epstein, then the Cubs’ president of baseball operations and now a consultant for MLB, said in June 2016: “We love our position player base and the depth of it. It puts us in a pretty good position to put a good lineup out there every night and for the foreseeable future. But to do that, you have to be able to craft a quality pitching staff, sometimes year by year. We’ve been able to do that so far, but it’s not always the position you want to paint yourself in every year.
“Then, when you have the young pitching, you’ve got to keep them healthy. If you can, if you get them healthy at the right time, you might win the whole thing. But if they’re not healthy, it could fall apart in a hurry. So it’s just two different approaches.”
The Cubs approached greatness with an impressive trove of everyday players while the Mets took the starting-pitching route, constructing an elite rotation which prevailed in these organizations’ one postseason meeting, the 2015 NL Championship Series — a four-game sweep, you’ll recall, as Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz all got healthy at the right time to neutralize the likes of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, and they nearly won the whole thing, falling short to the Royals. Alas, in 2016 the Mets barely qualified for October, with only Syndergaard staying upright, as the Cubs — with the help of older pitchers Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey — won it all, ending their title drought at 108 years and one-upping the ’15 Mets. The Mets haven’t made the playoffs since. It fell apart in a hurry.
Only deGrom still stands from that impressive group, with Syndergaard aiming to return around midseason from Tommy John surgery as free agency beckons this winter, and deGrom might very well be the industry’s best pitcher. Accompanying him at the moment, though, are veterans Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker as well as youngster David Peterson. If they can take the most credit for the Mets’ 7-4 beginning, no one will mistake them (outside of deGrom, of course) as the collective nucleus of a team that hopes to execute a longer run of contention than the 2015-16 burst. That would be the position-playing guys: The newly acquired and extended Francisco Lindor as well Pete Alonso, Dom Smith, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, J.D. Davis, and, if he sticks around past this year, Michael Conforto. All of them are under 30.
On Opening Day, Mets president Sandy Alderson — who put together much of the 2015-16 team as well as this current club — said, “We’ve got a great core and a number of players that make up that core. … In an ideal situation, we’d love to retain them all.”
The Cubs, 6-9 record and occupying last place in the National League Central, didn’t make it back to the World Series after ’16, and Baez, Bryant and Rizzo all can be free agents in November. Change, and quite possibly a funk, looms. They did, however, make the playoffs five times in six years, a stretch these Mets surely would accept on the condition that at least one trip concluded with a parade.
For that, in Queens, would be quite a thing.
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