Coming into today, the Mets are 20-11 and the Cubs are 15-15, both teams in the thick of things early in the 2015 season. After many tumultuous years, both New York and Chicago seem to finally be turning things around, thanks to the work of Cubs President Theo Epstein and Mets general manager Sandy Alderson. During these past several years, both men have transformed their farm systems to become two of the best in all of baseball. And this season, fans are finally getting the chance to see the fruits of their labor.
When looking at the Cubs, it's all about the sluggers. At the major league level, the Cubs had two foundations in Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, both of whom are still young at 25. Now, the Cubs are boasting one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball after acquiring high upside prospects through the MLB Draft, free agent signings and trades, including Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell, among many others.
Bringing it back to the Big Apple, the Mets are not short on pitching. New York has arguably the wealthiest starting pitching depth in the majors, with a boatload of talent present in the minors. Referring to MLB's Prospect Watch, half of the Mets' top 30 graded prospects are pitchers.
This debate can go on for years. Is the Mets' pitching staff better than the position players the Cubs are employing, or is it the other way around? Legitimate arguments can be made that favor either side. However, I would like to look at the flip side that could really determine who will be the higher echelon contender for years to come: the Mets' hitters vs. the Cubs' pitchers.
The Mets Hitters
Let's start with the Mets' lineup. Per Fangraphs, the Mets have an offensive rating of -14.5, which isn't that good. What's saving the Mets is, as evident, their pitching and defense, which boasts a positive 8.2 rating. Judging by the looks of the lineup today, things should be getting better relatively soon. One of the key reasons the Mets are currently struggling is the absences of David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud, who before they each suffered injuries, were the team leaders in wRC+ in a small sample size. Assuming both come back healthy and stay relatively close to the levels they were playing at to start the season, that will give the Mets lineup a big boost.
Another two reasons to stay optimistic are the veteran presences of Curtis Granderson and Michael Cuddyer, and the continued developments of Lucas Duda, Juan Lagares and Dilson Herrera. Starting with the veterans, Granderson and Cuddyer lead the Mets with three home runs each. But, a better telling stat is the walk rate for Granderson. While he does have 25 strikeouts on the season, the Grandy man also has 19 walks, which helps boost his OBP to .352, second highest on the team for anyone with more than 50 plate appearances behind Lucas Duda. As for Cuddyer, he's provided steady production, posting the second highest offensive rating on the team behind Duda.
In the case of Duda, Lagares and Herrera, each has shown lots of potential. Duda leads the Mets in several offensive categories, including WAR, wRC+ and BABIP. And while Duda has just two home runs on the season, he is leading the team with 10 doubles, and I would think the home run power will start to come around. What the stats do tell, though, is that last year wasn't a fluke. In the case of Lagares, he has the most hits of anyone on the team. His BB/K ratio could be much better, but I think that will improve with more experience and tutelage under Kevin Long. Plus, Lagares' defense is his calling card, so even if he remains a .280 hitter, that's not the end of the world. And finally, we move to Dilson Herrera, who has scouts buzzing that he could be an All Star second baseman in the future. Herrera has a powerful swing for his small frame, and has a 104 wRC+ in a small sample size. While Daniel Murphy leads the team in RBIs this season and was an All Star last year, I think it is clear that Herrera is the future at second base. Only time will tell how long it takes him to assume the position for himself.
The Cubs Pitchers
Let's now switch sides to Chicago, where things in the Windy City are boiling up. This past winter, the Cubs made arguably the biggest acquisition in free agency by inking Jon Lester to a long-term contract. This month, Lester is 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA, meaning he's taken over as the Cubs' ace. He leads a staff along with Jake Arrieta, a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher who was ninth in NL Cy Young voting last season. And while Arrieta's ERA is up this year, he does lead the Cubs in WAR and is giving up just 0.5 HR/9. Jason Hammel has been a very solid #3 in his return to the Cubs, owning a 3-1 record and 7/1 K/BB ratio this season. Travis Wood and Kyle Hendricks currently fill out the bottom of the rotation.
In the bullpen, Hector Rondon has become an effective closer in Chicago. This year, Rondon has completed six out of seven save opportunities and has completed 35 out of 41 save opportunities in his three years in the majors. Outside of Rondon, the Cubs have former Cardinals closer Jason Motte, Petro Strop and former Yankee southpaw Phil Coke to fill out the bullpen. However, despite being big names, they've produced big flops, and have been a major reason why the Cubs have lost eight of their last ten games. Not good.
Who's in the Farm?
Another good question. We'll start again with the Mets hitters on this one. Referring back to Prospect Watch on MLB.com, seven of the Mets' top 10 prospects are position players, with Kevin Plawecki and Herrera both already on the major league roster. Two highly touted outfield prospects, Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto, are both expected to be in the major leagues within the next two years, and possibly by the end of next season if Conforto continues to rake at the minor league levels.
While shortstop is a question at the major league level for the Mets, the answer is likely somewhere in the team's farm system. Four of the Mets' top 13 prospects are shortstops, including Matt Reynolds, Gavin Cecchini, Amed Rosario and Milton Ramos. Each has their strengths and will provide solid competition for years to come.
In the lower levels, the Mets have a lot of talent, headlined by Rosario and 2013 first round pick Dominic Smith. Other prospects to certainly keep an eye on are Jhoan Urena, Champ Stuart and Wuilmer Becerra, the third piece in the R.A. Dickey trade behind Travis d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard.
For the Cubs, their best pitching prospect is C.J. Edwards, a tall, skinny flamethrower whom they acquired when they traded Matt Garza to the Rangers two seasons ago. Edwards, now in AA, is ranked #46 on Prospect Watch's Top 100 Prospects and is expected to become a high-end starter for the Cubs in the future behind Lester and Arrieta.
While Edwards is their best noted pitching prospect, the one with the highest upside in their system is Duane Underwood. Underwood throws a sensational fastball and a devastating curveball. Last season, he finished strong and is off to another good start this season with a 3-0 record and 1.29 ERA for the Cubs' A Advanced affiliate in Myrtle Beach.
Most of the Cubs' top pitching prospects are spread out through the Minor League levels, with a number of them at either the AA or A Advanced level. Other arms in their system to watch are Pierce Johnson, their first round pick in the 2012 Supplemental Draft, Corey Black, a hard-throwing righty acquired from the Yankees in the Alfonso Soriano trade, and Eric Jokisch, a crafty lefty with very good command that's knocking on the major league doors.
Given all of the information I have read and game action I have seen, it's hard to say that the Mets are better with an unbiased view, but I think the Mets have a little more potential, and here's why. As I wrote earlier, the Mets' batting order is not at full strength, and when they will be, they will be very formidable. Without Wright and d'Arnaud, the Mets don't have a lot of right-handed power hitters. Insert them back into the lineup, and that's probably an added 25-40 home runs and 100 or more runs batted in for the rest of the season.
Both the Mets and Cubs have top prospects right on the cusp of the major leagues, but in their respective strengths, meaning the Mets have a lot of pitchers nearly ready and the Cubs have a lot of sluggers nearly ready for the Show. However, the one thing that may top the Mets is the number of position playing prospects they have in the upper levels that the Cubs system might not have in terms of pitching prospects. As said, Plawecki and Herrera are two top prospects at their positions that have just reached the major leagues for the Mets. More position playing propsects are on their way up too, including possibly Matt Reynolds, Cesar Puello and maybe even Brandon Nimmo. The only Cubs pitching prospect knocking on the door of the majors this season is Eric Jokisch, who is a back of the rotation starter at best.
However, I think the biggest determination will have to be made in 2017, when a wealth of prospects are expected to reach the major leagues, including Nimmo, Conforto, Edwards, Underwood, Cecchini and many more. By that point, many top pitchers and position players in both farm systems will have reached the major leagues to show what they have. So for now, I think the Mets have a higher ceiling this season, but in two years, these two clubs could be fighting for the best record in the National League, where I believe the Mets can come out on top.