Great job, guys. We're three games into the second half of the season, and the Mets' postseason dreams have not yet been crushed. They just finished off a series win over the Phillies thanks to a dominating performance by Jacob deGrom, but more dangerous waters are ahead. Specifically, the waters of Lake Michigan, near which the Chicago Cubs just took two of three games from Texas in a possible World Series preview.
It was a step in the right direction for Joe Maddon's team, which was struggling mightily leading into the All-Star break. That led to some questions from the media about whether or not Chicago was truly the dominant force that it looked like for most of the first three months of the season. Maybe the club's pitching wasn't supposed to be amazing all season long, but it's hard to deny the depth of talent the Cubs have displayed on offense. Even if it's missing a key piece or two, that lineup should still be good enough to carry them through a rough game from the pitching staff.
There just weren't many rough pitching games to be had in the first half of the season, when even back-end guys like John Lackey and Jason Hammel were pitching like aces. It now looks like the Cubs might not be good enough to challenge for the best ever regular season record, but they still have enough bats to dominate the National League Central. Chief among those are Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, who both started for the NL in the All-Star Game and are both in the conversation for best power hitter in baseball. Even if the Cubs didn't have other impact bats, we'd still consider their lineup a very dangerous one because of this extremely powerful middle-of-the-order combination.
Of course, the Cubs do have other bats worth mentioning. Rookie catcher Willson Contreras has played so well since his June 17 debut that he has relegated both Miguel Montero and David Ross to backup duty. Although Contreras isn't showing the plate discipline that made him look like such a polished slugger in the minor leagues, he's still hitting .290/.371/.516 in the majors thanks to his .379 BABIP and solid walk rate. That success has inspired Maddon to place the 24-year-old right in the middle of the Chicago lineup behind Rizzo and Bryant.
Chicago's offense could be even more dangerous once outfielder Dexter Fowler returns to action. He was having a career year and hitting .290/.398/.483 before suffering a hamstring injury in June, but Fowler is on his way back with his rehab assignment set to begin this week. While the Cubs have not played very well in Fowler's absence, it wasn't for the lack of creativity by Maddon in trying to replace his leadoff hitter. Both Contreras and Bryant (a natural third baseman) have played some outfield over the past month while Jason Heyward and another rookie call-up Albert Almora Jr. have gotten the opportunity to flash some leather in center field.
Once Fowler returns, Maddon could even go to a starting lineup that excludes Heyward, who is hitting more fly balls than he did last year for St. Louis, but is still suffering from a severe lack of power. In 82 games this year, the expensive import has just four home runs and a .327 slugging percentage.
With Yoenis Cespedes out for the first two games of the Philadelphia series, it gave Juan Lagares a chance to start, and he took advantage with extra base hits in not two, but three straight games. In the third game, it was Cespedes back in left field with Brandon Nimmo on the bench. The move eventually made way for Nimmo to be demoted to Triple-A Las Vegas while a resurgent Michael Conforto returns to the majors. The Oregon State product did a lot more mashing than sulking during his short tour of the Pacific Coast League, but does that mean he'll be slotted right back into the starting lineup?
With Lagares playing so well lately and sporting the best walk and strikeout rates of his career, we're most likely to see a platoon between him and Conforto, at least until the former dips into a slump or the latter gives Terry Collins a reason to think he's ready to hit lefties again. How the Conforto/Lagares combo works out could have a big affect on what the Mets do at the trade deadline. While they presently appear focused on adding to the bullpen and possibly the starting rotation, that could change if one of these guys doesn't step up and hit better than Nimmo did.
|Mets Probable Starter
|Cubs Probable Starter
|July 18, 2016
|July 19, 2016
|July 20, 2016
Important stats: 110.2 IP, 108 K, 28 BB, 16 HR, 3.01 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 1.08 WHIP
Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (92 mph), cutter (88 mph), sinker (91 mph), curveball (75 mph)
Lester was hammered by the Mets for eight runs in fewer than two innings during his outing on July 3, and the southpaw didn't perform much better during his last start before the All-Star break. In that game at Pittsburgh, he found a way to get through three whole innings, but still gave up five runs and a pair of home runs. Before those two disasters, Lester was working through a dominant stretch of seven straight quality starts, including a complete game with 10 strikeouts against the Dodgers on June 1. With more than a week of rest under his belt, it will be interesting to see if the veteran can get back to his winning ways.
Mets opponent: Matz has also had a nice, long break between starts, but his last two games before the break went a lot better than Lester's. The young lefty assuaged Mets fans' concerns about his elbow by pitching through the seventh inning in consecutive outings against Washington and Miami. That's a great sign considering that he went through the entire month of June without pitching in the seventh. Whether or not Matz can continue to work effectively while dealing with the bone spur could have a big impact on what New York does at the trade deadline.
Important stats: 114.1 IP, 121 K, 43 BB, 7 HR, 2.68 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 1.09 WHIP
Favorite pitches: sinker (94 mph), slider (89 mph), four-seam fastball (94 mph), curveball (81 mph)
The overall stats for Arrieta still look great, but the reigning Cy Young Award winner has struggled quite a bit recently. After a mediocre start at Citi Field on July 2, he allowed six runs in six innings in a loss at Pittsburgh. At least Arrieta only walked one batter in that game, as he had been dealing with some surprising control issues. In fact, Arrieta's walk rate has spiked four percent over last year's figure so that he's now walking more than three batters per nine innings. Just like Lester, Arrieta is hoping that some extra rest will get him back on track in the second half. That's probably why he decided not to pitch in the All-Star Game that could have given Chicago home field advantage in the World Series.
Mets opponent: With Noah Syndergaard taking the hill for New York, Tuesday night's matchup will be one that the baseball world has its eyes on. Whether the game lives up to the hype, however, is another story. We already know how Arrieta hasn't been terrific lately, and Syndergaard had to leave his last start before the break due to "arm fatigue." He's supposedly fine, but Terry Collins held him out of the All-Star Game anyway to be extra careful. Since his last game against the Cubs went so well with eight strikeouts, no walks, and one run allowed in seven innings, Thor is going to be expected to be the man again in this battle of aces.
Important stats: 104.2 IP, 89 K, 29 BB, 8 HR, 2.41 ERA, 3.47 FIP, 1.02 WHIP
Favorite pitches: sinker (88 mph), changeup (80 mph), cutter (87 mph)
The least famous Cubs pitcher to face the Mets this week is also the one pitching the best right now. Hendricks might not have the sexy strikeout stuff of Arrieta or the long history of success like Lester, but he has allowed just one unearned run in his last two starts, and that has to be good enough for Cubs fans right now. In the first game after the All-Star break, Hendricks got Chicago off to a great start with six scoreless innings in a victory over Texas.
Mets opponent: Bartolo Colon allowed three runs in five-and-two-thirds innings at Philadelphia on Friday night, but none of them were earned because James Loney threw the ball over his head on a play at first base. The error started a three-run rally in the sixth inning that put New York's chances at victory in jeopardy, but the Mets pulled through for Colon anyway. No matter how it ended, the start was an improvement over the beating he took from Washington in his last outing before the All-Star break.
Chicago's bullpen performed very well during the three-game series with Texas over the weekend. After pitching three innings on Friday afternoon to complete a shutout, the relievers held the Rangers scoreless on Saturday to finish off a 3-1 win. Not much work was needed on Sunday, as John Lackey pitched eight innings in the 4-1 defeat, but that did give Clayton Richard the opportunity to get some big league work in for the first time since June. The former Michigan quarterback was recently called up when Trevor Cahill went on the disabled list, and he's hoping his latest tour of the majors helps turn his season around. So far, Richard has allowed 14 runs in 13.1 big league innings.
The Mets' bullpen was heroic on Friday night, keeping the Phillies off the board in three-and-one-third innings to preserve a 5-3 win. Those innings featured work from New York's four most reliable relief pitches this season. To start things off, Hansel Robles got a big out to end the sixth inning before he and Jerry Blevins combined to get the first two outs of the seventh. From there, Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia finished the evening without allowing a baserunner. Hey, maybe New York doesn't need to add a reliever at the trade deadline after all. Not so fast. While the back end might be secure with Reed and Familia having great seasons, the Mets can still use some help by adding another lefty to taking innings away from the shaky Antonio Bastardo and perhaps a right-hander to shore things up if Robles falls into another rut.
Prediction: Mets win one of three.
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