Which team should Cubs want to face in NLCS: Dodgers or Mets?
With Tuesday night's 6–4 win over the Cardinals to wrap up the NLDS, the Cubs made history: It was their first postseason series-clinching win in the 101-year history of Wrigley Field. Before they can start their next series, however, they need an opponent, which won't be determined until after Thursday's Game 5 in the other NLDS, between the Dodgers and the Mets.
Which team should Chicago and its fans prefer to face? There are arguments on both sides.
Looking only at head-to-head records in 2015 suggests that Kris Bryant and company should break out their orange-and-blue pom-poms: The Cubs beat the Mets in all seven of their head-to-head meetings and went 3–4 against the Dodgers. However, beyond the obvious caveats about small sample sizes and lessons of history—such as the one where the 1988 Dodgers, who lost 10 out of 11 to the Mets that year, beat them in a thrilling seven-game NLCS—is the timing of those wins over New York. Their first series was played from May 11 to 14 at Wrigley Field, the second from June 30 to July 2 at Citi Field. In other words, both fell during the time that David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud were on the disabled list and before the late-July arrivals in Queens of Michael Conforto and Yoenis Cespedes. The presence of those four players gives the Mets a much more potent lineup.
What's more, two of those seven games were started for New York by Jonathon Niese, who has been moved to the bullpen during the postseason. Niese actually acquitted himself adequately, allowing five earned runs in 13 1/3 innings, though he also allowed two unearned runs and walked five against seven strikeouts. Matt Harvey and Bartolo Colon (the latter of whom is also working out of the bullpen now) each shut the Cubs out for seven innings, with nine strikeouts for the former and eight for the latter, while Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom took their lumps.
As for the Dodgers, Chicago split a four-game series at Wrigley from June 22 to 25 and then dropped two out of three at Chavez Ravine from Aug. 28 to 30. In that first series, Mike Bolsinger and Carlos Frias, neither of whom is on Los Angeles' postseason roster, made starts along with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. The second featured an outing from the since-released Mat Latos along with starts by Kershaw and Alex Wood.
It's worth considering how the various rotations might line up going forward. Here's one stab at it:
*lefthanded; DR=Days of rest
Because of where the off days fall, all three teams can shuffle the orders they rolled out in the Division Series, at least slightly. The Cubs will open the NLCS with Jon Lester on seven days' rest, then throw Jake Arrieta in Game 2. Both pitchers' next turns fall on Games 5 and 6, with a lesser starter (Kyle Hendricks or Jason Hammel, whose order could also be switched) for Game 7. In theory, the Game 1 starter could make back-to-back turns on three days' rest, but no pitcher has that since the Diamondbacks' Curt Schilling in the 2001 World Series.
That principle strongly suggests that Kershaw, who beat the Mets in NLDS Game 4 on Tuesday, would not be available for NLCS Game 1 if the Dodgers were to advance. That would leave manager Don Mattingly with the unenviable choice of starting Brett Anderson or Wood, both of whom were raked over the coals by the Mets in Game 3 of the Division Series. What's more, unless Los Angeles makes a roster move to call upon either Bolsinger or Frias or has Kershaw make another short-rest start in Game 5, it will need Anderson and Wood to combine for three starts in the series' first five games. Such a scenario would still require one more non-Kershaw/Greinke start in either Game 6 or Game 7. If it came in Game 7, that would mean Greinke also took the ball on three days' rest in Game 6 to get them that far.
Given that Frias probably isn't stretched out enough after making just one second-half start, the Dodgers will somehow have to survive three starts from among a group that struggled in the second half: Anderson (4.48 ERA/4.42 FIP), Wood (3.95/4.23 overall, 4.35/4.10 after being acquired from Atlanta) and Bolsinger (4.71/6.05).
By that token, even without having to call upon any pitcher on three days' rest—something the Mets are understandably loathe to do given their plethora of workload concerns—the depth of New York’s rotation stands out. In a seven-game series, six of their seven starts would come from their big three of deGrom, Harvey and Syndergaard, with Steven Matz (or possibly Colon or Niese) in Game 4. Note that the Mets could just as easily go with Harvey on four days' rest in Games 1 and 5, with Syndergaard on seven days' rest for Game 2 and then five days' rest for Game 6. Either way leaves deGrom lined up for Games 3 and 7, an enviable position. Based upon all of that, one would think that Los Angeles would be the more favorable matchup for the Cubs.
One other major wrinkle to consider, however, is that of the platoon matchups. With Kershaw, Anderson and Wood, the Dodgers could have five games started by lefthanders in a seven-game series, and they have a shutdown lefty reliever in J.P. Howell. For the Mets, Matz would be the sole southpaw in the rotation, and neither Niese nor Sean Gilmartin inspires a ton of confidence out of the bullpen. The rookie Gilmartin held lefties to a .260/.317/.344 line in 104 plate appearances—adequate, but nowhere near the .224/.295/.224 line that Howell held lefties to in 95 PA, and that's the veteran's worst performance against same-siders in three years.
As a team, the Cubs hit just .238/.319/.372 this year against southpaws; their .691 OPS ranked ninth in the league, below both the Dodgers (.756 OPS, second) and Mets (.723, fifth). By comparison, Chicago hit .246/.322/.406 against righties, with a .728 OPS that ranked seventh in the league, a hair behind L.A.'s .732 (fifth) but ahead of New York's .709 (ninth). Among Cubs regulars, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Miguel Montero are all lefthanded batters. Rizzo fared well against southpaws in regular exposure (.294/.409/.472 in 198 plate appearances) and was even better against them last year after struggling mightily during his first three seasons; that improvement has fueled his maturation into a top-tier player. Montero went 11-for-47 with three homers in limited duty against lefties this year; his 56 PA against them were less than half of his average workload against southpaws over the previous four seasons.
The rookie Schwarber went just 8-for-56 against lefties with a .481 OPS and two home runs; he sat in Game 2 of the Division Series against St. Louis southpaw Jaime Garcia. While the Cubs won that game with Austin Jackson playing leftfield, Schwarber's three home runs in the Cubs' other four postseason games attest to his game-changing power. Keeping him on the bench for much of the LCS would be a blow, though no doubt manager Joe Maddon would find ways to use him.
There's no obvious answer as to which opponent the Cubs should prefer, but the depth of the Mets' rotation and their vastly improved lineup suggests that they're the tougher matchup. I said repeatedly on a dozen radio spots over the past week that every Dodgers postseason inning not thrown by Kershaw, Greinke or closer Kenley Jansen would be a liability, and that’s been borne out by the remainder of the staff combining for a 9.75 ERA in the Division Series. Between that and the fact that it's been so long since hitters such as Yasmani Grandal, Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig were in a groove, Los Angeles might be the easier matchup for the Cubs.
Will it be favorable enough to help Chicago win its first pennant since 1945? The Cubs have to rise to the occasion either way, but at least they get to find out.