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Open Thread: Cubs vs. Mets, Monday 5/14, 6:10 CT

With a four-game series upcoming against the Mets, a team the Cubs haven't faced since last July, I exchanged questions with D. J. Short of MetsBlog and Joe Janish of MetsToday. You can read my replies to their queries here and here. Here are my questions to D. J. and Joe and their answers:

BCB: So let me get this straight. Carlos Delgado is hitting .209. David Wright has three home runs. Several key players are injured. And yet the Mets sit at 23-13, third-best record in the NL. How?

MetsToday: First of all, the Mets' lineup is strong enough from top to bottom to bear out the slumps of the 4-5 hitters. For instance, Moises Alou and Shawn Green picked up the slack at the bottom of the lineup, both hitting around .350 for the month of April. And it helps to have Jose Reyes at the top of the lineup, who is emerging as one of the top 3 or 4 all-around players in baseball. Reyes is taking walks --- something he's never done before --- and already has 7 triples. Additionally, the starting pitching has been a surprise. I don't think anyone expected John Maine and Oliver Perez to be pitching THIS well. There's also something to be said for continuity; though the Mets had a relatively quiet offseason, it was a positive to return essentially the same lineup that went 7 games in the NLCS. While other teams are trying to figure out players' roles and new teammates are getting used to each other, the Mets are a happy, cohesive unit that knows how to win.

MetsBlog: I'd start by looking at Jose Reyes and the Mets bullpen. Reyes has been incredible. A few seasons ago, this guy couldn't buy a walk. Now he leads the team with 20 free passes. He's quickly turning into an on base machine. And when he gets on, look out. More often than not, he'll come around to score (tied with Hanley Ramirez for the NL lead for runs scored, with 33). The Mets bullpen also has been key. In fact, until Saturday, Pedro Feliciano and Joe Smith had not given up an earned run all season (in 33 combined appearances). Smith has been a revelation, especially after losing Chad Bradford to the Orioles during the off-season. With Duaner Sanchez and Guillermo Mota out, and Aaron Heilman still working the kinks out after off-season elbow surgery, the bullpen came in as a question mark. It hasn't missed a beat yet.

BCB: The Mets have a ton of old guys (Alou, Glavine, LoDuca, Franco, Sele, others). Are you worried that suddenly they'll all remember how old they are and start playing that way?
MetsToday: It's true, there are a number of AARP-card-carrying members on this team, but the Mets have some exceptional role players and youngsters ready to fill in. The team was built with plenty of "plan Bs" in place. For example, we know Alou isn't going to play in more than 120-130 games, but we have Endy Chavez to fill in -- not to mention youngsters Carlos Gomez and Lastings Milledge chomping at the bit for some big-league time. Ramon Castro is underrated as a backup catcher -- he's like a Mike Redmond with homerun power. And for every 40-year-old Alou or 35-year-old Delgado, there's a Wright or Reyes in his early 20s -- so it kind of balances out. The biggest age-related vulnerability is in the starting rotation, which already is an issue with Orlando Hernandez out indefinitely. If Glavine should go down, I'm not sure what the Mets would do, as their young guns appear to be at least a year away.

MetsBlog: Well, Moises Alou went down on Saturday with a quad injury, which has opened the door for 21-year-old outfielder/dynamo Carlos Gomez. Alou has been nicked up for a few weeks now and I have a feeling that his health will continue to be a concern for the duration of the season. Orlando Hernandez falls into a similar category at this point. This team has age, certainly, but it was built with depth.

BCB: Is the Mets' pitching REALLY this good? Even without Pedro? I'm wondering particularly about John Maine. Is he for real?
MetsToday: That's a good --- and fair --- question. As far as leading the NL in ERA, no, the Mets' pitching staff is NOT that good. However, John Maine is definitely much improved, and though he'll come down to earth eventually,he'll still be a solid #2 / #3 - type starter who could win 12-15 games (think of him as our Jason Marquis). Last year, Maine did surprisingly well using essentially one pitch --- a low, sinking fastball. This year, he's gained command of a slider and a forkball/change-up. He's also minimized the mental lapses that caused the Orioles to cast him away --- though he still loses focus on occasion and does unconscionable things, such as walk the opposing pitcher. As long as he continues to spot his secondary pitches, he'll go deep into games and win at least twice as often as he loses. He and Glavine provide the Mets a solid, if unspectacular, one-two.

The bigger question -- for Mets fans anyway -- is Oliver Perez. Some days, Perez looks like the most dominating lefty in the NL. Others, he looks like he can't pitch his way out of a paper bag. Even on a bad day, Maine will keep the score close enough to give the bats a chance to fight back. But when Perez is off, he's WAY off, and can let the game get out of hand in a remarkably short time frame.

With El Duque out, and the fifth spot in the rotation up in the air, Perez is the key to the Mets' chances in 2007. If he can pitch like he did in 2004, the Mets will have a good chance to overtake the Braves. If he continues the Jekyll and Hyde act, it could be a frustrating summer.

MetsBlog: There's a limit to my confidence in their starting pitching. Tom Glavine is as close to a given as this staff has, but at this point in his career, he's just not the type of pitcher who can go out there and throw a complete game. The furthest he has went this season was seven innings. The furthest he went last season was eight, and that only happened once. Luckily they have a competent bullpen which can get him ever closer to that 300 mark. Oliver Perez is quite enigmatic and until he gathers a larger body of work under Rick Peterson, the jury is still out as far as I'm concerned.

It sounds simple, but John Maine makes batters swing and miss. That is something that Maine and Perez add to the equation that the Mets haven't had in a long, long time. I do think Maine will come back to earth a bit, any pitcher would (he allows too many baserunners to have this continue), but I think we are witnessing the development of a solid middle of the rotation-type starter for years to come. That, however, is where the praise ends. Orlando Hernandez? Jorge Sosa? Mike Pelfrey? And Pedro Martinez? I'm certainly not counting on him to save this team down the stretch. Honestly, I believe the Mets lineup and bullpen is good enough to salvage a weak back end of the rotation, which they currently have.

BCB: Which Cub hitter(s) and pitcher(s) do you fear facing the most? Conversely, which Cub hitters(s) and pitcher(s) do you think are your easiest marks?
MetsToday: Hard to say, since there are so many new faces. Based on last year, the most fearsome hitter and pitcher would be the same person: Carlos Zambrano. This year, though, he looks to be struggling (on the mound at least), so he's not as much a concern at the moment. I think the Mets lineup has two vulnerabilities: good lefties and good overhand curves. That said, Rich Hill worries me considerably. On the other hand, I'd like to see the Mets face the high-balling Ted Lilly, but that doesn't look like it will happen this week. So the next best thing will be to see Ryan Dempster lose his cool, leave his sinker up in the zone, and sprain his neck watching balls fly over the fence.

Hitting-wise, I'm never happy to see Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, or Aramis Ramirez come to the plate, as all three can change the game with one swing. Lee is especially frightening --- he's like some freak of nature with a bat in his hands, hitting on the same planet as Pujols and Bonds.

And for some reason, Mark DeRosa torches us. Maybe he's ticked that he was passed over by the Mets despite growing up about 20 miles west of Flushing.

Difficult to find an "easy mark" in the Chicago lineup, especially since Ronny Cedeno was sent down. Though I won't be shaking with fear when Cesar Izturis comes to the plate.

MetsBlog: Honestly, there's something about Aramis Ramirez that always makes me think the next pitch is ending up in the left-field bleachers. And vs. Tom Glavine and Billy Wagner, it often has. Ramirez is 10-for-20 with three home runs vs. Glavine and has two home runs in 11 at-bats vs. Wagner. Something to keep an eye on in this series. Sure, Carlos Zambrano has been struggling this season, but he always has the potential to go out there and strike out ten batters. You can never overlook his stuff.

The Cubs have a very capable lineup offensively, so I don't see many easy outs there. Collectively, they haven't drawn many walks, which I think could work in the Mets favor in this series. As for a matchup I feel good about, I think the Mets have a great shot at taking it to Rich Hill. They came into Sunday's action hitting .345 vs. lefties. Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran are each ripping lefties at a .462 clip this season.

BCB: Are you thinking, given the mediocrity in the NL Central and West, that the Mets have an easy shot into the postseason? Who do you view as your toughest competition, apart from the Braves?
MetsToday: It's too early to tell, because I'm not sure the wild card will come out of the east --- and the Braves are going to be tough to topple. Though the Mets have an American League lineup, the pitching may not be strong enough over the long haul. There are already two question marks in the starting rotation (though Jorge Sosa is pitching way over his head thus far), and the bullpen is not the lights-out squad it was in 2006. Therefore, I think the Mets will have a hard time with teams that have strong bullpens, such as the Padres and Dodgers, because they won't be able to slug their way through middle relievers. In fact, I was surprised the Mets did as well as they did against the Brewers, who also have a strong bullpen --- though it was the failure of the Milwaukee starters that led to their demise. This series with your Cubbies should be intriguing, as I view the Cubs as a team that will get better as the season progresses. Luckily, the Mets will only have to play the Cubs three times after the All-Star break --- which could be exactly the time Piniella's team begins to gel.

MetsBlog: Coming into the season, I did expect more of a dogfight from the Braves and Phillies, and the Phils don't usually come around until the second half of the season anyway. This NL East will be far from a cakewalk, I'm convinced of that. The Brewers proved to me this weekend that they are for real. They win with aggressiveness. It's a club where anybody can be a hero on any given night. Who said you need a big bopper like Carlos Lee to win ballgames? This will be my first real look at the Cubs, so it's hard for me to judge them quite yet. The Dodgers and the Giants impress me out west. I just don't think the Padres (and their .239 team batting average) have enough offense.

I take solace in the fact that any day, the Mets have the talent to prove they are the best team in the National League. The question is whether it can sustain itself over 162 games. Personally, I think they'll be there when the dust settles, but once the playoffs begin, all bets are off.

Today's Starting Pitchers
Jason Marquis
J. Marquis
vs. Tom Glavine
T. Glavine
5-1 W-L 4-1
1.70 ERA 2.98
24 SO 27
13 BB 14
2 HR 7
vs. NY -- vs. Cubs
Despite the fact that last year's Cubs lost 96 games, and last year's Mets won 97, the 2006 Cubs split six games with the Mets. In fact, against the four NL playoff teams (StL, SD, NY, LA), the 2006 Cubs were 18-20, far better than their overall season percentage. Of course, they were also 0-6 vs. the two American League 2006 postseason teams they played, the Twins and Tigers.

Jason Marquis, pitching tonight only a few miles from his hometown on Long Island, is 5-4 lifetime vs. the Mets in 18 appearances (11 starts) with a 3.98 ERA. Don't be surprised to see Mets backup catcher Ramon Castro start tonight -- he's 5-for-11 vs. Marquis with two HR. Marquis and tonight's Mets starter Tom Glavine were Atlanta teammates for three years, from 2000-2002.

Glavine, for his part, has made 33 lifetime starts against the Cubs, with a middling 14-13 record and 3.57 ERA. Oddly, bad as last year's Cubs were, they beat him twice. The last time Glavine beat the Cubs was August 5, 2005, the third of an eight-game Cub losing streak that pretty much killed any postseason dreams we had that year. Of the Cubs who played in that game, only Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Michael Barrett, Matt Murton, Ryan Dempster and Rich Hill (who got pounded that night) remain on the active roster. See this diary for more on the Cubs vs. Glavine.

Glavine has 294 career wins. Let him wait till his next start to resume his quest toward 300. The Cubs will be looking to reach .500 for the seventh time this season (they have been 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 14-14, 15-15 and 16-16).

As noted on the sidebar, tonight's game will be available nationwide on ESPN; Chicago viewers will either get blacked out on ESPN or get another game, and will see the Cubs on WCIU. Mediacenter Gameday (2007 version) Gameday (2006 version)

More Mets fans views can be found at our SB Nation site, Amazin' Avenue.

Finally, thanks to any of you who bid on my daughter Rachel's friend Jenna's Mitzvah Project eBay auctions; she raised over $5,000 for Keshet, a Chicago-area organization which helps special-needs kids. Thanks!

Discuss amongst yourselves.