Are we there yet?
With the All-Star break, trade deadline and Field of Dreams game in the rear-view mirror, what’s left for these Cubs to look forward to this year but a crossroads offseason with promises from ownership and the front office to spend?
The short answer is 49 games, starting with this week’s return to Washington, the site of the 2021 purge, where the Cubs finished trading off nine veterans last July by shipping off five on deadline day (including Kris Bryant, Javy Báez and Craig Kimbrel the day after Anthony Rizzo was shipped out).
The more involved answer is obvious to most of the remaining players after this year’s more modest four-man bullpen selloff.
“The baseball we have is incredibly meaningful for guys on an individual level as well as creating momentum into next year and proving that we are closer to winning than people realize and giving an accurate look for free agents to look at,” said Nico Hoerner, a rising cornerstone player — who’s 12-for-30 with four walks during the Cubs’ stretch of three consecutive series wins heading into the Nationals series.
“I think all of that is incredibly important, and it’s all closely related,” Hoerner added. “And it doesn’t have to be years and years in these situations.”
Hoerner hasn’t been around long enough to know whether, in the context of the Cubs’ last multi-year rebuild, his 2022 Cubs more closely resemble the 101-loss 2012 tankers, the 96-loss 2013 tankers or the 89-loss 2014 last-place team that proved to be on the verge of big winter additions and a 97-win breakthrough the next year.
But he seems to suggest it’s closer to the latter.
Add a Carlos Rodón in free agency, along with maybe a hitter from the shortstop pool of Carlos Correa, Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts, and maybe he’s even right.
“I’m also excited to see guys that have been on the team throughout this year but either haven’t played as much or have been hurt — just seeing [Marcus] Stroman for the whole second half [after injured-list stints] and having him build that into next year,” Hoerner said. “And obviously [rookies Chris] Morel and [Nelson] Velázquez. And a guy like [rookie] P.J. Higgins… All those things really matter.”
And don’t forget the young pitching, said Hoerner, who was disappointed to see close friend Scott Effross go — but who looks forward to seeing a possible debut of the starting prospect the Cubs got from the Yankees in return, Hayden Wesneski, who’s had one bad outing and one much better for Iowa since the trade.
“I’m just throwing stuff out there,” said Hoerner. “But all that stuff is incredibly significant and closely related to us being a wining team in the near future.”
In fact, at least five things are probably worth monitoring, if not watching, over the Cubs’ final eight weeks of the season with an eye on Jed Hoyer’s “next great Cubs team” — and maybe another eye on franchise history:
Hoerner, the Cubs’ 2018 first-round draft pick, has been arguably the Cubs’ best overall player this season, with career highs across the board this season, by a lot — not the least of which is games played.
Hoerner, whose first three seasons were marked by multiple, sometimes strange, injuries, has stayed remarkably healthy this year but for a two-week stint on the injured list caused by a freak outfield collision with an umpire.
His work and resulting success at playing shortstop every day has been especially important for a team that is expected to explore that high-end free agent shortstop market, but with the luxury of knowing they have an in-house option if efforts fall short — or serious defensive depth in the infield if they land, say, Bogaerts.
The only thing left for Hoerner to show is a strong, healthy finish to what’s already an important breakout season for both him and the club.
Worth the Wait?
The Cubs spent most of a decade face-planting in efforts to produce homegrown starting pitching — a failure that contributed disproportionately to their post-World Series decline.
In that context, the seasons second-year pitchers Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson are putting together are downright remarkable — though maybe less so as industry standards go.
At the very least, the continued performance this season of the left-right combo of 20-something starting pitchers might tell the story of the Cubs’ offseason needs and competitive timeline better than most 2022 subplots.
Steele has a 2.48 in his last 11 starts, averaging 5 2/3 innings and striking out 8.8 per nine innings (2.9 walks per nine) — 1.95 ERA, 10.9 K/9, in his last seven starts.
Thompson, who opened the season as a dominant multi-inning reliever, had his two worst starts June 12 at Yankee Stadium and Sunday in Cincinnati. But in nine starts in between, he had a 3.03 ERA with 5 1/2 innings per start and 8.5 K/9 (2.3 BB/9).
If they can sustain success down the stretch, build up innings and maintain the organization’s trust as locked-in rotation pieces into next year, then one free agent, frontline power starter suddenly looks like a game changer (assuming ownership/Hoyer actually plan to spend near the top of the market).
If not, well, say hello to Hoyer’s not-so-little rebuild.
Best in Class
Atlanta’s Michael Harris II might have something to say about it before the season’s over, but for now it looks like the National League Rookie of the Year Award might go through the north side of Chicago.
Seiya Suzuki, the veteran All-Star free agent from Japan, was the preseason favorite, and followed that up with a Rookie of the Month award for April. But a monthlong injury and the emergence of versatile, toolsy Chris Morel since a May debut has made it a two-man race even for the the team’s top rookie (also: don’t sleep on Nelson Velázquez).
Suzuki and Morel are two of only three rookies in the league with at least 10 doubles, nine homers and 30 RBis — in just 74 and 71 games, respectively (through Sunday).
The third rookie on that NL list? Harris, in just 69 games — and with slightly better numbers (including .843 OPS).
Could be the awards race of the year in the National League.
Worst in Class
Not surprisingly, the Cubs got considerably worse after the trade deadline last season.
This year they won six of their first 10 (until blowing a lead in a loss Sunday) after overpricing Willson Contreras and Ian Happ in the trade market and failing to trade either.
So what? So this year a place in MLB’s new draft lottery is at stake, with increasing odds to receive the No. 1 pick for each spot a team falls in the overall standings — with equal odds for the worst three finishes.
As the Cubs opened their series against the Nationals — who have MLB’s worst record — they were 5 1/5 games out of a bottom-three finish.
A bottom-five finish assures no worse than a 10-percent chance at the No. 1 pick; the Cubs were two games out of that tier — which likely would be secured with a last-place finish in the NL Central.
Beyond that, franchise history? Probably not. It would take a 15-34 finish for the Cubs’ fourth 100-loss season (second since the 1960s) — 12-37 to tie the franchise record of 103 losses (1962, ’66).
If anything, the Cubs’ 12-9 pace since the All-Star break would give them a 75-87 finish, which would be a four-game improvement over last year.
Their overall pace through Sunday projects to 67-95, or four games worse than 2021.
And for those who like the fantasy baseball pace game, the Cubs could finish .500 with a 34-15 finish over these final eight weeks.
Tryouts, Tryouts, Tryouts
Will top prospect Brennen Davis return from a back injury and to Triple-A production in time for a late-season cameo/debut? Will Hoerner get his first-hand look at Wesneski? Will top pitching prospect Caleb Kilian return for another shot at a late-season audition? Can Franmil Reyes continue to show enough down the stretch to stick in the Cubs’ plans into next year.
And who the heck is this Matt Mervis character who’s been tearing it up from the left side of the plate all season at three minor-league levels?
If you’re into prospect fetishes, it doesn’t get any better than the final weeks of a lost season with hyped or hot Triple-A players in the wings.
Whether it justifies the hefty price of admission, to each their own fetish.