Sunday, August 14, 2022

5 Burning Questions Facing The Chicago Cubs As July Nears


July begins tomorrow as Cubs fans turn their attention to the Fourth of July, barbecues, and fireworks. Chicago Cubs baseball may be a distant thought to many, but the season is just halfway over with three more months of baseball on the docket.

The Cubs, at 29-46, are 14 games back in the National League Central and will be buried there for the duration of the 2022 season. This season, which began with some optimism after a hot start out of the gate at 6-4, has turned ugly for the north siders. A 10-game losing streak that began in early June set the Cubs back and the club still has not recovered. Injuries have reared their ugly heads, as has ineffective play from many of the team’s Opening Day starters.

Still, warm weather in Chicago means baseball is a topic of interest for many, and the Cubs have several burning questions that need to be addressed.

Who’s on the Trade Block?

The calendar flipping to July means that several teams, including the Cubs, will begin to deal away players that are coveted by contending teams. The Cubs have several pieces this year that may be flipped (didn’t we just do this a year ago?!).

Willson Contreras

Contreras is the headliner of this group. The most recognizable Cub hitter has had his best season to date, with a career-low strikeout percentage (20.1%), a career-high OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) of .913, and the second-highest WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of any catcher in baseball, at 2.9. Toronto’s Alejandro Kirk leads Contreras, slightly, at 3.1.

Contreras is a free agent after this season, and as hard as it will be to stomach another key Cub being traded, dealing Contreras away to a contender — and getting a large haul of prospects in return — may be the Cubs’ only option.

Kyle Hendricks

Just as the Cubs’ most recognizable hitter is on the block, so, too, is the team’s most recognizable pitcher in Hendricks. He has pitched poorly in 2022, and sports an unsightly ERA of 4.90, but the veteran would be an attractive piece for any contending MLB team. As recently as 2020, Hendricks had a sub-3.00 ERA and finished in the top-10 in National League Cy Young Award voting. He is only 32, and by no means should this be the end of the road for him in the big leagues.

Plus, he has been dynamite in the postseason as a pitcher, with a 3.12 ERA in 12 career games, covering 57.2 innings. Any playoff hopeful team would want that type of resume.

David Robertson

Robertson, a former All-Star, is probably the most likely Cub to be traded, as Jed Hoyer, for the second year in a row, has a true weapon in the bullpen to shed to a contender.

Robertson, even at 37-years-old, has a 1.86 ERA in 26 games this year, notching 9 saves for a team that has not had many save opportunities. He has 146 over his 14-year career and has extensive experience as a setup man, too. Nearly every playoff hopeful in baseball will want to stock their shelves with quality relievers, and Robertson fits the bill here.

The Others

Ian Happ? Wade Miley? Drew Smyly?

Will the Cubs deal away Happ, who is having the best season of his career, with a triple-slash line of .275/.377/.454?

What about veteran starters like Miley and Smyly, both currently dealing with injuries? Anything — and anyone — is likely on the table for the Cubs’ front office.

Are Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele Building Blocks for the Rotation?

Cubs fans are hoping so. Thompson holds a strong 3.34 ERA across 67 innings (nine starts), while Steele is pitching to a 4.39 ERA over 69.2 innings (15 starts). Thompson is 27 and Steele is 26, so the team has the next three months to see where these potential building blocks fit in 2023 and beyond.

Both young guns are striking out nearly one batter per inning, so there is little question about their talent. It will all come down to them getting their feet wet and taking some lumps along the way as they navigate through a full season. If Thompson and Steele can solidify their standing as rotation members for 2023, along with Marcus Stroman’s return to form, the Cubs would be looking at a pretty nice trio next season.

Why is Jason Heyward still a thing?

This one is driving many fans nuts, as they are no doubt frustrated by seeing Jason Heyward man an outfield spot for the 2022 Cubs. Heyward is a -0.2 WAR player, per and has been below average in nearly every major offensive category to date.

He has just seven extra base hits so far this season (only one of them is a homer) and is carrying a .556 OPS, which would be the second-worst among all Major League outfielders, if Heyward qualified based on number of at-bats. The Cubs are stuck with him through 2023, with $23 million coming his way this year and next. Oof.

But, hey, he made that neat World Series speech in the clubhouse tunnel during the 2016 World Series Game 7 rain delay, right?

What is the core of this team going to look like?

The focus for the next three months is finding out as much of this as possible. It won’t be easy, but there are pieces here for a potential strong Cubs team of the future. You just have to look a little harder.

Thompson and Steele, mentioned above, may fit into the starting staff going forward, so that would be a huge win. Happ, if he remains with the team, would be the new face of the Cubs’ offense, provided Contreras is dealt away, which is a strong probability.

The Cubs have to be pleased with the growth of Shortstop Nico Hoerner (.304 batting average, .766 OPS, 9:22 walk-to-strikeout ratio) and Patrick Wisdom (14 HR, 37 RBI, .451 Slugging Percentage) has held down the third base job.

Right fielder Seiya Suzuki (currently on the Injured List) had a breakout April (.934 OPS, 14 RBI) before slowing down in May, but he appears to be a piece for the future. Rafael Ortega has provided a strong On-Base Percentage (.353) over 64 games, so he, too, may be a piece for the outfield going forward.

Christopher Morel has been one of the few bright spots for the Cubs and their fans in 2022. The dynamic Morel has shown versatility in playing all over the field and has demonstrated he can hit, too, with a .777 OPS across 180 plate appearances thus far. His power-speed combo (6 HR, 7 SB) has been enticing to watch, though his strikeouts are far too high (56).

The Cubs will also need to develop their young minor league talent over the next few seasons and use them as reinforcements and key pieces for the 2023, 2024, and 2025 squads. That, and opening up the checkbook for some proven Major League talent in free agency.

What is the direction of this team?

To be blunt, the trajectory of this team is going south.

The bottom likely has not fallen out yet either, and dark days are ahead at Clark and Addison. When (not if) the Cubs trade away more key pieces this month, such as Contreras, Hendricks, or even Ian Happ, it will set the team back even further than it already is towards playoff contention.

The Cubs signaled the beginning of the end 11 months ago when they traded away fan favorites and Cubs icons Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Anthony Rizzo (and don’t forget letting Kyle Schwarber leave the year before). The end is still nowhere in sight and fans will likely have to endure another season or two of poor baseball with unheralded players as the team begins to take form for the future.

Hang in there, Cubs fans. It may get rough in July.

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