Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Cubs Will Look To The ‘Men In The Middle’ In 2022

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Baby steps, Cubs fans.  The rebuild is here and Cubs fans everywhere have been placed in the all-too-familiar position of having to wait for meaningful baseball to return to Chicago’s north side.  At this point, as Major League Baseball’s lockout hits the 75-day mark, we’ll settle for any baseball, meaningful or not.  But baseball’s lockout is a topic for another day. With the NFL season officially in the rearview mirror, now is traditionally the time when we look forward to warm, sunny days and baseball as our spring and summer companion.



The Path To A Succesful Rebuild Starts Up The Middle

So what should we expect out of the 2022 version of the Chicago Cubs?

After last year’s memorable trade deadline reshaped the face of the Cubs as we knew it, President of Baseball Operations, Jed Hoyer, and Manager, David Ross, may look up the middle as a new Cubs’ core begins to emerge.  In particular, middle infielders Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal, center fielder Ian Happ (who will also play left field), and catcher Willson Contreras figure to make up a key part of the ‘22 Cubs DNA.

In Contreras, the last man standing of the beloved “Core Four” of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant, the Cubs will need to decide soon on whether he is a building block for the future or a very attractive trade piece as they continue to revitalize their farm system.  Contreras’ contract expires after the 2022 season and after a disappointing 2021 season in which he hit a mere .237 and suffered a career-high 28.6 strikeout percentage, this will be a storyline to watch.

But if the two-time National League All-Star is to remain a Cub for 2022 and beyond – and the installation of the Designated Hitter to the National League figures to be a nice way to extend Contreras’ career – the Cubs will look for him to provide a big bat in the middle of a lineup that lacks exactly that.

Ian Happ, fresh off a sluggish 2021 season, has seen his star fade a bit since his promising debut in 2017 (24 HR, 68 RBI, .253 Batting Average, .842 OPS).  The 27-year-old underwhelmed in the first half a season ago, with a lousy .183 average and .626 OPS.  You can forgive fans for not noticing Happ’s impressive second half of 2021, as they likely found other TV-viewing options once August 1st hit and the trade deadline changed the teams’ trajectory.

Happ was a different player in the second half, with 16 HR, 43 RBI, a .268 average, and a strong .886 OPS.  Maybe the pressure was turned off him and the team, once they officially become sellers, or maybe it was better luck from the Baseball Gods (Happ’s Batting Average on Balls In Play, or BABiP, jumped 100 points in the second half, from .231 to .331) but whatever it was, Happ remains a building block for the new-look Cubs.  His position-versatility provides David Ross plenty of options to move about the outfield as well.

Hoerner & Madrigal Set To Flourish On The North Side

Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism at Clark and Addison is the potential middle infield duo being formed of shortstop Nico Hoerner and former White Sox second baseman, Nick Madrigal.  The Cubs hope Nico and Nick can pair up and solidify the middle infield for the next several seasons.  Aside from similar first names, both players played collegiately in the Pac-12 (Hoerner with Stanford and Madrigal with Oregon State), both hail from northern California, and they are training together this offseason as well.

Madrigal, acquired at the July trade deadline in the Craig Kimbrel trade, represents the type of player the Cubs have sorely been lacking, a contact-first player who will put the baseball in play.  Plagued by years of high strikeout totals from the likes of Javier Baez and others, Madrigal’s throwback approach will be refreshing to see.  In a limited sample size of 2021 (Madrigal only saw 200 at-bats before being lost for the season due to injury), Madrigal struck out just 17 times and drew 11 bases on balls.  In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season in which Madrigal saw 103 at-bats, he struck out just seven times, while drawing four walks.

While he has yet to play a full season at the Major League level, the 24-year-old Madrigal was a contact machine as a minor leaguer with the White Sox, as he struck out just 21 times over 628 minor league at-bats, good for a 3% strikeout rate.  The former No. 4 overall draft pick will not hit for power, but if he avoids making life easier on the opposition by succumbing to strikeout after strikeout, the Cubs will welcome his bat near the top of their lineup.

Hoerner, another member of the 2018 draft class and a former first-rounder as well, has already seen Major League action in three seasons.  He burst onto the scene as a Cub in 2019 with a .282 average and .436 slugging percentage and, after a down 2020 season, rebounded nicely in 2021 with a .302 average and a 17:25 walk-to-strikeout rate.  Hoerner, like Madrigal, also dealt with injury in 2021, however, with three stints on the injured list (bruised forearm, hamstring strain, and oblique strain).

Hoerner can play multiple positions and may be more of a second baseman by trade, so he will have to improve his defense to stay at short, but his profile is similar to that of Madrigal, in that he will provide solid contact skills and shouldn’t get beaten by the strikeout too much. He won’t contend for any home run records as a Cub, but putting the ball in play, simple as it may sound, is something the Cubs struggled with more than any other team in 2021.  The Cubs led Major League Baseball in strikeouts last year by a wide margin, and need to replenish their everyday lineup with players like Hoerner and Madrigal, who will force the opposing defense to field, throw, and catch and actually earn their outs.  They won’t provide power, which makes players like Happ and Contreras even more important, but they can hopefully sit atop the Cubs’ everyday lineup and occupy the leadoff and No. 2 slot.

While looking at the middle of the diamond and the likes of Contreras, Happ, Madrigal, and Hoerner, there is a sliver of optimism for this 2022 Cubs team and more importantly, the 2023 and 2024 squads.  The Cubs will not be a popular preseason pick for the playoffs, but again, the hope is to see baby steps this season.  And building a team from the middle-out seems like a good place to start for the Cubs’ front-office brass and Manager David Ross.

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