Friday, June 14, 2024

Remember These Guys? Can the Cubs Count On This Trio Again?

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What to expect from Patrick Wisdom, Frank Schwindel, and Rafael Ortega in 2022

Baseball fans have been in hibernation for months now, as they continue to patiently wait out the current Major League Baseball lockout, now at 90 days.  Cubs fans, it seems, have been in hibernation mode since around August 1, when their team flipped the switch to “sell mode” and began unloading its best and most popular players.  As names like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Craig Kimbrel made their way out of town, fans began to see the names Patrick Wisdom, Frank Schwindel, and Rafael Ortega more on their TV screens and in articles they read.  

The trio of Wisdom, Schwindel, and Ortega became everyday starters for the Cubs at different points of the 2021 season.  Cubs fans probably didn’t notice that the aforementioned trio finished No. 5 (Wisdom), No. 6 (Ortega), and No. 7 (Schwindel) in Cubs’ team WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 2021.  Indeed, all three were more productive than household names like Anthony Rizzo, Ian Happ, and Kyle Hendricks.  For a 2022 Cubs team looking for something–anything–as far as building blocks go, they might just look to Wisdom, Schwindel, and Ortega again.

So, who are these guys?

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Patrick Wisdom, the Late-Blooming Slugger

Wisdom was a highly-touted MLB prospect, taken in the first round of the 2012 June Amateur Draft by the rival St. Louis Cardinals.  That year, the Cubs selected Outfielder Albert Almora with the No. 6 overall pick.

Wisdom toiled in St. Louis’ minor league system for several years, before finally debuting in 2018 for a brief, 32-game showcase.  He hit a so-so .260, but had a slugging percentage of .520, well above league-average.  Wisdom showed that he could hit for power as a minor leaguer, as seen by his 31-homer season in 2017 for the AAA affiliate in St. Louis.

In 2019, Wisdom was acquired by the Texas Rangers and lit up the scoreboard for the Rangers’ AAA affiliate, blasting another 31 home runs in just 107 games, with a .240 batting average, .332 on-base percentage (OBP), and .513 slugging percentage.  He received a brief call-up to the big league squad but struggled mightily in nine games (26 at-bats) with a whopping 15 strikeouts.  The Rangers had seen enough.

The Cubs signed Wisdom in early 2021, hoping the former first-rounder could transfer his minor-league power to the major league level. They were happy to see that come to fruition in 2021. 

Wisdom led the Cubs in home runs in 2021 with 28, while finishing third in Runs Batted In (61).  While his .305 OBP left much to be desired, it was hard to deny the power was there, with his .518 slugging percentage easily leading the team.  But, oh, those strikeouts…

Wisdom, when he wasn’t mashing a baseball over a fence, constantly found himself headed to the dugout after falling via the strikeout.  Among all players with a minimum of 350 plate appearances in 2021, Wisdom’s 40.8 strikeout percentage was the worst in baseball.  Simply put, he was a boom-or-bust player.  He hit just 13 doubles over his 106 games, and also drew just 32 walks.  When the power was there, he was one of Chicago’s most exciting hitters, both sides of town included.  Pitchers quickly found a hole in his swing, however, as the season wore on.

He will need to limit his strikeouts–in a major way–if he has plans to be a cornerstone of the Cubs’ 2022 lineup.  This will not be an easy task for Wisdom, who has not yet had a professional baseball season resulting in a strikeout percentage of less than 20%.

Frank Schwindel Seizes his Opportunity

Anthony Rizzo had manned first base at Wrigley Field for nearly a decade, and when the Cubs made the difficult decision to trade him at last years’ deadline, it opened the door for someone (in this case, Frank Schwindel) to get everyday at-bats and win a job.  

Schwindel came seemingly out of nowhere to not only win an everyday job at first base but to make his case for 2022 and beyond.  Schwindel, despite just 222 at-bats with the Cubs, finished No. 6 in the National League Rookie of the Year voting (Patrick Wisdom was No. 4) thanks in large part to a robust .342 batting average.  He hit for power (13 HR, 19 doubles, and a silly .613 slugging percentage) and showed good plate discipline with a 16-to-36 walk-to-strikeout ratio.  If you scooped him up on your fantasy baseball team, he probably took you to another level.

Where did he come from and can this continue?  The 29-year-old was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 18th round of the 2013 MLB June Amateur draft and bounced around Kansas City, Detroit, and Oakland before finally landing at Clark and Addison last summer. The career minor-leaguer had three seasons with 20+ home runs in a mostly-forgettable minor league career and wasn’t exactly on anyone’s radar before Mr. Rizzo was no longer in Chicago.  Schwindel came to the Cubs off waivers in July of 2021, from Oakland, just before Rizzo was traded to the New York Yankees for prospects.  Will Frank be another potential late bloomer, or will 2022 represent a different story?  

Last year as a Cub, Schwindel was the beneficiary of a .364 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), while the league average tends to hover around .300.  This suggests that either Frank was extremely lucky and he got more hits than another player might have, or that he was just simply good, if not great, in 2021.  It would be interesting to see how Schwindel’s final line would have been over a full slate of 162 games, and not merely August and September.  

But unlike Wisdom and his propensity for striking out, Schwindel only struck out 15% of the time as a Cub and walked nearly 7% of the time.  There is hope, therefore, that his breakout may be sustained in the season ahead, or that he can at least contribute a strong offensive season. 

Rafael Ortega Takes the Long Road to Chicago

Ortega, like Wisdom, is 30-years-old (Schwindel will be 30 in a few months) and like Wisdom and Schwindel, took a long road to get to where he is in 2022 for the Chicago Cubs.  Perhaps, Ortega’s road was a little bit longer, however.

Rafael Ortega made his pro baseball debut way back in 2008 for the Colorado Rockies rookie team affiliate and made his Major League debut in 2012 as a 21-year-old.  It was a brief, two-game cup of coffee, but Ortega was seemingly on his way towards a fulfilling career at the Major League level. 

But baseball is an unforgiving game, and Ortega would not get another Major League at-bat until 2016, when, as a member of the Los Angeles Angels, he hit .232 in 66 games as a reserve outfielder.  Sandwiched in between 2012 and 2016 was a three-year stint with the St. Louis Cardinals’ AA and AAA teams. 

After his ho-hum 2016 season as an Angel, things got interesting for Ortega.  

He spent time with the San Diego Padres, Miami Marlins, and Atlanta Braves organizations, respectfully, before signing as a free agent with the Cubs in November of 2020.  A long road, indeed, for Ortega, who comes into 2022 as a candidate for everyday at-bats for the Cubs. 

As a Cub in 2021, Ortega helped solidify the outfield in center field and occasionally left, and hit .291 on the campaign as a whole.  His 11 home runs were his second-highest in any of his previous professional baseball seasons, and he provided 12 stolen bases as well, second-most on the team (Javier Baez led with 13).

Like Schwindel, Ortega benefitted from a higher-than-average BABIP, at .349, which aided his .291 batting average in all likelihood.  Also, like Schwindel, Ortega demonstrated the ability to draw walks, with a 9.1 walk percentage.  Strikeouts were an issue for Ortega (70 K’s in 330 plate appearances), but not to the degree of Patrick Wisdom’s.  His outfield defense was just at or slightly above league average, but he provided manager David Ross a quality bat that finished fourth on the team in hits.  

What can we expect out of Ortega in 2022?  The outfield depth chart isn’t exactly deep, as only Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, and newly-acquired Clint Frazier figure to compete for starting roles, pending any free agents the Cubs bring in when the lockout ends.  If the Designated Hitter is installed in the National League, it will give Ortega even more options for at-bats.  If Ortega can take his 2021 success and carry it over to 2022, while providing some speed and outfield positional flexibility, he will almost certainly have a role for the Cubs in ‘22.  How great a role depends on, of course, how he performs coming out of the gate.

So can Cubs fans count on this trio to duplicate their surprising 2021 seasons?

As is the case with all professional sports, only time will tell.  Not having a Spring Training at the moment is not helping matters for this group of 30-year-olds, either.  But players sometimes do break out after their late 20s, so there is hope.  

Cubs fans will hope that one of these players can become a version of Justin Turner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Turner did not become a full-time starter until his age-30 season in 2015, but has gone on to make two All-Star teams and lead numerous Dodgers teams to long post-season runs since then, including a World Series.  He also has three top-15 MVP voting finishes in the National League after turning 31.  

There is always hope.  The Cubs may need plenty of it in 2022 and Wisdom, Schwindel, or Ortega may provide some.

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