When is the fantasy football draft? Actually, the Cubs checked out for only the All-Star break — not the rest of the season — and each player still has a lot at stake from an individual standpoint. Cubs manager David Ross has repeatedly lauded the group’s effort, night after night, until the final out. Players appreciate the positive environment in the clubhouse as well as the consistent approach from the coaching staff. But it’s like the old sayings attributed to former NFL coach Bill Parcells: There are no medals for trying. You are what your record says you are.
Only three of the 30 major-league clubs went into the All-Star break with a worse record than the Cubs (35-57). The Cubs are a bottom-third offense in terms of runs scored, their pitching staff ranks 25th in staff ERA and their defense is tied for second in errors. Of the two homegrown players that represented the Cubs at the All-Star Game, there’s close to a 100 percent probability that Willson Contreras will get traded before the Aug. 2 deadline and a nonzero chance that Ian Happ will be moved by then as well.
Trade buzz is already starting to build in front offices as one source familiar with Jed Hoyer’s process predicted he would pursue separate trades rather than package the two All-Stars in a much larger deal — the kind the Mets strongly considered last year before settling for Javier Báez and Trevor Williams and giving up Pete Crow-Armstrong, a 2020 first-round pick who played in the All-Star Futures Game at Dodger Stadium.
“We all know what’s going on around here,” Contreras said. “I’m just trying to let things happen and not worry about the outcome.”
The buy-or-sell drama that made parts of last season so compelling never really entered the picture. The injuries, which happen to every team, happened fast, and as expected after Major League Baseball’s 99-day lockout and a condensed spring training. First baseman Frank Schwindel made almost as many pitching appearances (three) in the first half of the season as Wade Miley (four), the pitcher the Cubs claimed off waivers from the Reds thinking his $10 million contractual option would help fortify the rotation. The Cubs tellingly lead the National League in bullpen innings and Opening Day starter Kyle Hendricks has been shut down with a strained right shoulder. The Cubs are 11-18 in one-run games, 3-11 in extra-inning games and are expected to trade closer David Robertson within the next 13 days.
The 2022 Cubs, so far, have a higher winning percentage on the road (.405) than at Wrigley Field (.360). To get a clearer view of 2024 and the next competitive cycle on Chicago’s North Side, the Cubs wanted to see more of hitters like Nick Madrigal (.513 OPS in 31 games), Seiya Suzuki (.807 OPS in 54 games) and Clint Frazier , who now goes by Jackson Frazier at Triple-A Iowa. At the same time, few would have bet on this first-half trifecta: Happ making fundamental swing changes to become an All-Star; Nico Hoerner staying healthy and proving he’s a legitimate shortstop; and Christopher Morel fist-bumping everyone while starting at four different positions and beginning his major-league career by getting on base in 22 consecutive games.
“Everybody in here is professional,” Happ said. “That’s part of the gig. We have guys that come to work really hard every day. We have young guys who are learning. We have guys in different spots of their careers all over the place. Losing is not fun. It is never something that is enjoyable at the end of the day when you go out and lose. But there’s a lot of little things that guys are working on and they’re getting better every day. It’s part of the process. Guys have to continue to stay focused and locked in.”
It’s likely the Cubs fans who haven’t already disengaged with the team will start to pull away once the deadline passes. The names on the field will likely be as strange to them as Schwindel was at this time last year. While the top prospects still aren’t knocking on the door, the talent is probably a little more intriguing for the team’s long-term outlook than after last year’s sell-off. Brennen Davis’ back surgery, from which he’s recovering quicker than expected, will likely allow the Cubs’ top prospect to get in some Triple-A games later this summer, but prevent him from making his major-league debut this year.
Narciso Crook has already had a cup of coffee with the team and Nelson Velázquez has been getting regular playing time with Jason Heyward on the injured list. Other names like Darius Hill (a left-handed outfielder who could replace Rafael Ortega should he be moved) and Frazier could also receive valuable time in the outfield. Expect some relievers with impressive stuff to come up to Wrigley Field. It’s also likely that if Caleb Kilian has cleaned up his mechanics, he will return to the major-league rotation, and maybe even someone like Cam Sanders makes his debut.
That should provide a small glimpse of the future, perhaps easing the pain of another sell-off. But it’s going to be difficult to keep the losses from piling up. Over the last 13 months, the Cubs have already experienced losing streaks of 12, 11, 10 and nine games. Beginning Friday in Philadelphia, 10 of their first 12 games after the All-Star break will be on the road against three playoff contenders — the Phillies, Giants and Cardinals. Fans clamoring for a higher draft pick may feel that is best for the organization, although under the new collective bargaining agreement, the top six picks in next year’s draft will be determined by a lottery system among the 18 non-playoff teams, so nothing is guaranteed. There’s not as much “value” in bottoming out.
Besides marketing/preserving pitchers like Robertson, Drew Smyly, Mychal Givens and Chris Martin for the trade deadline, the Cubs will also have to monitor the workloads of less experienced pitchers such as Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, Scott Effross and Brandon Hughes in the hopes that they might make it through this rebuild and onto the next competitive Cubs team.
There will be those who believe that winning doesn’t matter in the second half. But Ross doesn’t ascribe to that mindset. The manager never wants his players to accept losing as inevitable, or worse, acceptable. Too much losing can wear on players mentally. Removing players like Contreras and Happ from the mix will subtract some of the veteran leadership.
Ross will have to be on high alert in the season’s final two-plus months to make sure a negative mindset doesn’t seep into the clubhouse and he must stop younger players from developing bad habits in a losing environment. It’s likely that he’ll lean on Hoerner — who is quickly becoming a leader among the group — and veterans like Heyward (assuming the Cubs don’t designate him for assignment), Hendricks and Yan Gomes to keep the team focused over the final stretch . This is what the Cubs will keep telling themselves.
“The hard part’s the fun part, isn’t it?” Ross said. “All the challenges in my life, whether on the field or off the field, have made some great experiences and some of the rewarding times in my life that much better. I think we all know we’re not where we want to be, but the difficult challenges we go through make us better every single day, myself included. The players, being in the environments we’re getting put in right now, we’re going to be able to handle those moments better in the long run.”
(Top pic: Matt Marton/USA Today)