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Just as Thursday marks the beginning of a new season in Major League Baseball, so too does it mark the beginning a truly new era for a Cubs franchise less than six years removed from winning its last World Series.
Gone are lineup staples Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez, who played key roles in winning Chicago its first title in 108 years back in 2016 but were ultimately dealt before last year’s trade deadline. A nearly all-new lineup will take the field for the Cubs on Opening Day against the Brewers, the first Opening Day that won’t feature at least one of the aforementioned three players in the starting lineup since 2012.
A different era is certainly being fully ushered in, and fan expectations aren’t as high for Chicago as in years past. But don’t tell that to those in charge of the Cubs.
To them, the team that runs out onto Wrigley Field at 1:20 p.m. is one that can be competitive in the National League Central, even with defending division champion Milwaukee rolling into town to start the new campaign.
“You always want to compete,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said back on March 14. “I think you go into the season, you want to be a competitive team, and that’s our goal. We have a couple of really good teams in our division, certainly. We’re well aware of that, but we want to build a team that we believe can compete.”
David Ross was a bit more exuberant when asked what he would consider a successful 2022 season.
“Winning. Making the playoffs. I mean, the goal is to get to the World Series, right?” Ross said early in spring training. “We’re never going to stop working towards that. That’s what we’ve established here. That’s the expectation that I come with.”
However realistic that is for the Cubs this season, it will be the remaining pieces of that title team that lead the way.
Only Kyle Hendricks, Willson Contreras and Jason Heyward are left from one of the most competitive eras in Cubs history. Barring something unforeseen happening on Thursday, Hendricks will start on the bump, Contreras will catch him behind the plate and Heyward will be roaming the outfield. Many things have changed over the last year-plus, but those should be three constants in Chicago.
All three do come into 2022 with question marks, however.
Even with a “Professor”-like 16-game stretch from May 16 to Aug. 6 that saw him go 11-0 with a 2.79 ERA, Hendricks still finished the season with career-worst numbers all over the board. Can he find a way to rebound this year? The Cubs certainly expect him to, but that’s still the biggest question surrounding Chicago’s No. 1 starter heading into the season.
Contreras’ question marks come from the uncertainty of his future in a Cubs uniform. He’s the only one of the three who comes into the season without a contract for this year or next, as he and Chicago brass still have to go through arbitration at some point during the season. Contreras has stated that he’s focused on competing with the Cubs this season, but can he perform like the two-time All-Star he’s been during his tenure? Or even more pressing, will he be with the team long enough to truly lead it into the new era?
Heyward’s on-field role is expected to be smaller than Hendricks and Contreras’. He’s 32 years old, is coming off another sub-par year at the plate and likely won’t be taking an everyday role in the outfield once the season really gets going. Chicago wants him to take full ownership of that clubhouse leader role, but can he thrive in that role off the field while moving into what might end up being at best a platoon role on it?
Those are the questions that will only be answered by their performances this season, but regardless, there’s certainly still value in what those veteran leaders bring to the table.
Contreras has stated time and time again this spring that he’s living in the moment, not worrying about extension talks (or a recent lack thereof) with the front office. His words are one thing, but it’s been clear by the way he carried himself around Sloan Park and the Cubs training complex that he truly wanted to enjoy being around his teammates. He’s certainly the emotional leader on the team, but there’s also a vocal leader brewing in him as well.
“I can be more vocal, but (you) have to know when. That’s the thing,” he said at the beginning of spring training. “You’ve got to pick the right situation to be vocal, especially with the younger guys. You don’t want anything to be mistaken by them, and you don’t want them against you.
“I’ll be vocal. I’ll be the leader of them.”
Despite a rough 2021, Hendricks is still someone who’s been amongst the most respected pitchers in the majors since the rotation first started to power the Cubs’ to new heights. There’s a reason Marcus Stroman told reporters at Cubs camp in Mesa, Arizona, recently that Hendricks should be the Opening Day starter. He’s as respected as anyone in that locker room, and with young arms like Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson still hoping to develop into full-time rotation pieces, he’s certainly one of those veterans they’ll be looking up to.
It’s the same thing when it comes to Heyward.
After Seiya Suzuki signed his five-year, $85 million deal with the Cubs, Hoyer and Ross didn’t keep it a secret that they wanted to Suzuki to take over right field. With Heyward already occupying the spot, though, that involved him moving out of position to make sure Suzuki was in a comfortable place on the field.
Having seen Heyward move positions before, Ross never doubted that it wouldn’t be an issue.
“I think that’s probably one of the easier conversations I’ve had when you’re talking about asking guys to do different things,” Ross said about Heyward back on March 17. “He wants to win, and he has that experience in the past. Since I’ve been here, I wanted to stick him in right and have that consistency for him, but the main thing for me is that he’s comfortable.
“He’ll work. He’s a worker. He’s already been preparing for that, to be able to move around. He’s known his flexibility is important to me. And so, just having that conversation and being on the same page does make me, I guess, relax a little bit, but it wasn’t anything I was worried about. He’s as pro as it gets.”
When the Cubs finally got into Cactus League games, Ross’ words couldn’t have been more right. In all 10 games he appeared in during the spring, Heyward was solely in center field. No moving over to right field, no mixing up the spots. Just Heyward in center, showing that, even as a five-time Gold Glover and a World Series champion, he’s more than willing to do what’s asked of him in the name of bettering the team.
The offensive numbers likely won’t rise to a level that can offset his price tag, but at the very least, Chicago still has a veteran with championship experience who can show the young players on the roster that being asked to do what’s best for the team shouldn’t be an issue.
“I think in the game of baseball, you really can’t take anything personal,” Michael Hermosillo, who’s expected to share time in center as part of that platoon, told CHGO earlier this spring. “It’s basically, like, how can you adjust? How can you adapt? How can I learn whatever, do whatever I can to help the team win? I think that just shows J-Hey’s professionalism, his want to win, obviously No. 1, but two, just his ability to be versatile and adapt and switch up positions.”
The Cubs aren’t undertaking a full-on rebuild, but Chicago will still spend plenty of time this season evaluating what it has in many of the players on the roster. Can any of them be pieces in Hoyer’s vision for “The Next Great Cubs Team”?
That question remains to be answered, but while this newest era of Cubs baseball really gets underway, it’ll be Hendricks, Contreras and Heyward who will help lead the way.