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No, the first half wasn’t pretty. At all.
The Cubs entered the All-Star break 22 games under .500 and a whole lot closer to the Reds at the bottom of the division (1/2 game above last place in the NL Central) than the Brewers at the top (14 1/2 games out of first). As tough as Cubs fans knew this season was going to be, it’s looking worse than many probably could’ve expected.
There isn’t a playoff appearance on the way for the Cubs this year, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for fans to pay attention to. From young starters to breakout position players to trade chips, there are plenty of storylines to follow in the second half. Thus, our CHGO Cubs group put together answers to some of the burning questions as the second half gets underway.
Let’s get into it.
1. The Cubs’ first half was pretty brutal. What is one thing (from a team perspective) that you want to see that could make these last couple months easier to stomach?
Ryan Herrera: They need to take a good, hard look at what they’ve got in some of these young guys. There will be some spots on the big-league roster that open up over the next couple of weeks, so it’s very possible we see some minor leaguers get called up. But when that happens, the Cubs need to make sure they’re all getting the playing time they need to get a good evaluation heading into next year. Any arms that get the call-up need to get experience in a variety of situations. If Jackson Frazier does make it back to Chicago at some point, he’ll need to play more often than he did in his first stint. And that’s on top of guys already on the active roster. Nelson Velázquez needs consistent starts. Christopher Morel needs to continue playing everyday, even if it means moving him all around the field. And as frustrated as fans are with him, Nick Madrigal (when he returns) has to get a lot of at-bats. The Cubs need to take the last two months to see what they have in a bunch of these players before the season ends.
Corey Freedman: Continuing to give young players a chance to prove themselves at the major league level. In the first half I don’t think we saw that enough, frankly, but we did see quite a bit of it. Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele being given the opportunity to grow as starters appears to have given the Cubs confidence that they have two legitimate rotation pieces going forward. Christopher Morel has opened eyes as a future utility-man type at minimum, and if he continues to make adjustments he may prove himself to be someone the Cubs are confident in as an everyday player for next year. Those things don’t happen without opportunity. So, in the second half, I’d like to see the Cubs continue to prioritize bringing players up from the minor leagues and giving them an actual shot, not just a couple of starts here and there and the occasional pinch-hit appearance.
Brendan Miller: I want to see the Cubs maximize opportunities for other players in the outfield and at first base. I want to see Narciso Crook, Jackson Frazier, and Nelson Velázquez all get opportunities to go through adjustment phases. I want to see Matt Mervis perform so well at Triple-A Iowa that he gets a legitimate shot at first base with big-league team.
Cody Delmendo: There isn’t really anything that will make me feel better after watching this embarrassing first half. However, if they finally designate Jason Heyward for assignment, the Cubs’ fan base will probably throw a party.
2. Nico Hoerner is arguably the breakout player of the first half. What was most impressive about him, and what do you want to see out of him in the second half?
Herrera: What’s impressed me most is just how much he’s answered the challenge of being an everyday shortstop. As much as fans wanted the Cubs to get someone like Carlos Correa last offseason, it was also going to be interesting to see what Hoerner could do in his first full season as the Cubs’ shortstop. And considering his 10 outs above average and 10 defensive runs saved are both are right at the top of the league of players at any position, he’s answered the call. As far as what I want to see in the second half, I want to see him continue to show some of that pop he’s shown at the plate. That’s not just in terms of home runs, of which his five are already a career-high, but a second half in which he maintains or adds to his career-bests in average exit velocity (87.5 mph) and hard hit percentage (34.7%) would really help him show that his first half was no fluke.
Freedman: The most impressive thing about Hoerner thus far has been his performance on offense. We knew he could be an elite defender at second base based on what we saw in years past, so it’s not necessarily surprising that he’s done the same at short, but him putting a 112 wRC+ in the first half is what really stands out. He’s on pace to be a 4-plus WAR player! If he can continue to add some power and up his ISO in the second half, the Cubs are looking at an incredibly valuable player going into 2023 that at that rate would not have to worry about being snubbed from the All-Star Game like he was this year.
Miller: Everything about Hoerner is impressive. His bat is impressive (112 wRC+). His glove is impressive (most runs prevented at shortstop in MLB). His speed is impressive (90th percentile). His attitude is impressive (growing into a clubhouse leader). I want him to get as many at-bats as possible.
Delmendo: Coming into the year, many did not believe Hoerner could play above average defense at shortstop, and he has become one of the best defensively in all of baseball. I’d like to continue to see more hard contact from him the rest of the season.
3. Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele have both started to come into their own this season. What do they need to do to take another step forward in the second half?
Herrera: It’s going to be hard to take a step forward, per se, because their innings will certainly be monitored to end the year, but I think they need to be able to get through six frames consistently in the second half. Thompson has only completed six innings three times in his career (all three came at the end of June), while Steele has done it five times this year (and the usual “one inning where he has to work harder” has stopped him from doing so a couple more times at least). That needs to become the expectation for the two of them. Not that anyone is looking for them to go out there and throw complete games every time out, but getting to the point where they are consistently getting enough innings to qualify for a quality start would be very positive signs for the duo going into next season.
Freedman: I think the main priority for both Thompson and Steele at this point would be continuing to go deeper into games. They have both proven that they can get outs at the major league level. I think the next question to answer is can they reliably get those outs deeper into games, which will go a long way to determining where they might slot in for the 2023 rotation and what types of additions the Cubs need to make in the offseason to build a rotation around them and Marcus Stroman.
Miller: Thompson and Steele are succeeding in different ways. Thompson has recently thrown more elevated fastballs, whereas Steele has thrown more lower fastballs. Thompson has implemented a new slider and thrown fewer fastballs, whereas Steele has thrown more fastballs overall. I want to see Thompson continue to experiment with his new slider and induce more whiffs. His current whiff rate of 22 percent is about league average, so I’m hoping he can eventually lower that rate as the season nears its end. Similarly, I want to see Steele induce more whiffs and throw a variety of different pitches. His 96th percentile barrel rate is great, but I would feel more comfortable if he missed more bats. Steele has messed with sliders, changeups and sinkers in the past. I want to see more of these. Overall, I just want both to get through the season healthy and primed for significant innings for 2023.
Delmendo: To me, all they need to do at this point is stay healthy and continue what they’re already doing. Both have been the bright spots of this team. If they’re healthy going into 2023, that could change the outlook for this roster as a competitive team if the team makes significant roster changes with them.
4. After the trade deadline, there are sure to be a few openings on the active roster. Which minor leaguer would you be most interested to see get called up?
Herrera: This might be cheating, but I would really like to see Caleb Kilian get another shot in the big leagues before this year is up. He had that impressive debut against the Cardinals, but then he allowed five earned runs in each of his next two starts. Control issues have were an issue in those starts and followed him back to Triple-A. Over his last four outings, he’s walked nine batters, which brings him to 25 walks in 57 innings. In 2021, he walked just 13 in 100 1/3 innings. So what I’m saying is, Kilian first needs to rediscover that command that had been his calling card for so long and put that to work at the Triple-A level. If that happens, then we’ll likely get to see Kilian get another shot in the big leagues to end this lost Cubs season.
Freedman: There are plenty of interesting options here but I think the one that might make the most sense is Matt Mervis. The Cubs have gotten pretty poor production from first base and Mervis has been red-hot at the plate. He may not be the most exciting Cubs prospect in terms of his rankings or anything like that, but he seems to be a really good fit for a guy that can be given some pretty clear runway to show what he can do for 2023.
Miller: I want to see a lot of Matt Mervis. He’s hit 21 homers in 338 plate appearances split between High-A South Bend and Double-A Tennessee, and he’s cut down his strikeout rate to 20 percent in Double-A. It’s unique to see hitters make a lot of contact and hit for a lot of power. Maybe Mervis is that guy. We need to find out.
Delmendo: I’d love to see Caleb Kilian get recalled to the Cubs and see how his role shapes with this team headed into 2023.
5. Speaking of the deadline, which trade candidate (outside of Willson Contreras or Ian Happ) would hurt the team most if they are dealt?
Herrera: As far as realistic trade options go, I’d say it’s probably David Robertson. Yes, he’s going to get the Cubs something good in return, but he’s also been a very positive presence in that bullpen this season, not to mention that he’s been an excellent reliever for this club as well. He’s earned the closer role on this pitching staff, and considering Mychal Givens and Chris Martin are likely to be dealt, too, that’s going to leave a huge hole at the back end of the bullpen. When it comes to the Cubs’ makeup and them wanting to compete every game, losing their most sure-fire reliever will sting.
Freedman: Kyle Hendricks. The injury situation likely takes him out of consideration, but he’s the type of guy I would rather try and figure things out with the Cubs, even if that ends up being in a less significant role next season. Hendricks is a Cubs legend for his postseason run in 2016 alone, and I would really prefer to not see him traded for what would be an underwhelming return.
Miller: At this point, I’m numb to trades. The Cubs can somehow trade my podcast co-host Corey Freedman to DNVR or PHNX and it would feel totally normal to me.
Delmendo: I’d hate to see Patrick Wisdom traded. It wouldn’t emotionally hurt like the trades of 2021, but his club control and power bat bring value for this team now and in the future.
6. Will the Cubs complete “the march to 63”? Why or why not?
Herrera: I’m going to say they will. As poor as the team has been this season, I still don’t think it’s “22 games under .500” bad. Now, that could certainly change as the roster changes over the next 11 days, but one reason why I can see them “surprising” every one and not hit triple-digit losses is because I think the rotation will be better in the second half. Steele and Thompson already look like mainstays in the group, and I think they’ll be able to shoulder a good amount of the load. Marcus Stroman is starting to look more like Marcus Stroman now that he’s returned from the IL. Adrian Sampson has been better than expected and keeps finding ways to eat innings each start. If Kyle Hendricks can start pitching again in early September, that’ll be a plus. It’s always been said that pitching and defense win ballgames. I’m not sure what the latter is going to look like, but I can see the former having a nice rebound in the second half.
Freedman: This is a tough question to answer without knowing who they end up trading, but I’m going to say no. I think this team ends up losing 100-plus games. It is almost a sure thing that they are going to trade a lot of their top end talent, so even though there may be some interesting call-ups, the roster will inherently be worse. My main reason for being pessimistic here is that this team has been rather undisciplined so far this season, and that doesn’t bode well for avoiding long losing streaks as we’ve seen multiple times this season. This team has been horrific at driving in the free baserunner in extra innings, has been near the top of the league all season in outs on the bases, constantly blows leads, etc. None of that bodes well for a better second half, especially when you’re going to lose some of your most productive players. But hey, sometimes turning the roster over to the younger guys breeds new life into a clubhouse, so who knows.
Miller: If I were to bet over or under 63 wins, I’d bet the under. The pitching staff has struggled to stay healthy, and many pitchers are trying to get through their first full season. Many positions will be filled with new faces who haven’t played much at the MLB level. I do, however, think the error in projecting this team is high. I can imagine the pitching staff stabilizing and a few fresh faces taking hold of new roles.
Delmendo: If there is anything I have learned about baseball, it’s to expect the unexpected. I think many expect this team to lose over 100 games, but I’d love for them to avoid that in unexpected fashion.
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