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Patrick Wisdom and Frank Schwindel were two of the best stories from the Cubs’ 2021 season.
As a couple of ballplayers nearing their 30s getting their first real shots in the big leagues, both put together seasons that saw them take home three of the six National League Rookie of the Month awards and earn spots on the 2022 Opening Day roster.
On Sunday, with the Cubs trailing the Diamondbacks by a run heading into the bottom of the eighth, Wisdom led off by tying the game with a solo shot to center and sprinting around the bases in excitement. Two pitches later, Schwindel sent a solo shot of his own out to left and trotted around the bases at a similar pace to Wisdom.
It was the duo’s second set of back-to-back homers in as many games, and when Schwindel got to the dugout, who was the first one to greet him? It was Wisdom, there at the top step to grab Schwindel for a hug.
The Cubs’ 5-4 win was a win the fanbase needed to see after the disappointment of the four-game losing streak manager David Ross’ group had just endured. It was a feel-good moment, for sure, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s a moment that probably doesn’t do a whole lot to change the direction of this Cubs team.
Prior to Saturday’s matchup with Arizona, Willson Contreras was asked for his thoughts about that direction, specifically.
“I think that’s a good question for the president and the GM,” the Cubs seventh-year catcher said. “I’m here to play baseball with what they put on the field.”
That type of question has been posed plenty to those in charge of the Cubs going back to the beginning of spring training. It would be nonsensical to expect anything other than a positive answer from president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, who even on Opening Day said “I don’t know what that means” when asked for his definition of a rebuild.
Nobody wants a repeat of the teardown from a decade ago that started with the 101-loss 2012 team, and honestly, it doesn’t feel like that’s coming. They’re not tanking — in the sense that they aren’t trading everyone with some value — and the offseason signings of Seiya Suzuki and Marcus Stroman signaled the Cubs placed at least some value in fielding a competitive roster now while not hampering their flexibility in the future.
But there’s no denying how things have looked on the field.
The Cubs started the season on the right foot by taking two of three from the Brewers, then split series on the road in Pittsburgh and Colorado. What followed was six straight series losses, the worst of which came with losing three of four to the Pirates at home, and the last two totaling a five-game losing streak to the White Sox and the Dodgers at the Friendly Confines.
A series win in San Diego did restore some good will, as did the back-to-back series ‘W’s against Arizona and Pittsburgh that followed.
“The last three series, obviously, much better than that four-series stretch,” Hoyer said when he met with the media Thursday afternoon. “One of the hard parts at the beginning of the season is one bad stretch in there really hurts. When you look at the overall picture, we had a good stretch early and a good stretch recently, but the middle part was really bad. That’s ultimately outweighing the good so far.”
He’s not wrong, because it is tough to completely judge a team this early in the season. Any extended losing streak can make things look worse than they really are. Heck, in 2021, the Braves didn’t make it above .500 until Aug. 6, and they went on the win the World Series.
But that team bought at the trade deadline, and let’s be honest, nothing in the Cubs’ play so far has changed the expectation for more selling at the deadline.
Their loss to the Diamondbacks on Saturday gave them a 6-15 home record, which as MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian pointed out, is only the second time in team history the Cubs had that mark after 21 home games. “Schwisdom” helped them avoid starting 6-16 at home for the first time, but they’re still 16-24 overall a quarter of the way through the year. Even the 2013 team that lost 96 games had a better winning percentage (.407) than the Cubs have right now (.400).
Do I think that’s where this team is headed? No.
They still have Contreras, who was hitting better than any catcher in baseball prior to leaving Saturday’s game with right hamstring tightness. The rotation has stepped it up over the past couple of weeks, putting together a 1.2 fWAR (fifth in the majors), a 3.20 ERA (third in the National League) and a 3.60 FIP (fourth in the NL) from May 9-21, followed by Wade Miley’s quality start on Sunday.
Then there’s the bullpen, whose numbers stack up well with the best bullpens in baseball. And we’ve already seen some players the Cubs want to be a part of “The Next Great Cubs Team” come up over the last year and have success (Keegan Thompson and Scott Effross, anybody?).
There are pieces on the roster who should keep this team from reaching those 2012-13 levels of futility (read: a complete bottom out).
But the 2021 team had pieces, too, and we saw how that turned out. Entering the season with questions surrounding what they’d do at the deadline, the Cubs hit the 40-game mark with a 20-20 record. They were a season-high 11 games over .500 by June 13. Following a combined no-hitter against the Dodgers on June 24, they were 42-33 and tied with the Brewers atop the NL Central.
After the ensuing 11-game losing streak, though, Hoyer and Co. decided to go into full-on sell mode at the deadline and speed up the rebuild or retool or whatever it’s called these days. And that team had a core of All-Star position players who saw the field everyday in Contreras, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez.
Contreras is the only one of those four left on the North Side, and he’s in the same situation his former teammates were in for the first few months of last season. Despite Hoyer saying Thursday that he and Contreras “get along great” and there’s “no tension” between the two sides, there’s been no indication that the Cubs are leaning toward keeping Contreras around long-term.
Behind him, there are still question marks:
- Schwindel and Wisdom had a great ending Sunday, but both have had their share of struggles and it’s hard to look at 30-something-year-old players (Schwindel turns 30 in June) as the “future”
- Suzuki is certainly a slugger the Cubs see as a cornerstone, but he’s had a tough May after being named April’s NL Rookie of the Month
- Ian Happ is having his best season at the plate (doing it from both sides, too) and has been solid in left field, but he has to prove he can do it over 162 games
- Nico Hoerner was looking the part on both sides of the ball, but a stint on the injured list has been a setback to his season
- The team has plenty of prospects worth being excited about, but few are likely to come up this year, let alone come up and put this team in a position to compete
Just eyeing the situation, it feels like the roster is set up with pieces more likely to be dealt this year than pieces that’ll be around when the Cubs are ready to compete again.
“It’s the same as always: evaluating where we are, evaluating our division and where we are playoff-wise,” Hoyer said when asked what it would take for the Cubs to not be sellers this season. “And then, obviously, you’re taking a look into the next few years as well. There are certain pieces that are quote-unquote ‘rentals’ that may not be back, but there’s certain pieces that you get asked about that are a part of your future, and you want to think about where you are over the next few years.”
So where are they at in the division? Milwaukee is ahead by 9 1/2 games.
Where are they at playoff-wise? They’re 6 1/2 games back of the last Wild Card spot.
And when is the trade deadline? It’s on Aug. 2, just 72 days (and 62 games) away.
The season is long, and like the Braves and the 2019 Nationals (19-31 after 50 games), unbelievable turnarounds can happen. But those turnarounds also came over the full 162, which can’t happen if the Cubs sell with two months left to play. So at this point, there’s very little margin for error moving forward.
“I can tell you right now, it’s not at all where I am mentally,” Hoyer said of the looming deadline. “Frankly, we’ve spent most of our time trying to figure out how to put a roster together with our injuries and with the COVID situation. Rossy and the coaches have done a great job. We’ve had our struggles at times, but I think that the work has been good and the intention has been good. I’m not really thinking about the deadline right now.”
That might be the case at the moment, and even if the time does come, maybe Hoyer doesn’t make deals to the same magnitude that he did last July.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that all signs are pointing toward a second straight season of Cubs fans saying goodbye and looking at what the future could bring.
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