Hello, hello. We’re back again on another Monday morning.
The Cubs just got done taking two of three games in St. Louis, which was a good change of pace after they dropped three of four in Pittsburgh. We’re now just three days away from July and 36 days away from the trade deadline, so we’re about to see the start of trade season and the chaos that comes with it. The Cubs are 17 games under .500, so it would take a lot for this team to be anything other than sellers leading up to the deadline on Aug. 2.
The national speculation on Cubs trade candidates certainly picked up recently, and there’s more than a few players who could be wearing jerseys on Aug. 3. That, along with the happenings from the Cubs’ seven games this week, gave me plenty to think about. So without further ado, here’s the June 27 edition of my Monday morning Cubs thoughts.
The makeup of the Cubs’ outfield and how manager David Ross chooses to fill it out is going to be interesting to watch over the next couple of weeks.
For the most part, Ross had been rolling out a lineup featuring Ian Happ in left field, Christopher Morel in center field and Jason Heyward in right field. With Seiya Suzuki having missed the last month due to his sprained left ring finger, with Rafael Ortega finding a spot in the designated hitter role and with Clint Frazier now in Triple-A, that’s been a pretty set lineup for the team against right-handed starters. But on Saturday, with Cardinals righty Miles Mikolas on the mound, Ross went with Nelson Velázquez in right. When Clint Frazier was designated for assignment, Ross had said that Heyward would get the at-bats against right handers. So was Velázquez’s start a sign that he was changing his mind?
As it turns out, no. Ross said the decision had a lot more to do with the turnaround for a day game after a night game. He also noted that Heyward is dealing with a knee issue and the Cubs were looking to get him a couple of days to rest. OK, that’s all well and good, but it isn’t going to please Cubs fans who were probably happy to see Heyward’s name out of the lineup two games in a row. Fans on social media have been clamoring for the Cubs to let Heyward go, and even if that’s not feasible, to at least make him a bench player and give others more time on the field. That didn’t happen with Frazier, and even with Velázquez starting Saturday and Ortega starting Sunday, it doesn’t appear to be something that’ll happen once Heyward is healthy.
But that outfield will soon get even more cramped, and Ross will have some tough decisions to make. Suzuki is scheduled to meet the Cubs back in Chicago on Tuesday after spending the past week rehabbing in Arizona. After that, he could be ready to go out on a rehab assignment, so it might not be more than a couple weeks until Suzuki is activated off the 10-day injured list.
That will, however, create a log jam in the outfield. As the Cubs’ prized offseason acquisition, Suzuki will be playing in right field everyday, and Happ will only be out of left field on scheduled off days versus there being any kind of platoon role. So that leaves only center field as a spot for Heyward to get consistent playing time, but that might also mean less playing time for Christopher Morel at the position. He has the ability to play six different positions, so Ross could aways elect to give him more time as an infielder (he started at second on Saturday). But still, Heyward shouldn’t be taking time away from Morel once Suzuki returns from the IL, because if he does, there will be a lot of backlash from the fanbase. Besides on days where guys need a breather or Morel needs to fill a spot in infield, it should be Happ, Morel and Suzuki in the outfield. That’s the only way to keep the fans happy.
And if we’re being honest, there’s only one move that involves Heyward that will satisfy Cubs fans, but that doesn’t look to be coming anytime soon. Until then, I’m interested to see how Ross balances the makeup of the outfield once Suzuki is ready to play.
The funny thing about all this fan ire toward the Cubs is that I thought they’d managed to buy themselves more than a couple days of goodwill thanks to their pregame move Friday.
Though he was originally penciled in to start at second base that day, Jonathan Villar was designated for assignment prior to the series opener to make room for David Bote. It seemed like the writing was on the wall for that move to be made. Villar was a liability defensively, as he had -10 Outs Above Average (per Statcast). His ability to switch hit could’ve been a plus, but he had very little success at the plate and owned a 66 wRC+ (per FanGraphs). It reached a tipping point during the four-game series in Pittsburgh, when he made multiple errors and other defensive miscues that don’t show up in the box score but still affect a game.
Then you throw in the fact that Bote needed to be activated, and he can play both second base and third base. Nick Madrigal generally starts at second base, and he wasn’t going to be relegated to the bench when he comes back from his left groin strain just to keep Villar in the lineup. And even though Villar has the ability to move around the infield, so can Morel, and he’s done it much better this season. There just wasn’t any room for Villar on this team, and the Cubs made the choice to DFA him. That seemed like music to Cubs fans ears, at least on social media. After this last week, he might’ve been getting more vitriol than even Heyward on Twitter. So when the move was finally made, it satisfied the section of the fanbase that had been calling for the DFA.
Now, does that move mean a similar decision for Heyward is coming anytime soon? I’d have to say it isn’t likely. Whereas Villar wasn’t performing on either side of the ball, Heyward brings at least some value on the defensive side. His contract is also much bigger and harder to justify eating than Villar’s. And the Cubs still see tremendous intangible value in what Heyward brings to the clubhouse as a team leader and World Series champion, which is something that Villar couldn’t bring himself.
Villar is the first domino to fall, but I wouldn’t say it means anything for Heyward’s future on the North Side.
We’re just over a month away from the trade deadline, and trade rumors continue to heat up.
Among those rumors is continued speculation on Willson Contreras and a potential trade. On seemingly every “hot stove” type of piece, Contreras is there near the top. People around the league have basically come to the conclusion that Contreras’ days on the Cubs are numbered, which has been the expectation the whole season. To his credit, Contreras isn’t letting the noise get to him. Ross said Contreras is still in a good place mentally, and he comes to the ballpark every day with a good attitude. Neither one of them sees the trade deadline and the move that could be made affecting Contreras play at all.
Said Contreras: “That has nothing to do with the person that I want to be in the clubhouse. I know that those types of things are right there, but I’m not letting them bother me. I’m trying to be the same person every single day for my teammates and do the best job I can to help to help this team win.”
Said Ross: “I think you read and there’s speculation. I think it’s always important to keep the outside noise out of the clubhouse. When you’re in trade talks like that as a veteran guy, whether it’s a guy who’s been around in a bullpen piece or a guy who’s been here for a long time, I think, one, they’ve seen other guys go through it. Willson has seen the Rizzos, the KBs and the Javys go through all that stuff and experience that. When you have that experience and know there’s really nothing you can control when you come in and do your job, I don’t think there’s a whole lot that I need to say or needs to be said. These guys come in every single day and are professional, and that’s just part of the job.”
That’s been basically what both have said about Contreras all season long. He’s not letting trade talk get to him. Whether he stays in Chicago or is dealt somewhere else, he’s fine with the outcome. I’ve been someone who’s said the Cubs would be better off extending Contreras, but even I can admit that the likelihood that happens shrinks more and more the closer we get to the deadline. The important thing is that Contreras keeps an upbeat attitude during the process, and so far, that’s been exactly what he’s done.
All this trade talk does bring one question to the front of my mind: Is it smart for the Cubs to trade away all the veteran leadership they have on the team?
Contreras is a World Series champion. Kyle Hendricks has been inconsistent for most of the last two seasons, but he’s a former NL Cy Young Award finalist. David Robertson is in just his first season with the Cubs, but he’s won a World Series and has pitched in parts of 14 years in the big leagues. Happ doesn’t have the longevity that some of the others have, but it’s been over six years since he debuted and he’s gone through some of the trials and tribulations that he can offer a good perspective for younger players.
All four of those players have popped up in those trade rumors. Though maybe some more than the others, eyes are now on what the Cubs do with some of these veterans who do provide value with their leadership on and off the field. However, I’m not convinced that trading all of them, regardless of the package you might get in return, is the best course of action. Young guys like Morel talk often about how much Contreras means to them. Young starting pitchers look up to Hendricks, and so do young relievers with Robertson (and Chris Martin and Mychal Givens, too). Happ is the team’s players union representative, so he’s clearly earned respect in that clubhouse.
These are the guys with the experience to pass along. For Contreras, Hendricks and Happ, they survived last year’s fire sale, and when Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez and Kris Bryant didn’t, they became three of the team’s longest-tenured players. If those guys are gone by the beginning of August, that’s the kind of leadership you lose. Then you’re left with a lot of young or less-seasoned players who haven’t won anything and who only have Heyward as a teammate with championship experience.
Yes, this is a rebuild, and making moves to help bolster the farm system is one of the front office’s chief objectives at this point. So if the right deals are offered for any of those veterans, you’ll likely see their Cubs tenures come to an end. Considering how much they can help the prospects that’ll be coming up over the next year or two, though, I still think keeping any of them around will provide a certain intangible value that the Cubs won’t have if they trade them.
Is Christopher Morel the greatest human being on the planet?
Morel set the league on fire for the first few weeks of his first stint in the majors, and people were drawn to him by the clear passion he plays the game with. His teammates and coaches alike all gush about his personality and the smile that just never seems to leave his face. The kid has quickly become a fan favorite for a reason. But if you didn’t know that before, then this interaction with a fan in St. Louis should show just how good of a heart Morel has.
As we sat in the dugout pregame on Saturday, fans gathered near the end of the dugout hoping to get the attention of some Cubs players. When one particular young fan saw Morel enter the dugout, he yelled out that it was his 10th birthday and asked Morel if he’d give him his hat. We respected the kid’s boldness, but we also chuckled a bit that he just asked a player for his hat. But lo and behold, Morel took the cap off his head, signed it, and then handed it to the fan. Morel signed a few more autographs before heading out to the field, but the entire time, that young fan couldn’t stop smiling.
A little bit later, I was talking to hitting coach Greg Brown about Morel, and the first thing he said was this:
“He’s a special person first of all. When you get to know him, as consistent of a human in the sense of just pure joy. He has joy every day he’s at the ballpark. You see him interact with staff, to fans. He’s really a caring, nurturing young man.”
I told Brown about that interaction between Morel and the fan, and Brown just smiled and said, “That’s who he is.”
We talk all about how baseball can appeal to its young fans, and things like showing games on streaming services are a part of that. But one thing that’ll never change is that just small interactions like this are as big a part of that as any. It’s another example of the kind of person Morel is, and it’s a moment that kid will never forget. That’s how you create fans for life.
In case you missed them, here are some Cubs articles from the past week:
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