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Ask those who've seen him grow: Nick Madrigal can be special with the Cubs

Ryan Herrera Avatar
August 30, 2022

Almost 15 months ago, Nick Madrigal’s baseball career came to a halt.

Then with the White Sox, Madrigal was hitting .305 and had already started 53 games at second base for the South Siders. As the No. 4 overall pick in 2018, he was still working to make sure he lived up to that billing.

But on June 9, 2021, Madrigal attempted to beat out a ground ball to third base, and everything changed.

Credit: Baseball Savant

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At first glance, it didn’t look like a whole lot. Madrigal was thrown out by Blue Jays third baseman Joe Panik, and he slowly stopped his sprint as he passed first base. As it turns outs, that would be the last time Madrigal would try to beat out any infield grounders in a White Sox uniform.

Madrigal had suffered a proximal tear of his right hamstring, which ended his season after he underwent surgery on it the next week. Not only was he not going to play again for the rest of 2021, but he wasn’t going to be able to keep developing into the White Sox’ potential second baseman of the future.

But as the Cubs were getting ready to tear down a roster that had gone to the playoffs in five of the previous six seasons, they saw something in Madrigal. They saw the minuscule whiff and strikeout rates. They saw the player who hit above .300 at every level, had a high contact rate and could spray the ball all over the field.

The Cubs dealt with so much of the opposite during their most recent competitive window that, when they traded Craig Kimbrel to their crosstown rivals at last year’s deadline, Madrigal was one of the players they wanted in return.

“We’ve struggled as a group with contact,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at the time. “To get a player like Nick Madrigal, he just really fits what we’re trying to do going forward really well. I just love how he plays the game. I’ve loved how he played the game since college. I was envious of the White Sox to get a player like that.”

It has been a long road back for Madrigal, one filled with months of rehab, a 99-day lockout, early-season underperformance and two more stints on the IL this year. But since returning earlier this month, Madrigal is looking more like the player Hoyer thought he was bringing in.

Take this play from 11 days ago against the Brewers.

Credit: Baseball Savant

In a similar play to his last one with the White Sox, a play in which Madrigal had to sprint to beat out an infield grounder, he showed no hesitation. He did what he had to do to as the leadoff hitter to make sure the Cubs started the game with someone on base.

There were no flashbacks to what ended his 2021 season. It was just Madrigal looking to put the ball in play and go.

He may not be all the way healthy — he even said after that game that he may never feel 100 percent — but he clearly had no worries over the risk of that kind of play. That’s one example of Madrigal trusting his body enough to be that type of player again.

“The last couple of weeks, I feel like I’ve kind of taken the next step as far as starting to feel normal again,” Madrigal said then. “It’s one of those things that, all year long, it’s a little bit tight here and there, but especially this last week, I feel like I’ve been able to run and not worry about it. It’s definitely encouraging just to feel a little bit better.”

Don’t believe he can have a bright future on the North Side?

Well, take it from the ones who’ve watched his baseball journey from the start.

Throughout the season, CHGO spoke to a number of Madrigal’s high school teammates as well as his high school coach, and they’ve all made one thing clear: when he’s healthy, Madrigal can be a special player for the Cubs.

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Madrigal graduated from Elk Grove High School in 2015. Chicagoans might confuse it with a local, suburban high school, but it’s actually one in Elk Grove, Calif., a suburb of Sacramento. The school is a California high school baseball powerhouse that’s won a number of section championships (there’s currently no state title) since the turn of the century.

With all of that winning came a number of players who would go on to bigger and better things.

This season alone, five players from Elk Grove in addition to Madrigal have touched a major league field: JD Davis (Class of ’11), a third baseman for the Giants; Rowdy Tellez (’13), a first baseman for the Brewers; Dom Nuñez (’13) a catcher in the Rockies’ system who’s played in 14 big-league games this year; Derek Hill (’14), a center fielder in the Mariners’ system who played 31 games for the Tigers this year; and Dylan Carlson (’16), an outfielder for the Cardinals.

Though Tellez and Nuñez were the only two to have played high school ball with every other member of the group, the six still maintain a friendship, regardless of how far apart they are in the country.

“It’s something that’s pretty rare,” Madrigal told CHGO during spring training. “We enjoyed our time playing together in the same high school, but I don’t think we could ever imagine being in the major leagues [at the same time], so it’s pretty special.”

However, Tellez was the only one who was there when Madrigal’s career hit its lowest point.

Then the designated hitter for the Blue Jays, Tellez watched as Madrigal fell to the ground in obvious pain. He watched as Madrigal was helped off the field, and all he could do at the time was let his friend know he had his back.

“Man, I felt bad for him,” Tellez told CHGO during the Brewers’ season-opening series at Wrigley Field. “I texted him, just let him know, like, he’s gonna be in the league for a long time, and just to keep his thoughts right.”

As bad as he felt for Madrigal at the time, Tellez was confident he would rebound. Tellez had seen the work ethic and the commitment Madrigal had in high school, and he knew he’d bring those same intangibles to the rehab process.

And when that was over and he watched a recovered Madrigal take the field for the Cubs on Opening Day this year, Tellez was just as confident Madrigal would perform like the player Tellez knows he can be.

“Coming into this year, I think he keeps the same mentality,” Tellez said. “He’s gonna be a .300 hitter every year and one of those guys that always excels.”

But again, that was the first weekend of the season.

Having only just started playing meaningful baseball games for the first time in 10 months, Tellez couldn’t have foreseen the struggles Madrigal would face to begin his Cubs tenure.

****

The first month of Madrigal’s 2022 season didn’t go well.

At the end of April, he was hitting .203. He had a 49 wRC+. His strikeout rate was at 14.1 percent, the highest of any month of his career to that point. It culminated on April 30, when he recorded his first three-strikeout game as a big leaguer (and, as far as Madrigal remembers, probably the first three-strikeout game of his life).

Cubs fans were growing impatient. This was the player the Cubs traded Kimbrel for? This was the player whose ability to put the ball in play and hit for a high average was supposed be a change from what they’d seen out of Cubs hitters in recent years?

Despite the struggles, there was another high school teammate who still had faith in Madrigal when the team made the trip to Colorado for a four-game set in April.

Then the Rockies’ backup catcher, Nuñez could see up close the issues plaguing Madrigal. His play at the time might not have inspired confidence in the Cubs’ fanbase, but Nuñez never waivered in his belief in someone he considers one of his best friends.

“As far as putting up numbers and stuff like that, he’s gonna put up the numbers that he always puts up,” Nuñez told CHGO. “He’s a consistent baseball player. I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”

Madrigal quickly rewarded that confidence with six hits in 13 at-bats that series, which quickly brought his average from .067 to .250 and his OPS from .243 to .644.

Yes, that was an example of how quickly numbers can change during an early-season hot streak, and yes, more struggles for Madrigal were on the way. But as far as Nuñez was concerned, none of that was going to stop Madrigal from succeeding with the way he’s always approached the game.

“I literally tell every person, like, what they’re seeing right now is what I’d seen at age 14,” Nuñez said. “And that’s probably the most impressive thing about the kid. The instincts are off the charts. He’s a pure baseball player. Competitive as hell. He just works his butt off. He’s always worked his butt off. To see that from someone so young — I was 16, he was 14, and you’re like, ‘This guy gets it. He wants to go special places.'”

****

The Carlson family is well entrenched in the Elk Grove baseball scene.

Dylan was a standout with the Thundering Herd, as was his younger brother, Tanner, who’s now a senior infielder at Texas. But it was their father, Jeff, who had the biggest hand in turning the program into one that constantly had scouts roaming the facilities. After starting as the assistant coach in 1996, Jeff Carlson took over as head coach in 2000. And from there, the program soared to new heights.

He oversaw four section champions during the first half of his head coaching career and helped produce MLB-level talent like David Hernandez (pitched in the big leagues from ’09-’19) and David Freitas (made his MLB debut with Atlanta in ’17). The back half of his time as head coach — before he stepped down in 2018 after Tanner graduated high school — saw him lead four more teams to section titles with the six players (plus Madrigal’s twin brother, Ty, a left-hander currently in the White Sox’ system) who played an MLB game in 2022.

Even with all of that talent, Madrigal’s peers would agree he has an argument to be the best ballplayer from that era of Elk Grove baseball.

“Everyone has such different styles of play. It’s hard to rank anyone, but I mean, Nick’s certainly up there, for sure,” Dylan Carlson told CHGO during the Cubs’ trip to St. Louis in late June. “The way he can play, the different ways he can beat you. He’s just a consistent player.”

Madrigal didn’t touch the field during that weekend series at Busch Stadium.

He was recovering from a left groin strain suffered in New York two weeks prior, his second stint on the IL this season along with a low back strain that put him on the shelf in mid-May. To that point in the season, Madrigal was hitting .222 with a wRC+ of 46.

But it still was just a 31-game sample, and like everyone else who’d watched him grow up, the Carlsons knew that wasn’t the player who Madrigal really is.

“He comes over to a new club, he’s injured, and obviously when you’re hurt, you’re not on the field so you’re not performing,” Jeff Carlson told CHGO in a phone interview. “People are always going to doubt you or whatever, but his mental toughness is off the charts. He’s going to rise to the occasion and battle that and come back and be better than he ever was. I know it.”

“He’s just a winning, grinding, hard-working type player that really puts in a lot of work and a lot of effort,” Dylan Carlson said. “I have no doubt that he’ll get back to where he wants to be.”

The work ethic and desire have always been there. All that was left was to recover from his latest ailment and then work to prove himself with the Cubs.

****

The backing from the people who’ve known Madrigal his whole baseball life is one thing.

Performing to the level they believe he can is all on him. And since he returned from his latest IL stint earlier this month, that’s what he’s done.

In 21 August games, Madrigal is hitting .303 with a .726 OPS. The slug still isn’t there (just three of his 23 hits this month went for extra bases), but that’s not necessarily his game anyway. Like the above hit against the Brewers or his two infield singles on Monday in Toronto, he only needs to put the ball in play to give himself an opportunity to make something happen.

That’s not all. Everyone who watched his baseball journey from the beginning says his defense is underrated. Though he was a shortstop back in high school and has long since transitioned into a second baseman, in their minds, he still brings a steady glove to the table. And it’s the work ethic he displayed so long ago that makes them fully believe that to this day.

“He puts in the work to be consistent and just makes it look easy out there,” Dylan Carlson said. “Defense is no exception for him. He was the guy that, when we were younger in high school, he’d go out there and take an hour’s worth of ground balls after practice. Just those types of things.”

As his friends, of course they’d praise Madrigal. Anyone would expect that. But either way, they’re always going to speak highly of a guy they’ve watched grow into a major league ballplayer for over a decade.

Said Nuñez: “I praise the kid more than anybody that I’ve ever really praised, but that just goes without being said. He’s a very special player.”

Said Tellez: “Even from his freshman year in high school, he was the same way. He was our leadoff hitter, a freshman on varsity, and he played well. For me, just watching him grow up, it’s nothing short of anything I hadn’t seen before. He’s always been an elite player.”

Said Dylan Carlson: “There was a game in college where he was injured and he was only able to bunt; he had four bunt hits. Just crazy stories like that. Just one of those winning ballplayers.”

And now that he’s back and playing on an everyday basis, Madrigal doesn’t just need his friends to hype him up. He can let his performance show what he can provide to this ballclub.

“There were times where I was overthinking [early in the season], and then other times when I felt good, just the results weren’t showing,” Madrigal said. “I feel like, as of late, I’m in a good spot. Just enjoying the game and not worrying about anything outside of just playing the game.”

As a high school coach, all Jeff Carlson ever wanted was to see his players move on to the next level. Seeing as many of them as possible play in college was his goal, and anything after that was gravy. But there was something about Madrigal that he knew college wasn’t where things would end. He said he always saw Madrigal as a big leaguer, and now that he’s there, the sky is the limit.

Despite his impressive last month, Madrigal’s overall 2022 numbers aren’t where they’ve been for him in past years. He’ll need to show, over the last month-plus of this season and beyond, that this August version of him is just the start of who he can be for the Cubs.

Still, this is as good as Madrigal has felt health-wise in a long time. And now that he’s cleared that hurdle, his former baseball coach is positive there are big things to come.

“He’s at the ultimate level,” Jeff Carlson said. “He’s in the big leagues. He’s been phenomenal. He’s achieved. He’s won a College World Series. He’s played on the USA National Team and has done well for them at the highest levels there.

“The next thing would be the World Series, which I know, someday, I’m sure he’ll achieve that goal. Because he seems to be, wherever he goes, he’s a winner and wins at every level. He’s gonna bring that to the Cubs, I’m sure.”

Apr 10, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Cubs second baseman Nick Madrigal (1) takes the field for warm up before the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

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