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The Cubs said goodbye to the fans at Wrigley Field following their last home game, an 8-1 win over the Reds on Sunday, and they hung around to sing “Go Cubs Go” with the crowd one last time in 2022.
Following that moment, a certain player stayed back for one last, intimate moment with the one fan base he’s played in front of his entire big league career.
Willson Contreras, who’d had a similar moment during the last game at Wrigley prior to the trade deadline, stood around home plate as the crowd showered him with love. The fans had already done so a number of times throughout the game — before he was hit by a pitch in his first plate appearance in the first inning, before he walked in his last plate appearance in the eighth and when he came out of the game for a pinch-runner right after — and Contreras wanted to thank the crowd for being there for him in what may be his last home game in a Cubs uniform.
“It means a lot to me,” Contreras said. “That’s why I wanted to come back and play this whole week, because I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know if it’s going to be my last game with the Cubs or not, but I enjoyed the moment. If I had to redo it, I’d do it again, because I play in one of the best fan bases in baseball. They make this place special.”
While it’s not yet certain if this goodbye is for real this time — Contreras said Sunday that going into free agency this offseason is “like a dream coming true,” though it’s possible he returns either by reaching a deal with the Cubs or by accepting the expected qualifying offer — the future of his long-time teammate, Jason Heyward, is clear. Heyward won’t be returning for the last year of his eight-year, $184 million contract, with president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer announcing back in August that the Cubs would be moving on after this season.
“For him to get that moment in front of the fans, I think that’s great,” manager David Ross said. “I still think he’s probably got a long career ahead of him, and the next chapter in his life will play itself out as it’s supposed to. But [it was] good. [Ian Happ] said to me, ‘I’m glad I didn’t have to hit after that.’ You just see a brother kind of moving on from this chapter around here. He’s impacted so many great guys. I think you guys see that and know that. I’m glad he got that from the fans.”
If the trade deadline sell-off in 2021 that sent Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez out of town didn’t feel like the end of the golden era of Cubs baseball, this surely does. Ross is still around in the manager’s seat, but with Heyward’s time in Chicago over and with Contreras not expected to be back next season, Kyle Hendricks — who hasn’t pitched since July 5 after being shut down with a right shoulder injury — will be the only player remaining from the 2016 World Series roster.
The last six seasons haven’t gone the way the Cubs had hoped following that title run. That team featured the perfect blend of stars on the rise and veterans to guide them and they still made it to the postseason in three of the next four seasons, but all of that promise led to only one more playoff series win and no more championships.
After these two latest goodbyes, if Hendricks isn’t brought back once his contract is up after 2023, that chapter of Cubs baseball will officially come to a close. But that certainly won’t be the end of the book, as there are players waiting in the wings of the farm system to help ensure Cubs fans won’t be waiting 108 years in between World Series titles again.
In MLB.com’s latest team farm rankings update back in August, the Cubs checked in at No. 10 with a note saying “the Cubs system hasn’t been this deep since Chicago was assembling the talent that won the 2016 World Series.” Over at FanGraphs, the Cubs’ system ranks No. 4. Prospect rankings ultimately mean nothing until those players produce in the big leagues, but clearly, there’s reason to be excited about what the Cubs have in the pipeline.
And over the weekend, some of those potential next-era stars got to take in the park they may one day call home.
The Cubs invited a number of their highly-touted prospects to Wrigley Field for a minicamp of sorts, where they were able to meet and work with Cubs coaches and players throughout the weekend. The list included names fans have heard plenty of times by now, such as Pete Crow-Armstrong (No. 1 in MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Cubs rankings), Brennen Davis (No. 2), Jordan Wicks (No. 5), Owen Caissie (No. 10) and Matt Mervis (No. 21).
“It’s what you get excited about,” assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos said. “You get to see what, hopefully, the next crop of future Cub stars look like. You get to get a feel for who they are, their personalities, see what types of questions they ask, see how they’re processing things and just hear them talk about what it means to them to be a professional baseball player.”
Crow-Armstrong and Davis are two of the three Cubs prospects in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 (at Nos. 30 and 48, respectively, along with No. 86 Kevin Alcantara). There aren’t any top-10, can’t-miss prospects shooting their way up the system like Bryant and Kyle Schwarber did before the Cubs’ last run of success, but players like Wicks and Mervis have quickly moved through the levels and could be playing at Wrigley Field as early as next season.
None of them are getting too far ahead of themselves, of course. They know they still have work to do just to get to the big leagues, much less to try and replace the stars who helped the Cubs win it all six years ago. They also understand the decision to call them up is out of their control.
Said Davis: “My job is to be the best version of myself, and when my time is called, I want to be ready to help the team succeed. That’s all I can do. When my time comes, I’m going to be ready to help the team win.”
Said Mervis: “I want to be a Major League Baseball player. That’s been my goal since I was 4 years old. I’m going to keep doing what I can do to get there and let the front office make their decisions.”
Said Caissie: “I’m just really focusing on the now, in the present. Whenever they want me up here, I’ll be ready.”
Still, being at Wrigley Field and seeing a weekend series at the Friendly Confines first hand gives them hope for the future, and they see the group who spent the weekend in Chicago as one featuring players who will one day don a Cubs uniform.
“I feel like we have a good group of guys to be here with,” Wicks said. “It’s a lot of fun reconnecting with these guys in Chicago, because we get to experience all this stuff, at least for the most part, for the first time together. We definitely go out on the field and imagine being out there, and who knows how far away it is.”
“We got a great group of guys coming through the system,” Davis said, “and there’s no doubt that there’s pieces in there that are definitely going to be a part of the next core of the Chicago Cubs.”
Time will tell whether those predictions come true. Promise and potential don’t automatically equal championships.
An impressive stretch to end the season, in which the Cubs have won 11 of their last 12 games heading into the last series of the year, has provided some optimism that the rebuild may not take as long as once thought. And when the Cubs are in position to win again, perhaps some of these youngsters will be around to fill the holes left behind by the players who’ve already said their goodbyes.
“There’s a room full of young men that, hopefully, all of them come up and are able to contribute in some way and help us win a championship,” Ross said. “But some of those guys get traded some of those guys don’t ever make it. That’s the reality of our sport.
“They’ve still got a long way to go, a lot of work to put in, and they know that. Hopefully, they enjoy themselves and see what an amazing place this is, and hopefully, it takes their intentions of training this offseason and their work that they’re going to do just to another level to get here as fast as possible.”
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