During his Opening Day media scrum at Wrigley Field, Cubs President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer used the word “scrappy” when asked about his expectations for this year’s team. So many players working on one-year contracts should create a healthy sense of competition, especially in an organization that stagnated in several areas after the 2016 World Series. The desire to prove people wrong can be a powerful motivator. The 2022 Cubs also won’t be playing under the weight of great expectations or the end-of-an-era emotions that complicated last season.
At the same time, we’re talking about the Chicago Cubs, not the Saint Peter’s basketball team. “Scrappy” can work for a few weekends during March Madness, but that’s not really a sustainable strategy for a six-month season. The Cubs begin May with an 8-13 record after Saturday night’s 9-1 loss to the brewers inMilwaukee.
“We’ll compete hard,” Hoyer said on April 7. “It’s a scrappy group. I think there’s a good vibe about this team. I think it’s going to look different as we get deeper in the summer. I think that’s going to be a trend with all the teams. We’re ready to play, but we’re also not like a fully formed team yet. As guys can play every day, as pitchers can get in their routines, things will change a little bit.”
Except for saying that he doesn’t know what a rebuild is, Hoyer has been consistently transparent in terms of his priorities and expectations. In essence, that amounts to a pieced-together team that could make it an interesting summer if a lot of things go right. So far, the Cubs haven’t come close enough to reaching those best-case scenarios, increasing the probability of another sell-off at the trade deadline.
The major-league club isn’t an afterthought. The Cubs aren’t trying to lose 100 games for a better position in Major League Baseball’s draft lottery. Manager David Ross and his coaches are constantly looking for any kind of an edge, rearranging the lineup based on matchups and trying to create an environment that instills confidence and the habits of a successful team. Like it or not, ongoing player development at all levels of the organization remains a bigger focus than the daily results at Wrigley Field.
With that context in mind, here is what else we learned about the Cubs in April:
• seiya suzuki is the new star attraction at Wrigley Field. There are the narratives that usually follow a player of his stature, how the big free agents are supposed to feel the pressure at the beginning of the huge contracts, why Japanese hitters should be bracing for a longer adjustment period in the majors. Yes, his overall numbers have dropped since an unbelievable start, and he hasn’t hit a home run since April 17, but he remains a presence who can impact a game in different ways. Suzuki is batting .279 with a .934 OPS and showing an innate understanding of his strike zone and what makes him a dangerous hitter. As Ross said, “There’s not a lot of even flinching at borderline pitches. He’s not going to chase.” If there is a “Next Great Cubs Team” in the near future, then Suzuki could be the No. 2 hitter in that lineup.
• Nico Hörner is a viable major-league shortstop. That doesn’t mean the Cubs should rule out pursuing Carlos Correa (assuming he opts out of his contract with the twins) or Trea Turner nextwinter. Hoerner still has to prove that he can stay healthy for a full season, but Cubs officials have always appreciated his attitude, work ethic and baseball IQ, and those attributes are showing up on the field and in the clubhouse. It appears that he changed his training regimen to accentuate his natural athleticism, focusing more on flexibility and durability than sheer strength. Shortstop feels comfortable — it’s where he’s played for most of his baseball life — and the Cubs are putting him in a position to succeed with their defensive shifts. Hoerner put it this way: “We’re in a part of baseball now where the positions kind of melt into each other, right? So it’s about being a good baseball player first and we’re lucky to have a lot of those.”
• Ian Happ has put together a hot month before, so it would be premature to assume he’s turned a corner. Consistency is what he and the Cubs are seeking this year, so with not even 15 percent of the season completed, they can’t cross that off their wish list just yet. There are some luck aspects here, but also areas where Happ could potentially improve, as his barrel rate is below his career average and he’ll likely start getting the ball in the air more; his 60 percent ground-ball rate just isn’t normal for him. Probably the most encouraging aspect of Happ’s performance so far this year is his low strikeout rate (19.5 percent) and just the general lack of swing and miss. Happ attributes this to the fact that he’s finally really starting to learn the pitchers across the league and getting more familiar with who he’s facing. That may sound odd since it feels like Happ has been around for so long, but 2021 was essentially his first full year since he made real changes to his approach after being sent to the minors to start the 2019 season. If this truly is a case of a player starting to finally come into his own after getting acclimated with the league, the Cubs would be delighted by that development.
• This offense is very different from the one Cubs fans have grown accustomed to in recent years. During all those years of contention starting in 2015, the Cubs never got higher than 22nd in the game in contact rate. So far this year, they’re eighth with a 76.9 percent rate (through 21 games). That’s not the only metric worth mentioning on offense, of course, but this group checks a lot of boxes as they take their walks and hit for average. As much criticism as they take for their lack of power, they’re actually a middle-of-the-pack club in that department as well. So far, they’re scoring at a solid clip, which of course is the most important aspect. There are dry spells and moments of frustration and they’re ending the month with one of those stretches. By the end of the year, this likely won’t be a great offense, but there are aspects that make it really interesting. Players such as Suzuki, Happ and Hoerner could contribute to a more well-rounded offense in the future.
• The rotation has been the team’s biggest disappointment so far, going 3-11 with a 5.56 ERA and covering only 90-plus innings, a workload that is in the bottom third of the majors. Kyle Hendricks and marcus stroman they haven’t lived up to their own expectations at the top of the rotation, Wade Miley (left elbow inflammation) hasn’t thrown a pitch for the Cubs yet, Justin Steele hasn’t found the level of consistency needed to be a reliable major-league starter and Alec Mills isn’t off the injured list yet.
• Keegan Thompson could be earning an opportunity to show that he can be a major-league starting pitcher. Thompson’s attitude: That’s above my pay grade. True, but this decision could be made for the Cubs when there are more injuries, or if the rotation continues to underperform. After an offseason focused on nutrition, hot yoga and a strengthening program to “engage the glutes,” he started this season by throwing 15 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings out of the bullpen. Either way, the Cubs will need to make major investments in their pitching staff next winter. One future possibility includes Thompson, Steele and Adbert Alzolay being deployed as multi-inning relievers for particular sections of a lineup, depending on the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses that series.
• David Robertson is the Cubs closer. And if the team doesn’t start winning series, then managing the bullpen will eventually turn into a process focused on preserving and marketing relievers for the trade deadline. Whatever the Cubs have figured out in terms of assembling and running a bullpen, it’s not being maximized when the lineup, rotation and defense are inconsistent and underfunded by big-market standards. Robertson, Chris Martin and Michael Givens are all working on one-year deals and performing at a level that will make them more valuable on contending teams in August and beyond.
(Photo: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)