Hope can be dangerous, particularly when paired with lowered expectations. And when you’ve got a Cubs team that looks ready to compete for little other than a higher draft pick through the last few weeks of the season, those expectations are singing like Barry White or Isaac Hayes. That means just about any bright spot looks much brighter by comparison.
Poor performances are likewise exaggerated, whether it’s because of the general moroseness surrounding the team or just that you feel the starters left behind following the deadline purge should be stepping up or stepping off. If the team is moving on, the rationale goes, why not make a clean break from the past and part ways with those players who will no longer be part of the future?
That will be up to Jed Hoyer to determine, though he will be getting a little help from ownership. Despite frequent protestations of his involvement in player personnel decisions, Tom Ricketts is responsible for approving the budget that determines those moves. Just this past offseason, we saw how Hoyer was given more room to maneuver after being forced to let Jon Lester walk because there was no money.
We can debate whether the reunion with Jake Arrieta was a worthwhile use of some of that surplus, but the point is that Hoyer isn’t operating with full autonomy. As such, he may be a little more willing to confer dude status to players who have broken out this season or to give more leeway to longtime Cubs who are experiencing down years.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at four players in line for those decisions this offseason.
Happ has been struggling all year long, but he actually raised his batting average during Tuesday’s doubleheader when he went 1-for-5 with four strikeouts. His K-rate is now up to 30.6% on the season and his 71 wRC+ is 35 points lower than he posted during a 2018 campaign that had been his worst by far prior to this. Happ had a 128 wRC+ after returning from a lengthy demotion in 2019 and then put up a 132 while looking like a dark-horse MVP candidate for much of the shortened 2020 season.
This year, however, he’s been worth -0.5 fWAR and isn’t squaring the ball up even when he does make contact. Further complicating matters, or perhaps simplifying them, is the fact that he doesn’t play particularly good defense at any position. While his performance in the corner outfield spots has been okay, it’s certainly not at a level that makes up for the lack of production at the plate.
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Happ just looks out of it when he’s up at the plate. It’s like he’s defeated even before he sees that first pitch or that he’s lost and has sort of given up hope on finding his way out. Whether there’s a psychological component and his focus is truly lacking is something we may never know, but I still have this sense that something could click into place and change everything. Or maybe nothing clicks again.
Happ is earning $4.1 million this year and will be entering his second year of arbitration in 2022, though it’s hard to see the Cubs offering a raise of any significance. What’s more, Happ is the team’s union rep and has an obligation to look out for the union’s interest in these matters. He’s shown the ability to bounce back in the past and he has been a very dynamic offensive force at times, but this season raises questions about his long-term viability.
Barring a big turnaround over the next few weeks, Happ looks like a very serious possibility to be non-tendered this winter.
You wouldn’t normally want to bank on a 29-year-old rookie, but Wisdom is two things the Cubs need right now: cheap and hot. That latter trait can actually be interpreted as him hitting well or being very attractive, both of which are helpful for a moribund team struggling to attract fans. Those who don’t show up for the new sportsbook may buy tickets just to watch Wisdom tug at his jersey or stare down opposing pitchers. Perhaps they’ll get lucky and have a nice view from the left field bleachers.
Seriously, though, Wisdom seems like one of those late bloomers who really just needed a chance, which is weird because the Cardinals have build a whole-ass legacy on finding exactly those types of players. Whether this is simply residual devil magic from his time in St. Louis that will eventually fade has yet to be seen, but Wisdom looks like the goods as he continues a very realistic run at NL Rookie of the Year honors.
How weird would it be if the Cubs replaced one very good-looking third baseman who was named ROY with another? And the funny thing is that Wisdom is just over four months older than Kris Bryant. He’s also about $19 million cheaper, which you know is a big factor here.
Even if Wisdom can’t come close to replicating his 2021 production in future seasons, he is absolutely going to be a part of this team moving forward. And if he does turn back into a pumpkin, there’s no long-term investment stopping the Cubs from going in a different direction.
Wisdom was at least a high draft pick with college experience, so there was something of a pedigree there. Ortega really fits the definition of late bloomer after joining the Rockies organization at the age of 17 as an international free agent out of Venezuela. It took him three seasons to get out of rookie ball, though he did get a cup of coffee in 2012 at the very end of the season despite having only been at High-A prior to that.
It would be four more years and two organizations before he’d get another shot, this time in 66 games with the Dodgers. Two years and two more organizations later, Ortega got a little run in Miami. Then he joined the Braves briefly in 2019. He did show a little pop that year, though, hitting 21 homers for Triple-A Gwinnett.
But no one could have predicted he’d become an everyday centerfielder and hit machine for the Cubs, even with the roster depleted as it is. Ortega is batting .331 with a .387 wOBA and 143 wRC+ while popping six homers, three of which came in one game. He’s hitting .410 with a .469 wOBA and 196 wRC+ and nine multi-hit games since the All-Star break, an unsustainable pace that is nonetheless fun to watch.
The big caveat here is that Ortega is doing almost all of this against right-handed pitchers. The lefty batter enters Wednesday’s action batting .095 with a .160 wOBA and -4 wRC+ against southpaws, indicating that he is perhaps best suited for a platoon role. That’s more than adequate for a Cubs team that hasn’t done a great job of leveraging situational hitting strategy over the past few years, so Ortega should have a role next year and maybe beyond.
“Honestly, I’ve never had a doubt that I’ve had the ability to be a Major League starter and a Major League player,” Ortega told the media via translator. “It’s all about having the opportunity, being given a proper chance. And I think I’m receiving that right now. That’s what I’m taking advantage of.”
This is going to be a tough one because money is such a big factor and the combination of Heyward’s performance and full no-trade rights makes him impossible to move. However, the Cubs could choose to eat the remaining $50-ish million of his deal and set him free via DFA in order that he could catch on with another team that would only need to pay him the league minimum.
That would seem to go against ownership’s abhorrence of dead-weight losses, but it would also free up a roster spot at no greater cost than what the Cubs are already going to be forced to pay anyway. Heyward has been only nominally more productive than a replacement player this season and his defense in right is no longer elite, making it impossible to outweigh poor offensive production.
Thing is, Heyward is the first player any of the new guys talk about when it comes to being welcomed to the Cubs. Whether it’s spring training or post-deadline, Heyward is the one greeting them and taking them under his wing. The man is a leader in the clubhouse and in the community, though that hasn’t necessarily kept other players safe.
“I want to be a part of this,” Heyward told reporters recently. “I want every bit of that. I’m chomping at the bit to be a part of this right now with this group of guys.”
The only way it works moving forward is if Heyward either gets back to 2020 production or can accept a reduced role, though the Cubs might not be ready or willing to spend on a replacement for him next season. The conversation really gets interesting if the organization is prepared to bring Brennen Davis up, at which point the question becomes whether Heyward is better as a mentor or as a very pricey open roster spot.
Given the sunk cost and the probability that they aren’t going to look to compete in 2022, I don’t see the Cubs parting ways with Heyward this winter. Based on how things play out next year, either during or after the season, I don’t think an eventual DFA is out of the question. There’s also the possibility that Heyward could waive his no-trade rights for a deal that puts him on a contender with the Cubs eating the remainder of his deal.
What a weird time this is for a team that has spent most of the last six years contending for at least the division title. For as much as I’ve criticized his rhetoric, I do believe Hoyer has a very difficult task ahead of him and I am very interested to see how he tries to make this whole thing work. He and Ricketts have both said this will be a quick rebuild, which it pretty much has to be in order to reverse alarming trends in attendance and television viewership.
I guess we’d all better hope that sportsbook turns a huge profit as soon as the doors open.