I don’t know that anyone is going to look back at this particular Cubs season with any significant degree of nostalgia, even if the future ends up playing out at the high end of the optimistic spectrum. Does anyone remember the 2014 season? Like, at all? Aside from pulling up the Baseball Reference page for that season or torturing yourself with a Sporcle quiz, there’s really nothing memorable about that season.
Well, other than John Baker’s ascension to cult legend status. And the Cubs trading Jeff Samardzija to the A’s in a deal that eventually helped them win the World Series. It was also Jake Arrieta’s first full season in Chicago, and his performance was actually better in some ways than his Cy Young campaign the following year. He got a late start due to injury and I was there in the bleachers for his ’14 debut against the Cardinals, a dominant effort that offered a precursor of bigger things to come.
I guess we actually can find touchstones in even the most barren landscapes. So even as meh as this past season was on the whole and as glad as I am that it’s over, I wanted to look at it with a mix of hindsight and projection to pick out a handful of moments or movements that we might eventually hold up and ask “Remember when…?”
Nico Hoerner breaking out
I thought about going with Christopher Morel hitting a homer in his first at-bat, or even the time when he looked back at Willson Contreras and took a deep breath prior to hitting a game-winning sac fly. Those were really cool moments in and of themselves, but I’m not really sure they’ll end up having any greater impact on the organization as a whole. With Hoerner, however, we saw the emergence of a potential cornerstone middle infielder.
The shortstop played in 135 games and got 517 plate appearances after having totaled just 112 and 378 in parts of three previous seasons. He also hit 10 homers, more than tripling his career total of three, all of which came in his brief stint in 2019. He may end up moving over to second if the Cubs go after a premier free agent shortstop, but that just means the middle infield will be a serious force for years to come.
Hayden Wesneski immediately justifying trade
Many fans were perplexed when the Cubs traded bullpen stalwart Scott Effross to the Yankees, and I was right there out front decrying the move. Effross seemed like the kind of pitcher a team would want to keep around, plus he was a really good dude and someone whose career I had followed since college. At the time of the trade, I had no idea who the Cubs had even acquired.
Now, however, it’s impossible to criticize the Cubs brass in light of the potential Wesneski flashed over the last month of the season. He has the makings of a mid-rotation starter or better, which allows the front office to really take a big swing at an ace in the offseason. Though he’s not homegrown in the truest sense of the word, Wesneski is young and under control for several more years at a very low relative cost.
And this is just part of a much bigger movement in terms of pitching infrastructure that includes high-level amateur and professional evaluation along with development. As simple as that all sounds, the Cubs hadn’t been doing a very good job in at least two of those areas as recently as three or four years ago. Though the physical and philosophical changes have been taking place for a while now, this season will be viewed as the first in which they really started to show at the big league level.
Okay, yeah, you could point to last year with Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson coming up. But I think those two players having even more success this season, not to mention Brandon Hughes and others, will make the ’22 campaign stand out.
This blog started up back in 2012, albeit on a different platform and with a more abrasive tone than what you have grown used to. In those days, it was far more enjoyable to write about the prospects coming up through the system, a practice that got even more fun with the likes of Javier Báez and Kris Bryant. The latter may be the best pure prospect the Cubs have ever had, and his addition to the organization signaled much bigger things.
The same can’t necessarily be said for anyone in the minors this season, though there were several standout performances that made you believe the Cubs might just have something cooking. Pete Crow-Armstrong looked even better than advertised, making it obvious that Jed Hoyer fleeced the Mets. Interesting that PCA joined the Cubs in exchange for a player whose own minor league exploits eclipsed those of the big league team several years ago.
You know I can’t keep talking about farm system standouts without mentioning Matt Mervis, whose offensive production across three levels rivaled that of KB in ’14. Mash even has his own line with Obvious Shirts as he looks like the clubhouse leader to take over first base duties next season. There are many others who could earn a mention here, but I’d rather keep the focus a little wider.
For the first time since the pipeline was producing a new impact position player every few weeks or months, there’s a genuine sense that the Cubs have a system capable of truly providing Chicago with everyday talent.
Trades that didn’t happen
Everyone knew Contreras was going to be traded, then there were the legitimate reports about Ian Happ being shopped. Both players expected to be moved, yet both were shocked and relieved to find themselves still in Cubs uniforms following the trade deadline’s passage. That was a very different feeling from last year, when Báez, Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo were all shipped out.
As disappointing as it was on some levels to see Hoyer “fail” to get value in return for players who were seemingly not going to be around much longer, it was good to know the front office wasn’t willing to sell low. It’s easy to look at it in a binary sense of getting something rather than nothing, but you also have to consider that receiving multiple prospects would mean having to cut other players from the organization due to overall roster limitations.
The Cubs had a reserve price and they weren’t willing to move their star players for less than that. Not only might that set a strong precedent for future dealings, it also says Hoyer is confident in both the farm system and an increased budget. If he was being forced to build solely from within, he might not have been willing or able to stick to his guns at the deadline.
I think we can also look at this as a sign that the Cubs are willing to sign a player who had rejected a qualifying offer. Since they neither traded nor extended Contreras, a QO is the most likely outcome. If he rejects it and signs elsewhere, the compensation will help to offset penalties the Cubs incur.
This is a little less fun because it sucks to watch a game where the bleachers are 75% empty on a beautiful late-summer afternoon. At the same time, I think seeing all those fans dressed up as seats dealt a very strong blow to the notion that the Cubs will sell out no matter what. With a paid attendance of around 2.6 million and an actual figure that was much, much lower, ownership knows it can’t operate with a baseball budget that hovers around the middle of the pack.
Interest in the mediocre product the Cubs have put on the field for the past two seasons isn’t enough to fill Wrigley and it’s not enough to drive viewers to Marquee. So unless the novelty of gambling at the ballpark is enough to make up for half a million absent fans, something has to be done to put butts in seats.
Winning a World Series didn’t just fulfill a lifelong dream for fans, it fundamentally altered the way they perceive the Cubs. No longer lovable losers, this is now an organization that should be expected to compete both financially and on the field of play with the top teams in the league every year. I’m not sure Tom Ricketts truly believed that prior to this season.
I could surely rattle off a few more items here, but this thing has already run overlong and I’m surprised both of you actually made it through. That said, you’re welcome to share your own big takeaways from this ’22 season, even those that aren’t necessarily as warm and fuzzy.