10 things we learned about the Cubs in May
For a little while, it looked as if the Cubs might be able to follow the 2021 script and turn in a big month of May.
Last season, David Ross’ squad got out to an 11-15 start in April before getting hot in May (19-8) and shooting into first place to begin June.
In 2022, the Cubs were hoping to follow up an 8-13 April with another strong May but it didn’t quite play out that way.
After a 5-game losing streak early in the month, the Cubs won back-to-back-to-back series and went 6-2 in a stretch before finishing the month 2-5.
Things don’t get any easier in June, as the Cubs have to play 6 games in the first 5 days of the month against the top two teams in the NL Central (Brewers, Cardinals).
Here are 10 things we learned about the 2022 Cubs in May:
1. Christopher Morel is carving out a long-term role for himself.
Midway through May, the Cubs were in a tight roster crunch and needed another position player in the big leagues.
So they promoted Christopher Morel from Double-A Tennessee. Morel was already on the 40-man roster but had only played 10 games above the Double-A level and didn’t have the same hype as some of the other prospects in the Cubs’ system.
All Morel has done since his call-up is get on base in every game of his MLB career, setting a franchise record in the process.
His walk Tuesday to break the record was indicative of his impact early in his career — Morel got down in the count 0-2 but battled back to lay off 4 straight pitches. Then when he was on base, he forced an errant pickoff throw that led to a run.
On top of all that he’s done offensively, Morel has also swiped 5 bases and can play all over the field with starts at second base, center field, third base and shortstop so far in the big leagues.
“Versatility is a bonus in our game and helps with roster construction and some of the things you look at when you’re building a team,” Ross said. “Love him in center, love him at second. If he’s on the field, he’s a spark for us right now and I’ll continue to take him where we can get him and try to fit the most offense possible in the lineup.”
And Morel has done all this with a joyful exuberance:
Christopher Morel with the 😃 on his glove! pic.twitter.com/rsJvx9Lfdf— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) May 31, 2022
He doesn’t turn 23 until June 24. Two weeks is a small sample size, but at the very least, Morel looks like he could be a utility player for the Cubs long-term.
2. The youth movement is in full effect at the corner of Clark and Addison.
Here is the list of players who made their MLB debuts with the Cubs in May:
That list figures to grow as the season wears on, with top pitching prospect Caleb Kilian knocking at the door and Brennen Davis just one call away at Iowa.
The young pitching has been particularly impressive for the organization over the last two seasons.
After a sparkling April, Keegan Thompson threw well again in May (2.31 ERA) and made 3 solid spot starts.
Scott Effross has established himself as one of Ross’ most trusted options in the bullpen.
Justin Steele has had his moments in the rotation while Hughes, Swarmer and Espinoza impressed during their first foray into the majors.
The Cubs have also stuck with Nico Hoerner at shortstop to see what he can do at the position long-term, moving veteran Andrelton Simmons to second base when Hoerner returned from the IL last week.
3. The depth is being tested.
The Cubs will begin June with an injured list that consists of:
1. Seiya Suzuki
2. Yan Gomes
3. Jonathan Villar
4. Michael Hermosillo
5. Jason Heyward
6. David Bote
7. Adbert Alzolay
8. Wade Miley
9. Alec Mills
10. Codi Heuer
11. Sean Newcomb
12. Ethan Roberts
13. Michael Rucker
14. Brad Wieck
Bote, Alzolay, Mills, Heuer, Roberts and Wieck are all on the 60-day IL. Bote and Mills are currently rehabbing and eligible to return next week and Alzolay is meeting with the team soon to determine a throwing program.
On top of that, Drew Smyly is currently in limbo after leaving Monday’s start with oblique soreness.
“It has been a crazy couple weeks for us,” said Nick Madrigal, who just returned from the IL Tuesday after three weeks on the shelf.
It’s been a tough stretch for the Cubs and their depth has certainly been tested but with that has come with some silver linings, too.
“As much as the bad news feels like it’s coming a lot lately, there’s also a lot of energy from the young guys,” Ross said. “Swarmer threw phenomenal yesterday. When these guys get to put themselves on the map and continue to look at some pieces, it’s not a bad thing.”
Ross also confirmed Tuesday that Swarmer will remain in the big leagues and make another start.
Speaking of the rotation…
4. As the starting pitching goes, so too will the Cubs.
As Jed Hoyer’s front office set about addressing the pitching plan for the season, a big part of that picture was the rotation. The Cubs signed Marcus Stroman to a 3-year deal, claimed Wade Miley off waivers and inked Drew Smyly to a 1-year deal.
That trio of veterans combined with Kyle Hendricks and Steele to form the projected rotation…but that group has only been together twice through the order so far this season.
The healthy rotation coincided with the Cubs’ best stretch of the season in the middle of May as the starters turned in the NL’s best ERA (2.68) in a 10-game span.
Miley is back on the IL — this time with a shoulder injury — and Smyly’s status is unknown.
But Stroman is coming off his best start of the year, Thompson has looked good in the rotation and Swarmer earned himself another outing.
5. The Cubs are going to push the envelope on the basepaths.
This roster isn’t made up of a bunch of speedsters and the Cubs stole only 4 bases in April.
But May has been a completely different story.
No team in baseball had more swipes (30) than the Cubs in the month.
That included 2 more stolen bases in Tuesday night’s contest, which marked the 11th straight game with a steal — the first time a Cubs team has done that since April 1989.
Morel (5 stolen bases) has helped bump up that total a bit, but otherwise it’s the same roster as April.
So why the change?
A big part of it is Ross and his coaching staff trying to instill aggressiveness on the basepaths in the right way.
“When we identify opportunities, areas where we can maybe exploit something here or there, we try to do that,” Ross said. “I feel like we’ve done a really nice job as of late, guys have learned when to take those opportunities. I wounldn’t say the first two weeks of the season was our greatest baserunning moments and we had some learning opportunities in that. We talked about that and guys are growing.
“That’s part of the season and us continuing to know what we’re looking for and how to take advantage of it. I would say the baseball IQ of the players and their instincts are starting to pick up and play right now and doing a really nice job of putting ourselves with runners in scoring position late in games and giving ourselves a chance to — if we come up with the big hit — to be able to tie or take the lead.”
Ross also conceded that this is a Cubs lineup that hits the ball on the ground a lot, so it is a conscious effort to get runners in motion and try to put pressure on the opposing defense.
6. Willson Contreras looks to be in line to start the All-Star Game at catcher.
Trade rumors will continue to swirl around Contreras but for now, he looks like the Cubs’ best bet to head to L.A. for the 2022 All-Star Game.
Contreras got the nod behind home plate for the Midsummer Classic in both 2018-19 and looks poised to repeat this year.
The Cubs catcher had a huge May, hitting 6 homers and driving in 11 runs while slashing .290/.426/.592 (1.018 OPS). That included a homer and an RBI double Tuesday night to close out the month.
“When Willy goes, we go,” Steele said. “When he has a big game, home runs, hitting the ball well, seeing the ball well, I feel like the whole team feeds off the energy and everybody goes at the same time.”
Contreras has been the best offensive catcher in the game in 2022 — pacing the position in OPS, on-base percentage and runs scored and ranks 2nd in WAR.
7. It was a tough month for Seiya Suzuki.
One of the main takeaways from April was Suzuki’s incredible start and how he looked like a budding star.
May was a different story, as he struck out 26 times in 79 plate appearances over the month and will start June on the IL with a sprained finger.
Suzuki batted .211/.279/.338 (.617 OPS) in May. With regards to the strikeouts, he has been the victim of some bad luck with quite a few balls out of the zone called strikes.
That has led to a high amount of strikeouts looking but Suzuki doesn’t want to get away from who he is and what he does best — when he returns from the injury.
“I did give that some thought but I always want to make sure I don’t swing at pitches out of the zone,” Suzuki said. “Obviously it hasn’t been a really good way for me recently but hopefully I can get over this hump and start hitting.
“Obviously you see in games, a lot of the balls are called strikes on me. I don’t want to change my strike zone. Just keep on adjusting.”
8. When Patrick Wisdom gets hot, he gets HOT.
The Cubs third baseman homered in 4 straight games in May, becoming the first Cubs player to do so since Anthony Rizzo in 2015.
Wisdom punctuated the month with a blast to Waveland Tuesday night, an 8th-inning homer that lifted the Cubs to victory.
He enters June with a team-leading 11 homers and is tied with Ian Happ for the most RBI (26) on the Cubs.
It has been exactly 53 weeks since the Cubs first promoted Wisdom to the big leagues last season and in that time, he has mashed 39 homers and accrued 3.0 WAR.
Maybe a trip to the Home Run Derby is next for Wisdom…?
9. The Cubs need to get over the hump.
Tuesday night’s victory improved the Cubs’ record in 1-run games to 5-13 this season.
So nearly half of the team’s losses in 2022 have been of the 1-run variety — which Ross takes as a good sign and hopes Tuesday could be an inflection point for the Cubs.
“The fact that we’re in a lot of the 1-run games tells you the team’s good enough to compete with the best,” Ross said. “That’s a really good team over there and we’ve been in a lot of 1-run games with them and a lot of teams around the league.
“You gotta make things happen. You gotta push over the hump. You’ve gotta have some things go right for you and you also gotta fight, which I think this group has. They’ve proven that. Big swing tonight puts us ahead.
“Obviously a big win with some tough losses the last 3 games. It hasn’t been for lack of effort. We need to get over that hump. … We’ve just gotta figure out a way to win. These guys did tonight.”
10. The big picture view of the team is coming into focus.
As May turns to June and the trade deadline comes closer into focus, Hoyer will continue to be asked how he plans to approach the deadline and prioritize the future while trying to still help the current team win right now.
“There are going to be moments in time you have to make a decision,” Hoyer said last weekend. “Sometimes the current and the future are in conflict. Whether it’s trading prospects to get a ‘now’ player. Whether it’s doing a really long deal on a free agent. When those things are in conflict, we are going to look towards the future.
“Our goal is to build something really special just like it was last time and I think sometimes to do that, you have to take a long view. Do we want to compete right now? Absolutely. When the decisions avail themselves, do we want to make decisions that help this team right now? Absolutely.
“I believe going back to ‘12, ‘13, ‘14, taking a long view is really important. The way our game is set up, you are forced often times to decide: Is this a move I want to make right now that is going to have a negative impact on our future? When those have come up, I’ve leaned strongly towards the future and I feel strongly about that.”
Hoyer also draws on his experiences from other organizations, like when he was the GM of the San Diego Padres in 2010.
“We had a team in 2010 that everybody thought was gonna be a last place team,” Hoyer said. “And that team came together and everything clicked and we won 90 games. We got knocked out the last day of the season.
“That’s gonna happen every several years. Everyone that wins a division title isn’t projected to win 93 games.”
He is hoping the 2022 Cubs could take a similar path.
“We’re trying to put together a team that has the pitching, has the pieces together that if everything goes right, can compete,” Hoyer said. “I think that is and was the goal. But being aware that I believe we have an incredibly bright future and we’re not gonna make moves that are gonna hurt that future that we want to build.”