5 storylines to watch over the final two months of Cubs 2021 season
DENVER — The trade deadline is over. This is a new-look Cubs team without a trio of iconic players.
The goal is still to win on a nightly basis but there are no grand delusions of a shot at a division title in 2021. The focus of the organization is firmly on the future.
That’s how Jed Hoyer and David Ross will digest the final stretch of the regular season.
The Cubs president of baseball operations is anxious to see how the next two months plays out.
“I’ve talked to Rossy about that a lot,” Hoyer said. “I think using this time to sort some things out for the offseason, letting some guys play in different roles and do different things. In some ways, it’s refreshing to be able to do that. You never want to not be in a competitive window, but when you are competing for the playoffs, when you’re competing every single year, you really can’t give opportunity very often.
“In terms of finding undervalued players, you can’t really do that very well when you’re trying to win because you feel like you’re trying to maximize every single position. Well, now we can give some guys opportunities, put them in different positions to succeed and see how it goes.
“Even though it is dangerous to evaluate on August and September, I think we can get a sense for exactly what we have. And some of those things can be really valuable as we build toward the ‘22 season.”
So what should Cubs fans keep an eye on in August and September? Let’s break it down:
1. The rise of young pitching
From Adbert Alzolay to Justin Steele to Keegan Thompson to Manny Rodríguez, the Cubs have plenty of intriguing young pitchers who will continue to develop over the final two months of the 2021 campaign.
Alzolay, 26, has been in the Cubs rotation for most of the season and has shown flashes but he’s also working hard to try to neutralize lefties — they’re posting a 1.022 OPS against him this season.
Steele and Thompson both impressed out of the bullpen earlier this season and were sent down to Triple-A Iowa to stretch out as starters. Steele started Wednesday night and struck out 8 in 5 innings. The Cubs don’t yet have a plan for when the southpaw will return to the majors but it figures to be in the near future.
Thompson threw 3 shutout innings Saturday and struck out 4 in Triple-A.
How both pitchers fare as part of the rotation will provide valuable information to the Cubs heading into the offseason. If they are able to carry over success from the bullpen and minors, that gives the Cubs a nice foundation of starters alongside ace Kyle Hendricks for 2022.
“Getting them down there and seeing the starter value that they potentially have is important for us,” Ross said.
Rodríguez headlines an enticing class of relievers who could carve out roles for themselves in Chicago next season and beyond. The 25-year-old made his debut last weekend in Washington D.C. and lit up the radar gun, dialing his fastball to 101 mph.
“The ball is jumping out,” Ross said. “You saw triple digits the other day in Washington. The cutter, the 2-seam, the 4-seam, the breaking ball — all those things are real pitches. I’m excited to watch him be in the bullpen for the back half of the season to see what kind of real piece that can be.”
Couple that with Codi Heuer, the 25-year-old righty the Cubs acquired from the White Sox in the Craig Kimbrel deal. He already has 63 MLB games under his belt with a 3.64 ERA, 20 holds and 1 save.
2. Veterans taking advantage of opportunity
As Hoyer mentioned, there is plenty of opportunity to go around on this Cubs team right now.
We’ve already seen Patrick Wisdom, Rafael Ortega and Sergio Alcántara make the most of their chances this season and all three players are looking to carve out a role on the 2022 roster. August and September can go a long way toward establishing what kind of role that might be for the trio of veterans.
“It’s a chance for guys to make an impact,” Ross said. “Some of it’s fun and refreshing to watch guys grow and get their opportunity and take advantage of it.”
Then there’s Frank Schwindel, who started at first base in each of the Cubs’ first two games in Colorado. The 29-year-old rookie has appeared in 17 career MLB games and has bounced around between the Royals, Tigers, A’s and now Cubs.
“I was impressed,” Ross said after Schwindel’s first start as a Cub. “A couple knocks out there. He’s got contact in the past and I always take those Triple-A numbers like, let’s see how it plays out in the big leagues. But it was a nice debut.”
3. Filling out the core
Since the trade deadline, Hoyer has reiterated his goal multiple times of trying to build the next great Cubs team. Who will be a part of that?
Right now, the core of the Cubs is made up of established veterans like Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward and Hendricks. Then there’s young players like Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal, who will play central roles moving forward.
Madrigal — also acquired in the Kimbrel deal — will be the Cubs’ second baseman next year after he recovers from a hamstring injury. Where Hoerner slots in defensively is still to be determined but he has experience at both shortstop and center field.
The group of young pitchers — Alzolay, Steele, Thompson, Heuer, Rodríguez — figure to be a big part of the team’s future.
Ian Happ was the team’s best offensive player in 2020 but he’s struggled to get going at the plate this year. He is still under team control through the 2023 season and has a career .785 OPS so if he can turn it on over the final two months, that’s another piece to add to the core.
David Bote is signed through 2024 and will factor into the mix in some way. Same with Alec Mills, who has given the Cubs reliable innings in the rotation and out of the bullpen the last two years.
The rest of 2021 will be about identifying who else can join the aforementioned group.
4. Newcomers making debuts and the return of injured players
The week following the trade deadline has been jam-packed with players making their Cubs debuts — Heuer, Rodríguez, Schwindel, Andrew Romine, Johneshwy Fargas, Michael Rucker, Jake Jewell.
Romine, 35, has extensive MLB experience (586 games) and it remains to be seen if he, Schwindel or Fargas can emerge as role players for this team moving beyond 2021.
Rucker, 27, and Jewell, 28, don’t have much MLB experience but both impressed the Cubs in multi-inning roles out of the Triple-A bullpen.
More newcomers could be on the way later this season.
Greg Deichmann — the outfielder acquired from Oakland in the Andrew Chafin deal — is 26 and performing well in Triple-A. So is first baseman/outfielder Alfonso Rivas.
The Cubs have more arms waiting in the wings in the minors, like Ben Leeper and Dakota Mekkes.
Add to that the injured players that are returning — Hoerner, Rowan Wick, Dillon Maples — and there are still plenty of roster moves in the Cubs’ future.
Hoerner (oblique) is in Colorado with the team but is not doing any baseball activities just yet. Wick (oblique) is currently building up on a rehab stint and figures to rejoin the team soon and provide another boost to the bullpen.
5. Prospect development
The farm system will be an integral part of building the next great Cubs team. Whether by graduating players that make an impact in Chicago or serving as the centerpiece in trades, the Cubs are fully invested in how these prospects develop over the remainder of 2021.
Brennen Davis is the organization’s top prospect and just won the minor league player of the month award and MLB Futures Game MVP in July. Ed Howard is getting his first taste of a full professional season. Reginald Preciado and Owen Caissie — two of the headliners in the Yu Darvish deal over the winter — are getting their feet wet in rookie ball.
The prospects acquired in the deadline deals will also get a chance to showcase their skills in a new organization over the next few weeks.
On the other hand, the Cubs are not sure how much they’ll get to see from three of their top pitching prospects this season. Brailyn Márquez and Riley Thompson have dealt with shoulder injuries and Kohl Franklin has been hampered by an oblique issue. All three have missed the entire season to date.