Nick Madrigal emerging as the player the Cubs always thought he could be
When the Cubs made the decision to sell at the 2021 trade deadline, Craig Kimbrel lingered as one of the most enticing pieces on the entire market.
Here was a closer with a Hall of Fame-caliber career who was enjoying his best season yet — 0.49 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 15.7 K/9 and 23-for-25 in save chances. Contending teams are always looking to add to their bullpen at the trade deadline and the expectation was the Cubs could get a solid haul for Kimbrel, especially since he was under team control for 2022.
The deal the Cubs ended up landing on was unique, as Jed Hoyer’s front office flipped Kimbrel to the South Side of Chicago for second baseman Nick Madrigal and right-handed pitcher Codi Heuer. Madrigal was injured at the time but the upside was there as a 24-year-old who already had a .317 average in 83 career MLB games.
Plus, Heuer already had a stint as a successful big-league reliever under his belt so the Cubs were adding young, controllable talent that had already proven they belonged in the majors.
It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Madrigal since that trade. He returned from the hamstring tear that required surgery but wound up having to fight through a 2022 season in which he was often banged up and unable to get into a rhythm physically.
Over the winter, the Cubs made a splash with the Dansby Swanson signing — which pushed Nico Hoerner to second base and left Madrigal without a position.
The Cubs opted to shift Madrigal over to third base, a spot he had never played.
It was a crowded position for the Cubs. Even after Zach McKinstry was traded, Madrigal still had to contend with Patrick Wisdom, Edwin Ríos and Miles Mastrobuoni for playing time at third base.
After starting just 20 of the team’s first 46 games, the Cubs optioned Madrigal down to Triple-A Iowa. They wanted him to see regular playing time and get his swing mechanics in order. He was hitting .247/.286/.301 (.587 OPS) at the time.
Madrigal made the most of his time in Iowa, raking at a .488 clip over 11 games with 20 hits, including 10 extra-base hits (6 doubles, 3 triples and a homer).
The Cubs called Madrigal back up to the majors on June 9 and he’s continued his tear in Chicago with a .340/.426/.472 slash line (.898 OPS) in 17 games entering play Saturday. He’s also 5-for-5 in stolen bases during that stretch.
That offensive output included his first home run in a Cubs uniform Friday afternoon:
First home run in Cubbie blue for Nick Madrigal! pic.twitter.com/IrwYMSW2IZ— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) June 30, 2023
Madrigal had teased that kind of power over the week leading into the Guardians series. He doubled 3 times in 5 games on the road trip in Pittsburgh and London and then doubled again on Wednesday night.
“I feel like he’s turned it loose a lot more as of maybe the last 10 days where he’s driving the baseball,” David Ross said. “Hit some balls over the right fielder’s head in London, he’s pulling some balls down the line, he hit one in Pittsburgh off the top of the wall in left-center.
“He’s driving the baseball right now. I hadn’t seen that at all outside of maybe a Spring Training at-bat or two.”
Madrigal has also taken to third base, where he has notched 4 Defensive Runs Saved so far this season.
“It’s nice to see him become the player that I think we’ve all envisioned him being,” Ross said.
It wasn’t the path Madrigal or the Cubs foresaw, but he is showing the promise that made him the No. 4 pick in the 2018 Draft and a Top 50 prospect in the game.
He said he feels aggressive in the box and like he’s on the attack again. His swing mechanics are in sync and he feels fully healthy more than two years removed from the hamstring injury.
Madrigal also admitted that two-week stint in Triple-A served as a major motivation. He knew internally that he didn’t belong in the minors and wanted to do whatever he could to get back to Chicago.
When he went down to Iowa, Madrigal had some swing adjustments he wanted to make and deployed them immediately with everyday at-bats and consistent playing time.
“I’m just thankful to be here again,” Madrigal said. “I know everything happens for a reason. Looking back on it, to feel my swing again down there and to get in a groove, maybe it was a good thing.
“I wasn’t happy about it at all but looking big picture, it helped me get my timing with everyday at-bats and feel in the groove again. So yeah, looking back on it, maybe it was the best thing.”
Wisdom is recovering from a wrist injury and began a rehab assignment in Iowa on Thursday. He could be back in Chicago soon and when he does return, the third base picture will get a bit more murky.
But it will also be hard to take Madrigal out of the lineup with his consistent production on both sides of the ball.
These last few weeks have been validating for the Cubs, proving why they made him the centerpiece of the Kimbrel trade two years ago. He is still only 26 years old and under team control through the 2026 season.
It has also been rewarding for Madrigal to show what he can do.
“There’s been a lot of frustrating times the last couple years, especially in a Cubs uniform,” Madrigal said. “I’ve always believed I can do a lot for this team but for my swing and defense and everything to sync up in the moment, it feels good.”