Staying power: Rafael Ortega is hungry to prove to the baseball world that he belongs
Rafael Ortega feels like he has something to prove — to the Cubs and to the rest of the baseball world.
He’s certainly playing like it.
The veteran outfielder collected 3 more hits in Game 1 of Tuesday’s doubleheader, marking the 7th multi-hit game in his last 14 contests.
Since the All-Star Break (25 games), Ortega is hitting .410 with a 1.113 OPS. He’s locked down the starting center field gig and stabilized the leadoff spot in the Cubs lineup.
“Honestly, I’ve never had a doubt that I had the ability to be a major league starter and a major league player,” Ortega said through a translator. “It’s all about having the opportunity, being given a proper chance. I think I’m receiving that right now and that’s what I’m taking advantage of.”
Ortega was sure to thank the Cubs for the opportunity and nobody can argue that he’s not making the most of it.
The question now becomes — is the 30-year-old journeyman going to play himself into a role on the Cubs beyond 2021?
The Cubs are Ortega’s seventh professional organization. He signed as a minor-league free agent in November after stints with the Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Angels, San Diego Padres, Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves.
At all those stops, he never received much of an opportunity to play regularly.
He appeared intermittently in 66 games in L.A. throughout the course of the 2016 season and got a 41-game audition with the Marlins at the end of 2018.
Throughout 13 minor-league seasons, Ortega has hit .292/.360/.425 (.785 OPS). During his last full season in the minors (2019), he posted an .898 OPS with 21 homers and 14 stolen bases.
Thanks in large part to the pandemic, Ortega has gone three years in between extended opportunities in the big leagues and now that he has a chance with the Cubs, he’s hungry to prove why he can stick around.
“It’s really about establishing yourself, maintaining that performance at the major league level,” Ortega said. “At first, it was all about making the major leagues but I found out it’s not just about making it, it’s about establishing that consistent production every time you’re out there.
“I’m grateful to the Chicago Cubs for giving me this opportunity to be here. But what I’m trying to show them is I can do this every day. I can maintain this same type of production moving forward. Putting in the effort, putting in the work to maintain that consistency moving forward and hopefully making the organization give me a chance in the future.”
The Cubs traded away nine players at the deadline, three of which were outfielders (Kris Bryant, Joc Pederson, Jake Marisnick).
That opened the door to a regular role for Ortega, who had worked almost exclusively as a reserve in his first couple months with the team.
“He’s out proving that he’s a major league player and is consistent,” David Ross said. “He earned this. He earned it early on with some pinch-hit at-bats and how he got on base. It’s a line drive swing to all fields. He’s in every at-bat. You don’t ever feel like he’s overmatched.
“He’s done a really nice job, played a really nice center field and has stayed really consistent. It’s been really fun to watch and happy he’s taking advantage of a great opportunity.”
Ortega is out of minor-league options but he is still under team control for five years after this season.
Whether or not he can be a long-term piece is still a question without an answer but Ortega sure looks like he’s playing his way into at least a bench role on the 2022 Cubs.
Ortega also understands his opportunity is about more than just himself. It’s also a livelihood for his wife and two kids.
“They’ve been there for me ever since the beginning,” he said. “The ups and downs, the achievements. They’re really the driving force for me and what I’m doing right now and what I’ve done throughout my career. Whenever I face some sort of obstacle or if I’m sad or frustrated, they bring me up so that I can continue to do what I do and produce.
“I just want to give them a better future. Hopefully establishing myself in the big leagues allows me to provide them a better future for my children and my wife.”