The 2022 Cubs are all about opportunity
As the 2022 season continues on, opportunity is taking center stage for the Cubs.
Jed Hoyer’s front office added a lot of new faces over the winter with the idea of contending this season without mortgaging the future.
Things have obviously not played out that way, in large part thanks to injuries — especially in the rotation. After Thursday’s loss in Pittsburgh, the Cubs sit 18 games below .500 and — barring an epic resurgence — will enter the trade deadline with an eye towards the future.
One of the main storylines for the rest of the season will be watching which players receive opportunities and who emerges from that group as potential long-term pieces.
We’ve already seen players like Patrick Wisdom, Frank Schwindel and Rafael Ortega take advantage of the opportunity they received last season.
All three players entered 2022 as either full-time starters or role players and all three have been productive. Schwindel is currently on the IL with a back injury but he was leading the team in RBI (33) when he went on the shelf despite a slow start to the season. Wisdom leads in homers (14) and RBI (37) while Ortega has a .363 on-base percentage on the year and has been red-hot in June (.333 AVG).
There could be more stories in the same mold as the season wears on, especially as more opportunity opens up for at-bats or innings.
There are examples already from this season of players making the most of their chance.
Christopher Morel was called up in mid-May as a slew of injuries hit the Cubs position player group and the rookie not only proved he has staying power but has been entrenched in the leadoff spot and the center of the diamond.
Morel was on the Cubs’ 40-man roster but he was playing in Double-A prior to the promotion and sat in the middle of the organization’s top prospect rankings by most outlets. Yet now he has emerged as a bonafide piece for the future of the big-league club.
The Cubs signed Andrelton Simmons and Jonathan Villar as veteran middle infield depth after the lockout but due to Simmons’ shoulder injury, Nico Hoerner was given an extended chance at shortstop.
Entering the year, the jury was still out on whether Hoerner could stay healthy and if he could be an everyday MLB shortstop. He has definitively silenced that narrative — he’s played every day apart from a freak ankle injury and he currently leads all MLB shortstops in Outs Above Average.
Caleb Kilian’s first 3 MLB starts have been rocky but he’s flashed his potential at times and has some real feedback to take into his development in Triple-A.
“I think part of this year is allowing those guys to get experience,” Hoyer said last week. “Hopefully they can contribute to wins now but also getting them the experience to build on over the course of the winter and into the next year.”
Hoyer and the Cubs have tried to take “dual tracks” all season — using 2022 to identify long-term pieces that will be part of the next great Cubs team while also trying to win in the present.
“We’re giving these guys the chance to play, whether it’s in the rotation or whether it’s playing center field or whatever,” Hoyer said. “You want to make sure when you have talented young guys, you give them the runway to play and realize that with that comes some struggles.
“You have to give them that time to allow them to kind of fulfill that potential. At some point, you’re going to have to provide those plate appearances or those innings to learn how to play at this level.”
The Cubs have taken that approach with the pitching staff all season. Injuries have forced the issue of late but Justin Steele secured a rotation spot in Spring Training while Keegan Thompson, Scott Effross, Michael Rucker and Ethan Roberts earned slots in the Opening Day bullpen.
As veteran starters have hit the shelf, Thompson has moved into the rotation. There has been a learning curve at times but he has delivered of late, with the first 2 quality starts of his career coming in his last 2 outings.
Steele took some advice from Jon Lester and wound up completing 7 innings in back-to-back starts to begin June. Last Saturday against the Braves, he got into a jam in the 5th inning but David Ross afforded him the opportunity to get out of it and Steele responded to the challenge to pick up his 2nd win of the season. Some tough defense behind Steele didn’t do him any favors Thursday in Pittsburgh but he struck out 8 batters and did not walk anybody in 5.2 innings.
Thanks to a grueling schedule in late-May/early-June with a pair of doubleheaders in the same week, Matt Swarmer earned a call-up from Triple-A and notched a quality start in each of his first 2 MLB outings. That afforded him more runway in the Cubs’ rotation and while the results have been up and down since then, it has been a valuable learning experience for the 28-year-old right-hander.
“I have never been a part of this many injuries and this much juggling of the rotation,” Ross said last week. “It’s definitely been trying but also in that same breath, you get the opportunities to see other guys and have them step up and get to see what maybe the future looks like at times.”
Brandon Hughes is another young arm who received his opportunity this season, making his MLB debut on the same night as Morel. The 26-year-old lefty has emerged as a reliable option in the bullpen with a 3.24 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 16.2 innings.
The Cubs used 69 different players in 2021 — an MLB record. Players who are looking for opportunity know they can find it in Chicago.
Chicagoland native Eric Stout was up in the bullpen for only a few days on the last homestand before he was designated for assignment but he was aware of the opportunity for journeyman players like him.
“You know they give guys shots,” Stout said after his call-up last week.
Stout began the year with Triple-A Iowa and saw players like Swarmer and Hughes get the call to Chicago to make their MLB debuts.
“When you see them getting called up when they’re doing well, it’s like, ‘alright, if I go out and put up some numbers, my shot might come,'” Stout said.
Adrian Sampson had a similar mindset on the Cubs late last season and compared the opportunities to “Game of Thrones” with long-term roster spots up for grabs.
When the Cubs faced a 40-man roster crunch earlier in the season, Sampson was the casualty and designated for assignment. He wound up in Seattle but after the Mariners placed him on waivers, he elected free agency and knew immediately he wanted to return to the Cubs.
“I’ve been a couple places and I just appreciate how the Cubs have their attention to detail and their willingness to get guys better no matter who they are,” Sampson said. “You’re not gonna be a finished product so they always want to keep getting you better.
“It’s been awesome. I’m lucky to be back here.”
Sampson is still riding the Iowa-to-Chicago shuttle (he was recalled last week, optioned to Triple-A on Monday and recalled again on Thursday) but turned heads with his relief outing Sunday (4.2 shutout innings).
As players receive new opportunities throughout the rest of the 2022 Cubs season, it will be interesting to see who else emerges and becomes a potential long-term piece for this franchise.