What comes next for Matt Duffy and the Cubs?
Matt Duffy paused for a second, pondering the question.
“Long,” he said simply. “Really long.”
That was how Duffy assessed the 2021 season when posed the query by Marquee Sports Network’s Taylor McGregor in St. Louis.
That’s probably a common sentiment among anybody involved in this Major League Baseball season following last year’s shortened slate — with a backdrop of a pandemic that continues to rage.
It was a long season for Duffy, in particular. And quite a roller coaster, too.
He was signed to a minor-league deal in December and arrived at Cubs spring camp as a non-roster invitee. He showed enough to earn David Ross’ trust and wound up as a surprise addition on the Opening Day roster.
Duffy barely played in the first few weeks of the season but it soon became clear that the Cubs offense needed a high-contact bat and he started playing regularly in late April. Upon his insertion into the lineup, the Cubs offense flipped the script and stormed out to a 19-8 record in May.
Along the way, Duffy became a fan favorite with a knack for coming through with clutch hits.
However, Duffy did not finish the month healthy, dealing with a low back strain that eventually landed him on the 10-day IL on May 25 (Patrick Wisdom was called up to replace Duffy on the roster).
The 10-day IL turned into the 60-day IL and Duffy wound up missing two months. He was nearing a return in mid-June but suffered a setback when he tried to do too much too soon.
It was a tricky injury — a strain around the disc in his lower back. Even after he came back in late-July, he was still working his way back to 100%.
“It was pretty painful for a while, to be honest with you,” Duffy said. “I didn’t wake up without pain until maybe [late-August].”
He admitted part of the problem was a lack of communication from his end, as he tried to force his way back and kept some of the lingering pain to himself instead of sharing it with the Cubs training staff.
It’s a lesson he has since shared with young Cubs players like Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal, who have both dealt with injuries throughout their brief MLB careers.
Taking on a mentor role
Of course, while Duffy was on his own personal roller coaster in 2021, the team was riding the ups and downs of an emotional, wild season.
An 11-game losing streak in late June and early July knocked the Cubs out of first place and solidified Jed Hoyer’s path at the trade deadline. By the time the Cubs took the field on July 30 in Washington, they were a completely different team.
All the while, Duffy helped stablize the clubhouse and locker room with his veteran presence.
The 30-year-old Duffy has seen a lot in his 10 years in professional baseball:
—In 2014, he debuted late in the season with the San Francisco Giants and wound up taking home a World Series ring that fall.
—In 2015, he finished second to Kris Bryant in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
—Midway through 2016, he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays.
—He missed all of 2017 with a heel injury that ultimately required two surgeries.
—He bounced back with a strong 2018 campaign, batting .294 with a .361 on-base percentage for the Rays.
—Back and hamstring injuries slowed him in 2019 but he returned to start the AL Wild-Card game for the Rays.
—Tampa Bay designated him for assignment following the 2019 season and he did not play in the majors during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
He drew upon those experiences and a unique perspective to help serve as a leader on this Cubs team.
Back in May, Duffy gave Adbert Alzolay a pep talk in the middle of a start and helped turn the outing around for the young right-hander.
When Madrigal — who is rehabbing a season-ending hamstring injury — visited Wrigley Field in September, he spent a game sitting alongside Duffy.
“We talked a lot on the bench,” Madrigal said. “He’s been in the game for a number of years and I just enjoyed listening to his stories and what he thought about things.”
In a lot of ways, Duffy is the perfect role model for Hoerner. They have similar offensive styles with a whole-field, high-contact approach and both have been hampered by injuries throughout their respective careers.
Through Duffy, Hoerner has also been able to digest lessons from a former MVP and 3-time world champion in Buster Posey.
“I try to approach that relationship [with Hoerner] in a similar way that Buster approached a relationship with me of you just chat, get to know each other, build trust — that’s the most important thing,” Duffy said. “And then ask him questions — prompt him to use his own thought process. I think that’s more powerful than just telling a guy what to think or what to do. It sticks more if I ask him questions and prompt it to come from himself and to think the game.
“I always thought Buster was asking me for my input on what his approach should be for a pitcher and now, in hindsight, he doesn’t [care] what my approach was. He’s got a pretty good idea of how to make an approach. He was trying to get me to think about it myself and exercise those muscles a little bit. I think that’s what I try to do with Nico.”
Duffy also tried to take Alfonso Rivas under his wing a little bit after the rookie outfielder/first baseman was called up to the majors in late August. Duffy was impressed with Rivas’ calm approach and innate confidence and the veteran tried to pass along some little things in conversations here and there.
It wasn’t just players who benefitted from Duffy’s perspective. Ross leaned on him throughout the season as a valuable veteran voice.
“Duff has been a really consistent baseball guy, like that baseball rat that talks hitting,” Ross said. “I’ve talked to him about [former Giants manager Bruce Bochy] multiple times. When you got guys that have been around the game and can ask questions and been on winning teams and winning environments, it’s really important to have those guys around, especially in a situation that we’re in this year.
“Always talking baseball on and off the field, impacting younger players. He’s been great in that and done a really nice job of recognizing good and bad moments and being able to talk guys through those. He’s been really important in that area for sure.
“And his play. The way his consistent at-bats come, the way I’ve been able to move him around the field. He hasn’t played much second and I’ve stuck him there a couple times, especially here late where he’s having to learn a new position and been really willing to talk through that and go out there and try and do the best he can. It’s been nice for me.”
What comes next
Beyond all the intangible effects, Duffy performed well on the field with the Cubs this season.
He finished the campaign on a tear, posting a career-high 13-game hitting streak that included a pair of RBI singles in Sunday’s season finale against the Cardinals.
Matt Duffy delivers again! pic.twitter.com/GJsTPASso6— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) October 3, 2021
His final batting line reads: .287 average, .357 on-base percentage, .381 slugging percentage.
That includes the period over the summer when he first returned from the IL, a time when he admitted he was rusty and still not close to 100% physically.
If you take out that 10-game stretch in July and August, Duffy’s slash line is even more impressive: .309/.379/.412 (.791 OPS).
He also rated well as a defensive player while moving all over the field — he started games at third, second, shortstop and left field in 2021 while also making a pair of appearances at first base.
Prior to 2021, Duffy had been almost exclusively a third baseman but he was willing to adapt to what Ross and the Cubs needed this season.
“It’s an opportunity to get better at something,” Duffy said. “It’s never bad to show you got another tool on your belt.”
That versatility could serve Duffy well as he gets set to hit the free agent market this winter.
He’s keeping his options open but he would absolutely welcome a return to the Cubs in 2022.
“I would love to come back,” Duffy said. “We love the city of Chicago. And the organization’s been great to us, putting their faith in me – a guy who’s had injury concerns and maybe hasn’t lived up to my first full year in 2015.
“It meant a lot, especially coming out of spring training where they easily could’ve gone with a number of different guys other than me.”
It wasn’t just the city and team that won over Duffy. He was blown away by playing half his games at Wrigley Field, in front of Cubs fans.
“The fans are absurd and the bleachers are my favorite thing,” Duffy told McGregor Saturday in St. Louis. “The fact that they’re first come, first serve tickets I think is the coolest thing ever. It’s a beautiful ballpark. The bleachers are always packed at game time — they’re ready to go.
“It’s a really special place. It’s so classic. Nostalgia is left and right there. People say, ‘oh, Wrigley’s special, Wrigley’s special.’ I’ve been around it a little bit but Wrigley is truly special and the fans are truly special.
“That’s why we play. The pandemic and playing with no fans really has the contrast of this is what it’s like without that. That’s the only thing that matters — the fans fill up the ballpark and the energy of the stadium and Wrigley has it rivaling any stadium in baseball.”
Duffy acknowledged he hasn’t yet had conversations with the Cubs front office about a possible return but he believes he showed what he could do when healthy this season.
Hoyer and Co. have a lot of holes to fill on the roster for 2022 and a role player like Duffy might not necessarily be first on the list of priorities.
But his leadership and ability to form meaningful connections with all types of players could be very important on a team going through transition and looking to get back to its winning ways.
“I don’t mind coming off the bench,” Duffy said. “I don’t mind playing every day, obviously, but I also don’t mind getting sporadic starts of playing twice in a week-and-a-half period. I feel like I’m adjustable enough as a player where I can handle a ton of roles. Being a mentor is hopefully one of them.”