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THE SUDDENLY TOO-HOT CUBS: Where To Go From Here?

Baseball in Chicago in a single image.

As the White Sox prepare for what they hope will be a march to November baseball, the Cubs have managed to not only clean house of almost all the remaining members of this city’s last World Series champion, but have managed to put together a season-high 7 game winning streak. Yeah, 6 of those games were just them bumslaying the Twins and Pirates, but they managed to beat Sonny Gray and the Reds yesterday, putting a dent in Cincinnati’s playoff hopes. So what do we know about this Cubs team?

First of all, they fucking up the tank. Before this streak, they were in the hunt for a top-5 draft pick. Now they are in serious danger of the Tigers falling past them for the 10th overall pick. A top 5 pick could give them a guy who could be fast tracked to Wrigley Field. Picking in the 10-15 range? They can get someone with huge upside who can join all the other huge upside guys in the lower levels of the minor leagues where there’s a lot of forks in the road between “star” and “bust”.

But there are definitely some questions that we can start asking now…

Should the Cubs spend this winter?

In a word, no. There are too many holes in this team to be able to fix them with even a $100 million spending spree. There’s one legitimate MLB starting pitcher (Kyle Hendricks), and one guy who could be a solid number 5 (Alec Mills). Then there’s Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolay – more on them in a second.

The bats are pretty suspect outside of what you know you’ll get out of Willson Contreras. Jason Heyward has gone back to his sub-.700 OPS ways after giving us a glimmer of hope in 2020. Ian Happ is giving us the annual “he’s finally figuring it out” tease. MLB pitchers have figured Patrick Wisdom out, as he’s slashing 194/269/481 with a K rate of damn near 50% – 50K in 108 AB to be precise. Matt Duffy had the game of his life on Saturday, and will now resume doing Matt Duffy things for the rest of this year. Rafael Ortega and Frank Schwindel? We’ll get to them in a second as well.

What’s good?

The Cubs traded away their three-headed bullpen beast of Andrew Chafin/Ryan Tepera and Craig Kimbrel and replaced them with Rowan Thicc returning from injury, Dylan Heuer, Scott Effross and Manuel Rodriguez. And you know what? They might actually have something there. Thicc, Heuer and Rodriguez have each closed games in save situations. They’re all flashing good stuff.

Of all the middle-aged rookies, Ortega and Schwindel have been delivering lately. As I said earlier, the clock has clearly struck 12 on Wisdom. Ortega has been the okayest outfielder since the selloff, and Schwindel doesn’t have a book written on him yet. But you can see from his minor league numbers that he’s always had some pop. That’s not to say he’s a cornerstone of the rebuild (especially since he’ll blow 30 candles out on his next birthday cake), but he’s earned some sort of role for next season. As for Ortega, he can keep center field warm until Brennan Davis stakes his claim at some point in either 2022 or the start of the 2023 season.

Why not spend this winter?

The Cubs would have to get up near the luxury tax threshold again just to get to the Brewers’ level. They’d have to blow a hole in it to get to where the Dodgers are. Their best move is to eat it for another year while what the Cubs’ future holds comes a little more into focus. It sucks to think of a whole year of bad baseball being played by rookies with gray hair, but this is basically where we are. The three guys who are considered “prospects” who are not currently getting fan mail at 1060 W. Addison are Davis, Brailyn Marquez and Miguel Amaya. And both Marquez and Amaya have basically lost this year due to various ailments. So it’s not as if the infusion of youth is upon us.

What will the offense look like?

In a word, icky. Maybe Wisdom can jump on 25 or so pitchers’ mistakes again and possibly there can be 20 each out of Contreras/Schwindel/Happ is everything goes perfectly. But there’s going to still be an awful lot of swing and miss out of all these guys. Then Nico Hoerner, Nick Madrigal and possibly Alfonso Rivas will all be bat-to-ball guys with almost nonexistent power. Maybe singles hitters are the new market ineffiency?

What about bringing guys back?

It wouldn’t be Chicago sports without some mention of guys who aren’t here anymore making a return. So let’s get to it, shall we?

Chafin could be a guy who can come in and bring veteran stability to a bullpen that will be young. But since winning is more fun than losing, I can’t see him wanting to come back.

Kris Bryant will have little to no interest in reclaiming his locker in Wrigley Field. He got dicked around enough by this team, and now he gets to spend the winter being the prettiest one at the dance. Teams will back up their respective Brinks trucks to his door (pending a new CBA of course), and the Cubs can’t/won’t offer him the type of cheddar it will take, and also the promise of instant success. Personally, I don’t know if there has ever been a marriage of player and ballpark that has needed to happen more in my lifetime than that of Kris Bryant and Fenway Park. Let him play 81 games there, and you might see 60 home runs.

Then there’s Anthony Rizzo. Hell, the Cubs could damn near throw a parade for him if he decided to put his old 44 on. At this point, you’ve got Schwindel doing his Roy Hobbs bit at first, but he’s a rookie at 29 instead of 24 for a reason. We just haven’t seen it yet. He clearly has big league pop, but holes in his swing are sure to reveal themselves at some point, as they have with Wisdom. There’s also not a real first base prospect anywhere in the pipeline. But the Cubs would also be paying for a Rizzo who is in decline – his back gets more janky every year, and his slugging has been on the wrong side of .450 the past two years. Now granted, with Universal DH closer to reality, a Rizzo return could also dovetail with a resurgence in some pop as he could DH once or twice a week to give the back a rest. But if he turned down 5/70 (which was about half a Paul Goldschmidt contract), would it be worth the extra money to wish for the Rizzo of old?

Which brings us, last but not least, to Javier Baez. Unfortunately for El Mago, the COVID-19 pandemic is why he’s here at all. The Cubs were working with Baez on an extension during spring training in 2020 before everything shut down, and MLB’s economic calculus (or at least the Ricketts’ justification for not signing anybody) changed. So now he’s in a free agent shortstop class that includes Marcus Semien, Trevor Story, Carlos Correa and Corey Seager. He’ll probably wind up getting something similar to Brandon Crawford’s $16MM/per, and the Cubs can at least spring for that to put some asses in seats next season and beyond. The Cubs are hip-deep in shortstop prospects, but none of them are within 3 years of the bigs. So you might as well bring Javy back for a few years and let him do his thing. At least everyone here knows what they’re getting with him – lots of ugly Ks along with some amazing moments in the field and on the basepaths, and a bat capable of delivering 30 home runs. So why not?

But if they were only going to splurge for one bat (and again, they’re going to be terrible in 2022 regardless, so why bother?) that one bat should be erstwhile Cub Nick Castellanos. All the man does is hit, and you can always slot him in as DH in parks with more spacious outfields. As for the cons, all the things about money and contending that I sad about Bryant apply here as well.

Anyway, that’s what I think. Let’s see how wrong I am.

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