The tricky part of writing every day is to look at the game and try to find the story. Sometimes it’s easy. If a starting pitcher throws past the sixth inning, that has a fair chance of leading. If someone hits a couple of homers or has several hits, that’s low hanging fruit too. Of course, if you follow regular, you know that I focus slightly less on the minute to minute of the game, at least up here in the narrative section. Al has the recap. That is, and should always be, the definitive place to go read about exactly what happened. So I often pull the lens back and try to look a little bigger.
What is the story of this series or this stretch of games? I think when the clock strikes midnight tonight, we’ve probably officially made the far turn and are starting to head down the stretch on trading season. As I suggested a little while ago, the first trickle of trades has come down. Nothing tectonic, but some teams have started to grab low hanging fruit to fix some depth problems.
Fixing depth issues can actually have almost as much of an effect on getting to the post season as adding a star to your team. In the regular season, record is to a fair extent based on how good your fourth, fifth and sixth starters are, how good your sixth through 10th relievers are, how good your 10th through 15th hitters are. That’s because injuries have an outsized impact in season. The Cubs are as bad as they are because their depth was terrible. The roster itself was passable. But the depth just wasn’t there.
And that’s where the story was for me last night. Ahead of this trade season, how far away are the Cubs from competing on an individual game basis? Willson Contreras fits somewhere among the best catchers in the game right now. Where he fits is subjective, but clearly a star. Ian Happ has been a star this year and was in 2020. The rest of his career has been up and down. But Happ will be coveted this season, maybe not as much as Contreras, but coveted just the same.
Nico Hoerner appears to be ascending to at least an above average player if not a low level star. Keegan Thompson? It’s too soon. Scott Effross too. Just talking right here, right now, David Robertson would help any bullpen across baseball, even if it isn’t throwing in the ninth inning. He’s hands down the most likely Cub to be traded, but he’s here right now.
I held my nose and picked 75 wins in the BCB season preview. I should have stuck to my guns and said that the team would be fortunate to win 70. Even when you think you are a little bit of a know it all, you sometimes give up your position when you are in a virtual room with a bunch of people who you know are as in tune or more than you are with things that are going on. Put plainly, I respect so much of what Al and Sara and Josh and Duane and Ashley think about baseball that I second-guessed myself.
The reason that I thought this team wouldn’t win 70 was because I saw the depth problems. The reason they were optimistic was the people I listed above added to healthy and productive Kyle Hendricks, Seiya Suzuki, Wade Miley, Marcus Stroman and Nick Madrigal to name a few.
I didn’t list him, but if Rafael Ortega wouldn’t help your roster, that probably says more about how good your roster is than anything bad about Ortega. I think I’d feel comfortable saying that about Patrick Wisdom too. In both instances, they should probably be one of those 10-15 guys on your team. Playing complimentary roles and not counted on to be a cornerstone piece. But clearly there are some pieces.
The most repeated phrase Theo Epstein ever uttered was probably the one about waves and waves of talent. At the end of the day, that was where this team came up short in the long run. The difference between the Cardinals, Yankees and Dodgers and the rest of baseball is waves of talent. The Rays and Braves probably belong in that group more often than not. The Red Sox had their waves dry up a bit and they’ve been running uphill. The Padres and Blue Jays are trying to ascend but they are learning how hard it is to go for it and maintain waves.
Because baseball forces you to endure a whole marathon, cross the finish line and then sprint to the finish, you have to serve two masters. You have to build yourself for depth. You have to be able to keep going into the cupboard for another guy who can get the job done. And when you can’t find someone at a particular spot to plug the hole you have to be able to trade from your cupboard to fill that spot. But, then you have to have new pieces step in to fill in for your depth. It has to be an assembly line otherwise you are chasing lightning.
So this is the frustrating part of baseball and a rebuild. There is no question that the Cubs are improving the talent level of the organization. It’s possible that right now on this day there are more bodies capable of producing in the major leagues than at any time in Cubs history. But how does that compare with a date in 2014 or 2015 when there were a handful of can’t miss stars? Understand that the Cubs system has improved so much that Brennen Davis and Ed Howard have missed and will miss large chunks of time to injury, Brailyn Marquez, Adbert Alzolay and Miguel Amaya have yet to be healthy enough to even play this year. Codi Heuer won’t throw a pitch at all this season. And still, despite six players who have real major league talent being largely out of action, the system will rise in the rankings.
That’s real organizational depth. So the question then becomes, how soon before you feel like the assembly line can start producing a couple of hitters and a couple of pitchers to make contributions on a yearly basis? Because when you look at Ian Happ and Willson Contreras and you are trying to decide what to do with them, you need to know that. When healthy, this team is probably a middle of the road baseball team. It needs both more depth and more star power to truly compete. But organizations loathe trading major league ready talent these days. So if you trade these two, you are probably getting even more guys at the Double-A or lower level.
At some point, it gets crowded. Though that seems like a good problem to have. Maybe you do overload the system. Maybe while you are still making improvements in player development, maybe a constant infusion of talent is what gives you enough cracks at it to hit some home runs.
How aggressive to approach this trade deadline is a tricky question. Last season, the Cubs made the very difficult, very honest assessment to move on from the guys who were the core of the last championship in pursuit of the next one. How soon do you think you can open the window?
While you ponder that, I’m going to look at three positives from last night’s win.
- Christopher Morel had a fantastic game. He was dropped in the order and he contributed with his bat and with his defense. A hat tip to him for that. Even when I say negative things about these guys, know that I root for every last one of them. I’d love for Christopher to become the Flavor of the Year and the Flavor of the Next 10 Years.
- Scott Effross is crossing into the area where I’m starting to get really high on him. I see Al calling for him to maybe get some late game chances. I love where he is right now. He’s not on the biggest stage yet. But the Cubs are using him to shutdown a spot in the middle of the game. He entered the game with runners on second and third with no outs, the Cubs leading 5-1. He retired three straight hitters and stranded both runners. That’s an extremely difficult thing to do. The Reds are not the Yankees, but he retired their 5-6-7 hitters without a runner moving. The game was probably won right there.
- I can’t pass up three more hits for Willson Contreras. He had just the slightest downturn on the last road trip, but now he’s had three straight strong games at the plate. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. First and foremost, I believe that when Willson goes it will hurt more than any of the others did. But if he does go, I will root harder for that team than anyone. I’d love to see Willson back on the biggest stage and getting a chance to win a World Series. I love him so much, I’ll root for them even if, God forbid, it is the Yankees or Dodgers.
Oh dear, sorry for that last image. I’m sure a few of you just became ill. Let’s move on to the Heroes and Goats from last night’s game.
Game 75, June 29: Cubs 8, Reds 3 (29-46)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Ian Happ (.147). 1-2, 2BB, HBP, 2B, RBI, R, K
- Hero: Scott Effross (.145). IP (3 batters), K
- Sidekick: Justin Steele (.123). 5IP (22 batters), 6H, 3BB, R, 6K (W 3-5)
- Billy Goat: Nelson Velazquez (-.047). 0-4, 2K
- Goat: Rafael Ortega (-.043). 0-4, SF, RBI, 2K
- Kid: Alfonso Rivas (-.036). 0-4, 2K
WPA Play of the Game: The Cubs were leading 1-0 in the fourth when Donovan Solano stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and one out. He flew out to center and Christopher Morel threw home to complete an inning ending double play. (.189) - and in the back of my brain, I hear the old This Week in Baseball line: “How about that?”
*Reds Play of the Game: With runners on first and second and no outs in the sixth inning, the Cubs were leading 5-0 when Joey Votto stepped in. Votto doubled, ending the night of Justin Steele and setting the stage for Scott Effross’ performance. (.093)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings: (Top 3/Bottom 3)
The award is named for Anthony Rizzo, who finished first in this category three of the first four years it was in existence and four times overall. He also recorded the highest season total ever at +65.5. The point scale is three points for a Superhero down to negative three points for a Billy Goat.
- Nico Hoerner +21
- David Robertson +14.5
- Willson Contreras +13.5
- Daniel Norris/Patrick Wisdom -7.5
- Yan Gomes -12
- Jason Heyward -16.5
Up Next: The third and final game of this series Thursday night at Wrigley. Kyle Hendricks (3-6, 4.90) will look to keep things rolling forward as we wait to see if he will be on the trade market. Graham Ashcraft (4-1, 3.27) starts for the Reds. Graham has one of those names that I would associate with the third generation senator for Rhode Island or something like that.