ST. LOUIS – A common refrain among Cubs hitters, through the ups and downs of the season, has been how much fun this group has been to battle with.
Earlier this year, shortstop Nico Hoerner described to the Sun-Times as “a group of guys that enjoys hitting together and talking about the game. That’s what makes the easy stuff, the hard stuff, all of it just that much more enjoyable. It’s fun when you’re really rooting for the guys around you.”
The group could look very different soon.
That’s the reality this 28-45 Cubs team is playing under about five weeks out from the trade deadline.
“We saw it last year,” Hoerner said over the weekend. “Obviously that was an extreme one. Very extreme one. But this game is constantly changing.”
He pointed to the turnover since he debuted in 2019. Only seven other players from that season remain on the active roster.
“It’s just part of this game,” Hoerner continued, “and trusting that the Cubs continue to bring in good people, something they’ve always done a really good job of. It’s out of your control, and just make the most of what’s around you.”
Last season’s dramatic selloff sent out one-third of their Opening Day roster. This year at least won’t include the shock factor of trading three core offensive members of the 2016 World Series. But catcher Willson Contreras’ contract situation, as he plays his last year of club control apparently without an imminent extension offer, is reminiscent of that of Javy Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo before the deadline last year.
“I’m trying to be the same person every single day for my teammates,” Contreras said Sunday, after driving in the Cubs’ winning run against the Cardinals in extra innings, “and do the best job I can do to help this team to win.’’
While the Cubs have plenty of pitchers on short-term deals whose first-half performances have established them as the kind of players a contending team might pursue – think de facto closer David Robertson, for example – those veterans came in without long-term expectations.
Most of the Cubs’ hitters took a different route onto this roster.
Supplementing homegrown players like Contreras, Ian Happ and Hoerner, last year’s trade deadline cleared room for the call-ups of players like Frank Schwindel and larger roles for Patrick Wisdom and Rafael Ortega.
Look at Ortega’s case now.
He hit .321 against right-handed pitchers last year, but the Cubs’ outfield picture has been crowded. Cubs manager David Ross has used the designated hitter spot to get Ortega more at-bats while he’s been stuck behind fellow left-handed hitter Jason Heyward on the depth chart.
In the last three games he’s started, Ortega has recorded five hits, including a game-tying home run against the Cardinals on Saturday, and six RBI. Ortega’s performance in the Cubs’ last road trip brought his season batting average and on-base percentage up to .269 and .359, respectively.
“I don’t just play for my team, I also play for the other 30 teams that are here that are looking,” Ortega said through team interpreter Will Nadal when asked about the trade deadline. “They might have scouts, people observing. Just controlling what I can. I’ve seen it before with other players.
“If another team might be interested in me, it would be an honor for me, it’d be something that I would be excited about. But I’m just taking care of my business, controlling things that I can day in and day out.”
In a season like this, as the Cubs sit at No. 4 in the National League Central, Ortega isn’t the only one.
The players who fit into the Cubs’ vision for their next championship window aren’t going anywhere. For everyone else, the Cubs’ familiar refrain from the last few years remains true: no one is untouchable.
MLB announced All-Star coaches and trainers on Monday, including Cubs head athletic trainer PJ Mainville.
As for the players, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras still led NL catchers in the latest All-Star balloting update, released Monday. No other Cubs player was in the top two in their position group, or top six among outfielders. The top two advance to the next stage after Phase 1 voting ends Thursday at 1 p.m.