Less than three months to go.
The Chicago Cubs roster could look a lot different when they close out the season Oct. 5 in Cincinnati. Just after the middle of the season, the Cubs are trending toward a 96-loss campaign, though that’s before they’ll likely move key pieces before the Aug. 2 trade deadline.
As the Cubs push through a four-game series at Dodger Stadium, there are questions the organization must answer during the second half going forward.
This could be answered within the next three weeks if the Cubs opt to trade Happ, who will be a free agent after next season. The 27-year-old switch hitter has lived up to this potential this year in his career season. Happ’s offensive production is the most consistent in his six major league seasons, and it comes notably when the offense relies heavily on him to produce.
Perhaps his past offensive inconsistencies make the Cubs wary of giving him the amount of money it would take to sign Happ to a contract extension. But combined with his fiery last two months of the 2021 season, he has shown significant carryover and ability to get through his horrible first four months last year.
Keeping — and keeping — Happ in left field has also improved his defense. He is respected in the clubhouse and has grown in a leadership role. He is striking out less than ever while he continues to walk at his career pace. While there are a couple of underlying numbers that could raise concerns — a higher batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a lower home run rate and a small increase in ground balls — Happ has given the Cubs some much-needed presence. .
The past two years have shown that the organization is comfortable entering the final year before free agency with its key players. The Cubs need key players to come out of this rebuild, but Happ appears to be the next to face uncertainty with his Cubs future.
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The future of the Cubs’ rotation looks much brighter if right-hander Keegan Thompson and left-hander Justin Steele are the real deal. His performance in the first half was encouraging. Both have an ERA above 100, which is league average, while left-hander Drew Smyly represents the only other Cubs starter to reach that mark.
The next three months will be a good test for Thompson and Steele as they work through their first full season in the big leagues and put up the most innings in a single season they’ve pitched in their professional careers. However, the Cubs need more than them.
Right-hander Caleb Kilian is expected to get another shot at the big leagues this year after command and walk issues plagued him through three first-half starts. The Cubs are optimistic that right-hander Adbert Alzolay will return from his right shoulder strain at some point. Depending on when he returns, perhaps the Cubs will look at him in a multi-inning relief role that Thompson thrived in earlier this season. Alzolay tested him late last season when the Cubs were handling his workload.
Development in the minors is important, too, though their best starters are still at the lower levels: left-handers Jordan Wicks and DJ Herz and right-hander Kohl Franklin have shown good things in High-A South Bend this season. There’s potential in the Cubs’ system, but part of the long-term vision hinges on guys like Thompson and Steele being quality big leaguers.
The Cubs have the ability to fight to the last out, which is a good quality for any team. Too often, however, they have fallen short of a feel-good rally. Entering Friday, they have played 25 games of a run, which is tied for 10th in the majors. And only one team has played more extra-inning games than the Cubs (11).
The Cubs, however, are 3-8 in extras and 10-15 in one-run games. At some point, they must take advantage of participating in games and learn how to complete a comeback or keep the other team at bay. And it may not happen until next year. Some of that is a lack of experience in the big leagues. It also implies the caliber of talent. While the Cubs’ average age of their hitters is a league average of 28.5, many of their starters are in their first year or two of playing every day in the majors.
The Cubs only have five position players and three pitchers left from the organization’s last postseason team in 2020. Moral wins don’t mean much in the majors, especially to a Cubs fan base that has high expectations. Learning to win in the majors can be a process, and so far the Cubs have come off the wrong end of close games. Finding a way to change that over the last three months could help his next contending team.