Chicago Cubs fans were supposed to get their first glimpse of the post-Willson Contreras era Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field.
Contreras received a big send-off July 26, receiving several standing ovations and hugs on what was widely assumed to be his final day at Wrigley as a Cub.
Last year most thought at least one of the “Big Three” — Javier Báez, Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo — would be retained. Hoyer dealt all three. And on Tuesday, Hoyer opted to keep the soon-to-be free agent after failing to get the kind of return he expected.
That sparked hope the Cubs could re-sign Contreras, though Hoyer said nothing that would indicate his intention to keep the veteran catcher.
Now Contreras will play out the string on a Cubs team that finally has conceded the obvious — that it’s going through a rebuild and looking at players through the lens of where they fit in 2023 and beyond. Christopher Morel, for instance, was inserted at shortstop Friday for the second time.
“We’ll move guys around, see what we’ve got,” manager David Ross said before Friday’s 2-1 win over the Miami Marlins.
Contreras’s two-run, eighth-inning home run was the difference, though thousands of fans from the crowd of 35,689 already had departed by the time of his heroics.
Ross admitted the Cubs would “think about how we’re going to win in the future, what those pieces look like, and get that picture painted or that puzzle piece put together as good as possible, see where the holes might be.” But once games start he is “going to manage the game to win the game.”
The Cubs are 42-63 but have had good pitching the last two weeks, with a 2.11 ERA in their last 16 games, lowest in the majors in that span.
It’s no surprise the Cubs would be at this juncture in August, despite repeated efforts by Hoyer to avoid having the “rebuild” label attached to this club. When Hoyer held a media teleconference after the trade deadline passed, a Marquee Sports Network reporter apologized to Hoyer for calling it a rebuild.
“Everyone is going to pay you for saying that,” Hoyer joked.
While they still don’t utter the word, the Cubs’ actions speak for themselves.
So with development the focus of the final two months, what is the future of outfielder Jason Heyward, who has one year remaining at $24.5 million? Heyward has been on the injured list with right knee inflammation since June 27.
“We’ll adjust that when he gets healthy,” Ross said.
There is no timetable for the return of Heyward or Kyle Hendricks, who has been out since July 6 with a right shoulder strain. Asked if there was a possibility Heyward and/or Hendricks wouldn’t return in 2022, Ross said: “I hope not, to be honest. I know these guys work really hard and they pride themselves on posting, being out there with the guys. … The body is going to let them do what the body is going to let them do.”
Hoyer and general manager Carter Hawkins have their work cut out for them in the offseason, but until then they have to find out which players fit and where.
Nico Hoerner has performed well at short, but his throwing error Thursday in St. Louis was another reason to wonder whether he would be better suited at second base. Can Morel be an everyday shortstop, and is Zach McInstry, acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Chris Martin, ready to play the old Ben Zobrist role as a super-utilityman?
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Ten years ago the Cubs were going through the same thing in the first year of a rebuild. After the trade deadline they went 18-42 on their way to 101 losses. Highly touted prospects such as Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters got their chance and showed they wouldn’t be part of the future. The only players on that 2012 team that were part of the 2016 champions turned out to be Rizzo and Travis Wood.
How many of the current Cubs will be part of the next championship team?
“The goal of this is to win championships,” Hoyer said while discussing the second year of selling off assets for prospects.
Hoyer pointed to trade deadline moves in the original rebuild that netted high-profile prospects such as Addison Russell, unheralded prospects such as Hendricks, and struggling young players such as Jake Arrieta.
“Sometimes it’s the high-profile guys that help you,” Hoyer said. “And sometimes you realize when you take a lot of shots on goal and you bring a lot of young players into the system and have good player development, those guys exceed your expectations.”
Hoyer is taking his shots and absorbing some from those left scratching their heads at the curious decision to keep Contreras instead of getting something of value in return. Could it be we all overvalued Contreras, or did the Cubs misjudge the market?
It’s something to ponder as Hoyer, Hawkins and Ross hold auditions for the “next great Cubs team.”