NEW YORK — The Chicago Cubs’ road to the front isn’t getting any easier.
That can broadly be applied to the direction of a rebuilding organization as team president Jed Hoyer tries to build another contender. But in the short term, this segment of the Cubs’ schedule will test how they stack up against some of baseball’s best teams.
The Cubs only have two days off between now and the All-Star break. And for a struggling group that loses close games too often, the next five weeks could be torture. The Cubs are trying to avoid a series sweep on Sunday after losing 8-0 to the New York Yankees on Saturday.
Here are three thoughts on the team moving into the series finale at Yankee Stadium on Sunday.
The Cubs appeared close to getting Suzuki back in the lineup.
Earlier in the week, manager David Ross stated Suzuki was in the game to return for the Cubs’ weekend series against the New York Yankees. Ross even stated he would “eat my words” if Suzuki wasn’t taken off the injured list ahead of Sunday’s series finale. Well, that time came – and passed.
Suzuki was ordered to rest for about five days to allow his strained left ring finger to continue to heal. The Cubs want to make sure the swelling goes down and that Suzuki doesn’t make it any worse. So that means not hitting during this rest period.
Ross estimates Suzuki’s finger is around 85-90%. There is no timeline for his return, and it’s still too early to tell if Suzuki will need a rehab stint before coming off the IL.
“He really wants to play and we’re trying to take that into account,” Ross said on Sunday. “And he’s been trying to train and push it a little bit and it’s still holding on a little bit.
“We have all come to the conclusion that it is not wise to suffer a setback. … We’re just going to be patient with that.”
Suzuki’s type of finger injury essentially requires rest to get better. The understanding of the Cubs’ doctors is that his finger doesn’t need surgery to eliminate the pain and swelling. At least that’s good news. However, Hoyer said on Saturday that “it will be a while” before Suzuki returns to the field.
“Honestly, I’m OK with that because this year it’s really important for him to assimilate and face big league pitching and figure out what he needs to do in his career,” Hoyer said. “And to come back and kind of have this nagging injury and not really being able to do well, it doesn’t make much sense. He has to come back if he can really compete at this level and that’s hard when your finger keeps getting swollen.”
It’s a daunting development for Suzuki and the Cubs. He has not played in Cincinnati since May 26. The flukiness of the injury adds a level of frustration. A misguided throw at a stolen base forced Suzuki to adjust his slide and his hand awkwardly hit second base’s pocket, pinching the finger.
Hoyer said Suzuki saw “a number of doctors,” including an exam, while the team was in New York. Hoyer planned to sit down with Suzuki ahead of Saturday’s game to discuss next steps.
“He really wants to play and I think that’s part of the challenge we’re dealing with,” Hoyer said. “I think he feels he has to play. Our point is to try to be careful with that, but I know we’re fighting a competitive guy. I understand it’s quite frustrating, it’s a finger injury right? That can be frustrating. You feel like it’s just a finger, but it counts.”
When the Cubs’ marquee signed in the offseason, Suzuki’s absence was felt as the offense fell short too often in tight games. Though Suzuki was in an offensive rut prior to his injury, his presence in the lineup makes the Cubs better, even if he’s not in the same spirit as when he was named National League Rookie of the Month in April.
The Cubs don’t want the strained finger to linger during Suzuki’s rookie season. That could force Suzuki to be sidelined longer than expected.
The decision to name outfielder Clint Frazier for Friday’s assignment prompted a strong reaction from Cubs fans on social media.
A vocal section of fans expressed frustration that Frazier, 27, whose remaining arbitration years put a team in control until 2024, should have been kept over veteran outfielder Jason Heyward. Those sentiments should, in theory, align with the Cubs’ overall vision, as the organization has emphasized the importance of weighing the future.
“Of course there’s room to question all of these decisions, but I promise you it’s incredibly complicated to figure out,” Hoyer said. “There are definitely decisions that we have made or will make over the next month or so that people have every right to have some sort of second guess or question. And believe me, there is no unanimity when we make these decisions. It’s really, really challenging.”
When it comes to Heyward, his offensive inconsistency eventually becomes too much to ignore. Hoyer said Heyward “didn’t play at the level he wanted this year or last year. However, Hoyer believes Heyward offers many benefits that fans don’t see, noting in particular how he mentors young players and his work ethic.
“I don’t think his fights are in any way different than anyone else’s fights,” Hoyer said. “Obviously we made the decision that we made regarding Clint and when it comes to Jason we see the real value he brings on a daily basis.”
The Cubs continue to say the right things about Heyward and how he continues to positively impact the team. Injuries will help him stay in the squad. But at some point, Heyward’s behind-the-scenes influence may not be enough for the Cubs to overlook his other shortcomings, regardless of how much money he still owes through 2023, the final year of his contract.
The Cubs could have moved outfielder Michael Hermosillo (left quad trunk) to the 60-day IL to open the 40-man spot they needed for Chris Martin’s return from the blacklist on Friday. Instead, the front office chose DFA Frazier.
“The squad part of it was by far the biggest challenge I’ve ever experienced,” said Hoyer. “We try to find out our 40 men every day, try to find out the IL every day. My text threads are literally nothing more than trying to figure that out.”
The next tests of Heyward’s roster security could arrive when Suzuki and/or David Bote are ready to leave the IL.
The Cubs don’t have many choices among their positional players. Christopher Morel has played too well, serving as a spark plug at the front of the lineup while also offering defensive versatility. PJ Higgins is the only other position player with minor league options remaining that is realistically an option unless they send Nick Madrigal out to try and make him work at Triple A. Otherwise, the Cubs would have to do someone DFA.
An outstanding 106 plate appearances in his big league career is enough to make Morel think big about his potential.
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Morel won’t turn 23 until June 24 but has established himself as one of the Cubs’ most exciting players. After going 3-0 in Saturday’s 8-0 loss, Morel’s streak of reaching base safely ended after 22 games to kickstart his franchise-record MLB career. His defensive work in midfield and center has given the Cubs pitchers a boost while also stabilizing the leadoff spot in the lineup for the past three weeks.
Hoyer was most surprised and impressed by Morel’s disc discipline.
“We need as many good young players as possible to really put together the core that can go forward and win,” said Hoyer. “It would be wonderful if he shows up and can be a part of it.”
Morel is an example of how player development and the rise of great players doesn’t always come from an organization’s top-tier prospects. Morel reminds Hoyer of Willson Contreras and that he, too, was not an announced prospect until the point the Cubs left Contreras exposed for the Rule 5 draft ahead of the 2015 season.
There’s no guarantee Morel will stay with the Cubs for the rest of the season, let alone beyond 2022. Kyle Schwarber in 2017 and Ian Happ in 2019 are examples of young players from the previous core who sent the Cubs to the minors when they were fighting. At the moment this is not a problem for Morel. Her trust and belief in him is shown by the fact that he is at the top of the leaderboard every game.
“His tools are definitely in the big leagues,” said Hoyer. “You see his arm, that’s the role we always knew she could play. It was the racquet-to-ball skills and the plate discipline. And I don’t know if that’s a different focus that he has in the big leagues, but the stuff was certainly incredibly impressive.
“He has a massive impact on the team.”