Cubs' future looking brighter as a possible nucleus forms

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • In this Sept. 28, 2019, file photo, Chicago Cubs' Nico Hoerner, left, celebrates with teammate Ian Happ after Happ hit a two-run home run during the third inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Louis.

    In this Sept. 28, 2019, file photo, Chicago Cubs' Nico Hoerner, left, celebrates with teammate Ian Happ after Happ hit a two-run home run during the third inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Louis. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 7/5/2022 9:13 PM

As the Cubs reached the midway point of their season in Milwaukee on Tuesday, there are signs of progress.

Finding a way to win close games isn't one of them. But since the focus is on the future, there is some good news.

 

When the rebuild officially began last year at the trade deadline, the hope for the future was deep in the minor leagues, and still is.

Of the current top 15 Cubs prospects as ranked by MLB Pipeline, 14 are either injured or playing in Class A and below. The one player who doesn't meet that criteria is pitcher Caleb Kilian, whose brief run in the majors didn't go well.

When this season began, there wasn't much of a nucleus for the future. But that's starting to change with former first-round picks Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner playing well, along with homegrown pitchers Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson. And then Seiya Suzuki's return to the lineup Monday was a nice reminder of his skill set.

Granted, Christopher Morel has been the Cubs' most pleasant surprise this season, but he's still been in the majors less than two months. The players mentioned above have made moves to suggest they'll have sustained success.

Steele is a good place to start, since he's coming off Monday's performance in Milwaukee where he allowed 2 hits and 1 run in 6 2/3 innings. He and Thompson seem to be the biggest beneficiaries of the revamped pitching program, which began with the addition of assistant general manager Craig Breslow in 2019.

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Steele says developing a slider was a big step in his development. The break on his slider is among the best in MLB, which is a reason he ranks first among all pitchers with at least 150 batted ball events in barrel percentage, according to Statcast.

"They suggested to start throwing a slider. I found a grip for it and started throwing it," Steele said. "Once I got that where I wanted, everything kind of started falling into place."

Asked what differences he noticed after Breslow arrived, Steele said the pitching process has gotten more analytical.

"Each pitch you throw, you get to know why it moved in the direction it moved," he said. "Then from there, if it's something you want to replicate, you know what you did."

Thompson has a slider, but throws mostly the fastball, cutter and curve. His fastball is below-average velocity, by modern standards, at 93.8 mph, but opposing hitters have gone .210 with just 2 home runs against it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So Thompson and Steele have succeeded with different styles. And they both bounced back well from setbacks this season. Steele had a run of short outings in April, while Thompson came back from consecutive rough starts against the Orioles and Yankees last month.

Hoerner leads the Cubs with a .308 batting average and has hit .476 over his last 11 games. This stretch brings back memories of spring training in 2021, when Hoerner hit everything hard.

After that, though, the Cubs had him start the season at the alternate site, then a series of injuries kept him at just 44 games played last year. It seems like he's back to that point with his hitting. In the field, he leads MLB in outs above average.

"I feel good about where I'm at," Hoerner said. "I felt like I showed some bits and pieces last year, but never got in the full swing of things. To have a chance to play every day and just kind of roll with the season and what comes with it has been a great experience."

Happ has been through some hills and valleys. He was sent back to the minors in 2019 to work on some things, was the Cubs best hitter in 2020, then last year hit a career-low .226.

His current stat line isn't necessarily an eye-opener: .283 with 8 home runs and 37 RBI. But Happ ranks third in the National League in OPS, behind Mookie Betts and ex-Cub Kyle Schwarber. His strikeout rate is way down and the switch-hitter has been better from the right side than he was early in his career.

An interesting comparison is Washington's Juan Soto, who's been tagged as one of the NL's rising stars. Soto has better power numbers, with 15 home runs, but he's hitting just .226 and sits just below Happ on the OPS list.

Compared to the 2022 free agent class of outfielders -- except for Aaron Judge -- Happ has better stats than all of them.

The Cubs will need more star power to build a brighter future. But they do have at least four spots where it would be tough to do much better. It could be more if Suzuki pans out and the Cubs manage to keep Willson Contreras.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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