If Cubs fall short of playoffs, April's Velazquez decision may prove costly
Whether the Cubs make the playoffs or not, this team is far from a finished product.
One of management's greatest challenges will be figuring out how a top-five ranked farm system can help turn the Cubs into World Series contenders.
So regardless of whatever wacky "Cubbie Occurrences" happens this week in Atlanta and Milwaukee, the Cubs' biggest mistake of 2023 likely happened in April.
We're talking about former Cubs outfielder Nelson Velazquez, who turned into the game's most prolific home run hitter with Kansas City. Perhaps you missed this over the busy sports weekend, but the Royals just swept the Astros in Houston, which might end up knocking the defending champs out of the playoffs.
Velazquez homered twice in Sunday's 6-5 Royals victory. He has 17 home runs in 49 games played this season between the Cubs and KC, roughly a 50-homer pace over a full season.
His home-run percentage (per at-bat) is 10.7%. The MLB home run leader, Atlanta's Matt Olson, is at 7.6%. Kyle Schwarber is 6.4%, according to baseball-reference.com.
It's a small sample size, but not tiny. Velazquez has 163 plate appearance this season. And of course there's no telling what will happen over the long haul, but maybe the Cubs should have taken a longer look before trading Velazquez for relief pitcher Jose Cuas.
It's easy to say Velazquez had no future with the Cubs, because they're committed to Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki at the corner outfield spots, with Pete Crow-Armstrong, if not Cody Bellinger, in center.
The thing is, the Cubs had a great chance to give Velazquez an extended tryout early this season when Suzuki was on the injured list with an oblique strain.
The Cubs started either Miles Mastrobuoni, Trey Mancini or Patrick Wisdom in right field before giving Velazquez his first start of the season on Apr. 11. That was the day he hit a grand slam to lead the Cubs back from a 7-0 deficit against Seattle.
Suzuki returned three days later in Los Angeles and, on April 15, Velazquez was sent back down to Iowa. He finished with just 29 at-bats for the Cubs, but led the team in OPS until Alexander Canario came along.
What would have happened if Velazquez got 10 starts in right field instead of one? Would he have played well enough for the Cubs to consider cutting ties with Mancini and Eric Hosmer sooner than they did? Would they have played Velazquez at DH for the majority of the season? And if so, how many home runs would he have?
It's too late now. Velazquez has cemented a full-time role with the Royals, who have won 11 of their last 12 games. But the Cubs are going to face this scenario again.
Canario posted similar power numbers in the minors and he has the same type of build as Velazquez, standing a shade below 6 feet. The Cubs could certainly use someone to hit 40 or 50 home runs per season -- every team could.
How are the Cubs going to figure out if Canario is that guy? Not too far down the road, they're going to have to decide if Owen Caissie or Kevin Alcantara is a better long-term outfield option than Happ or Suzuki.
What's the best solution for third base: Nick Madrigal, Christopher Morel, Matt Shaw, James Triantos or someone outside the organization?
The Cubs have watched several teams this season fill their lineups with young guys who played well right away, from the Orioles and Tigers, to the Reds, Pirates and Brewers. Can the Cubs get the same results out of their best position prospects, or will many of them end up in trades?
When it comes to this year's playoff race, Arizona's loss to the Yankees on Monday created some nice symmetry. The Cubs and Diamondbacks are tied for the second and third wild-card spots. The No. 2 wild card will face Philadelphia, most likely, while No. 3 gets Milwaukee.
The Marlins are one game behind the Cubs and Diamondbacks, the Reds three games back. And the Cubs would lose a tiebreaker to all three of their closest competitors.