The Chicago Cubs look so different now than they’ve looked in more than five years, and the playoffs aren’t on the table for the next two months, but you find your joy where you can.
For example? Why would I not enjoy a 30-year-old journeyman outfielder absolutely exploding for the Cubs?
Rafael Ortega, whose starts for the Cubs picked up a couple months ago when Ian Happ’s and Jason Heyward’s struggles left David Ross to seek out other options, has done nothing but rake. And yesterday, the guy hit THREE HOMERS in the loss against the Nationals.
Rafael Ortega is now hitting .319/.369/.549 on the year, good for a 144 wRC+. If he had enough PAs to qualify, that would make him the 13th best bat in all of baseball. Also, the game yesterday was so bountiful that it bumped his line all that way from .294/.347/.450 (114).
His 6 homers on the year is more than Cody Bellinger, Clint Frazier, Kyle Lewis, Keston Hiura, Ketel Marte, Mike Moustakas … I could go on. Just having some fun. Same number as Christian Yelich, too.
I’ll be fascinated to see what happens with Ortega over the final two months. Can a guy really break out like this at age 30 after so many years of not breaking through at the big league level? It does happen, even if it’s extraordinarily rare. Then again, there was a reason Ortega got big league shots in 2016, 2018, and 2019, and there was a year lost to the pandemic that unfairly “ages” him.
Maybe the bigger question is what happens if Ortega does keep hitting well over the final two months? What if he even produces a little against lefties? Is that going to be enough for the Cubs to justifiably say, OK, we’ve definitely got one of our outfielders locked in for 2022? Because as things stand now, I could argue the Cubs have ZERO outfielders definitely locked in for 2022. They have a guy controlled in arbitration and another guy on a huge contract, but neither is playing like anything even remotely close to a starter. And if Ortega outproduces both Ian Happ and Jason Heyward the rest of the way, are you comfortable with the Cubs making decisions in the offseason as though Ortega is the one outfielder who is locked in?
From where I sit, I have a hard time getting there. A lock to stay on the 40-man and be expected to be on the roster as a 4th outfielder? Yeah, I could see myself getting there by the end of September. But even that feels like it will require a whole lot more. I don’t want to end this fun post on a down note, but it is important to remember that Ortega has just 123 plate appearances this year, which is just about what he had with the Braves when it didn’t work in 2019, less than he had with the Marlins when it didn’t work in 2018, and far less than he had with the Angels when it didn’t work in 2016. Again, maybe this time is different, and there is real and sustainable change, even at his age. But it’s a very small sample. We need to see more.
Helluva great start, though.