At this point, it’s obvious the Dodgers are the type of superteam Cubs fans expected to see at Wrigley Field in the years following the 2016 World Series, an unstoppable mix of homegrown talent, resource from the big market and a tip. approach to player development and squad management.
Since the last time the Cubs won a playoff game — beating the Dodgers in Game 4 of the 2017 National League Championship Series to avoid the sweep — the Dodgers have won three NL pennants, nine postseason rounds and a 2020 World Series title in the playoff bubble. Facing financial uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Dodgers signed Mookie Betts to a 12-year, $365 million contract extension while the Cubs withdrew their offer to untendered Javier Báez, Kyle Schwarber and traded Yu Darvish to the Padres for prospects and pay relief. During the last phase of rebuilding at Wrigley Field — when the Cubs lost 286 games between 2012 and 2014 — the Dodgers averaged more than 90 wins per season and won the first two of eight consecutive division titles.
The focus will be on the Dodgers this weekend with a doubleheader Saturday after Friday’s rain and ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” team settling in at the Friendly Confines. But that’s not even a one-to-one comparison when you look around the league and see how the Cubs are getting doubled and how hard it will be to make up that ground.
The Giants — under former Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi, former Cubs official Scott Harris and manager Gabe Kapler — combined elements of their even-numbered championship seasons with Dodger-style systems to win 107 games last year and take the NL West title back from the Dodgers. Mets owner Steve Cohen is trying to build an East Coast version of the Dodgers, authorizing a major league payroll approaching $300 million this season. Two other NL East teams — the Braves and Nationals — have won the World Series more recently than the Cubs. Since 2000, the Cardinals have more World Series championships (two) than lost seasons (one).
The Cubs aren’t the only team with a few building blocks, some financial flexibility for the future, and exciting prospects at the lower levels of the minor leagues.
Cubs manager David Ross largely agreed with Seiya Suzuki’s observation that opposing pitchers didn’t attack him much differently after the meteoric start to his major league career. Twelve of Suzuki’s 20 hits — and his four homers — have come in his first 10 games with the Cubs. Since then, Suzuki’s season OPS has dropped from 1.493 to .840 as he has been knocked out 18 times in 57 plate appearances.
“I didn’t see anything that stood out to me,” Ross said. “I just play every day and start out so comfortably that they get a bit more aggressive. He fouled a few pitches he thought he should have hit. But for the most part, I think it’s just a matter of timing. He played with leg kicks and non-strides and some things there to try and be on time a little more regularly.
Given the ups and downs of the 2016 World Series’ ultra-talented young hitters — and reminders from Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer about the assimilation period ahead for a Japanese player — we should have see this coming.
“It’s just the game,” Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said. “Teams are going to make adjustments to you, and you have to be able to make adjustments back.”
It’s a good sign the Dodgers and Giants were among the teams chasing Suzuki, who signed a five-year, $85 million deal with a rebuilding club so he could learn on the job and help create the next playoff team at Wrigley Field.
“He started off and surprised everyone, ‘Wow, this guy is taking the league by storm.’ To the right?” said Ross. “Now you see the league adapting and he’s also in the same boat adapting pitchers and seeing a lot of these guys again for the first and second time. It’s the Brewers looking at it and trying to adapt to it. I think he will go through the ups and downs – like everyone else – of a season. But nothing stood out to me except the timing with his mechanics.”
Ian Happ hasn’t been around as long as Contreras and he’s not nearly as close to reaching free agency, so he’s not the same focus of future speculation. Happ also won’t necessarily be around yet when Suzuki gets fully accustomed to the league and anchors the young-hitter roster the Cubs are trying to develop in the minors right now. But Happ, 27, could become the player the Cubs envisioned when they selected him as the No. 9 pick in the 2015 University of Cincinnati draft. As Ross said, “Overall, I think the story has been Seiya, but our group’s MVP would probably be Ian Happ.”
With a regular spot in the lineup and a fixed position in left field, Happ honed his batting skills and opened his eyes with his defensive game. He bats .292 and goes on base almost 42% of the time. He’ll stay early in the season for weeks, but on percentage he’s drawing more walks while taking out less. He’s also been error-free in 171 innings to left field, where he ranks second among qualified left fielders in Defensive Runs Saved (4) and third in Ultimate Zone Rating (2.3).
“When he’s locked up, he’s one of the best batters, for me, in the league,” Ross said. “He will work. He has power. It strikes in all areas. He’s a pretty spectacular player. He loses the rhythm sometimes, like we all do. I think he’s on a mission to be as consistent as possible this year.
Cubs promote Nelson Velázquez to Triple-A Iowa, Athleticism‘s Brittany Ghiroli first reported on Friday, an encouraging sign for fans wondering when the organization will catch up with the Dodgers. Velázquez alone obviously won’t make a difference, but his individual growth is what the Cubs are trying to take to a much higher level.
Prior to the 2017 draft, regional scout Edwards Guzman and national crosschecker Sam Hughes (who is now with the Yankees) identified Velázquez in Puerto Rico, seeing the hand-eye coordination and bat speed needed as well as a certain athleticism and a competitive personality. The Cubs gave Velázquez an above-the-slot bonus ($400,000) as the final fifth-round pick that year, but he essentially stayed off the prospect radar until ‘l ‘career-changing adjustment’ he made after the lost minor league season in 2020, a process detailed by Sahadev Sharma.
In 2019, Velázquez had reasonable success as a young Class A South Bend player (.762 OPS in 72 games), but he remained open to the idea of some mechanical tweaks and stuck to the holistic approach of the organization towards the players. development, which is supposed to connect technology with instruction, strength and conditioning, as well as the established skills and inner motivation of the batter.
Velázquez’s adjustments allowed him to work with a bigger striking window to do damage and stay on the breaking ball longer. He started last season in South Bend, improved his performance when he reached Double-A Tennessee, won the Arizona Fall League MVP award and earned a spot on the 40-player roster . The momentum continued in 22 games at the Double-A level this season – he threw nine home runs and posted a 1.094 OPS in 94 plate appearances.
Velázquez will have to manage the Iowa learning curve that Brennen Davis is facing right now (.584 OPS in 22 games), but the Cubs could have two-thirds of a future Triple-A level outfield.
(Photo by Seiya Suzuki: Michael McLoone/USA Today)