The Cubs Audition Some Not-So-Young Hitters

From the offseason trade of Yu Darvish to the flurry of deals made at the deadline, the Cubs have focused on youth when it comes to prospect acquisition targets, at times to an extreme. That means fans at Wrigley Field will have to wait multiple years to see if the returns come to fruition, but in the meantime, the team is using what’s left of the season to evaluate not young players, but some older, unproven talents to see if any of them have a role to play in 2022 and beyond. To that end, the results have been mixed, but Chicago rode those players to an 11–7 record in the last 18 games.

Nobody expects the Cubs to make much of a push this winter, with 2022 looking like a clear rebuilding year, but some of these players may deserve a legitimate roster spot as opposed to being roster fodder. Here are four players, none of them originally signed by the Cubs and all well into their professional careers, who are making a case for more at-bats next year.

Michael Hermosillo, OF

Where He Came From: Hermosillo, who grew up a Cubs fan about a two-hour drive from Wrigley Field, was exceptionally raw coming from a rural Illinois school with poor competition, and most teams thought he would continue to refine his game at the college level. Instead, the Angels made him a 28th-round pick in the 2013 draft and gave him a $100,000 bonus to steer him away from a two-sport commitment to the University of Illinois. A late bloomer, he didn’t begin to garner prospect attention until a breakout campaign in 2016. Scouts saw him mostly as a player with a ceiling of a fourth outfielder; a trio of big league stints with the Angels from 2018 to ’20 led to few results and a removal from the 40-man roster, with the Cubs signing him last winter as a Triple-A depth piece.

What He’s Doing: Nothing right now, and both player and team are likely frustrated by the forearm strain that ended his latest big league audition after just 38 plate appearances. But while he didn’t do much during that brief stint, his showing in Triple-A Iowa inspired some confidence, as Chicago’s player development group simplified his swing and improved his bat path. The result was a .306/.446/.592 line in 43 games with unprecedented patience and power.

2022 Outlook: Still only 26 years old, Hermosillo’s speed and solid arm allow him to play anywhere in the outfield, and his combination of wheels and new-found pop should guarantee him a roster spot in 2022. In the end, the fourth outfielder projection that scouts put on him half a decade ago once again feels like the most likely outcome.

Rafael Ortega, OF

Where He Came From: Signed by the Rockies out of Venezuela 13 years ago, Ortega made his big league debut in 2012 but would wait nearly four years before getting another chance; at the age of 30, he’s a big league regular for the first time in his career. Coming up with the Rockies, he hit early in his career and always ran well, but his prospect status was dimmed a bit by a lack of power and poor swing decisions. Those plate discipline issues led to some struggles at the upper levels and an itinerant career. He rode the DFA train during the 2013–14 off-season, moving to the Rangers and Cardinals, and spent the last few years on a series of minor league deals with the Angels, Padres, Marlins, and Braves.

What He’s Doing: Ortega’s showing at Triple-A Iowa this year (.250/.333/.484, albeit in 73 plate appearances) feels in line with what should be expected from him. He got off to a blistering start with the Cubs but has tailed off of late, as teams have properly advanced him and begun to exploit his considerable weakness against breaking balls. He also should never be allowed to stand in the box against left-handed pitching.

2022 Outlook: Ortega has always had a market for minor league deals, and his ability to play anywhere in the outfield to go with solid contact rates will keep him that way for a while still. On a Cubs team that does nothing to bolster the roster for 2022, there’s a spot for him, as long as David Ross picks his spots and focuses on matching him up with fastball-dominant righties.

Frank Schwindel, 1B

Where He Came From: An 18th-round selection by the Royals in 2018, Schwindel was a contact-oriented, bat-only first baseman who rarely walked or hit balls hard in college. That changed — or at least the power part did — in his first full season, when he slugged 22 home runs. By 2017, he was a darling for many analysts in the industry thanks to his rare combination of excellent contact rates and exit velocities, but he began to trend down in 2018–19, and after spending last year at the Tigers’ alternate site, he seemed destined for a Quad-A career at best as he entered his 30s.

What He’s Doing: With a 169 wRC+ in 174 plate appearances, Schwindel hasn’t just been the best Cubs hitter of late; he’s been among the best in baseball. More predictive stats tell us that he is clearly in over his head, but it also says he’s a real hitter, with his combination of getting the bat on the ball combining with plus-plus exit velocities that are found in star-level players.

2022 Outlook: Schwindel absolutely obliterates fastballs but struggles against anything offspeed, so expect a steady diet of secondary pitches against him for the remainder of the season, if not his career. He also remains an overly aggressive hitter, which is frequent for high-contact types with his kind of plate coverage, so fewer strikes are likely as well. Adjustments will need to be made, but he feels like a productive everyday first baseman going forward, though with a smaller window than most due to his age and the kind of toolset that tends not to age gracefully.

Patrick Wisdom

Where He Came From: As the 52nd pick of the 2012 draft, Wisdom entered professional baseball with the most acclaim of this quartet and was expected to go much higher prior to that spring, when a disappointing performance dropped him on team’s boards. Athletic for his size and a strong defender, the biggest concerns surrounding him always had to do with the swing-and-miss aspect of his game, and those concerns have never gone away. But something happened in 2017, when his power went from plus to plus-plus or better, and that kind of strength can hide a lot of negatives at the plate. That said, despite 30-plus home run campaigns in the minors in both 2017 and ’19, Wisdom had entered the bouncing part of a career over the past few years, going to the Rangers and the Mariners before landing with the Cubs in January.

What He’s Doing: Devan Fink went in-depth on Wisdom’s unique season in this excellent piece; the tl;dr version is that he is what I commonly refer to as a power goof, with a well below-average pure hit tool that he tries to make up for with nearly top-of-the-line power. With a gargantuan 40% strikeout rate, even his .236 batting average feels high, and while many such players try to make up for their lack of contact with a healthy portion of walks, that’s not part of his game, as his on-base percentage has hovered around .300 for much of the year. (As an aside, why don’t we have a “Mendoza Line” type of descriptor for the .300 OBP mark? The Alfredo Griffin line?)

2022 Outlook: Wisdom might hit 30 home runs next year, and even 40 wouldn’t shock me if he gets a full season of at-bats. A sub-.800 OPS despite that many bombs wouldn’t shock me either. His power gives him value despite all of his shortcomings, but those leave him as more of an entertaining placeholder than a centerpiece.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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9 months ago

Frank Schwindel seems like Jose Martinez v2 to me. Keep hitting line-drives and he stays in the majors, when that stops he will bounce around for a bit then age out. I feel like these guys should take advantage of being hot and see if they can get a job overseas? I believe, Martinez had that chance but STL signed him for 2 years at the MLB level so he wouldn’t go.

9 months ago

His walk rates are worryingly low though. You almost never see a 1st baseman walk that infrequently

9 months ago

My first thought was “are we sure he’s not latin?” 😀
As the old dominican player saying went, “you can’t walk off tbe island”.

That combination of skills reminds me of Vlad senior or Manny Sanguillen who never saw a pitch they couldn’t hit. Often for at least a single.