The Chicago Cubs’ June swoon has cemented the direction of their season.
The Cubs finished 10-17 (.370), their worst month so far, as they approach the midpoint of the season. Although the Cubs leave behind a 10-game losing streak in early June as they enter July having won two consecutive series, the clubhouse will be facing increased trade speculation.
Here is a breakdown of what to take away from the Cubs’ June performance.
1. Nico Hoerner’s hot month displays his all-around potential.
Hoerner’s potential for stardom has been on display this season with his upside never looking higher than it did in June.
He already impressed with his glove at shortstop behind the work he put in during the offseason. But his offensive production went to a new level in June. Hoerner finished the month with a .344/.392/.452 slash line. There is still room to increase his power numbers (six extra-base hits over 25 June games). But his ability to get on base via hits is a reliable attribute that had been missing from the Cubs’ power-heavy lineups the last couple years.
“I felt like I showed some bits and pieces last year when I played but never really got into the full swing of things,” Hoerner said. “So to have a chance to play every day and just kind of roll with the season and all that comes with it, I think it’s been a great experience.”
And, importantly, he’s not swinging and missing very much while putting the ball in play a lot. He struck out only six times in June, including just three times over a 22-game stretch (88 plate appearances) to begin the month. He rode a career-high eight-game hitting streak into July during which he went 17-for-32 (.531) with three extra-base hits.
The key for Hoerner the rest of the season is staying healthy. Injuries have thwarted him in the past, particularly last year.
2. Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele’s show signs of being the starting pitchers the Cubs need.
A successful Cubs rebuild will require the organization to develop or acquire quality starting pitchers.
Ideally, Thompson and Steele represent two of those arms the Cubs can count on. Consistency is important, though, and both closed out June pitching well. Thompson has allowed five runs in 18⅓ innings over his last three starts while Steele finished June with a 3.03 ERA, allowing two runs or less in four of his five starts.
Steele has noticeably been filling the zone with strikes and going after hitters with his fastball. Thompson pitched into the seventh in two of his last three starts. Now it’s about finishing off those outings.
“They’re attacking the zone more often,” catcher Willson Contreras said of the two pitchers. “When they struggle, their mechanics are a little off, now they find a way to make adjustments right away and I’m really proud of the work they’ve done lately.”
One key going forward is how well Thompson and Steele maintain consistency into July and over the final three months. It’s their first extended starting opportunity in the majors. Finding a way to grind through it is a must for every player at some point in 162 games.
3. Christopher Morel’s first tough stretch shows how he’s able to bounce back.
The Cubs rookie could have let his June struggles send him into a prolonged slump or affect other areas of his game. Morel’s strikeouts started piling up in June, recording 41 strikeouts in his first 24 games in the month. His average (.240) and on-base percentage (.283) dipped in the process.
Manager David Ross dropped Morel to ninth in the Cubs batting order Wednesday, and the 23-year-old responded how the Cubs hoped he would in his last two games: 7-for-9 with two home runs, two RBIs and nine runs scored.
“I try to come in with a positive attitude, it doesn’t matter if I’m doing well or I’m not doing that well,” More said through an interpreter. “It’s just about having that attitude, that effort, rub off on the other players and then in turn, I might not have a good game at the plate, but I might have a good game helping others and inspiring the team.”
Maybe his last two games are merely a blip before his struggles continue. Regardless, Morel showed how he responds to getting knocked down.
Morel was expected to face adversity at some point after a sizzling start to his big-league career, and this won’t be the only time he experiences a slump. But the organization must be happy with how well he embraced the lineup change and continued to maintain a good attitude. His five-hit night Thursday marked a career high and made him the youngest Cubs rookie to accomplish the feat since Ken Hubbs in 1962.
4. Ian Happ’s performance sets him up for a potential All-Star honor and big payday.
Happ’s first four months in 2021 were so bad that wondering if the Cubs would non-tender him in the offseason wasn’t an outrageous question to ponder. His stellar 2022 campaign went to another level in June when he hit .327 with a .417 on-base percentage and .948 OPS in 27 games.
The switch hitter has given the Cubs an important mix of hitting for power and average to complement Contreras, Patrick Wisdom and Hoerner. If Contreras, currently well positioned to earn his third All-Star Game start behind the plate, has his way, Happ will be joining him in Los Angeles this month for the Midsummer Classic.
Happ’s defense shouldn’t be overlooked in left field, either. All of it is setting up for Happ to earn a big payday from the Cubs or in free agency after next season. He will need to prove it wasn’t merely a streaky three-month hot stretch. But his peripherals, including a career-best 19.3% K% that is 10% lower than last year, suggest this is what the 27-year-old can be.
5. The Cubs are finally on the verge of getting healthy with key pieces.
The Cubs have been trying to survive without three veteran starters the last three weeks. Then add Frank Schwindel’s back issues and Seiya Suzuki’s lingering finger strain and, well, the Cubs weren’t close to their whole version in June.
But that is expected to change soon. Right-hander Marcus Stroman (right shoulder inflammation) and left-hander Drew Smyly (right oblique strain) were scheduled to throw bullpens Friday. If they come out of those well, a rehab start is not out of the question to put both in play to return around the All-Star break. In Smyly’s case, a couple good starts could put him in play to get traded before the Aug. 2 deadline.
Schwindel is getting back into baseball activities. Meanwhile, Suzuki began his rehab start at Triple-A Iowa Thursday with a bang. Suzuki started in right field and played five innings, hitting a solo home run and an RBI single. He will provide the Cubs lineup with a boost after missing more than a month. This year is all about learning and getting comfortable in a new league so the Cubs want him to log as many at-bats as he can as he continues to adjust.