Willson enjoys Wrigley moment as Cubs map post-Deadline future

August 6th, 2022

CHICAGO -- The Wrigley Field faithful had already given Willson Contreras a rousing ovation, welcoming him home after trade rumors never became reality. It was the catcher's turn to show his thanks to the only home fans he has ever known.

"To be honest, I was looking forward to doing something special," Contreras said.

On Friday afternoon, Contreras delivered on that desire, drilling a go-ahead two-run homer in the eighth inning to lift the Cubs to a 2-1 victory over the Marlins. The All-Star backstop bounded around the bases, letting out some shouts and tugging on the name on the back of his jersey as his audience roared.

"You couldn't write it any better, could you?" Cubs starter Justin Steele said with a grin.

Over the next two months, the Cubs will be writing the final chapters to what has been a season defined by development for the rebuilding ballclub. As Chicago turns the page on the Trade Deadline, Contreras' future is just one of the storylines to watch in the second half.

Are these Contreras' last two months with Cubs?
Both Contreras and Ian Happ thought they suited up as Cubs for the final time at Wrigley Field on July 26, and they soaked up the atmosphere in an emotional game for the players and fans. Then the Trade Deadline came and went, and the duo stayed put.

"Last time, it was kind of saying goodbye," Contreras said. "But today was a really high-energy moment. That was fun to happen. Having these fans day in and day out in this ballpark, playing here and to be able to stay with the Cubs for at least two more months, I feel like I'm blessed. I totally am."

Happ could be a trade candidate over the winter, but the Cubs have him under contractual control through 2023. Contreras, on the other hand, is poised to hit free agency. So while the catcher was thrilled to stay past the Deadline, chatter about his future will persist. Chicago will have two months to consider an extension or a qualifying offer (to potentially net a compensatory Draft pick).

"Certainly, I think we know a lot of who Willson is," Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins said. "I don't think there's anything we necessarily need to learn from Willson over the course of the next few months. But it's great seeing him in the lineup and having that thump."

Steele, Thompson solidifying rotation roles
As the Cubs begin to forecast their rotation for future seasons, the team can begin to trust more and more that Steele and Keegan Thompson will be a part of the blueprint. Both starters have been on solid runs over the past two months as they learn and gain experience.

Thompson has a 3.27 ERA with 44 strikeouts and 13 walks in his last eight turns. Steele's 10-strikeout showing in 4 2/3 scoreless innings Friday gave him a 2.43 ERA in his last 10 outings. The left-hander had a 5.40 ERA in his first 10 starts of the season.

"You see growth every time out," Cubs manager David Ross said of Steele.

Testing out positional versatility
The acquisition of Zach McKinstry from the Dodgers before the Trade Deadline added a versatile option for all over the infield and outfield. Ross plans on giving McKinstry a look at multiple positions, along with the younger players like Christopher Morel (second, shortstop, third and center) and Nelson Velázquez (all three outfield spots).

Ross said it will be a priority to get Velázquez, in particular, more consistent plate appearances the rest of the way.

When Morel or McKinstry get the nod at second, that will build in days of rest for Nick Madrigal, who has had multiple injury setbacks across 2021-22. On Friday, Ross started Morel at shortstop to give Nico Hoerner a day off. Along these lines, expect Patrick Wisdom to get looks at first and third base the rest of the way.

"We'll be flexible with some of the younger guys," Ross said, "and move them around and just see what their versatility brings, find out what we feel like their best position is."

Learning more about the bullpen arms
The trades that shipped relievers David Robertson (Phillies), Mychal Givens (Mets), Chris Martin (Dodgers) and Scott Effross (Yankees) to other clubs opened up innings for a crop of younger arms. The current 'pen features Brandon Hughes, Erich Uelmen, Anderson Espinoza and Kervin Castro, among others. More could cycle in and out from Triple-A down the stretch.

"We've got to also let some of the young bullpen arms work through adversity, see what that looks like," Ross said. "Guys will show you what they're made of in the adversity moments and you've got to let them do that."