Wisdom, Ortega showing their value to Cubs

August 11th, 2021

CHICAGO -- After pointing to the heavens and circling the bases, following a walk-off grand slam against the A's during Spring Training, Cubs outfielder Rafael Ortega was welcomed with a two-handed high-five at the plate.

The teammate with the celebratory greeting was Patrick Wisdom. It was a preseason footnote at the time. No one could have forecast that either player, let alone both, would find themselves now trying to play their way into the Cubs' 2022 plans.

"On the field, you're looking for the best player," Cubs manager David Ross said. "I don't care how old he is."

On Tuesday, Rafael Ortega churned out three hits in a 4-2 loss to the Brewers in Game 1 of a doubleheader. In a 6-3 loss in the nightcap, Wisdom delivered a solo homer and RBI double, and Ortega added another hit and a steal.

In the wake of the decision to ship out the Cubs' Big Three (Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo) and others at the Trade Deadline, this is now a time of evaluation for the Cubs. The North Siders have shifted from October aspirations to focusing on development.

That includes a pitching prospect like Justin Steele, who made his first MLB start in the opener of Tuesday's doubleheader against the Brewers. It features a recently-acquired prospect like Greg Deichmann -- now a regular part of the outfield rotation.

It also means players like Ortega and Wisdom -- a 30-year-old journeyman and a 29-year-old former first-rounder, respectively -- are getting a chance to prove they can have a place in the future plans.

"For those guys in particular that you're talking about," Ross said, "a little bit older, younger in their careers, I think you find out where specifically they fit. Are they platoon? Do you try to go out to get somebody to help them from the other side? What piece of the puzzle do they fit in?

"Minimum, those guys are very talented Major League players that can contribute in a lot of different ways. That's the way I look at it. And you just continue to see the consistency, and make sure it's there and see how they handle the struggles."

To that last point, Wisdom has already shown he can pull himself out of an in-season slump.

The slugger burst onto the scene as a fill-in for the Cubs across May and June, posting a 1.065 OPS with 11 homers in his first 34 games. Over the next 18 games, Wisdom hit .190 with a 44.3 percent strikeout rate, 5.9 percent walk rate and a .592 OPS.

Wisdom's showing in the doubleheader (three hits and a pair of walks overall) gave him a .306/.404/.551 slash line in his last 15 games for Chicago. His 17 homers lead all National League rookies.

"I just kind of simplified a lot of things," Wisdom said recently. "I caught myself chasing hits, chasing contact, chasing the pitcher's out pitches. So, I decided to simplify it and shrink the zone, get back to what I know I can do."

Wisdom is trying to prove he can be counted on for right-handed power out of the Cubs' lineup beyond this season. Ortega wants to show that he can continue to be a regular part of the outfield, while offering a reliable lefty bat.

"Honestly, I've never had a doubt that I've had the ability to be a Major League starter and a Major League player," Ortega said via team translator Will Nadal. "It's all about having the opportunity, being given a proper chance. And I think I'm receiving that right now. That's what I'm taking advantage of."

Ortega's .394 batting average since the All-Star break was third in the Majors going into the twin bill, trailing only Starling Marte (.444) and A.J. Pollock. And then, all Ortega did was collect four more hits against Milwaukee.

Dating back to July 17, Ortega has turned in a .416/.464/.671 slash line in 24 games.

"Every time we give him the at-bats, he does something with it," Ross said. "He earned this."

It is the kind of opportunity Ortega has been waiting for since he first broke into the big leagues at 21 years old in 2012.

Since then, he has had short stints with the Angels (2016), Marlins ('18) and Braves ('19). Excluding the '20 season, when Ortega only played in the Venezuelan Winter League, he has suited up for six organizations in his last six professional campaigns.

Ortega hopes to use this season's last several weeks to prove that, even as a non-prospect, he can remain a part of the Cubs' 2022 plans.

"I'm grateful to the Chicago Cubs for giving me this opportunity to be here," Ortega said. "But, what I'm trying to show them is I can do this every day. I can maintain this same type of production moving forward.”