Cubs stumble to open unusual set vs. Cards

Three-error fourth inning is Chicago's undoing in St. Louis

July 20th, 2021

ST. LOUIS -- This is not the way the Cubs hoped it would be at Busch Stadium this week. Most seasons, this would be a much-hyped series packed with stars and storylines, rather than a battle for third place.

"It's significant every time you play the Cardinals," Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner said prior to Monday's 8-3 loss to St. Louis in the opener of a four-game series.

That is true in terms of the long, storied history of one of baseball's oldest rivalries. But right now, the focus around Chicago is the upcoming July 30 Trade Deadline and the future direction of a Cubs team now 9 1/2 games back of the National League Central-leading Brewers.

That is the reality for the fourth-place Cubs, but no matter what happens over the next 11 days, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has reiterated that a "rebuild" is not in the making. That is good news for younger players like Hoerner, who could be a part of the "next great Cubs team" that Hoyer is trying to construct.

"I'm really lucky," Hoerner said. "My whole life, really, I've played winning baseball. And I'm not looking to change that any time soon."

That makes what has happened lately a foreign and frustrating experience for Hoerner and other players who have only known winning while wearing a Cubs uniform. Chicago has lost 15 of 19 games and had a three-error, four-run fourth inning lead to the latest defeat.

Going into Monday, the Cubs ranked 10th in the Majors with 24 Defensive Runs Saved as a team. That is an area manager David Ross has emphasized as one that needs to be consistent.

"When we haven't played well, it's been one area of the game," Ross said. "The night where it's the pitching [that struggles], and we hit. Or we don't hit, and we pitch. Tonight, it was just defense."

Hoerner -- a Gold Glove finalist at second base last season -- was out of the starting lineup on Monday night. His replacement, veteran Eric Sogard, made a throwing error for the fourth and final Cubs blunder of the evening.

"That was really uncharacteristic of this group as of late, for sure," Ross said.

Fourth place? That is also uncharacteristic for the Cubs, who have not finished a season in fourth or worse since ending the '14 campaign in the NL Central cellar.

When Hoerner arrived unexpectedly to the Majors in 2019 -- the first player from the '18 MLB Draft to reach the big leagues -- he was thrust immediately into a September playoff chase. Last year, he was with the Cubs for a division title in the abbreviated '20 campaign. It was the Cubs' third division crown and fifth postseason berth in a five-year span.

In both of those seasons, the 24-year-old Hoerner not only got to learn from a core group that brought the 2016 World Series championship to the North Side, but saw a front office buying at the Deadline.

"The Cubs have had a stretch of a lot of winning baseball," Hoerner said. "And it's not by chance. It's a commitment to winning. It's great to be in an organization that’s that way, because playing baseball is a lot more fun when you're trying to win. It's a lot more enjoyable."

And that plays into Hoyer doing all he can to sidestep the term "rebuild," while explaining that this situation -- even if it results in pieces of the core being traded for prospects -- is different than when he arrived to the Cubs. At that point, the franchise required a fully clean slate and overhaul from the ground up.

"People talk about 'rebuilds' when you're doing what we did in 2012," Hoyer said earlier this month. "We are going to have roster turnover. We need to do that. That was inevitable. You control guys for six or seven years.

"It doesn't last forever, as far as that initial club control. So we'll have turnover. But, yeah, this is certainly not a rebuild by any kind of definition from our past."

Hoerner is under club control for at least the next four seasons, and he can see the young foundation that exists around and under the current core.

Hoerner could have a home at second base for years to come. Righty Adbert Alzolay has the makings of a core rotation piece. There is a growing list of intriguing arms, with starters like Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson tested in the big leagues as relievers this year.

Hoerner also noted that outfield prospect Brennen Davis is "hitting homers left and right" in the Minors. Davis has five in his last 11 games at Double-A Tennessee, and that is not counting his two-homer show in the All-Star Futures Game.

"Obviously, the daily attention is kind of where I'm at now," Hoerner said. "That's where my mind is, but you just trust the organization to make the right decisions and just know that there is talent at the Minor League level."

It does not sound like Hoerner wants the word "rebuild" as part of his future, either.

"That makes the game have a lot more purpose," he said. "When winning's a part of that, and winning for other people, I think that's when baseball is really at it's best form."