Can the Chicago Cubs pencil Rafael Ortega in as a starter next year?

Down the stretch this year, two older than usual Chicago Cubs rookies – Patrick Wisdom and Frank Schwindel – stole the show, replacing a pair of fan favorites in Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. But another 30-year-old newcomer quietly became a valuable piece for the team in Rafael Ortega.

There are plenty of questions already surrounding the team’s outfield mix: Can Ian Happ finally put together some consistency? What role will a clearly diminished Jason Heyward have in the final two years of his contract? Given all this uncertainty, it’s worth taking a long look at Ortega – and whether or not he can be counted upon to put up similar numbers in 2022.

Ortega got his first taste of big league action nearly a decade ago, back in 2012 as a member of the Colorado Rockies. He bounced around the league from there, getting cups of coffee with the Angels, Marlins and Braves before joining the Cubs last November. No one thought much of the move at the time – but it ended up being a critical move that provided a ton of value.

On the year, the 30-year-old turned in what was hands-down the best season of his admittedly short MLB career. He batted .291/.360/.463, racking up a personal-high 330 plate appearances for Chicago. All these numbers far exceeded anything he’d done up to that point – with his OPS clocking in several hundred points higher than his career mark.

All this to say he wildly outperformed expectations in 2021 – but that doesn’t mean he won’t get a good, long look at a spot on next year’s team. Depending how Jed Hoyer and his new-look front office allocate funds this winter, there could very well be a spot in the outfield for Ortega next spring.

Chicago Cubs: There’s room in the outfield mix for Rafael Ortega right now

Happ, assuming he’s not traded – which seems highly unlikely, will claim one of the three starting spots. Heyward, like I said, is a big question mark. He’s coming off the worst season of his career and saw his year ended by a concussion following an on-field base running collision. Given he’s still got two years on his deal at $22 million annually, you know he’s at least going to get the opportunity to start in right field again.

Ortega, at least for me, feels more like that fourth outfielder – capable of playing all three spots – with decent pop in his bat. Defensive metrics weren’t overly thrilled with his work with the glove, but given his offensive upside, you’re more likely to look past that if you’re David Ross.

This year, Ortega did enough to turn some heads and make sure he factors into the spring training outfield mix. But given how far he outperformed what he’d done up until this summer, he’s got to prove a lot of doubters wrong next season if he wants a spot on the 26-man.