As Rafael Ortega’s hitting heats up with more playing time, the outfielder’s Chicago Cubs future remains uncertain – The Mercury News



All Rafael Ortega could do was wait.

Consistent at-bats in the Chicago Cubs lineup weren’t available for the outfielder through the first five weeks of the season. With Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki entrenched in left and right field, respectively, Ortega’s opportunities were limited to occasional starts in center and at designated hitter.

Getting in an offensive rhythm posed a challenge, contributing to a .204/.304/.286 slash line through April. Within the context of his big-league career — in which extended playing time has been limited during parts of six seasons spanning 10 years — it wasn’t an unfamiliar spot for Ortega. However, he took advantage of the Cubs’ post-trade-deadline roster situation last year and thrived as one of their best hitters.

But the start of the 2022 season put Ortega in a familiar position.

“For me it’s more mentally right now — I’m trying to be more mentally positive because I haven’t been playing every day,” Ortega told the Tribune during the Cubs’ road trip last week. “I have been telling myself: Just wait for your opportunity and then when you get the opportunity, just do what you have to do.”

Between Jason Heyward dealing with COVID-19 in mid-May and Suzuki remaining sidelined by a sprained left ring finger, Ortega’s extended look over the last six weeks is paying off for the 31-year-old Venezuelan.

Since May 17, when Heyward went on the COVID-related injured list, Ortega is hitting .293 with a .377 on-base percentage and .801 OPS in 33 games. He owns a .321/.387/.500 line in June with six of his 18 hits going for extra bases. That includes his game-tying two-run homer Saturday against the St. Louis Cardinals and a two-run double in the Cubs’ comeback win Sunday.

Ortega says his production comes down to consistency — with his approach, decision making and playing time.

“It’s mostly about just being relaxed at the plate, my body feeling relaxed,” Ortega said through an interpreter. “When I tighten up a little bit and have that pressure, I don’t make good decisions. So it’s really just about being relaxed with my body and with my swing. Load up and I’m able to have a good swing.”

Fifteen of Ortega’s 44 starts have come at DH, a role he continues to adjust to. As part of his in-game preparation, Ortega will come inside to hit in the cage or prepare as if he were heading out on the field to play defense.

“It’s just about making sure that I’m not overswinging when getting ready for a pitcher or maybe taking it too easy,” Ortega said. “It’s finding that right balance.”

Ortega is maintaining a focus on what he can control each day. He has seen how the Cubs roster has evolved over the past year and is grateful for his first real shot to stick in the majors.

As to whether he fits in the Cubs’ longer-term vision as the organization tries to build its next contender, Ortega said he “hopes that I can be a part of that. I would love to be part of the championship-winning team.”

It’s not guaranteed Ortega will be on the roster past the Aug. 2 trade deadline. He likely will see his playing time diminish when Suzuki returns from the IL, but he could be an attractive left-handed bat off the bench for a playoff contender.

Even beyond the last six weeks, Ortega has shown he can be a valuable big-league hitter. Since the Cubs called him up in May 2021 — a stretch covering 165 games and 529 plate appearances — Ortega has hit .283, slugged .439 with a .359 on-base percentage and tallied 15 home runs, 24 doubles, 66 runs scored, a 118 OPS+ and 2.6 WAR.

Ortega is prepared for anything that might happen leading up to the trade deadline.

“When I was growing up, trying to get into the big leagues,” he said, “we’re told there’s 30 teams out there. You might not necessarily get to play for the same team for a long time or even throughout your whole caree.

“So if there’s a team out there that might think that my skill set would work for the team — I mean, my mentality is to come in and try to do good job.”

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