ST. LOUIS — A common refrain among Cubs hitters through the ups and downs of the season has been how much fun this group has been to go to battle with.
Earlier in the season, shortstop Nico Hoerner described it to the Sun-Times as ‘‘a group of guys that enjoys hitting together and talking about the game. That’s what makes the easy stuff, the hard stuff, all of it, just that much more enjoyable. It’s fun when you’re really rooting for the guys around you.’’
The group might look very different soon.
That’s the reality this 28-45 Cubs team is playing under about five weeks before the trade deadline.
‘‘We saw it last year,’’ Hoerner said this past weekend. ‘‘Obviously, that was an extreme one — very extreme one. But this game is constantly changing.’’
He pointed to the Cubs’ turnover since he made his major-league debut in 2019. Only seven players from that season remain on the active roster.
‘‘It’s just part of this game and trusting that the Cubs continue to bring in good people, something they’ve always done a really good job of,’’ Hoerner said. ‘‘It’s out of your control, and just make the most of what’s around you.’’
The dramatic sell-off last season sent out a third of the Cubs’ Opening Day roster. This season won’t feature the shock factor of trading three core offensive members from the 2016 World Series team, but catcher Willson Contreras’ contract situation — as he plays under his last year of club control without an imminent offer of an extension — is reminiscent of those of Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo before the deadline last season.
While the Cubs have plenty of pitchers on short-term deals whose first-half performances have established them as the kind of players a contending team might pursue — closer David Robertson, for example — those veterans came in without long-term expectations.
Most of the Cubs’ hitters took a different route to reach the roster.
The deadline deals last season cleared room for the call-ups of players such as Frank Schwindel and created larger roles for players such as Patrick Wisdom and Rafael Ortega to supplement homegrown talent such as Contreras, Ian Happ and Hoerner.
Look at Ortega’s case now. He hit .321 against right-handed pitchers last season, but the Cubs’ outfield picture has been crowded. Manager David Ross has used the designated-hitter spot to get Ortega more at-bats while he has been stuck behind fellow left-handed hitter Jason Heyward on the depth chart.
In the last three games he has started, Ortega has five hits — including a tying home run Saturday against the Cardinals — and six RBI. His performance on the Cubs’ just-ended road trip brought his batting average and on-base percentage up to .269 and .359, respectively.
‘‘I don’t just play for my team; I also play for the other 30 teams that are here that are looking,’’ Ortega said through an interpreter when asked about the trade deadline. ‘‘They might have scouts, people observing. Just controlling what I can. I’ve seen it before with other players.
‘‘If another team might be interested in me, it would be an honor for me; it’d be something that I would be excited about. But I’m just taking care of my business, controlling things that I can day in and day out.’’
In a season such as this one, as the Cubs sit in fourth place in the National League Central, Ortega isn’t the only one.
The players who fit into the Cubs’ vision for their next championship window aren’t going anywhere. For everyone else, the familiar refrain from the last few years remains true: No one is untouchable.
NOTE: Major League Baseball announced All-Star coaches and trainers Monday, including Cubs head trainer PJ Mainville.
As for the players, catcher Willson Contreras still led NL catchers in the latest balloting update. No other Cubs player was in the top two at his position or in the top six among outfielders. The top two go to the next stage after Phase 1 voting ends at 1 p.m. Thursday.