Although the Cubs enter the off-season with much more stability in the field than they do on the mound, they do enter the off-season with some questions that need answering. Those questions, though, were mitigated by the 2015 performance of a handful of rookies and the emergence of Anthony Rizzo as a legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate for much of the season.
Offensively, it appears the Cubs will have plenty to work with. After a season where the Cubs won at the level they did, the rookies got a taste of major league pitching, playing every day, and learning on the job. Between Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and whatever combination of Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, and Starlin Castro remain after trades should give the Cubs a formidable line-up. The glaring need will be a lead-off hitter to replace the likely departed Dexter Fowler.
If the NLCS and the World Series showed anything about playoff baseball, it was that defense…more specifically consistent and steady defense…can make the difference, not only in individual games, but in an entire series. The outfield defense the Cubs displayed in the NLCS put an enormous spotlight on experience and on consistency, especially in the corners. Both Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber made mistakes that were as emblematic of their youth as much as they were about their defensive ability. Along the same line, NLCS MVP Daniel Murphy made some key errors at times where the Royals were making charges late in games, and ultimately help swing the tide of the World Series. None of this is to say that the outfield defense cost the Cubs the NLCS or Daniel Murphy cost the Mets the World Series…but they didn’t help.
Outfield defense is where the Cubs will likely look to start when they make adjustments to the composition of their position players. First, there is the issue of either resigning or replacing Dexter Fowler. And while Fowler was regarded to be better in the outfield than his numbers indicated this season, he still wasn’t good…according to the numbers. In fairness, his -12 defensive runs saved were a massive improvement from the -20 he posted in Houston in 2014 (in 375 fewer innings). All told, Fowler ranked 16th among center fielders with at least 750 innings (13th among qualified players) in UZR/150. In most respects, Fowler was in the middle of the pack. For an outfield with good corner outfielders, there’s no problem with that. If the Cubs are going to head into 2016 with Fowler (which seems unlikely), they may need to seek to upgrade the corners around him.
Positional upgrades may not be as easy as pitching upgrades when looking outside the organization. Free agency is not filled with ready made depth and replacements for players the Cubs could lose. There are a few potential replacements in center field worth exploring, though.
Jason Heyward: Heyward checks all of the boxes, and the Cubs were rumored to be looking into signing him before their season ended. He only logged 51 innings in center during 2015 and has never had more than 164 (with the Braves in 2013). While the defensive numbers are solid (11.1 UZR/150 in 233 career innings), they are limited. It is in right that Heyward’s defense is elite. He logged a 22.3 UZR/150 out there in 2015, and his season total of 24.0 UZR/150 was good for second best in all of baseball. Heyward is a 26 year old all-around upgrade. His career .268/.353/.431 would seemingly fit well atop the Cubs’ line-up and he is a left-handed hitter, which is something the Cubs don’t feature as prominently as right-handed power. The likelihood of adding Heyward is the real question. If the Cubs do seriously pursue him, it would almost guarantee that they will shop in the lower end of the free agent pitching pool and explore trades. Being a priority for the Cardinals, however, it seems a long shot that Heyward ends up with the Cubs.
Yoenis Cespedes: In the interest of due diligence, Cespedes is worth including on this list. He’s just an expensive duplicate of things the Cubs already have. And although he played a fair amount in center for the Mets, his best defensive position is left field. He’s going to get paid. Coming off a career best 6.7 fWAR, his price tag is going to be heavy. Almost certainly too heavy for what the Cubs are willing to pay for a low walk, high strike out, right handed power hitter.
Colby Rasmus: Rasmus has been linked to the Cubs in the past. A benefit to signing Rasmus would be his ability to play all across the outfield. He logged at least 256 innings in each of the three positions in 2015. He is a center fielder, by trade, however. He’s been up and down, defensively, but is best numbers show him to be a solid outfielder. His worst numbers are comparable to those of Dexter Fowler. His bat comes with some lefty pop, driving 50 extra base hits in 2015, including 25 HRs. One of his biggest draw backs is that he strikes out a ton. In a line-up with as much swing and miss as the Cubs have, adding more doesn’t appear to be an enticing option. And even though the lead-off spot does not need to be filled by a new center fielder, it would be a positive to find a defensive upgrade who can lead off. Rasmus and his career .313 on-base percentage isn’t that guy.
Austin Jackson: As far as familiar short term options go, the Cubs could do worse than the recently acquired Jackson. Among qualified outfielders, Jackson’s total 8.9 UZR/150 was good for 14th in baseball. In center, his 10.1 UZR/150 was 5th. He would return as a short-term, low cost option. For the Cubs, that has a certain amount of appeal. He is coming off of a highly disappointing 2015, where he saw himself traded to the Cubs in August, walked a career low 5.5% of the time, helping to bring a .311 on-base percentage…which is 22 points under his career .333 on-base percentage. A one year, incentive laden, contract might prove to be a worthy venture for the Cubs and for Jackson, who proved to be a nice late inning defensive replacement. With the probable departure of Chris Denorfia, Jackson may be willing to return as a reserve utility outfielder if he doesn’t get an opportunity to start elsewhere. He’s worth keeping an eye on.
Denard Span: Ideally, the Cubs would add Span on the cheap and he would return to his pre-2015 form. That player is a reliable, veteran center fielder who has a career 2.6 UZR/150, although that number is reduced by both 2014 and 2015, where he dealt with injuries. In 2015, he was limited to only 61 games. And he’s going to turn 32 as Spring Training is opening. But as a short term bridge, Span brings a lot of upside. His career walk rate (8.7%) is only a bit below his strike out rate (11.4%). His career .287/.352/.395 slash line would fit nicely atop the Cubs’ order. And he should come inexpensively after an injury plagued season.
Inside the organization, the Cubs have options that may be ready later in the season to fill the gap in center field. At this point, though, none of them appear to be ready to take the reigns on Opening Day. The most obvious candidates are Arismendy Alcantara and Albert Almora.
Alcantara had a very disappointing 2015. He was sent to Iowa after only 11 big league games in 2015 and never returned. At Iowa, he hit a paltry .231/.285/.399. He is still a talented, versatile baseball player who has the natural athleticism that would make him a solid center fielder. In a 421 inning sample in 2014, Alcantara had 3 defensive runs saved. And while his -7.6 UZR/150 wasn’t Gold Glove worthy, it wasn’t an awful showing for a player getting his first meaningful playing time in the outfield while getting his first taste of the big leagues. If Alcantara is going to be an option moving forward, it is his bat that will have to turn around. In any event, there is no reason to believe that Alcantara will be out there on Opening Day. If he is, it’s fair to assume a number of things have gone horribly wrong this off-season and spring for the Cubs.
Albert Almora is kind of a forgotten prospect in the Cubs’ system. He hit well at Kane County. He struggled early on at Daytona, before getting hot and getting an aggressive promotion to AA Tennessee. And he had a tough go of hitting pitchers who are a bit more crafty and able to get Almora to swing at their pitches out of the zone. He struggled with weak contact, although he always continued to make contact at a high rate. It does appear that the work Almora put into his hitting approach paid off later in the season, though. After July 1, Almora hit .304/.368/.470 in AA. Most importantly, he walked at a 8.4% rate after that point. His season walk rate of 7.1% was a professional best…and a marked improvement from the 2 (that’s right. 2. As in 2 plate appearances drew a base on ball out of the 141 he had there) walks he took in AA during the 2013 season. If Almora continues the obvious improvement in his approach during Spring Training and the early season, his defense could make him a candidate for a call-up. In some respects, he could be protected in the 9th slot in the batting order in the same way Addison Russell was in 2015. His glove is major league ready. He may be the best outfielder in the organization, at any level. If Albert Almora is not traded (which is a possibility) and the Cubs run into injuries or under-performance in center field, Almora may get the first crack at filling the position.
Outside of center field, the rest of the position players on the roster appear to be mostly set. There is a chance the Cubs reach out to Ben Zobrist, who is one of Joe Maddon‘s favorites from their time in Tampa Bay together. Zobrist brings versatility that the Cubs love in their position players and is a well-regarded veteran player. The biggest mark against Zobrist is the contract he may command from a potential suitor. With the Cubs’ putting a hard focus on starting pitching, it may not be in the budget to add a pricey bench/ role player like Zobrist, even if he would likely get 500 plate appearances as a super sub.
The last position that may be worth watching over the off-season is catcher. Miguel Montero brought everything the Cubs had wanted when they acquired him from the Arizona Diamondbacks last winter. His pitch framing was as advertised. He was a solid veteran in the clubhouse. And he was a heck of a lot of fun for the fans, especially on Twitter. For the first seven weeks of the season, he was a beast at the plate, too. Through May 17, he hit .313/.430/.500, while walking 17% of the time and striking out 19%. He looked like a steal. It was after that point that he fell off…dramatically. And for a player who had been regressing at the plate for a few years before the Cubs got him, that was to be expected. After those first seven very hot weeks, he hit .228/.317/.382, which isn’t all that bad for a defense first catcher nowadays. But he’s owed $14M in both 2016 and 2017. If the Cubs see Kyle Schwarber make enough improvement behind the plate this winter (which isn’t likely) or they think they can find a short term option while Wilson Contreras gets ready, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Cubs move on from Miggy. At this juncture, it would take a pretty drastic turn of events to see him moved because the Cubs do not, at present, have a better every day option. And Montero is still valuable behind the plate. It is still worth monitoring, though. Because after developing at the plate and making tremendous strides in receiving pitches, Contreras, mlb.com’s number 5 catching prospect, may be knocking at the door sooner than later.
There is something to be said for not needing to fill big holes and over-spending to prevent those holes from derailing a season. The Cubs have a problem spot in center field. That spot can be filled with a short term option, though, while young players continue to develop. They also have the option to go big and sign Heyward, which could make the prospects waiting in the wings available to be traded for pitching. It should be expected that trades will be the area of most movement among Cubs position players. They have a number of duplicate players who can easily be moved and moved on from. While the names of those players may hurt, initially, to lose, those losses shouldn’t contribute to any significant long term damage. Beyond adding a center fielder and/or a lead-off type hitter and bench depth, it would be a surprise to see the Cubs make any major splashes around the field. The real splashes this winter will likely take place on the mound.
*Stats from Fangraphs.com, unless otherwise noted*