I am one of the few humans on planet Earth who hasn’t seen the new Star Wars movie yet, partly by design and partly because we couldn’t get tickets for Saturday (so we’re going Sunday). Avoiding spoilers like the plague has been relatively easy because for the most part, people I follow online have been chill about not giving anything away, and the few stories that keep popping up have vague enough headlines that I can just ignore them and keep myself prepared for surprises. In the meantime, there are a little over two months left before pitchers and catchers report, so of course we have to fantasize a bit about the 2016 Chicago Cubs. Honestly, that’s why most of you come to this blog anyway.
Right around when the Cubs signed Jason Heyward, we already surmised that their plan was to at least make it look like they would play Heyward in center field and flank him with Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler in the corners. We can pretty much bet that the bats will do their job on the offensive end, so that isn’t the issue. The major problem is that folks are trying to find a defensive alignment that doesn’t involve what many perceive as a suboptimal outfield, because Heyward isn’t a “true” center fielder, Soler had some defensive foibles last year, and Schwarber is a designated hitter pretending to be a catcher who happens to be standing in left field. I personally think that these are overreactions, and will get into this in more detail shortly, but it seems like the Cubs are willing to at least pretend that this is okay:
With the team having signed Jason Heyward to a monster eight-year $184 million deal, Epstein and the Cubs are content holding on to the core of young players under contract control, while playing Heyward in center initially.
“In his case it is a little more challenging,” Epstein said in evaluating Soler. “The reason is that he doesn’t have the long track record and he has had a few injuries that have cost him some time. At the same time it wasn’t that hard to scout the postseason and see what he did during a nine or ten game stretch. He and Schwarber were the two most locked-in guys we had. I love this guy’s future. I think his bat could be as good as anyone in the game from a power standpoint, as soon as he learns to loft the ball a little more.”
But I believe that it won’t be quite so bad, since the Cubs front office is very transparent about what they believe will and won’t work. Although we have seen Soler’s name being floated in potential trade scenarios, it sounds like the Cubs would be content to let it ride and hope that the offense will outslug any defensive gaffes that may arise.
Also in the interview, Theo Epstein seemed to be confident that both Schwarber and Soler could improve, and both players have the work ethic to get to a point where they are at least competent. Schwarber also has the added responsibility of learning how to catch at a respectable level, and since the Cubs appear to have committed to him getting at least a few reps behind the plate, I think he may be tasked to receive for Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, who don’t have the nastier stuff that Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and maybe John Lackey have. As for Soler, we know that he has a cannon for an arm, and if he remains healthy, he’ll get the reps he needs to become a solid right fielder. Therefore, I am in agreement with the Cubs to keep him around for the time being given the potential in the bat and the confidence that he can be that defensively adept right fielder. Schwarber, in the moments when I’ve observed him in left field, seems to be able to track the ball fairly well and obviously knows how to catch, so more practice should lead to less awkward routes and mechanics that used to scare us last season. Plus, we know that Heyward has played center before and has more than held his own.
We would probably enjoy having an elite defensive outfield, shifting Heyward back to his rightful Gold Glove-winning spot in right field (hee hee, a pun) and having a true center fielder, but every team has a flaw. My opinion is that this flaw isn’t that significant, and can be masked by a number of different factors. There is enough time between now and the start of the regular season to figure out if the extra practice will lead to improvements before the Cubs attempt to find a better center fielder or make those oft-rumored trades. There is also depth in the ranks in guys like Matt Szczur (who is at least very fast and can cover a lot of ground), Kris Bryant (who has at least volunteered to stand in the outfield and didn’t make a fool of himself), and even Javier Baez, who started playing center in Puerto Rico this winter without any reports of total disaster. This isn’t to say that we want any of those guys to be the regular center fielder over Heyward, but it’s important to note the Cubs’ availability of versatility (or at least their efforts to generate versatility).
And then there is the matter of how often a ball will find the outfield. Using the Fangraphs’ compilation of Steamer projections for the 2016 Cubs, we can see that the projected starting infield of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist, and Anthony Rizzo (going left to right across the diamond) should be fairly airtight on any balls hit on the ground. Rizzo’s defensive value projection seems a bit low based on what we have seen of his defensive prowess, but the left side of the infield should be close to being a wall, and the guys on the right side aren’t abysmal (and have historically been very good, even if Zobrist is older and less capable now).
The other part is whether the pitchers on staff will even allow fly balls. I mean, of course they will allow fly balls to an extent, but we can again look at the staff’s historical batted ball statistics (also via Fangraphs). For reference, ground balls are good, fly balls not so much. Let’s look at the 2015 and career GB% & FB% of the nine pitchers who are expected to log the most innings (regular or spot starts):
What should jump out at you here is that except for Jason Hammel (who seemed to get shelled hard after his injury around the All-Star Break) and Travis Wood (who has always been an extreme fly-ball pitcher), the Cubs pitching staff are what we would call “worm-killers” because they have an ability to generate ground balls. We have to concede that some of these ground balls will be hit very hard and will sneak through the otherwise airtight infield defense, and some of the seeing-eye ground balls will probably find the corners and carom all over the place to give Schwarber and Soler fits, but my guess is that their outfield chances will be limited relative to other teams. Couple that with data derived from spray charts and strategic shifting, and a ball finding the outfield will be even more of a rarity, which means outfield adventures will be reduced. So now we’ve gone from the dog watching his house burn to this:
Are we absolutely confident that this outfield defense will be elite? Probably not. But given the effort by the individual players to improve their defense, the propensity for ground balls generated by the pitching staff and the strong infield defense, I doubt it’s going to be as huge of a deal as some think. So for the time being, I’m willing to make like Theo Epstein and just shrug it off. Besides, we only have to deal with this until Albert Almora is ready, and the good news is that Almora’s bat doesn’t have to be elite to help this team.