Late February is supposed to be about collecting those last few depth minor league signings. The Cubs have been particularly aggressive in this area adding the second most players on minor league deals this offseason, and with the addition of Shane Victorino Friday the Cubs are inching closer to first place. Teams are typically done making major moves to the roster when big league camps are just opening, but the Cubs broke that mold Thursday and had perhaps the craziest few hours I can recall of any late February.
By now you know that the Cubs traded Chris Coghlan to the Oakland Athletics for 25 year old right handed reliever Aaron Brooks. Theo Epstein and Dexter Fowler walked into Sloan Park to officially announce Fowler’s return a few hours later. As has been the theme of this offseason, a possibility that seemed remote at best has become the reality of the 2016 Cubs.
The contract turned out to be substantially less than what Howie Kendrick received at one year and eight million guaranteed. There is a mutual option and a buyout that could make the deal anywhere from 1 year and 13 million to 2 years and 17 million. This is the second time this offseason (is it still technically the offseason?) that the Cubs have timed up a free agent signing with a trade. The front office continues to be creative in finding ways to improve this roster.
These moves have so many ramifications on the 2016 Cubs and it will be some time before we know exactly all the effects of Thursday. Here are some of the things that did come to mind in the days since that craziness.
The Net Gain of Thursday
Dexter Fowler and Chris Coghlan were effectively swapped on Thursday. The Cubs decided that having Dexter Fowler, and Aaron Brooks, was worth more to the Chicago Cubs than Chris Coghlan. The front office believed in this strongly enough to pay a minimum of an extra 3.2 million in 2016 for this “trade”, but what exactly did the Cubs gain in this swap.
Last year Chris Coghlan was a slightly more valuable player according to fWAR (though slightly less valuable according to bWAR and dramatically less according to WARP) with nearly 200 less plate appearances than Fowler. Coghlan’s .250/.341/.443 slash line produced a .337 wOBA and 113 wRC+. Fowler slash line of .250/.346/.411 gave Coghlan the edge in wOBA (.337 to .333) and wRC+ (113 to 110). Fowler did edge Coghlan in TAv .281 to .279. This similar production is not a one year phenomenon either. Notice how wOBA has been a near match the past two seasons.
I am not a huge fan of using batting average in analysis, but it is kind of eerie how their batting averages have almost mirrored each other the previous three seasons as well.
The Cubs traded players with similar overall offensive production, but the Cubs made the swap due to how much better Fowler fits this roster. Dexter Fowler strikes out substantial more than Coghlan, but that has become less of a glaring problem with the additions of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. The Cubs replaced a corner outfielder that can play the infield for a center fielder. They also replaced a left handed platoon bat for one of their most potent lefty mashers of 2015. Each of those were important areas of weaknesses that were upgraded by dealing a player whose skills could already be covered on the current roster.
There also was the question of the leadoff hitter spot. Dexter Fowler filled that role admirably last year and this means that a player perhaps uncomfortable with that role will have to fill it on an everyday basis. Fowler will hopefully get on base at a higher clip than he did last year, and there is some evidence to suggest that is likely. The career lows in AVG and OBP last year were largely driven by a huge drop in BABIP. Fowler still maintained a solid LD% and so it is reasonable to expect a rebound in that area. Also given the Cubs depth Fowler can be shielded from the toughest right handed pitchers to help increase his rate stats.
I argued vociferously against trading Chris Coghlan at the start of this offseason. The primary reason being that I felt like his value on the trade market was going to be low (at least lower than what he could provide as a utility player for the Cubs in 2016). The return of Aaron Brooks suggests that I might have been right. However is that what Chris Coghlan should have returned?
Tommy Meyers argued throughout this time period with me that the Seth Smith deal for Luke Gregerson should be a model for a potential Coghlan deal. Seth Smith was a platoon lefty bat with one year of control at the time he was traded for a very solid high leverage reliever in Luke Gregerson. Now Seth Smith had been a very productive player, with Coors as his home park though, for longer than Coghlan has and also was viewed as a good defender. There is a solid argument to be made that Seth Smith was considered more valuable at the time of the deal than Coghlan.
But another left handed OF platoon bat with one year of control left in Matt Joyce was traded just a little over a year after Seth Smith. The return in that deal was another solid reliever in Kevin Jepsen. Again I can see arguments for Matt Joyce being considered more valuable than Coghaln, but it does seem as though the market price for this type of player had been set at an effective reliever.
The Cubs received merely the possibility of an effective reliever for their left handed corner outfielder platoon bat with one year of control. Aaron Brooks is yet another relief arm that the Cubs acquired this offseason with an option year remaining. It is pretty clear that the Cubs did not or could not maximize the value of their asset Chris Coghlan. The Cubs instead opted to make a deal for a player that they could work on for a year before having to make a decision. This deal gave the Cubs the roster and payroll flexibility to add Dexter Fowler first and foremost.
Keep the Super Outfield
Thoughts after the news broke quickly drifted to Jorge Soler‘s future with the Chicago Cubs. Many began relegating Soler to a bench role,or traded away but I think the situation is far more complex and fascinating. The Cubs boast an incredible athletic and flexible cast of position players. Cubs position players may have to get used to being asked to play all over the diamond and hit up and down the lineup. But there is room for everyone on this 25 man roster.
Folks, you get 486 starts in the OF in a 162 game season plus DH for games in the AL. Enough starts to go around for 4 OFers.
— Brad Robinson (@bradrobinson8) February 25, 2016
The above breakdown of outfield starts means that there are at least 121 outfield starts for the four Cubs outfielders. That does not factor in the 10 games the Cubs have a to play in an AL park and all 4 players can comfortably start. That pushes the number to 124 starts to go around. The Cubs are going to let Kyle Schwarber catch and lessen the load on the two very veteran full time catchers. This gives another few outings where all four players can be on the field at the same time. In an ideal world it seems very easy for the Cubs to get 130 or more starts for each of their four outfielders.
It’s Not an Ideal World
But it is not an ideal world and injuries are bound to happen. Jorge Soler’s injury problems are well documented, and rightfully draw a lot of attention. I tweeted this out a couple months ago.
Jorge Soler’s total games played while in Cubs organization
At least it is trending in the right direction
— dabynsky (@dabynsky) December 12, 2015
The 105 game total last year does not include the 7 postseason games Soler played, but the larger point remains that Soler has topped 100 games just once as a professional stateside. Counting on Soler to go get it for 150 games or more always seemed a bit foolhardy to me. Now the Cubs don’t have to worry about that.
Injury concerns go beyond Jorge Soler, however, with Addison Russell suffering major hamstring injuries in back to back years. Dexter Fowler topped 140 games for just the second time in his big league career last year. Kyle Schwarber is going to catch some this year. He will need more time off as a result of the wear and tear that catching does a body then if he was a full time outfielder. The hope is Joe Maddon has to struggle to find at bats for all of the starting caliber players the Cubs have, but the reality is that baseball has a cruel way of sorting these problems out for teams.
The Biggest Loser of Thursday
Jorge Soler was the presumed big loser of the Cubs surprise moves on Thursday. He went from being a presumptive starting right fielder to a role player, but as explored above the situation is far more complex than that. Joe Maddon is a creative manager that should be able to get the most out of its roster, and that likely means regular playing time for Jorge Soler. The situation might actually be a benefit for Soler, and all the outfielders, who can be shielded from their worst matchups. Competition for playing time also isn’t the worst thing to push players to perform at their best. It can backfire if it forces guys to press, but handling players is Joe Maddon’s greatest strength as a manager.
Chris Coghlan could be seen as the big loser in being forced off a presumptive World Series contender. Coghlan talked about how he enjoyed being able to play two days with Ben Zobrist. I am sure it was tough to leave the 2016 Chicago Cubs for Chris Coghlan. It also is a tough ballpark and league that Coghlan is moving to the year before free agency, but his path to playing time is clearest in Oakland. Coghlan now has a much greater chance to prove that he is the player he was in Chicago and substantial increase his earnings in free agency if he does.
The biggest loser in my mind is Matt Szczur. His path to the 25 man roster (and ultimately staying in the Cubs organization since he is out of options) was as the only true center fielder on the roster. The Cubs needed a glove to help cover center field and a right handed stick. Fowler provides both of those skills, though Szczur is a better defender. It is hard to envision the Cubs carrying a light hitting, good glove center fielder with the current roster configuration.
Matt Murton might also be another guy who was really Affected by these moves. Murton’s shot at making the 2016 Cubs out of spring training was always long, but a lot of it rested on being a lefty masher that the bench sorely needed. The Cubs bench probably needs a left handed stick more now with Coghlan’s absence and Tommy La Stella the only left handed bat on the bench.
This is the first offseason the front office has had as clear contenders. It has been fascinating to watch how they attacked the holes on a very good Cubs roster from a year before. Theo Epstein and crew have built a window of hyper-competitiveness during this larger window of contention afforded by the youth and years of control over the position player core. This final addition of Dexter Fowler fits nicely into that hyper-competitive window by strengthen the 2016 club, and possibly beyond with Dexter Fowler’s mutual option and an interesting arm in Aaron Brooks. The relentlessness with which the front office sought improvements for this window is highlighted in this final tweak before the season opens, and while success is never guarantee it is hard to find much wrong with the 2016 club.