Jed Hoyer spoke with Jim Bowden today and said,
"never say never ....but likely this is the team we go to spring training with"
I think while they'll keep their eyes and ears open for any chance to improve, we have every reason to believe that this is the case right now. Here are some of my thoughts on where the Cubs stand as far as their OF glut.
The 40 man roster and the current CF status
There is technically one move left to be made. The Cubs need to make room for power-hitting RH outfielder Scott Hairston. The roster stands at 41 as we speak. If we include Hairston, that roster includes 9 outfielders. The other teams in the NL Central have between 5 and 7 outfielders on their 40 man.
The Cubs do have a unique situation, however, in that they are carrying two outfielders on the 40 man roster because of contractual obligations: Matt Szczur and Jorge Soler. Neither figure to be a factor until at least 2014, so for all intents and purposes, the Cubs (including Hairston) have 7 OF'ers on their roster. However, that's still toward the upper end of the scale of how most NL teams construct their rosters. It seems likely that the Cubs will shed an OF'er this time around.
How does it all shake out? Here are my thoughts on the matter and, with apologies and a respectful nod to our resident cultural guru Felzz, I'm reaching back into one of my own old musical favorites for a little help on this one...
Magic Toy Missing
If the Cubs are going to flat out DFA a player, the most likely candidate is Tony Campana. I've overstated the Cubs willingness to do this in the past. One reason may be is that Campana may be the only CF other than AAA bound Brett Jackson who has legit MLB range in CF defensively. Without Campana and Jackson on the opening day roster, the Cubs backup CF'ers are Scott Hairston and Dave Sappelt. If DeJesus was at least average in CF, you can live with it, but the Cubs are planning on starting a CF'er with below average range. Without Campana, there are only downgrades as backups. There is no possibility of a late inning defensive upgrade in close games. Campana's defense ranges from superb to spotty, but he's fast enough that even when he does get a bad jump or read, he still has enough speed to cover his mistakes. He may be inconsistent in the OF, but (assuming Jackson starts in AAA) he still covers more ground than any other opening day OF candidate -- even on his bad days.
Dave Sappelt's value to the team is pretty well-established. There's not a lot of huge upside but there's not too much downside either. He has value as a young, cost-controlled 4th OF'er who can mash LHP, run, and play good corner OF defense. He has good value as a 4th OF/role player, a younger version, perhaps, of Reed Johnson. His inability to play a good defensive CF is what limits his overall upside on this particular roster, however. Ideally, you'd like him to be able to fill in for DeJesus against some LHP where he can be a big boost offensively without hurting the CF defense. If outfield guru Dave McKay can work with Sappelt in CF as well as he did with Soriano in LF, then maybe Sappelt can fill that void adequately -- at least to the point where he wouldn't be a big dropoff from DeJesus defensively. Most optimistically, the hope is that Sappelt can translate his good speed and athleticism into solid CF defense. That would represent a big step upward for both him and this team in 2013.
The Cubs could also swap Sappelt out and look to replace him with a true CF. One team looking for an OF bat is the NY Mets, who were going to make one last run at Hairston before the Cubs snatched him up. The Mets don't have a fit, however, as far as exchanging a RH hitter who could help spell DeJesus in CF. They have Collin Cowgill, but his CF defense is no better than Sappelt's and it's probably worse. If the Cubs do trade Sappelt, it would likely be to create 40 man roster space and pick up some help for further down the road.
Split myself in two
It's no coincidence that two of the Cubs recent non-roster signees/spring training invitees are RH hitters capable of playing CF: Brent Lillibridge and Darnell McDonald, but the two to me present very different solutions to the roster issue. McDonald is a long shot to me as his CF defense is no longer worth carrying on it's own and his bat has always been questionable. Lillibridge's ability to split time at two positions of need for the Cubs is his biggest asset at this point and gives him a slight edge over McDonald in the early going.
Brent Lillibridge had a surprisingly good year as a reserve in 2011 before crashing back to more customary levels of production in 2012. He has some support among some Cubs fans because of the power, speed, and versatility he showed for the crosstown Sox in 2011. If you keep Lillibridge, he can not only fill in at CF, but he can also alleviate the IF depth problem. He can play the 3 IF spots, though he only plays 3B with any kind of competency. In essence, you'd be trying to use one player to help fill two 25 man roster spots with one player (RH hitter who can play 3B and CF). It would also make it easier for the Cubs to keep Campana as a defensive replacement/pinch-runner. In my opinion, however, he just doesn't do any of it well enough to make any kind of real impact. In a way, it'd be like Joe Mather, part 2. Lots of grit, some athleticism...just not enough pure baseball skill to make any of it really matter.
There is one player who can solve all the Cubs CF problems at once: Brett Jackson. Jackson is slated to start the year in Iowa to keep working on his revamped swing. Both the Cubs and Jackson are reportedly very pleased with his progress but we can't get too excited until we see it succeed consistently against live pitching. As much as we don't like to admit it, we also need to see Jackson fail with his new swing to see if he can continue to make adjustments as pitchers adjust to him. In MLB, being able to adapt is key, but it's not a one time, one-size fits all situation. It's an ongoing process. If he solves his contact issues to an acceptable level, then he has everything else this organization desires -- the defense, speed, athleticism, OBP skills, and power -- to be a long term solution in either CF or LF.
Lake of Fire
Junior Lake is a real intriguing name now based on his winter league performance, so much so that he was recently written up by national prospect guru John Sickels. He mentions the usual things we hear -- the natural skills, the inconsistency. You can either love or hate Lake depending on the day you see him. Given that, how does he fit this season?
The honest truth is that he probably doesn't. At least not right away. What Lake likely needs is lots of repetition against gradually higher levels of competition to be able to translate his tremendous physical ability into usable baseball skills.
But if you'd indulge me for just a little here on a creative, but decidedly radical solution here for a moment...
Sometimes you make exceptions with elite athletes. When it clicks, things can progress rapidly and you can throw out the rules. Think about what Lake can provide as a RH with speed, power, and versatility off the bench. You can roster him as the RH half of your utility IF duo (Luis Valbuena being the lefty, of course). But he can potentially be much more than that. It's easy to dream on what OF guru Dave McKay might be able to do with Lake when you consider his athleticism and arm strength. There's no shortage of tools to work with and you have one of the best teachers in the game to shape them.
The question is going to be the bat. Lake hasn't played above AA and he has shown inconsistency at that level. He has improved his pitch selection but he's still vulnerable to sliders away. You have to think that even an average MLB pitcher has the potential to give him fits, much as what what happened with fellow prospects Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson last season.
In the end, Lake ends up in AAA but even so, I'd like to see the Cubs take this course of development with him. The prototype I envision for Lake is a versatile player who played all over the field for the Cubs in the mid-to-late 90s: Jose Hernandez, but with perhaps more speed and value added with the ability to play CF. Given the right match-ups and situations, I think Lake can eventually be a super-sub type player for the Cubs.
Occam's Razor tells us the simplest solution is often the correct one. The Cubs will probably to go with what they currently have on hand. Depending on what happens with the next roster move, the Cubs will go with David DeJesus as the primary starter in CF and then choose among Tony Campana, Scott Hairston, and Dave Sappelt as his complement. Campana has the edge defensively in CF, but the Cubs need to evaluate whether RH hitters Hairston or Sappelt can adequately fill the part-time CF role until either Brett Jackson is ready to take over full-time or it's decided a different outside solution is required.
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