The Cubs tried to maximize value by using platoons last year with mixed success. We've talked about putting players in positions and situation where they can succeed.
It worked at 3B where the Valbuena/Ransom/Murphy Voltron made for a passable starting MLB 3B, something none of them could have done on their own. That trio combined to hit 30 HRs with roughly a .320 OBP and a .770 OPS. Two of those players, Valbena and Ransom, also played above average defense. All told, it adds up to about a league average player (approximately 2 WAR) when you mash it all together.
Not all star level, but nice power production and defense from the hot corner. Not bad for a conglomeration of inexpensive and unwanted parts to bridge the gap until the Cubs have a younger, more talented cost-controlled solution.
The Cubs hope to create something similar -- or better -- in RF for 2014.
Last year Nate Schierholtz was atrocious against LHP but put up a respectable line of .262/.300/.499 with 20 HRs vs. RHP. That part-time player would be worth about 1.5 wins, give or take a little depending how you'd rate his defense.
The problem, however, was that the short side of the platoon didn't help at all. Scott Hairston didn't pan out in that role, hitting just .179/.239/.500 in 78 ABs vs. LHP, though he did hit 7 HRs. All in all the Cubs got 28 HRs from their RF platoon while hitting .241. When you count both Hairston's and Schierholtz's poor performance vs. LHP, that combined performance falls in RF falls to about a replacement level player.
It's not hard to see why that particular role was a target of the Cubs this year. Had they been able to match Schierholtz's proficiency vs. RHP with a mirror image player vs. LHP, they would have gotten a lot better overall production out of the RF position.
Enter Justin Ruggiano, who in many ways is that mirror image of Schierholtz. He is much more proficient vs. LHP than he is vs. RHP. Even last year, which was considered an off year for him, he batted a solid .248/.329/.504 with 8 HRs in 133 PAs vs. LHP. The wOBA (.360) and RC+ (130) were both well above average.
He was even better the year before, hitting .330/.415/.714 with 7 HRs. The wOBA (.468) and RC+ (198) were way, way above average in 2012.
While I don't expect expect him to repeat his 2012 performance vs. LHP, something in between the two years would in itself be a huge upgrade over last season. I don't think that's unreasonable to ask. While we can expect some performance regression in his age 32 season, that is countered by a couple of factors. One is that when we project player performance, we don't solely do it based on his last season. Many projections take 3 or 4 years of performance into account, so while 2012 may have been above and beyond his normal performance you still have to to factor it into this projection for next season.
The other factor is that Ruggiano, like Schierholtz as a member of the Giants, struggled mightily at home. Both players performed significantly better outside of their home parks. It benefited Schierholtz to play half his games at Wrigley rather than at AT&T park. It should benefit Ruggiano as well.
In the last two years,
These are his combined numbers on the road (ncluding RHP):
.262/.319/.497 with 24 HRs and .235 ISO in 427 ABs
Now contrast that with Ruggiano's combined numbers at home (including vs. RHP):
.250/.334/.379 with 7 HRs and .129 ISO in 365 PAs
While the average and OBP numbers don't seem to be affected all that much, the power numbers show a huge disparity over the past two years.
Even though the Marlins' home park played above average overall to the average hitter in 2013, it did not play that way for Ruggiano.
It may have to do with the dimensions of the Marlins park. It plays long in the LF-CF alleys (387) and CF (422). As you can see from this spray chart from Fangraphs, that is where the great majority of HRs and line drives went.
In contrast, Wrigley is 18 feet shorter in the LF-CF alley and 22 feet shorter to CF. And it's 24 feet closer in the RF-CF gaps. You can see where many of Ruggiano's flyballs (in blue) died just short of the wall in all of those locations. On the other hand, many of Ruggiano's doubles went down the LF line, which shouldn't change much with a move to Wrigley.
What you are getting with Ruggiano is a player who can mash LHP as well as a guy who hits for significantly more power away from Miami. Playing with the Cubs in a platoon role will give him less exposure in the situations where he has struggled while getting a higher percentage of PAs in situations where he has excelled the past two seasons-- again, vs. LHP and away from Miami. The formula worked very well with Schierholtz, so the Cubs are hoping it works again with Ruggiano.
While there is some oversimplification here, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect Ruggiano to hit in the .275/.350/.575 range with 10 HRs vs. LHP playing half his games at Wrigley Field.
That would pair nicely with Schierholtz if the lefty comes reasonably close to approaching his 2013 numbers vs. RHP (.262/.300/.499 with 20 HRs), which isn't far fetched at all. He is a year older but consider that Schierholtz had some bad luck despite his solid season. His .270 BABIP was 30 points lower than his career average. Moreover he had an unexpected downturn in his walk rate. It was 5.8% in 2013, three points lower than the prior season and almost a point and a half lower than his previous 3 seasons combined. With a better BABIP (closer to his career average) and a realistic 7% walk rate for 2014, we could be looking at an OBP in the .320's vs. RHP for Schierholtz.
What the Cubs likely have with their RF combo is a middle of the order hitter with average to above average defense and baserunning. If both players stay healthy all year, we could be looking at Schierholtz/Ruggiano as an above average MLB starter in RF, by my quick calculations it could be as much as a 3 WAR player when you combine their totals.
Both Schierholtz and Ruggiano have their shortcomings and neither is a full-time player on his own. But by maximizing their production by minimizing the situations in which they are most vulnerable, the Cubs could make the position of RF an even more productive one than 3B was last season.