The Cubs have attempted to use a strategy used extensively by Earl Weaver and recent incarnations of the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays. Last year the Cubs attempted to use three different platoons to help patchwork a major league average lineup together. That strategy largely failed. The third base three headed monster of Luis Valbuena, Cody Ransom and then Donnie Murphy was incredibly productive in given the Cubs well above average production at the position. The right handed halves of the other two platoons didn't manage to stay in Chicago for the entire season.
The Cubs struggled for much of the season against left handed starters, but that did normalize towards the end of the season with the Cubs ending up .500 against southpaws. Still the constant use of platoons was a criticism of Dale Sveum throughout most of the season. The Cubs brought back Donnie Murphy and a platoon with Luis Valbuena should continue next season. The Cubs also traded for Justin Ruggiano. The common assumption, noted by Cubs GM Jed Hoyer, was that Ruggiano would platoon with either Nate Schierholtz or Ryan Sweeney.
“It’s a better fit for our roster,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Thursday morning after the Rule 5 draft. “He can platoon with one of several guys that we have.”
That seemed to be the consensus around the final offensive acquisition of the offseason for the Cubs, some would argue only offensive acquisition. Most have the Cubs starting outfield penciled in already as the same group that finished last season in Junior Lake, Ryan Sweeney and Nate Schierholtz from left to right. This was my assumption of the situation as well, but with projections coming out for next season perhaps it is time to reassess the situation. Here are the projections for the four main outfielders of the Cubs from Steamer, Oliver, and ZIPs:
Nate Schierholtz (AVG/ OBP/ SLG/ wOBA/ WAR)
Ryan Sweeney (AVG/ OBP/ SLG/ wOBA/ WAR)
Justin Ruggiano (AVG/ OBP/ SLG/ wOBA/ WAR)
Junior Lake (AVG/ OBP/ SLG/ wOBA/ WAR)
A few things ought to jump out at you reading those projections. After it sinks in how bad the Cubs outfield is might be that Junior Lake is not liked by any projection system. Then what should catch your attention is that Justin Ruggiano is projected to have the highest WAR in every system and the highest wOBA by Steamer and Oliver. Only ZiPS places Nate Schierholtz as having a better offensive season than Ruggiano next year by wOBA. How could someone everyone agrees is just a platoon bat be the Cubs most productive outfielder next season?
Well the obvious answer is that the Cubs outfield is that bad, but digging beyond the obvious answer might be that Ruggiano could be more than just a platoon player. He struggled last season hitting a mere .222/.298/.396 and went through an 0 for 42 slump. The answer lies with Ruggiano's BABIP which dropped to .260 in 2013. His career average is .310 and most projection systems have him returning to that level. That results in Ruggiano being an average to above average offensive player. BABIP is not entirely luck driven as we know, but there are even more positive indicators that suggest Ruggiano is a prime candidate for rebound.
Mark Simon wrote about well hit average and Justin Ruggiano after the Cubs made the trade. The article found that Ruggiano's well hit average remained about the same throughout the season. In August more of those well hit balls began to drop and his batting average increased dramatically. That stretch saw him hit at a .285/.354/.492 slash line. So there is more than just BABIP suggesting that Ruggiano's average should rebound from the .222 average in 2013.
Ruggiano might also receive a power boost getting out Miami. A similar result happened last season with Nate Schierholtz. Schierholtz had never hit 10 in a season and with a move to a more friendly ballpark saw him club 21. I doubt Ruggiano will see a similar increase in homeruns, but only Oliver suggests a spike in power due to shift in ballpark. Oliver is also the most optimistic of the projections for Ruggiano. Either way in a full time role Ruggiano should be more than capable of equaling Schierholtz's power output and from the centerfield position.
It is going to be Rick Renteria's decision how to deploy his cast of outfielders. Ultimately the decision on the fifth outfielder is probably going to tell us a lot about how Renteria plans to use them. If a right handed bat like Casper Wells, Darnell McDonald, or Josh Vitters it suggests that Ruggiano will not be confined to a strict platoon role. If it goes to Chris Coghlan or another left handed stick it will put more pressure on Ruggiano to be the right handed compliment to Schierholtz or Sweeney. This decision is going to be one of the few interesting choices Renteria has, and it might not be the difference between a well below average and average offense. It could, however, provide the Cubs a useful starter with 3 years of cost control.