I’m going to jump around with this series rather than go in any kind of order. We did 3B last time, so today we’re going to take a look at LF and CF. For the past 6 springs, there was no real question as to who would play LF, it was going to be Alfonso Soriano. The Cubs traded him away last summer and for the first time, the position is open to some extent.
LF and CF are intertwined this spring as both Junior Lake and Ryan Sweeney are capable of playing both positions, so I felt it was best to combine this preview rather than be redundant later. Sweeney played CF better last year but there are encouraging reports from winter ball on Lake. It will be interesting to see how it sorts out in spring training.
There really isn’t an incumbent this year unless you consider Junior Lake‘s last two months as a starter as giving him some kind of hold on the position. I do think Lake has the inside track on one of the jobs in the OF, but it may not be LF. Lake reportedly played CF very well this winter and while Ryan Sweeney played the position well, Lake’s incredible athletic skills may play better in the middle.
Steamer has a pretty realistic projection for Lake, which is .258/.307/.397 with 12 HRs and 18 SBs in 507 PAs. If he puts up those numbers while playing an above average CF, we’re looking at a passable starter. Those numbers don’t play as well in LF, where the bar for offensive production is set higher.
Lake is a talented player who struggles with his approach, so there is concern he’ll never be able to make full use of his formidable tool set. But Lake has shown the ability to adapt with each level. He’s going to have to do that again as pitchers seemed to figure him out a little. However, Lake did provide above average offensive production in each of the 3 months he played, putting up RC+ numbers of 118 in July, 104 in August, and 109 in September/October. 100 is average.
If Lake does play CF, then Ryan Sweeney becomes the LF’er. Sweeney is a much needed LH hitter who gets on base at a decent rate and plays good defense. He’s been considered something of a tweener in his career. That is, he has a CF type bat but this defense is best suited for a corner, though in his defense he played CF quite well last season. He is the safer bet to play there of the two, but he he has less upside defensively.
I think Sweeney can be a solid CF’er and a well above average LF’er defensively. His better OBP numbers likely will make him a better offensive player than Lake, so I’d like to see Sweeney be the LF’er and I think he can do it on a full time basis. He looked comfortable against LHP. He keeps his right shoulder from opening up too early and hung in well versus lefties. He put up solid numbers in a very short sample size. But Sweeney’s career numbers vs. LHP aren’t as good. His career OPS vs. LHP is nearly 150 points lower than it is vs. RHP.
I’d like to see Sweeney get a shot at showing his performance vs. LHP is a positive trend and not just small sample size noise. In my opinion, it’s a good year to find out if he can play full time with only an occasional break against the tougher LH starters. But if they decide to platoon, the Cubs have some RH hitters who can fill in.
The MLB candidates vying for a job
Perhaps it’s significant that the Cubs signed Cunningham quickly after he became a minor league free agent. He’s still in his prime years as he’ll turn 28 in late April, so the Cubs are likely hoping they’ll catch him at a time when he puts everything together. The tools are there. Cunningham is a good athlete and he has been a good hitter in the minors. He was once a top prospect in both the White Sox and A’s systems. Cunningham, however, has yet to show that hitting ability at the MLB level so at this point he’s looking a little like a 4A player. But Cunningham may get his chance with an opening in the OF and his raw hit tool is better than any non-starter on this list with the possible exception of Josh Vitters. The advantage Cunningham has over Vitters, however, is that he has more utility overall. He can run and defend better than Vitters can, two traits that you really want out of an NL 5th OF’er. He also has a better approach at the plate. But Cunningham’s chances to make the team took a big blow when the Cubs traded for Justin Ruggiano, who does many of the same things from the right side and has done it at the MLB level.
The Cubs signed Wells to a minor league contract. He’s an athletic player who can defend and has a strong arm. He has some raw power but doesn’t make enough contact to consistently take advantage of that tool. Wells is going to have to hit to have any impact, but as a 5th OF’er who can defend and provide some RH power to spell Sweeney on occasion, he has a shot to make the team in a small role. He can also pitch a little in emergency situations. Like Cunningham, however, the acquisition of Ruggiano has made it tougher for him.
If Sweeney is to play full time then I think that McDonald has a shot at that 5th OF’er spot. As a veteran he can handle a bench role in which he is expected to see very sporadic playing time. The Cubs have also stated that they would like some coach on the field players and McDonalds fits the bill there. He’s well respected by the organization and there has been some talk that he’ll continue to be employed by the Cubs in some capacity after his playing days are over.
Josh Vitters gets asked about a lot on our board. I try to be diplomatic but I have concerns about the former #3 overall pick. Vitters has shown he can hit but he hasn’t done it consistently throughout his pro career. The biggest issue has been his approach at the plate, which is overly aggressive and not conducive to drawing a lot of walks. Given that he’s no longer a player scouts think will hit for a high average, he may struggle to get his OBP above .300. He did show some improvement in his approach at the AAA level so there’s some hope.
He’s going to have to add value somewhere. It isn’t going to be with his defense Vitters hasn’t shown great instincts as a defender at any position and won’t have the athleticism to make up for it in the OF.
The most encouraging numbers Vitters has put up of late is vs. LHP, making him a potential platoon partner in the OF, perhaps with Sweeney. That’s a tough way to break in for any young player.
Vitters is going to have to work hard this offseason and in spring training to make his defense adequate, put up some solid ABs, and then show he can provide some pop vs. LHP to have a chance to stick. It’s worth noting that he does have one significant advantage over every the three players immediately ahead of him on this list — he’s already on the 40 man roster.
Jackson is a longer shot than Vitters, especially if Lake shows he can play CF. There simply isn’t a lot of utility as a 5th OF’er for the Cubs who happens to hit LH. The Cubs already have Sweeney and Nate Schierholtz as players who will play everyday vs. RHP and the Cubs will not platoon Lake. Jackson’s best shot may come if the Cubs decide Lake can’t play CF at all, thus giving him an opening as a potential backup CF. But even that is unlikely as Ruggiano can play CF adequately if needed.
Barring injury to one of the other 4 outfielders, the most likely scenario for Jackson is AAA Iowa where he’ll try to get his once promising career back on track. Jackson will take walks, hit for some power, run the bases well, and play good defense — but none of it matters if he can’t make enough contact at the plate.
Szczur will certainly start the year in AAA but he has a few things going for him in case help is needed later. The first is that he’s already on the 40 man roster. The second is that he can provide value with his defense and legs right off the bat. The question with Szczur, as always, is whether he’s going to hit and hit hit for power. The latter seems unlikely despite having some strength in his wrists and forearms. The swing saps some of that power potential but it has worked for him as far as putting the ball in play and helping him utilize his speed. I think he’s potentially a good 4th or 5th OF’er who can provide speed and defense off the bench along with the ability to get an occasional knock or walk.
Like Szczur, Soler is on the roster, but he is a huge longshot to make the team at any point this year. It will take a breakout season. We’re much more likely to see Soler in 2015 or 2016. He’s a corner OF’er and he and Kris Bryant may have to sort that out when and if they both get to the big leagues. Both players have prototypical RF tools — solid athleticism, a strong arm, and power at the plate.
Bryant will start the year in AA but he is on the fast track and though he lacks a roster spot, he may force the issue by the end of the season. Bryant is currently playing 3B but many feel his future position is in the OF. He’s a good athlete and his strong arm — and he’s played well there at the collegiate level, so it’s a likely destination at some point in his career. Wherever he plays, he’s going to be a force at the plate with his ability to get on base and hit for big time power.
Ha’s primary tool is defense and so he projects more as a 5th OF’er. He’s a smart, instinctive player who gets the best out of his average tools but the question remains as to whether he’ll hit enough to garner much playing time. He can play CF well, so that is an advantage for him but he’s not on the roster, so he’s behind the 8 ball from the start. Szczur, Jackson and Vitters are ahead of him in that respect and he’s got players fast approaching behind him. This is a big year for Ha. He may have to outperform those players ahead of him and will likely need an opening in terms of an injury to get a shot.
Filed under: position by position analysis