As the winter weeks run long and the spring training still feels very far away, my mind often turns to the Cubs and the upcoming season to occupy itself through what is easily the hardest part of the year for me, as the winter meetings and the flurry of activity that they bring are well behind us and spring training is not set to begin for several more weeks. The waiting for the season to begin has never been more challenging than this winter, as I think, and like many of us, I have very high hopes for what this team can do in 2016. The Fangraphs and ZiPs projections for this team have already been addressed here, but I am curious about what one particular facet of the roster will look like when it is finally brought down to the 25 players who will start the season in April. I mean, I can’t be the only one who wakes up in the morning on a cold January day thinking about the Cubs depth chart, right?
With that said, there’s one particular player who, as of now, I expect will still be on the roster when the season begins and who seems to no longer have a clear place on the team, at least defensively. That’s Chris Coghlan. I’m a fan of his and have appreciated what he was done as a member of the Cubs, particularly when he stepped up and essentially took over at second base when it became apparent that Starlin Castro needed some time off and Addison Russell needed to move over to his more natural position at shortstop. Coghlan spent 15 games at second in 2015, and this was after not having played the position really at all at the major league level (He’s had just 2/3 of an inning in 2013 and 7 innings in 2009 at that position prior to 2015). Along with that, he spent bits of time at both corners of the infield and both corners of the outfield. In all, five different defensive positions in 2015. Just the kind of defensive flexibility that we can see plainly that Joe Maddon appreciates in a player.
And there’s no question of what Coghlan brings to the team at the plate. Even with all of the shuffling around on defense, he put together a 3.3 fWAR season with a wRC+ of 113 and a wOBA of .337 in 2015. He upped his BB% from 2014 by 2.5 percentage points as well. In 2016, depending on where you look at projections, he is expected to stay above replacement level even with the expected reduction in playing time. According to ZiPS, he could be a nearly 1 WAR player, and Steamer has him at a half of a win above replacement level. The recently released Fangraphs projections are a little less optimistic, placing him at just barely above replacement level. Again, these projections are taking into account the generally expected reduction in playing time, of course, so the drop from over 3 WAR should be taken with a grain of salt. With the roster added to as it was this offseason, Coghlan will inevitably see less opportunity to work his way into the lineup.
So the problem lies, of course, with what to do with Coghlan to get him on the field and to the plate as much as is possible. Recently, Phil Rogers speculated a bit about trade possibilities with the Rays, one of which included Coghlan, but there are no real expectations in the works that he’ll actually be traded. And, given that he recently settled on a contract for 2016 to avoid arbitration, it is looking increasingly like he will be a part of the Cubs plans going forward.
With that in mind, the Cubs bench will likely consist of Coghlan, David Ross, Javier Baez, and possibly Tommy La Stella. If they decided to go with one less pitcher and another bat for the bench, I can see someone like Matt Szczur being added to provide some backup for the outfield when needed. Given Coghlan’s still very small amount of experience at second base and the fact that Ben Zobrist and Baez will be manning that position for the most part, he will have to get most of his starts in the outfield. Given current roster configurations, there is not a real defensive backup for Anthony Rizzo, and though Coghlan did spent some time at first base last season along with Baez (ok, it was just one inning, but it’s something), Rizzo has shown so far in this career that he is not going to need a day off with any real frequency.
So, in my opinion, here’s how I think the Cubs can get the most from Coghlan while they still have him:
Stick to the outfield
The first step is to get him as many starts in the place where I think that is most likely to happen. I hate to be pessimistic about any player, especially a young one like Jorge Soler, but experience has shown us so far that he is going to need days off, and that he stands a good chance of landing on the DL at least once or twice during the season. Coghlan still has pretty limited experience in right field in general, but he has shown that he can handle one of Wrigley’s toughest spots with relative ease. With the small sample size for defensive statistics caveat assumed here, Coghlan is actually a defensive upgrade from Soler anyway, at least so far. (In 2015, Coghlan’s UZR/150 in the outfield was 16.4, and Soler’s was -12.7. Of course this is based on rather limited data, so we shouldn’t read too far into this.)
And then, in what is probably his natural position, left field, Coghlan will also have regular opportunity to be written into the lineup. Kyle Schwarber is going to need days off as well, and he will probably get chances behind the plate with some kind of regularity, as I don’t expect that the Cubs are ready to move on from the idea of him as a catcher just yet (he’s been doing yoga this offseason to improve his flexibility in hopes of enhancing his defense in general, and he has been working with Mike Borzello to focus on his catching skills specifically). So this means that Coghlan could have pretty frequent opportunities to play in left field particularly.
Another intriguing option is center field. Even with the work that Baez has been doing there, Coghlan has actually spent more time in center in his career than he has in right, though he has not played that position since 2013 with the Marlins. On the days that Soler needs to take off, Jason Heyward can move to right and Coghlan can handle center, making for a pretty strong outfield defensively.
Time to trade him?
Coghlan will turn just 31 this June and he has shown that he provides great value to a team on both offense and defense. If he can get as frequent opportunity as possible to showcase himself in 2016, I think he will be an appealing (and cheap) acquisition for teams around the league. In spite of some injury plagued years with the Marlins following his rookie campaign in 2009, I think Coghlan has shown in his two seasons so far with the Cubs that he is a very valuable player. The aforementioned Phil Rogers speculation aside, the rumor mill involving Coghlan has been really pretty quiet, however. The Cubs have such ample young talent in the farm system that it makes sense that teams would look there first when engaging in trade talks, so it is understandable that Coghlan’s named hasn’t really been rumored so far.
That being said, I wonder at the possibility of a mid season trade. I know this is looking probably way too far ahead, so I’ll try and limit myself here, but he would be a very affordable and very useful player for a contending team to acquire at the deadline. This doesn’t mean that the Cubs will be sellers at the deadline, by any means, but I can see the need to add arms at the deadline for a playoff or division race, when that comes.
Whatever does happen with Coghlan, I have a very hard time picturing him in a Cubs uniform beyond 2016. For as good as he has been since leaving the Marlins, the presence of Zobrist on the roster and the expansion of Baez’ work on defense, Coghlan looks like he is getting pushed to the margins. My hope is that the Cubs can capitalize on his value both on the field and in the trade market that will develop as the season progresses.