As we continue our ongoing delve into the various areas of haves, wants, and needs of our beloved Cubs, I turn my attention to the outfield. I began this series with a look at the bullpen situation because I feel that unit has the most question marks and may receive the most attention, at least in quantity. The moves we make in the outfield, however, could have the biggest impact in terms of altering the course of the franchise during this current competitive window, and perhaps beyond. There is a BIG name available, a few other big names that can be had, and a variety of smaller pieces that don’t have the sex appeal but may round out the picture depending upon the course of action.
The flip side of additions, though, is subtractions, and this may be the year we finally deal away promising young talent off the big-league roster to bolster other areas of need (sorry, Soler, you don’t count in my book, though I’m sure others disagree). One or more of these young guys are almost sure to go, leaving some fans jumping for joy and others heartbroken. But the offense needs a jolt, and I believe the outfield is the most likely area to receive a facelift.
At some point in 2018, for whatever reason, the offense broke. I remember a commercial from years ago where a young daughter tattles on her mother: “Dad, Mom broke the car!”. I can hear that little girl’s voice in my head now: “Theo, Chili broke the offense!”. That may be a bit harsh, but several players said it and Theo obviously agreed, giving Mr. Davis the boot after one disappointing season. Fans argue about the affect and amount of impact coaches can have on professional ballplayers but there seems to be consensus that Chili’s philosophy didn’t fit with this group of young sluggers. As Theo put it, “Launch angle is not a fad. Line drives and balls in the air are way more productive” than the rash of ground balls suddenly squibbling off the barrels of our bats. Enter Anthony Iapose, a teacher of launch angle and possible mea culpa for the firing of John Mallee.
But simply replacing a hitting coach isn’t going to fix what ails this team and return our boys to Championship contention. Theo spoke of judging players based on production rather than potential, and many began seeing visions of a major house-cleaning. That’s not going to happen, but no one is happy about the current state of the team and our inability to seal the deal in 2018. There should not be a celebration of a 95-win season when we expect more. Theo explained:
“The takeaways are that we got caught from behind and we had opportunities to put that division away and to make another postseason run. For myriad reasons, it didn’t happen, so we damn well better be honest with ourselves about the reasons why it didn’t happen and find ways to fix it. Or else what the hell are we doing here? So, yeah, we’re not going to sit here and celebrate 95 wins. We’re going to be pissed off about the way the season ended. It doesn’t matter if I’m pissed off. Our players are pissed off. And they know that they have an opportunity to be part of something special. They basically built it. They helped build it. And we want to take full advantage of it because you can’t take anything for granted in this game. You look up and it goes really fast.”
Them’s fightin’ words! I don’t know what moves are going to be made this offseason. No one does. But I know everyone involved is hungry, from ownership on down. This team isn’t afraid to make a bold move. They’ve shown that in the past with big FA signings and win-now trades. “If not now, when?” Theo famously answered when asked why he gave up so much for Chapman in pursuit of a WS title. I have a feeling there are some big moves coming. Not “tear it all down” or “mortgage the future” moves, but I think the FO is even more competitive than we are. They realize we are smack-dab in the middle of a Championship window, and I actually think they have a chip on their shoulders. They’ve been the darlings of the rebuild model, yet are falling behind. I think they feel they have something to prove, and as a Cubs fan, I can’t wait to see what they pull off. Let’s roll.
WHO’S HERE (FOR NOW?):
Well, that was depressing. Pardon me a moment, please. I need a drink…
Good grief. I had a general idea of how I wanted to begin this section, but after taking the closest look at all the deep offensive numbers that I have all year, that intro went out the window. We’ve all heard Theo talk of how the offense went away in the second half. Heck, we watched it. We saw the final scores and felt the pain of the losses. We knew it was bad, but dayum!
Overall, this is a pretty good OF. There’s a decent mix of power and speed, experience and youth, and L/R platoon possibilities with a couple switch-hitters thrown in for good measure. Four of the five have positional flexibility and 3 can handle CF. One corner is covered by a perennial GG candidate, who’s serving as a mentor for potentially another up the middle, and the other corner is usually manned by an alleged AL DH with a cannon for an arm that gunned down 11 baserunners who were foolish enough to challenge him.
Anyhow, good isn’t good enough for a team with dynastic aspirations. There’s a proven commodity aging like a fine wine but nearing an expiration date, a young veteran worthy of everything but his contract, and a few kids with blue-chip pedigrees plodding along on their own journeys to reach the promised land. Deciding how to find the proper mix, which buttons to push and levers to pull, may be the most impactful moves of this offseason.
BEN ZOBRIST: .305/.378/.440 9HR 58RBI 67R wRC+123 fWAR 3.6
A stellar year in 2018 should quiet any naysayers who doubted that Zobrist’s near-replacement-level 2017 season was due largely to a nagging wrist injury that sapped his power. He bounced back in a big way, posting numbers more in line with his career marks, even setting career highs in a couple key areas. There were only a couple bright spots offensively for the Cubs in the second half of 2018, and the 37-year-old was one of them, and the only member of this OF group who didn’t completely and inexplicably fall off a cliff after the break.
Always respected as a leader and consummate professional, Ben led by example out of the batter’s box. Comparing his 2018 stats to 2017 is a waste of time because 2017 was such an outlier, but even when comparing these numbers to his earlier days in Tampa, when he was among the game’s elite, a couple notable achievements stand out. His .305 AVG was well-publicized as being a career-high, but he also had the second lowest strikeout rate of his career at 11.5%. What really stuck out to me, however, was the quality of his contact. Zobrist made medium contact right around his normal rate at 52.6%, but made soft contact at a career-low 11.9% and hard contact at a career-high 35.5%.
Going into 2019 in his age-38 season, he is on the last year of his contract, which pays $12M. Normally an aging player entering the final year of a hefty contract is a candidate for a salary dump. If Zobrist can come close to replicating his 2018 campaign, we may begin hearing calls for an extension.
JASON HEYWARD: .270/.335/.395 8HR 57RBI 67R wRC+99 fWAR 2.0
Like Zobrist, Heyward has dealt with wrist injuries during his time with the Cubs that have sapped his bat speed and power. But, also like Zobrist, those injuries appear to be behind him. Heyward had an abysmal offensive season in 2016, his first in Chicago, but nearly every indicator across the board is steadily moving in a positive direction. In wRC+, perhaps the best catch-all indicator of overall offensive production, Heyward has improved from a horrific 72 in 2016 to 88 in 2017 to a basically league-average 99 in 2018.
That’s not by chance as all the underlying indicators back it up. His slash lines are up in every category year after year. As his BB% holds steady at 8.5-9.0%, his already-low K% continues to drop, from 15.7% in 2016 to 13.9% in 2017 and finally 12.3% in 2018. At age 29, I believe the positive trends can continue, although I think nearly all of us have given up on the dream of Heyward becoming an offensive force.
Normally, a league-average bat in the hands of a perennial Gold-Glover with superior baserunning skills and leadership qualities is a prized possession, but Heyward is not normal. He will be measured against the 8y/$184M contract he signed prior to the 2016 season for as long as he remains in Chicago. I’m positive the Cubs are pursuing all trade avenues, although I don’t know how aggressive they will be in eating some of the 5y/$106M remaining on his contract to get a deal done. I see him returning in 2019 unless he is moved in unison with another major acquisition, like the Castro/Zobrist combo or, to a lesser extent, Smyly/Hamels (and just to make everyone mad, including myself, DeRosa/Bradley).
KYLE SCHWARBER: .238/.356/.467 26HR 61RBI 64R wRC+115 fWAR 3.2
If any of the young guys are moved, and a Schwarber deal becomes a reality, “I think I’ll miss you the most of all.” Kyle is entering his first year of arbitration and is expected to receive around $3M. His time with the big club has been a rollercoaster ride. He broke onto the scene in 2015 and broke his knee in 2016. He willed and worked his way to a legendary WS return, then played his way back to Iowa in 2017. The last two seasons have been no different as they’ve both been a tale of two halves. 2017 began with a botched experiment as a leadoff hitter before rebounding for a solid finish down the stretch, while 2018 began with a bang before his big bat faded with nearly all the others in the second half.
Schwarber’s slide in 2018 was mostly due to a lack of power caused by the type and quality of contact. He began hitting more line drives and ground balls, and his 37.1% flyball rate was the lowest of any point in his professional career. The hard contact fell from 42.2% in the first half to 36.9% in the second, while soft contact rose from 15.6% 18.9%. I think a lot of this can be attributed to a bad back but the negative influence of Chili’s approach can’t be ignored. His strike out and walk rates are both trending in the right direction, down three points and up three points over 2017, respectively. LH pitchers still present a problem, especially in the power department, as he hit only one of his 26 bombs off of a southpaw and slugged just .303, 200 points lower than against righties.
Schwarber strikes me as a guy who is willing and eager to adapt and please, perhaps to a fault. He accepted the leadoff role that seemed to be an odd fit, and I believe bought into Chili’s ill-fated approach. But I think he has grown and matured enough to begin to trust himself and believe in his abilities and what works for him, and he’s my pick for a monster, breakout performance in 2019. Hopefully that happens in a Cubs uniform.
IAN HAPP: .233/.353/.408 15HR 44RBI 56R wRC+106 fWAR 1.5
Of all the Cubs’ players who may have been negatively impacted by the teachings of Chili Davis, I think Happ may have been the biggest casualty of them all. Some of his regression maybe simply explained as that of a young hitter (he was perhaps rushed to the big leagues after only 978 PA’s in the minors), but Theo also stated he “learned some things” following his personal exit interviews with the players he was not aware of, and fired Chili almost immediately.
Happ adopted the launch angle approach while on the Cubs’ farm and his power increased dramatically. When he seemed to back away a bit in 2018, the results suffered. He began using more of an all-fields approach, pulling the ball less in 2018 (36.0%) than in 2017 (44.8%) while hitting the ball more up the middle (36.5% from 31.5%) and the opposite way (27.5% from 23.7%). Despite hitting the ball harder in 2018, his home runs dipped from 24 in 2017 to 15 in 2018, mainly due to a drop in HR/FB rate from 25.3% to 17.9%. Something I noticed was that while his BABIP spiked from .316 in 2017 to .362 in 2018, Happ’s AVG dropped from .253 to .233, but the increased K rate from 31.2% to 36.1% explains the 20 point drop.
Ian became a much more patient hitter in 2018, taking more pitches both in and out of the zone, swinging at only 42.8% of all offerings this season as opposed to 49.3% last year, and increasing his BB% from 9.4% to 15.2%. Being more selective in the pitches he decides to attack probably explains the increase in his hard-hit rate, which is a good thing, but a drop in contact with balls in the zone from 77.9% in 2017 to 70.2% in 2018 led to more strikeouts, which isn’t. Happ is much more productive from the left side, slashing .244/.374/.442 with a wRC+ of 118 as opposed to .202/.291/.317 and a wRC+ of 69 from the right-handed batter’s box, and hitting 12 of his 15 home runs from the left side. Like most of the rest of the team, his production dropped off dramatically in the second half, with a slash line of .256/.379/.453 with a wRC+ of 123 before the break and .196/.313/.340 and a wRC+ of 80 afterwards.
ALBERT ALMORA JR.: .286/.323/.378 5HR 41RBI 62R wRC+89 fWAR 1.1
Ian Happ had a scorching hot spring training in 2018 and entered the regular season as the starting center fielder and leadoff man. He started the year with a literal bang, hitting a HR in his first AB. Things quickly went downhill from there, and Almora Jr. stepped in and became a fan favorite. He was hitting as slickly as he fields before succumbing to the dreaded and seemingly contagious second-half swoon. The up-and-down season was particularly odd for Almora Jr., because looking through all his numbers, both in the majors and minors, one thing stands out starkly: consistency. Contact rates, plate discipline, power numbers, they’ve all remained relatively steady throughout his pro career.
Almora started hot in the first half, slashing .319/.357/.438 with a wRC+ of 115 (and garnering some All-Star consideration) but fell to .232/.267/.280 and a wRC+ of 47 (!) in the second. A little bad luck may have played a role, as his BABIP fell from .373 to .279, but it was a dramatic drop.
A knock on his offensive game has been that he can’t hit righties, but he tightened that up in 2018, though he was shielded from some of the tougher matchups. AA hit .295/.340/.402 with a wRC+ of 101 vs. left-handers and his numbers dropped, but not significantly, to .282/.315/.369 and a wRC+ of 84 vs. right-handers. A big reason for the discrepancy is his strikeout and walk rates, which sat at 6.3 BB% and 11.1 K% facing southpaws but fell to 4.5 BB% and 20.0 K% versus right-handers in 2018.
Overall, Albert is a fine player. His pro career suggest this is who he is, a league-average bat with a sterling glove in CF. He would play every day for over half the teams in MLB, but I see him as a fourth outfielder on a Championship-caliber Cubs team. If the lineup was stacked and you could bury him in the order, fine, I’d play his glove in center everyday. But we’re not there right now.
POTENTIAL FA TARGETS:
The FA class for outfielders isn’t quite as deep as the reliever market, but there are options available in a wide variety of makes and models, priced accordingly. A big name sits atop this list, but recent events and reports suggest we may be shopping for something more affordable. We may not shop here at all, choosing instead to wheel and deal for an upgrade, and spend FA $ elsewhere. Whatever the case may be, we are in the market for an upgrade to balance out an inconsistent offense, and I wouldn’t rule anything out. Contract estimates are from the crowd-sourced mean average of fangraphs’ 2019 FA Tracker (Note: Bryce Harper and A.J. Pollock were offered and declined a QO, so if we were to sign one or the other, we would lose our second-highest pick in the 2019 Amateur Draft and $500K in IFA pool money).
- BRYCE HARPER (10y/$330M): The anticipation of the 26- year-old’s free agency has nearly equaled the hype leading up to his MLB debut as a teenager in 2012. Whether or not the production in his seven years in the league has matched that hype and anticipation is debatable. The LH slugger had a season for the ages in 2015, slashing .330/.460/.649 with 42 HR and 118 RBI, good for a 197 wRC+, 9.3 WAR, and earning him MVP honors. He’s posted 3 other seasons of 4+ WAR and settled in at 3.5 WAR in 2018, although injuries have played a role. Despite a slow first half in 2018, Harper finished at .247/.388/.503 with 33 HR and 94 RBI, bolstered by an impressive .312/.433/.571 line after the break. He has lacked protection in the Nationals’ lineup for much of his career (you may recall a game in May of 2016 when the Cubs walked him a record-tying six times before Javy walked it off with a bomb in the bottom of the 13th), often seeing fewer pitches in the zone than any hitter in baseball, so being surrounded by other thumpers could help his overall numbers as he enters his prime years. I’ve seen the term “generational talent” passed out like Halloween candy, and while it’s a matter of personal opinion if Harper is worthy of such high praise, he’s sure to be paid as such. The odds of those massive paychecks being drawn from an account connected to the Ricketts family have tumbled significantly, but you never know.
- A.J. POLLOCK (4y/$64M): Perhaps no other free-agent outfielder comes with as many question marks as the Diamondbacks centerfielder. Pollock offers a potent bat in addition to stellar defense when healthy, but staying healthy has been an ongoing battle, one he has lost more often than not. He has broken his elbow (twice, costing him his entire 2010 season in the minors and nearly all of 2016), hand, and thumb, and has missed time with a strained groin. Most of these injuries are of the freak variety resulting from hard-nosed play, but the toll is certainly cumulative on any 31-year-old body. Pollock enjoyed a breakout 2015, accumulating 6.8 WAR by slashing .315/.367/.498 with 20 HR and 111 RBI in addition to swiping 39 bags and flashing some serious leather in center field. But that was a fully healthy season, and he has played only 469 games in the past five seasons. 2018 started strong at .293/.349/.620 with 11 HR and 9 SB before he broke a thumb attempting a diving catch on May 14th, costing him a month and a half, and finishing the season at .257/.316/.484 with 21 HR, 65 RBI, and 13 SB in 460 PA. We often talk of potential in young players based on tools and development, but in Pollock’s case that potential merely consists of staying in one piece. He has averaged 3.3 WAR throughout his career, but that number nearly doubles based on 650 PA. Pollock embodies many traits I love in a ball player, and I’d love to have him on my team, but his age, price tag, and injury history may place him into that “paying for past performance” category we are all familiar with.
- MICHAEL BRANTLEY (3y/$45M): Fortunately for any team wanting to sign Brantley (or Andrew Miller or Cody Allen), the Indians have decided not to extend a QO to any of their free agents. Much like Pollock, Brantley is near-elite level when healthy but has missed significant time due to various injuries. Shoulder surgery late in 2015 and bicep surgery in August of 2016 cost him all but 11 games in 2016 (and forcing Cleveland into playing Brandon Guyer, Coco Crisp, and even Carlos Santana in LF during a certain WS you may remember), and a bad ankle that eventually required surgery limited the left fielder to 90 games in 2017. Brantley had a healthy and productive 2018 slashing .309/.364/.468 with 17 HR, 76 RBI, 89 R, and 12 SB. His LH bat would fit especially well atop a Cubs’ lineup due to his extraordinary contact ability, as he led MLB in contact on balls in the zone (97.3%) and overall (90.9%) in 2018, resulting in a minuscule 9.5% K rate. He doesn’t walk a lot, but that high contact rate and batting average support an OBP acceptable for a leadoff man, and has the wheels to steal double-digit bases. Brantley is well-respected and demonstrates toughness and leadership in the clubhouse, something that the front office may be looking to add given some of the comments regarding complacency over the last couple seasons. If the Cubs indeed deal from the stable of young outfielders, Brantley could be an attractive target.
- ANDREW MCCUTCHEN (3y/$42M): McCutchen has taken a couple steps back from his perennial-MVP-level prime roaming CF for the Bucs, but is still a valuable and productive player. Much of what I just wrote about Brantley also applies to McCutchen, except from the right side and minus the injury history. He has been very durable throughout his stellar 10-year career, averaging over 150 games per campaign. After a bit of a down year in 2016, he has rebounded nicely, posting WAR numbers of 3.7 in 2017 and 2.6 in 2018. Reports of his demise may have been premature. Cutch split 2018 between San Francisco and the Yankees, producing a .255/.368/.424 line with 20 HR, 65 RBI, 83 R, and 14 SB. While no longer a viable everyday center fielder, he should be perfectly serviceable in a CO spot for the next few seasons. McCutchen is also a high-character guy and would fit nicely into a veteran leadership role within the Cubs’ clubhouse. For what it’s worth, MBLTR predicted McCutchen signing with the Northsiders at 3y/$45M.
There are several other OF options available in free-agency, but the rest mostly fall into the platoon/role-player category rather than someone to be penciled into the everyday lineup. Nick Markakis is an interesting option (I considered giving him his own profile) but I think his 2018 campaign with Atlanta was a bit of an aberration and most teams share that view. Former Cubs’ farmhand Marwin Gonzalez is available at an estimated 3y/$30M, but he’s more of an infielder who can play the OF, so I will profile him more extensively in the next installment covering the infielders. Adam Jones is a player on the decline who reportedly vetoed an August trade from Baltimore to Philadelphia because he wanted to play every day and didn’t want to move off of CF. Other names to keep an eye on, with various levels of projected productivity and roll significance, include Carlos Gonzalez, Lonnie Chisenhall, Denard Span, and our old (albeit brief) friend Austin Jackson.
Just as I did in the bullpen piece, I’m going to take a pass on speculating on potential trades. There are certainly players that come to mind that would make a great fit, but there are simply too many options, rumors, and complexities involved to make it worth my time. If proposing specific trades is your thing, speculate away in the comment section.
The offense needs a boost and some consistency, and I believe a fair bit of that will come internally by way of natural progression from some of the young players. But I also don’t think this group, as currently constructed, survives the offseason intact. I don’t see any reason not to hold on to Zo’s professional bat and aura for the final year of his contract. I’m sure we’re trying to unload Heyward’s contract, and I wouldn’t be shocked if we do, but only in conjunction with another move. My guess to go, based on the value he could bring back versus his necessity to the team, is Happ. Schwarber could bring a bigger return, but not big enough to justify the loss. I think Almora stays on as a 4th/5th outfielder, though he could be moved as well. I see us adding, somehow, an everyday center fielder or right fielder with Heyward shifting more to CF if necessary.
From the very beginning of this offseason, I’ve had an anxious feeling while pondering potential moves. In my 40 years of Cubs fandom I’ve always dreaded the thought of trading away young talent for fear of them reaching their potential and breaking out somewhere else. I never even gave thought to what we were adding to the roster in these trades, as it really didn’t matter because we
always usually sucked. But times have changed. Even so, is Harper really a gazillion-dollar upgrade over Schwarber in his first year of arbitration eligibility? What if Happ reaches his ceiling, or the free-agent we signed to fill his vacated roster spot is a bust? I can look at a list of shiny FA names and start playing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” in my mind, but then I get to those lines that remind me of my long-held fears:
“Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”