As we continue to shake off the vestigial emotions of the World Series victory like a dream you just don’t want to wake up from, the task at hand turns from reflection to assessment. Most of the roster’s core remains intact, which is good news for both the fans and the front office, though a few holes will need to be addressed.
Some, like the fifth spot in the rotation, require little more than a dab of spackling paste and a touch of paint to cover up. Likewise, they’ll just need to change Gary Pressy’s sheet music to keep the game of musical chairs going behind the plate. The outfield, on the other hand, that’s a horse of a different color. Assuming Dexter Fowler is gone, for real this time, there’s a gaping chasm that extends from centerfield to the top of the order and then into the clubhouse as well.
The latter deficiency isn’t really something we can concern ourselves with at this point, as it’ll be nigh impossible to make up for what Fowler delivered on a personal front. Even so, I’m interested to see who the Cubs end up adding, given their focus on makeup and personality.
It’s not likely we see any major additions to the outfield this offseason (sorry, Yoenis Cespedes fans), so what are the Cubs going to do? Let’s first look at the sure bets and then go from there.
Unless one of the ubiquitous rumors finally comes to fruition, Kyle Schwarber is going to be seeing an awful lot of time in left field in 2017. And if the playoff lineups taught us anything, it’s that Joe Maddon values Javy Baez’s defense at second over Ben Zobrist’s. While the latter will surely play on the infield with relative frequency, we can expect a lot of outfield work as well. Then you’ve got Jason Heyward, whose Gold Glove in right was also more than passable in center.
Wow, that was easy: War Bear, J-Hey, and Zo. Done. Except we haven’t talked about Albert Almora, the one-time heir apparent to center, and Jorge Soler, who will turn 25 in February and who still has massive potential. You’ve also got Matt Szczur around to play a utility role at any of the three spots. All things considered, that’s a pretty decent rotation and one I think any team in baseball would be happy to have moving forward. But is it one the Cubs want to utilize?
Almora’s glove rivals that of Heyward and he’s really the only true centerfielder on the roster at this point. He figures to see plenty of time at all three spots as he continues to mature as a hitter, but Theo Epstein has said that he’d prefer to add a complementary piece to ease Almora’s transition into a bigger role.
We saw last season how important it is to have depth in the outfield, as the Cubs fought a rash of injuries throughout the year. With that in mind, stashing Soler on the bench as a backup option sounds kinda good. He was hampered late in the season and saw a decidedly reduced role in the playoff sprint, but he could serve the team well in the upcoming 162-game relay marathon. Epstein addressed that recently when asked about Soler’s role with the team moving forward.
“We don’t have any untouchables, but I still think there’s a lot more in there offensively,” Epstein said of Soler’s future. “He hasn’t had the season yet where he has put it all together, hit 30 home runs, and been a force in the middle of the lineup. But it’s so obviously in there. We’d like to see him reach his full potential with us, if possible [emphasis mine].”
That is a vintage Epstein statement if ever I’ve heard one. It’s true that Soler has got mad potential for offensive production, but he’s also an injury waiting to happen. I’ve gone on record several times as saying I hope I’m wrong about this guy, that I’d love to see him prove feed me crow as he blossoms into an absolute monster. Thing is, he’s not Katniss Everdeen and the odds are not ever in his favor. Even if the massive Cuban import can stay healthy and maintain a solid plate approach, his impact is going to be limited by his playing time.
As such, the Cubs have to weigh Soler’s value to them moving forward and whether it’s greater as a fourth or fifth outfielder or as part of a package for additional pitching. That’s the “if possible” Epstein was talking about. Soler alone won’t bring back the kind of cost-controlled starter this team covets, particularly with his stock seemingly lower than it was after last season, but the Cubs still have some pretty desirable prospects (Jeimer Candelario, Ian Happ) who are blocked for at least the next couple seasons and who could bring back a significant return.
At the risk of delving into too much speculation, I’d like to connect a few dots here for just a moment to see if we can form a clear picture. Because of his defense and injury history, Soler is probably best suited to a DH role. The Cubs have engaged in talks with the Rays in the past. Tampa is reportedly confident that they’ll deal at least one of Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Drew Smyly, with Alex Cobb also a possibility.
Hey, cool, it’s a thumbs-up. Or…wait, is that a middle finger? Eh, either way.
If the Cubs were to deal Soler, they’d need look to the market to pick up some additional outfield depth. Getting Schwarber back and having Almora in the majors full-time will mitigate some of the loss, but Chris Coghlan has also hit free agency. So maybe a lefty bench bat makes sense, perhaps a vet the Cubs can add on the cheap. That would help to both fill out the roster and provide some of the leadership that left with Fowler and also David Ross.
Jon Jay (left) and Coco Crisp (switch-hitter) could possibly fill that role, though the latter’s going to have to come down significantly on the $11 million he made last season. He’s no spring chicken, either, having just turned 37 during the World Series. If Jay is comfortable with a deal in the $6-8 million AAV range, he could serve as a pretty solid backup. While his 2015 was one to forget, the former Cardinal and Padre has averaged a .287/.352/.384 slash and has been a perfectly mediocre defensive player (0.0 UZR, -1 DRS) in seven big league seasons.
Michael Bourn, who will turn 34 in late December, is another intriguing option. He hits from the left side, still has some speed, and can play all over the outfield. But Bourn has also collected $48 million while producing 2.3 bWAR over the last four seasons and would need to be willing to take a steep discount in order to be a worthwhile target.
It’s also possible the Cubs explore a deal to get them a man who could do both when it comes to playing center and hitting leadoff. But a guy like that isn’t coming cheap, at least not in terms of the trade cost. While nothing that improves the team is off the table, this scenario doesn’t strike me as particularly likely.
There’s a lot still to flesh out over the next few months and I don’t think we’ll know exactly what the Cubs will do with their outfield in 2017 until spring training opens, if then. They could stand pat and be perfectly fine or they could make some moves and shift some pieces around on the board. At this point, I think both possibilities are equally likely. But since I’ve been saying since last offseason that I thought they’d deal Soler, I’m going to stick with that. And since I’m making predictions, I’ll double down and say that Coco Crisp finds his way to Wrigley next season too.
What are your thoughts on the outfield next year? Should Almora take the reins in center or continue to fill in as he learns? Should the Cubs trade Soler and look to add a more seasoned veteran or push forward with the group they have? And what would you do with Schwarber and Zobrist?