On Eve of 2016, Weakness Is a Relative Term for Cubs

A few days after the 2015 season ended—while I could still smell beer and peanuts on my jacket—Sahadev Sharma and I collaborated on a series of articles for this site. You can find them here and here. In those articles, we laid out the weaknesses of the 2015 club as we saw them, and identified a few possible paths the Cubs might take to address those weaknesses.

Two months later, I feel pretty good about what we said in October. Here’s how I viewed the offseason then:

Last Thursday morning, just a few hours before the on-field Cubs might have taken the field for Game Five of the National League Championship Series, their off-field leader, Epstein, instead took the microphone in front of a room full of reporters and set the tone for the offseason to come. My colleague Sahadev Sharma captured the spirit of that tone in his excellent piece yesterday. Today, I want to turn the focus more squarely to the specifics of Epstein’s comments, and what they mean for the Cubs moving forward. It all starts with this quote:

“As far as the obvious areas of improvement for us, the depth of our starting pitching we’ve already talked about,” he said. “Possibly improving our situational and contact hitting. Trying to improve our defense, especially our outfield defense, if possible. And controlling our running game a little bit more.”

Stop, and read that paragraph again. Do you think the Cubs are going to be targeting particular players this offseason? They won’t be. Instead, they’ll be targeting those four areas for improvement. If those areas for improvement lead them to particular players whose skills match the team’s need, of course they’ll go after those guys. But the arrow of causality will always run from the skills to the players, not the other way around. Epstein’s guys are too smart to do things any differently.

Let’s summarize, with the benefit of hindsight: The Cubs targeted four areas for improvement: starting pitching depth, improved contact and situational hitting, outfield defense, and control of the running game. After two months, the Cubs have made four major additions, with no prospect loss: Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, and Adam Warren. Mission, for the most part, accomplished.

Which leaves me with this: what’s left? The Cubs haven’t had a perfect offseason, because perfection is impossible in general and especially impossible in baseball. (Even if that wasn’t true, it would be far beyond good taste for me to arbitrate its application to the Cubs.) But—and this is an important distinction—based on the information we have available to us, it’s hard to be anything but impressed by the way the Cubs’ offseason has gone so far.

That doesn’t mean we can’t try to find holes that remain on the team’s roster, and that’s exactly what I’m going to try to do for the remainder of this piece. Here’s the first of two areas I’d like to talk about: redundancy in center field.

Jason Heyward is a great get. He’ll be a superb player for the Cubs for years to come, even if he exercises his opt-out after year three. But he’s currently the only center fielder on the roster, and it’s not even his primary position. What happens if—and, to be clear, I hope this never happens—he’s injured and out for a while? Do you really like the idea of Matt Szczur as the Cubs’ starting center fielder? That’s the state of play right now, especially if Javier Baez can’t handle the position full time. Last year the Cubs had Austin Jackson on the roster for September and the playoffs to back up center if Dexter Fowler couldn’t play. This year, no such player exists. Yet.

There are a few paths the Cubs could take here. For one, they could trade a package centered around Jorge Soler for a talented defensive center fielder—think Ender Inciarte or Marcell Ozuna—and move Heyward to right field. That leaves the team with redundancy in center (Heyward) and right (Chris Coghlan or Zobrist). This is the most aggressive play for the Cubs, and I doubt it’ll happen given the prices that seem to be out there, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

There’s another path: sign Jackson, or another free agent outfielder, to a two or three-year contract as a backup outfielder. It’s not ideal for the team or the player—most players prefer to start, all things being equal—but as the winter moves on, prices will lower and players may be willing to take a somewhat smaller contract than they’d hoped to play for a good Chicago team. This path seems very possible to me.

The last thing the Cubs can do—and, in fact, are already doing—is make sure that Baez is ready to play center field if necessary. Reports out of winter league suggest he’s played at least a few games out there already, and I’m sure he’ll continue to work there in the early part of spring training, at least. This move makes sense regardless of whatever else the Cubs do, which is why it’s already happening. The downside here is that Baez is much more valuable as a guy who can make spot starts at center field than as a guy who’s a full-time center fielder. In the latter scenario, he can’t back up any of the left-side infield positions he’s primarily played in the past, which weakens the team significantly. Still, it’s a legitimate backup option.

All right. That’s one area of weakness. What’s the other? To my mind, starting pitching depth.

“Wait,” I can hear you saying. “Didn’t you just say the Cubs had improved their starting pitching depth?” Yes. That doesn’t mean they can’t improve it further. And that’s because (repeat after me) you can never have enough starting pitching depth.

My nightmare scenario for the 2016 Cubs is very short and runs like this: Jake Arrieta wakes up one morning and can’t pitch anymore. None of us want to think about it. But the Cubs have to plan for the possibility, because the worst time to come up with a backup plan is when you need it. If Arrieta’s out, the rotation looks like this:

  1. Lester
  2. Lackey
  3. Hammel
  4. Hendricks
  5. Warren/Cahill/Richard/Wood

That’s certainly not a terrible rotation, but it’s not one that’s likely to strike fear into opponent’s hearts, especially in a playoff series. (It also, not inconsequentially, weakens the bullpen by drawing one the starters in the five-spot out of the ‘pen.) So I’d like to see the Cubs add at least one more starting pitcher this offseason, by trade or by free agency.

What’s available? Here are some names that remain unsigned: Yovani Gallardo, Doug Fister, Ian Kennedy, and Kyle Lohse. Now, none of those are particularly sexy names—and Gallardo and Kennedy come with qualifying offers attached—but the Cubs might be able to snag one of them for an incentive-laden deal near the end of the offseason. That’d allow them to enter spring training with 10 legitimate rotation candidates for five spots, which is a point at which I might start to breathe a bit. A little bit.

If the price doesn’t come down to a point the team is comfortable with, a trade is another option. The same Soler-plus package that the team might use to acquire a center fielder could also be used to acquire a starter: the Indians and Padres seem like the most obvious trade partners. Trades are tricky, so I won’t speculate on particular names, but this is definitely something the Cubs are looking into.

As for the rest of the roster? It’s hard to complain. There’s depth in the bullpen, and redundancy—sometimes three layers deep—at every position on the field not mentioned here. They have to play the games, sure, but weakness is a relative term for the Cubs these days. Bring on spring training.

Lead photo courtesy Jim Brown—USA Today Sports.

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6 comments on “On Eve of 2016, Weakness Is a Relative Term for Cubs”


My dream scenario would be Jackson and Fister.

Jackson will be 29 shortly, was a 2 win player last year, and plays very good defense.

Fister will be 32 and has had two pretty poor seasons in a row, but has the 7th lowest HR/FB% since 2010 amongst starters and the 5th lowest BB/9.


I don’t think this is something that needs to be addressed currently. I love the roster as it stands now and think the Cubs would be better off seeing how the Schwarber / Heyward / Soler (and Baez) OF plays out before moving any additional pieces. Save the trade chips for mid-season when we will have a better idea on what the weaknesses actually are, rather than what they might become.



While Soler hasn’t shown the consistent power he looks to have, he is more proven than Baez.

Baez increased his average in his last call up, but only hit one regular season homer and his strikeout were still high, especially in relation to the power drop.

He can get enough at bats, playing in Cf and at SS, 2B and possibly 3B, in back up rolls, to see if he will produce.

Also, remember he could start 30 or so games for Soler, and slide to CF with Heyward going back to RF.

Zobrist has played a few games in CF than heyward has and played there as recently as 2014 (7 games).

Coghlan has started over 90 games in CF. There are options.

Fowler was average to below average, depending on who you ask, in the field.

If Heyward goes down, he can be replace with someone who would be around what FOwler was defensively. The bigger questions will be offense.

J Mcgowan

Great piece Rian, I think thats a very honest assessment of the remaining weaknesses; I was however hoping you would address the last area that Epstein mentioned as well – the control of the base paths. I haven’t seen anybody offer many opinions as to how something like that might be strengthened…?


If we make a deal for a starter, it should be centered around Baez.

Any deal that includes Soler should require a pitcher a notch better.

I’d rather take a shot at one of the FA guys, than trade.

Remember, the 1-3 spots are set. The Cubs are looking for a number 4 starter.

Even if you want to bump Lackey back, we need a 3, not an ace.

Hammel pitched well for a good part of the season, too.

Even in the moths of July and August, where his monthly ERa was 4.03 and 4 88 he had one truly bad start.

Take the 5 Er in 3Ip in a July start out and his ERA would have been under 2 in July. 4 earned runs in 18 plus innings.

Take out the 5Er in 3IP in August and he goes to 8 ER in 21 IP and he goes to a sub 3.50 ERA for the month.

If you can get good, and at times great, starts 4/5 times from your 4th starter, that’s a good thing.

Keep in mind, even with the bad September, with a plus 6 ERA, he finished with a 3.74 ERA>.

I’ll take that at the back end.

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