I need to tell you something, but first, here’s your grain of salt: I was in the Cubs’ clubhouse just once during the 2015 season. My sample size, as a reporter and as an observer of the team’s clubhouse culture, is entirely contained in one road game in June, and that’s a woefully insufficient sample from which to draw informed conclusions.
Here’s the thing I need to tell you, though: I was blown away by Chris Coghlan that day. A man I considered somewhat marginal, in the landscape of the Cubs’ roster, didn’t look that way at all in person. He was lockered between Anthony Rizzo and the entrance to the team lunch room, and on the other side of that entrance were the lockers for Jon Lester and David Ross. It was Fathers’ Day, a noon game and so an early morning, and Ross and Lester trickled in with the second wave of Cubs. By the time they did, Coghlan had been there for 45 minutes, positively running the room. He arrived with Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, (starter) Jake Arrieta and the other early birds. He knew which guys were fathers and made sure to congratulate them as they came in—which might sound like a small thing, but turned out not to be, because a lot of guys asked after Coghlan’s kids, too. (He has none.)
Coghlan has always had an easy smile and a fine reputation, but that was the first time I had ever seen the leader within Coghlan. The athlete’s ease and security of self, cut to a hard edge by the loss of his father a couple weeks before he turned 16, make Coghlan a much more natural center of attention than I ever would have imagined. He has intangibles for days, or at least he does on the mornings of day games on the road, or something.
By the end of the season, some of the shine that shone so brightly from the apple that day had faded. Coghlan was open (though never hostile) about his frustration over not playing much down the stretch. He talked about feeling that he’d earned a full-time role, and about (surprisingly, given the manager’s reputation) the relative lack of word from Joe Maddon as to why he was losing it (to Jorge Soler and the revived Starlin Castro). This winter has, if anything, formalized Coghlan’s disenfranchisement. Kyle Schwarber is being groomed as the full-time left fielder; Ben Zobrist is the full-time second baseman (and a pretty fair backup corner outfielder, if it comes to that).
All of that made it a little eyebrow-raising when Coghlan didn’t attend Cubs Convention over the past weekend. He’s a gregarious, popular player among those with whom he plays, and he was an active participant last winter. There are a dozen perfectly good reasons why a given player might opt not to attend that event, but under the circumstances, it’s worth noting this particular choice on Coghlan’s part.
There are, I suppose, a few critical questions to answer here:
- Is Coghlan upset with the team for relegating him to the bench on the heels of two seasons in which he was worth a total of 5.1 WARP?
- If so, will he make those feelings public, or otherwise allow others to know that he’s unhappy?
- If he is upset and does make that known, will it have a negative impact on the clubhouse? and
- Does he have a beef? Would he start for most other teams? Should he?
Without a whole lot to go on since those comments during the first weekend of October, I’ll guess with some confidence that the answer to the first question is yes. As for the second question, those same comments hint that the answer could be the same. From what we know of Coghlan, he seems to be professional and tactful, but also proud, self-confident and assertive. Because of that first set of traits, though, my guess is that the answer to the third question will be no. Maddon’s single most important asset as a manager might be the way he controls and addresses the frustrations of his players. Jason Hammel, Castro, Hector Rondon, Travis Wood, and Coghlan all got the business end of tough decisions made by Maddon last season, but each felt comfortable talking to him and to the media about it, each acknowledged their own power to change the situation through better play and consistent work, and each was able to articulate and accept the crucial tenet on which all tough clubhouse decisions must stand: what Maddon did was the best thing for the team. That wasn’t always even true (Rondon, for instance, never should have been demoted to medium-leverage relief, as he was for a few weeks), but the fact that Maddon and the players in question could agree on that perception is what really mattered.
As noted above, however, Coghlan came closer than the others to openly disagreeing with Maddon’s decisions, which could mean a bit more friction is ahead, and now, he has cause to feel slighted not only by the manager, but by the front office, too. Maybe.
The answer to question four is the one that divides me almost at all times. I love Chris Coghlan. I love the way he approaches at-bats, the way he carries himself on the field, and the unabashed way he emphasizes his bat over his glove, even as he worked hard last year to become a better defensive outfielder. I love that he escaped the Marlins organization and signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs prior to 2014, and I certainly love the way he’s made good on that deal over the last 935 plate appearances. I attended just one game at Wrigley Field in 2015, and it was as a fan. Walking by a souvenir stand, I was tempted by nothing, really. But I did quickly scan for a No. 8 ‘COGHLAN’ shirsey, and if there had been one, I’d have felt a lot more tempted.
On the other hand, however good a story he is, and however good a clubhouse influence, and however good a batterer of right-handed pitchers, he’s a limited player whose stats sometimes belie his value. He’s posted a .285 True Average in two years with the Cubs, but he’s faced left-handed pitchers in only 16.4 percent of his plate appearances over that span, and the average corner outfielder in 2015 (without the benefit of that much platoon protection) had a .272 TAv. In order to view him as first-division material, you have to believe that Coghlan will be at least as good a hitter in 2016 as he was in 2015 (despite this being his age-31 season), have a solid platoon partner on hand to combat lefties, and consider him at least close to average with the glove. Unless you believe all of that (I don’t), it’s hard to take umbrage with the Cubs’ decision to supplant Coghlan as an everyday player.
It’s the right choice; it’s really the only choice. Schwarber might have the chops to stick behind the plate in the big leagues, but:
- Miguel Montero, though flawed, is a fine catcher to whom the team is committed at an eight-figure salary level for two more years;
- Schwarber’s defensive game as a catcher is pretty notably incomplete right now; and
- His bat is too good to stash in the minors until the lagging catching skills sort themselves out.
Thus, Schwarber must be, for now, the regular left fielder. Soler showed all of his warts in 2015, but he remains a high-upside asset, and trading him now (at the nadir of his value) would make little sense. There just wasn’t room for Coghlan on the juggernaut the Cubs are hoping to build, except as a complementary piece. It will be up to Coghlan, now, to accept that state of affairs and continue in his role (maybe; what do I know? It was one day) as an unlikely clubhouse leader.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.