Life at the Margins in the Cubs’ Outfield

The Cubs, it appears, are done with their major offseason moves. That’s not a bad thing—lord knows they’ve done enough already—but it does mean that the present period, running roughly between the end of Cubs Convention and the beginning of Spring Training, lacks a certain something when it comes to news. Namely, news.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to talk about. “Newness” may be part of the zeitgeist, but it isn’t (or, at least, shouldn’t be) a prerequisite for interest. There’s tons to talk about when it comes to the Cubs these days, and the subject that’s commanding my attention for the moment is the outfield.

Why? Well, because it’s one of the few remaining areas on the club where there’s some ambiguity about how playing time will be distributed, and it’s an area where marginal players—my favorite kind—have taken on an added importance. I first took up the subject a few weeks ago, but a few things have changed since then which I think are worth discussing. Here’s what I said in late December:

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.

Three weeks later, I stand by every word I wrote there, but now feel comfortable adjusting some of the language to account for changed circumstances. Here’s the first thing: I now think it’s extremely unlikely that the Cubs pull off a major trade for an outfielder before spring training, or even (barring injury) before the August 1st trade deadline. Outfield trade conversations have absolutely taken place over the course of the winter, but nothing I’ve heard publicly or privately in the last two weeks makes me think something is imminent or even likely.

And here’s another thing: everything I’ve heard seems to indicate that Baez is taking very well to center field in winter league. Manager Joe Maddon said as much in comments at the Convention (quoted by Comcast SportsNet):

“I definitely think he can [play it at the big league level],” said Maddon. “He’s one of the best on-field defenders I’ve seen, period. The way he plays the infield, he’s never in trouble. He’s very calm, he’s got this really high baseball acumen—he sees things in advance.”

Now, as far as I know, Maddon was speaking without having seen Baez play center field in person (and, of course, the bulk of his comments were about Baez’s infield defense). But it seems reasonable to think that he was speaking on the basis of internal reports he’s read on Baez’s progress at the position this offseason, and that’s very, very good news for the Cubs.

For one thing, it allows the team to double-dip on bench flexibility: Baez, besides backing up center, will also be the Cubs’ go-to-guy for infield help, either late in games day-to-day, or full-time at a position if a starter goes down. No doubt about it: combining both of those skillsets in one roster spot, as the Cubs have managed to achieve through Baez’s progress in center this offseason, is an immensely valuable proposition.

It also, not incidentally, decreases the Cubs’ need to add a free agent for the fifth spot in the outfield rotation (after Heyward, Schwarber, Soler, and Chris Coghlan). I’m still of the mind that the team would be well served with a backup not named Matt Szczur ready in the wings, but I think I’m in the minority on that one: the Cubs seem content with where they are right now, and certainly wouldn’t move beyond a deal minimal in both years and dollar value. Those’ll be hard to come by, especially as free agents consider the dearth of playing time that’ll likely be available to them in Chicago.

Still, there are some interesting options out there, if the price is right:

Name 2016 Age 2015 TAv 2015 FRAA 2015 WARP 2016 PECOTA
David DeJesus 36 .251 2.0 0.6 0.2
Austin Jackson 29 .255 4.9 1.4 2.4
Drew Stubbs 31 .166 -1.8 -0.3 0.9
Will Venable 33 .226 0.5 0.0 0.6

Some, obviously, are more interesting than others. Point is, though, there’ll probably come a time, fairly soon, when one of these free agent outfielders comes knocking on the door at Clark and Addison (figuratively, one imagines) with just a year or two and a couple million dollars in mind. When and if that happens, I think the Cubs would do well to make the deal happen, especially in the (very unlikely) scenario that one of these players is willing to sign a split minors-major contract. That last scenario, needless to say, will not include Austin Jackson.

What with all the big moves in Chicago this offseason, media and fan attention will rightfully focus on the new stars in the North Side constellation—Lackey, Zobrist, Heyward, and the like. But, in the midst of all the star-gazing, don’t lose sight of the players and positions orbiting in the margins. They’re the ones just hanging on to a big-league spot, however they can, until the game asks them to sit down for a final time. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a hell of a compelling story. And it’s playing out in the Cubs’ outfield right now.

Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.

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5 comments on “Life at the Margins in the Cubs’ Outfield”


A good defensive SS already possesses the raw skills needed to be a good CF. Barring some bizarre issue with depth perception from the outfield Baez should be average or better out there. Given that plus his bat he’s easily the best option of the ones you listed, and he won’t cost any extra money since he’s already on the roster.


Szczur is much better than you credit him. He is an excellent stolen base threat, and was voted best baserunner and outfielder in the I.L. by AAA managers. His 40 time (played college fball) beats all Bear receivers except their ill-fated #1, Kevin White. Szczur may only OPS in the .600s, but after seeing Jackson do that in Chi, with worse contact rates and diminished baserunning skills, I’ll take my chances. He’s also a kickass human.


If Baez is good as they say in CF then Szczur should slot in after him before considering someone else (like Jackson). But regarding Szczur, speed alone does not make a great CF. He still has to have good reaction off the bat and take a solid route to the ball. Speed will allow recovery for a mistake but it’s better avoiding the mistake.

allan birmantas

Sczur is an unproven commodity. He has never started for even a week. Who knows what he could do. Personally I think that if they do trade Soler, Almora has good enough defense that he deserves a try.

Rian Watt

I’ve actually had some pushback on my Szczur take from within the staff, so we’ll have a piece up in the next few days addressing his situation.

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