In the last stretch of the off-season—for me, the part that stretches from the Cubs Convention in mid-January until pitchers and catchers report a month later—there’s a lot of nervous chatter, inane conversation, and debate over the most minor of details involving baseball players and teams. While it would be nice to have real baseball things to debate or discuss, the reality of the situation is that this is where we are, and we all have to adjust.
With that out of the way, we can get to the most important thing you’re going to read today: why Matt Szczur should end up with the final roster spot on the Cubs coming out of Spring Training. Szczur has been a polarizing figure among Cubs fans for what feels like over a decade. The Cubs took him in the fifth round of the 2010 draft, pulling him away from a potential future playing football. In large part because of the awful status of the farm system in those years, Szczur quickly rose to the top of most Cubs prospect lists.
That started a somewhat humorous running joke with analyst Keith Law, who grew tired of Cubs fans asking about Szczur and would frequently give snarky responses to questions about the young outfielder. Thing is, though, despite the delusional fans of those days, hungry for a real prospect with a future in a Cubs uniform, there were real things to like about Szczur. He’s fast, he’s a good defensive outfielder capable of playing all three spots, and he’s a smart baseball player. He’d never be a starter on a quality team, but he had a chance to transform into an solid fifth outfielder.
And that’s pretty much what he’s become. Szczur arrived with the Cubs in 2014 and saw time with them in 2015, as well, totaling 146 plate appearances in the major leagues. He’s combined for a .224/.276/.343 line with a -0.4 WARP in that time, which is, admittedly, terrible. But just because he has flaws doesn’t mean he’s without redeeming qualities, and useful ones at that.
But before we dive into the things Szczur could bring to the 2016 Cubs, let’s take a look at the competition for that last roster spot. Assuming the Cubs carry eight pitchers in the bullpen—it’s going to happen, so deal with it—that leaves four position players on the bench. With no injuries (we hope!) and Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Miguel Montero, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, and Jorge Soler all penciled into the regular lineup, that leaves Chris Coghlan, Javier Baez, and David Ross as the only three players with a clear, inside track on a roster spot.
That boils the conversation down to Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella. While La Stella does have a useful skillset, he’s also a flawed player. He’s limited in the field, in that he’s an average second baseman, a below-average third baseman, and really can’t play anywhere else. Considering that Zobrist has second base covered—with Baez backing him up, should he need to move around on the diamond—and Bryant is all over third base, La Stella only really adds value pinch-hitting late in a game. As much as La Stella’s solid 9.4 walk rate and extremely low 10.8 strikeout rate are well suited for such a role, Maddon isn’t likely to bring La Stella into the game as a defensive replacement—barring an injury, of course—which makes him likely to be the third man to come off the bench, behind Coghlan and Baez.
But what about the projections on both players? They aren’t really slanted, one way or the other. PECOTA projects La Stella to provide 0.9 WARP in 631 plate appearances (which seems high) in 2016 while projecting Szczur for 0.7 WARP in 398 plate appearances. ZiPS’ equation has La Stella at 1.0 WAR with Szczur at 0.8 and Steamer has La Stella at 0.3 and Szczur at -0.2. Two things are clear on what the projections think about these players—they’re simply role players and there is little difference in overall value between the two. So the difference, for the most part, comes down to role.
To summarize my position, it’s hard to see La Stella playing much of a role on this Cubs team considering the construction of the roster. Is the occasional plate appearance late in a game really worth carrying a guy that has yet to show an ability to get on base at a high rate or hit for any power? Sure, if that guy provides something for you defensively or as a threat on the basepaths, as well. Unfortunately, La Stella does not.
In comparison, Szczur actually brings quite a bit of value based on his very specific set of skills. It has less to do with how good of a player he is, overall, and more to do with the Cubs’ current needs. Allow me to elaborate. With Dexter Fowler no longer on the Cubs roster, they are left attempting to fill a void in a couple of key categories: hitting against left-handed pitching—Fowler slashed .326/.399/.467 against lefties in 2015—and defense in the outfield.
But you may wonder why Fowler’s hitting prowess against left-handed pitchers is all that important? Part of it is because, as a team, the Cubs didn’t really hit well against lefties in 2015—just .238/.319/.372 overall. If you remove Fowler from that equation, the line goes to .227/.308/.361. For a greater perspective, let’s look at the stats for the Cubs regulars against left-handers.
Now clearly, some of these guys have had very short careers in the major leagues and will probably improve as they adjust and gain experience. But, at least for right now, the Cubs need guys who can hit left-handed pitching and be able to enter the game without negatively impacting the defense—specifically the outfield. Szczur is the man who fills that need. In his short 68 plate appearance career against lefties with the Cubs, Szczur has hit a solid .286/.324/.476, good for an even .800 OPS.
It’s a small sample size, but Szczur’s ability to handle even some of the tougher left-handers in Major League Baseball—he’s 3-for-6 lifetime against Clayton Kershaw with a home run—speaks for itself. It’s not just about Szczur hitting against lefties, though, because to be quite honest La Stella can hit left-handed pitchers, too. But Szczur could take a late at-bat for Schwarber and stay in the game in the outfield, improving the defense, whereas there are no realistic situations where La Stella comes in for any of the infielders and the overall defense improves.
Similar to the argument about the overall defense, we can narrow this down further to center field. Fowler was no Tommie Agee out in center, but at least he had experience there. While most believe Heyward will do just fine, there still is the matter of him only having started 30 total games in center field in his career. With poor or merely average defenders in the corners next to him, having a strong defensive outfielder on the bench is important. Coghlan can handle the corners and Baez is learning to play all three spots as well, but in a close game in the late innings, the ability to remove either Soler or Schwarber and improve the outfield defense without harming any other position defensively is a need for Maddon’s club. Can you trust Coghlan or Baez to do that right now?
While Matt Szczur may never be a star, an everyday player, or even a reasonably good player, there’s no denying he brings something to the table. He has his flaws, but all role players do. Expecting a perfect roster is unrealistic. But a player that fills one or more needs and is content to sit on the bench most days while he waits for an opportunity to make an impact, all while making a small salary, holds a lot of marginal value at the end of the roster. The Cubs had Jonathan Herrera on the roster all of 2015 to do exactly this. Szczur is one of those guys too, and he should get a chance to show off what he can do on the field with the Cubs—even if what he can do is limited.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports.