Perhaps my inclination to root for the underdog, the outsider, is a large part of why I’m a Cubs fan in the first place. It probably also explains why, after working through the stages of processing Thursday’s Cubs roster moves (disbelief, confusion, surprise, joy), one of the first things I thought about was what this would mean for Jorge Soler. I am a firm believer that he has real talent, and at such a young age, he needs the chance to develop. He needs to be a regular part of someone’s lineup, and the outfield is getting increasingly crowded. It’s a baseball truism (or cliche, depending on how you view it) that the Cubs have a good problem going into the 2016 campaign. They are faced with the reality of having too many good players, at least on paper. The deluge of talent that fills out just the offensive half of the 25-man roster has players in bench roles who would likely be regular starters on most other teams. My question, though, in light of Dexter Fowler’s return to the Cubs on Thursday, is what this means for playing time for the Cubs outfielders, and especially Soler.
Prior to the Chris Coghlan trade and return of Fowler, Soler looked like a lock for the majority of the starts in right field, and the biggest questions facing the Cubs outfield regarded the defense, given that Soler and Schwarber would be manning the corners, with Jason Heyward playing somewhat out of position in center. Now, however, Fowler’s presence makes for a much stronger situation defensively, but it leaves Soler as the question mark. Part of the trouble comes from the fact that Soler’s defensive experience in the majors thus far has been confined to right field, where he’s posted a UZR/150 of -10.7 between 2014 and 2015. This means that some of the possible solutions for getting him into the lineup with any regularity have to be largely based on speculation, but I’ll propose a few ideas for keeping him in the lineup as often as can be done. Again, I am of the mind that Soler needs to play regularly. His ceiling as a hitter is very high, and though PECOTA is pretty tepid on him (projected .270 TAv, 0.4 WARP for 2016), the potential for him to be of significant impact on an offense in both the short term and the long term is certainly there.
That said, the orchestration of the lineup in 2016 is going to be no easy task. I trust Joe Maddon’s ability to handle the demands of getting as many plate appearances as possible for each member of this outfield, and I think he can accomplish this in a couple of different ways. At this point, something important to keep in mind is that across a 162-game season (and with some games in American League parks, requiring a DH), that comes to just under 500 starts available to Soler, Fowler, Heyward, and Kyle Schwarber, so there is plenty of room for each of them to get ample time in the lineup.
One of the first options is that Soler take on a platoon role in either right or left field, but I think this is territory that needs to be tread lightly. Given Soler’s inexperience anywhere else in the outfield and his relative weakness as a defender even in right field, this is probably not an option that I would seek first. The possibility that Schwarber proves unable start in left field on a full-time basis due to defensive weaknesses and the need to spend time behind the plate as well does mean that someone will be spending time in left field along with him, but I’m not sure Soler is the strongest candidate for that. The beauty of this trade coming when it has, however, is that if a platoon option is going to happen, there is plenty of opportunity for Soler to work in left during spring training.
What I think would serve the team better is to lean on the abilities of Fowler and Heyward as outfielders, and allow Soler to get his time in the lineup in right field as much as he can, or as the DH when it is possible. This is where Heyward is probably the most valuable, as he is strong enough defensively to allow this to happen. Fowler has played almost exclusively center field for his entire career (1 inning in right for the Rockies in 2008), so leaning on Heyward more heavily here makes the most sense. Though he has just a grand total of 233 innings anywhere other than right field, he is very consistently a strong defender with a career UZR/150 of 18.3. I trust that Heyward can handle somewhat regular starts in center to allow Soler chances in the lineup that way.
Ultimately, this seems like it will hinge in the short term largely on Heyward’s defensive flexibility more so than anyone else’s. If he is able to move over to center field on a somewhat regular basis, Soler will be able to get sufficient playing time. Based on Theo Epstein’s comments Thursday, we should probably stop speculating that Soler is going to be traded for pitching, at least for now: “We’re not trading anyone else,” Epstein said. “That’s the move. We feel great about our outfield mix. It takes more than three guys to get through a championship season. All these guys are great players, and they’re going to contribute.” Epstein did allude to the possiblity that one of the three of Soler, Fowler, and Heyward would be spending time in left field in place of Schwarber, “It gives (manager) Joe Maddon a lot of flexibility. It gives us a lot of impact depth, in my opinion, which we’ll need. With (Kyle) Schwarber’s ability to catch and guys’ ability to move all around, I think all four guys will have big seasons.” But again, this should be taken with a grain of salt, given both Schwarber’s limited strengths as a catcher and the inexperience in that part of the outfield on the part of any of the other three players so far. Something important to keep an eye on during the upcoming weeks of spring training will be where Maddon gives time to these players in the outfield, as we will likely get a much clearer picture then.
In all, though it will not be easy or obvious, Soler should have plenty of chances to get his time in the outfield and his plate appearances, and Maddon is the right person to make that happen. The reality is that injuries happen, players slump, trades change the roster, and so on, so what looks like an overcrowded outfield now may not stay that way. The Cubs have a level of depth that is rarely seen, and probably the right manager to fill out the lineup card in a way that satisfies that depth.
Photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.