Dexter Fowler is a Chicago Cub again, after some kind of pro wrestling story arc played out over the course of perhaps 45 minutes on Thursday afternoon. Which, wow. There’s a lot of emotion here. That’s what makes this story so fascinating, and we’ll have a lot more coming on the site here in the next few hours and days.
As it is, Fowler is back with the Cubs, for at least one season (we’ll have a piece on that move, by itself, soon), and Coghlan is out, and so the Cubs have improved their outfield depth to a dizzying level, unmatched anywhere else in baseball (save perhaps in St. Louis, funnily enough). Now the question is: who plays? And the follow-up: where? And, oh yeah: when? That’s what this piece will focus on.
Most of the Time, Against Right-Handers
At this point, traditional ways of sketching out lineups and defensive arrangements don’t describe what the Cubs will be able to do with any accuracy. All we can do is talk about what will often happen, and then what will happen somewhat less often, and then what will happen even less often than that. In general, against right-handed pitchers and assuming other factors to be neutral, Kyle Schwarber should remain the primary left fielder. The difference will be that Fowler steps into center field on most such days, with Jason Heyward sliding to right field. Other articles on this very site will soon explore who bats where, but Fowler figures to be the primary leadoff man, crowding Ben Zobrist out of the top-of-the-order picture (and, maybe, making my suggestion that Zobrist bat ninth a bit easier to implement). This is the best defensive alignment the team can field, and with Fowler’s OBP subbed in for Soler’s, it also makes it really hard for a righty to find outs in the lineup.
Against Right-Handers, Danks Theory Days
There will, of course, always be Wachas. (Michael Wacha was Joe Maddon’s favorite target for what the Internet long ago dubbed “Danks Theory” lineups last season. The Danks Theory holds that it makes sense to start same-handed batters against certain pitchers, who have demonstrated reverse platoon splits and also have the arsenal (usually, a very good changeup is involved) to support that concept.) On those days, look for Soler to play instead of Fowler (the weakest of the three starters against right-handed hurlers). On those days, it will go Schwarber, Heyward, Soler, just as the plan appeared to be until this morning.
Other Days, Against Right-Handers
At other times, Maddon might look at the opposing team’s bullpen and see a number of available, effective lefties, and decide that he doesn’t want to be so loaded with lefties in his starting lineup that he has to burn his bench when a reliever comes on to neutralize them. On those days, look for Soler to start in left field, with Schwarber sliding behind the plate to give Miguel Montero a day off. (We should revisit, soon, the notion that using David Ross as a pairing with Jon Lester, rather than in a strict platoon/backup role, is damaging to a team that has almost boundless offensive potential.) One assumes that almost every time Fowler and Heyward are both on the field, Fowler will be in center field, and Heyward will be in right. This situation should be no exception.
Most Days, Against Left-Handers
Ahh, here, it gets juicy. Who sits for Soler when a lefty starts for the opposing team: Schwarber, whose opposite-field power promises success against southpaws, but who struggled against them in 2015? Or Heyward, whose longer track record only proves he has a larger-than-normal platoon split skill? Defensive value more than breaks the tie; Schwarber should sit in those spots, or slide to catcher in place of Montero, if Ross is unable to start that day. Again, the outfield should shake out Soler, Fowler, Heyward.
Danks Theory Days, Against Lefties
Here, it’s straightforward enough. Soler stays on the bench, and waits to come in if the other team should bring on a tough lefty late, when any of Schwarber, Heyward, or Montero are due up. In the meantime, Schwarber, Fowler, and Heyward start.
Other Days, Against Left-Handers
Finally, certain lefty starters demand to have the lineup stacked against them, one righty after another. This is the only time, barring injury, that any of the auxiliary outfield options should see much of the field. In order to get lefties out of the picture entirely, Maddon can shift Kris Bryant out to left field, start Javier Baez at third base, and have Fowler and Soler in center and right, respectively.
The really wild thing is that there remain, beyond these, unexplored permutations of the lineup. A lot of things can happen. As mind-blowing a sequence as it was when everything came down, and as many different ways as things could go from here, one thing shines through extraordinarily clearly: the Cubs just got a lot better.And they have many, many more options.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.