The Cubs Outfield Is Going To Be Fine

In a perfect world, every Cubs player who contributed to the historic 2016 World Series Champion team would take the field on Opening Day, World Series ring in hand and a smile upon their face.

Sometimes, that isn’t how baseball works though. The heartwarming tale of Dexter Fowler’s return to the North Side last February marked the beginning of an epic journey for the center fielder, whose season saw it all. Fowler was an important piece of not just of the team’s production and success on the field, but off the field as well. Unfortunately, that’s where the road ended for Fowler, who recently inked a 5-year $82.5 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals.

It became increasingly obvious near the end of November with the signing of former Padres center fielder Jon Jay that Fowler’s chances of returning to the North Side were quickly vaporizing, and with good reason. The Cubs are not cheap, and they’re willing to spend big when they need to (i.e. Jason Heyward). But when there are other more affordable choices available to you coupled with up and coming internal options, as much sentiment as there may be behind Daddy Long Legs and the “You go, we go” philosophy, it certainly wasn’t in the Cubs best interest to try and shell out the amount of money that not only would Fowler be asking for, but certainly deserves. The Cubs and Fowler simply hit a fork in the road, and the best fit for both was to realize that from a baseball standpoint, it was time to part ways.

Enter Jon Jay. Jay is a 32-year-old centerfielder who came at the affordable rate of just $8 million on a one-year deal. Whether Cubs fans are satisfied with the acquisition of Jay or not is relatively trivial, seeing as on a one-year deal he’s more of a plug-and-play option to insert into Fowler’s vacated spot while Albert Almora Jr., cited as the Cubs “center fielder of the future” by general manager Jed Hoyer himself, is groomed. “Jon was a guy we targeted right away going into the off-season,” Hoyer said. This front office has proven through and through that they know what they’re doing, so why doubt them now?

Fowler put up the best season of his career in 2016, and he got off to one of the hottest starts in baseball this April, but asking him to repeat such a campaign wouldn’t be fair of a hitter who hadn’t seen offensive numbers like he did last season since his early, youthful days in Colorado. Yes, Colorado, an environment in which nearly every player (offensively, that is) is able to glean some sort of extra spark to their profile.

The immediate hesitance with the loss of Fowler and in turn the acquisition of Jay was likely that the Cubs outfield production, especially in the wake of Jason Heyward’s struggles, is likely to suffer from an offensive standpoint under the new landscape. But that’s not entirely true. Let’s break this down a bit more.

The fact of the matter is that Heyward simply had a poor year. Baseball has seen throughout the course of his seven year career what his expected level of production is, and what the Cubs saw in 2016 is not it. Some tinkering with his swing mechanics and perhaps a simple adjustment period and it’s likely Heyward will be back to his old form again in 2017. He’s not likely to post another season in which his marks are .230/.306/.325 with a TAv of an anemic .237. It’s almost as though you’re asking Fowler to produce another year as quality as he did. Producing that poorly is almost difficult to repeat when you’re a batter the caliber of Heyward, with career marks of .262/.346/.415.

Then there is left field. Kyle Schwarber enduring a season ending injury before the Cubs even played a single home game last season was not part of the plan. The Cubs did their best to patch the situation for an entire season, playing everyone in left field from Kris Bryant to Chris Coghlan, all of whom have exceptionally different offensive profiles. The brunt of those games in left field were picked up by Jorge Soler, who batted .238/.333/.436 with a TAv of .293, numbers that were not able to adequately fill the shoes of an injured Schwarber.

The Cubs will now get a full year of production from Schwarber in the outfield, and though he’s still never had a full season of big league experience, his profile is solid, and doesn’t lead one to have much trepidation about his ability to sustain offensive success for a full year. He’s proven that he can survive pitching in October after being on the shelf for eight months, and that alone coupled with his strong debut in 2015 should instill quite a bit of confidence in the young slugger.

As their starting center fielder, Fowler truly carried the 2016 Cubs offensively in the outfield, and that’s because he had an outstanding and likely unrepeatable campaign, as well as the fact that the Cubs simply ran into some glitches that were completely unexpected. That’s not to say Fowler’s 2016 was completely outrageous, but let’s allow for a little bit of regression where regression is due.

Now, take a look at the career totals of Jay and Fowler:

Slash Line TAv K% BB%
Fowler .268/.366/.422 .280 22.2 12.6
Jay .287/.352/.384 .271 16.3 6.7

The two most notable differences between these hitters is that Jay offers significantly less power than Fowler did, and that Jay walks less. However, the kernel to take away from the latter is that despite the fact that Jay walks less, he also strikes out less and has sustained nearly the same on base percentage as Fowler over the course of his career. You can’t try and replace Fowler’s plate approach. Fowler walked at the 10th highest clip in baseball (min. 300 PA) in 2016, found amid hitters such a Mike Trout, Jose Bautista, Joey Votto, and Paul Goldschmidt. That’s quite the role to try and fill.

The other important thing to remember is that Jay isn’t going to be the Cubs’ full time center fielder. He isn’t simply replacing Fowler. He will be the left handed bat in a platoon with Almora, who posted offensive marks of .277/.308/.455 through 117 plate appearances in 2016. What’s more, is  that Almora’s defense alone is almost worth him spending a decent amount of time in the outfield this coming season.

The moral here is that while Fowler is not replaceable, the Cubs did the best they could to obtain a cost controlled replica of him who also comes with a bounty of clubhouse experience and will serve as a mentor to a young, budding, future piece in the Cubs organization in Almora.  “He can play center field very well and really is an excellent complement to Albert Almora. For us, Jay fits from a baseball standpoint. He’s good from a makeup standpoint.” Hoyer said of Jay.

With Schwarber back in the fold, and Heyward likely looking more like himself at the plate, the Cubs outfield won’t mirror what it was in 2016, but given the circumstances, it will certainly still produce at an above average level. Of course none of this is concrete, the Cubs still haven’t seen much to inspire confidence in Schwarber in the outfield, they aren’t sure how quickly or how strongly Heyward will rebound, and they aren’t sure how well the matchup of Almora/Jay will play out — especially when considering all three of these factors together. But isn’t that how baseball works? Nothing is ever certain, and everything is unpredictable. Just ask Kyle Schwarber.

Lead photo courtesy of David Richard—USA Today Sports

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