It probably says something about what the Chicago Cubs think of Jon Jay that they jumped to sign him before the month of November even came to a close. A signing that was likely the official signal toward the departure of Dexter Fowler, Jay could prove to be a significant contributor in a situation that figures to be a focal point as the spring approaches for the Cubs.
Jay’s role with the 2017 Cubs is still somewhat murky as the spring exhibition season approaches. He could find himself as a fourth outfielder (assuming Albert Almora can nab the starting gig in center), a platoon guy, or even the center field starter depending on how the circumstances play out. Any of those roles could mean a number of things for the Cubs, with positional ramifications included for Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez, Jason Heyward, and maybe even Kyle Schwarber.
However, the dynamics of the lineup aren’t necessarily the concern here. We have the latter half of February and all of March to see how those elements play themselves out. And even then, Joe Maddon has as versatile a lineup as exists in baseball at his disposal that he could do any number of things with, making some of those elements anybody’s best guess. The question here is how essential Jon Jay is to the 2017 Cubs and the relationship between his overall value and the role that he could play at Wrigley in the upcoming year. An average player, as reflected by VORP figures of 18.1 and 18.0 in two of the last three years, there’s some intrigue there even if Jay’s skill set no longer remains a mystery.
As an offensive quantity, there’s plenty to like about Jay. His TAv has largely painted him as an average player, if not occasionally slightly above it. He’s been a .271 player across his career in that regard. Obviously, with Dexter Fowler showcasing a career year in a contract season in 2016, anything Jay could do would pale in comparison. Keep in mind, his numbers over the last two seasons also aren’t as pretty due to appearing in a combined 169 games, the result of a wrist injury in 2015 and a broken forearm in 2016.
But he’s always demonstrated rather high quality on-base skills. His OBP in each of the last four seasons: .351, .372, .306, .339. Although he’s not a big walk guy, with a walk rate under seven percent for his career, he’s demonstrated good overall contact skills, with an 82 percent contact rate throughout his time at the big league level. Part of that is due to his ability to take the ball to the opposite field, something he’s done to a 32.7 percent rate in his career.
An aspect of paramount importance to examine in relation to Jay’s offense is his performance against right-handed pitching, a role he could be destined to serve if Almora struggles against the righties. Of course, that’s probably a large part of the reason that the Cubs signed him in the first place. He’s gone for a .348 OBP against RHPs, with a .256 TAv. While neither one far exceeds his performance against LHPs, both do represent areas of success.
Should Jay be relegated to that fourth outfielder-type role, his bat is probably the type that you’d like there. While he does not bring a lot of power to the mix, not having posted an isolated power figure over .100 since 2011, his ability to make consistent contact and find his way on base is where the value lies. He did feature a more disciplined approach prior to his two injury-plagued seasons in the last two years, so perhaps a lack of wrist and arm injuries will allow him to return to that type of approach as well, something that would make him even more of an asset off of the bench.
Defensively, Jay’s transition to Wrigley Field is going to be an interesting one to watch. His defensive metrics aren’t terribly favorable, but neither were Fowler’s upon his arrival on the North Side. Jays’ FRAA last year came in at -2.7. The 2015 season was the only year in which he finished just about average in that regard, with a FRAA of 1.2. The two years before that featured marks of -6.7 and -8.3, respectively.
Just for comparison’s sake, FanGraphs wasn’t a big fan of his year in San Diego either, as he finished with -5 Defensive Runs saved and a UZR of -4.4 in 2016. The previous two were more favorable than FRAA gave him credit for, though, as he took home nine DRS and a 5.4 UZR combined between 2014 and 2015. We know that defensive metrics aren’t always completely reliable or predictive, as we saw with Fowler, so it’ll be interesting to see how his transition is reflected. One thing that we can declare? His arm is nowhere near what some of his outfield counterparts can provide. Almora’s main assets are his glove and his arm, while Jay’s arm has never graded out favorably.
In a general sense, Jon Jay might be considered by some as nothing more than an average player serving a secondary role on a team that is largely well above average. And, honestly, in a perfect world, that’s how it’d play out, with Jay becoming a supplementary piece used in the occasional matchup or to spell one of the other outfielders. Albert Almora’s defense is good enough to allow him to provide even average offense in center and likely still maintain a grasp of a starting gig. But for now, we should probably evaluate Jay as at least slightly more than that.
That fourth outfielder role is what Jay’s skill set would best allow him to fulfill. He doesn’t do anything outlandishly well, but he’s also not a particularly big liability in any specific regard. As an average player who plays average defense and can reach base at an above average rate, you’d love that guy spelling your outfielders. Call me a pessimist, but if Jay is grabbing regular starts by the time the summer really gets underway, there are a few things that have happened: Albert Almora couldn’t get it done offensively. Jason Heyward couldn’t get it done offensively. Ben Zobrist is hurt. Javier Baez regressed to his old approach at the plate. Should all those things be avoided, the Cubs will have a tremendous asset in their fourth outfielder.
He’s going to get his innings and he’s going to get his starts, especially early on. We know that Maddon can do a lot with his lineup, and in that regard alone we should expect to see plenty of Jon Jay. We all want to see Jon Jay succeed and maximize his role with the Cubs. We just don’t want to see too much of it, for fear that it could have negative ramifications elsewhere.
But if everything goes according to plan, Almora provides a steady performance at the plate, Heyward rebounds from his putrid year, Zobrist and Baez bounce around the diamond as needed, etc., then the Cubs should be extremely happy with their fourth outfielder and the skill set that he provides. After all, that’s how things always happen in baseball, right? With everything going according to plan.
Lead photo courtesy Jake Roth—USA Today Sports