Schwarber Demotion, Heyward Injury Pressure Cubs to Remake Outfield

We here at BP Wrigleyville are allergic to the hot take. We prefer measured analysis, historical analysis, analysis of analyses. We don’t publish news, we don’t break news, we rarely comment on players being sent down or called up, except in the instance of them being parts of larger processes. But, oh boy, Kyle Schwarber is on his way to Triple-A Iowa, and—to appropriate a woefully out of date phrase—hell hath no fury like a Cubs fan deprived of their large adult son.

I am here to sate you, those who have come for the hot take. Ok, really I’m here to tell you about how this move, and the corresponding move of Jason Heyward to the disabled list, remakes the Cubs outfield, and what impact it has on both the offense and defense. This is quite a shakeup, and it deserves attention.

Schwarber has been abysmal this year. That much is incontrovertible. His .171/.295/.378 line and below-average defense in left have resulted in below replacement level production by all measures, and that’s with the twelve homers he’s hit this year. He absolutely cannot hit breaking balls right now—he sports an .042 average versus sliders and a .148 versus curves, with little power—despite hitting sliders reasonably well in his debut season. He’s missing a lot of pitches up in the strike zone and his BABIP has cratered, possibly the result of more soft contact this season than in 2015. Despite swinging just as often this year as he did two seasons ago, his contact rates both in and out of the zone are up. It all adds up to one disappointing start to the season, and Theo Epstein shocked many by actually pulling the trigger on a demotion, despite rumblings to that effect making their way across the internet.

The why of Schwarber’s demotion is rather obvious, but the what now is yet to be answered. With Ben Zobrist on the disabled list and Jason Heyward hitting the DL too, the Cubs’ corner outfield options are suddenly significantly diminished. Mark Zagunis made his MLB debut Thursday night in place of Schwarber, but Zagunis is unlikely to be an impact player of any kind. He’s a fourth outfielder with some pop in his bat, and PECOTA likes him for one to two WARP in a full season. He’s fine, and if the Cubs are content rolling with him in left or right for the next few weeks, it won’t be to the club’s detriment.

However, there are more creative solutions with this current roster that the Cubs could pursue if they wanted to get more known quantity hitters and defenders in the lineup. In the absence of the aforementioned players, Albert Almora should slot into center field almost every day. His defense is necessary with Heyward out, and his bat has been fine this season. The only other pure outfielders on the roster are Zagunis and Jon Jay, and with Ben Zobrist out, Javier Baez, Tommy La Stella, or Ian Happ must play second base. Happ should play the outfield and Baez should remain at second, but that leaves one more outfield spot on most days, and so…

Yes, I’m here to suggest, once again, that Kris Bryant play right field while Heyward is out. Bryant is now the second-best defensive outfielder on the team, and the Cubs have Baez and La Stella to cover third base. A Happ-Almora-Bryant outfield is solid defensively and pretty good offensively, and the cumulative drop off in the infield is less than that the Cubs would suffer while playing Zagunis and Jay more often in the outfield. On days when Miguel Montero catches, Willson Contreras can assist in left, but keeping Contreras out of the outfield is a defensive imperative.

Getting Heyward and Zobrist healthy is key to the Cubs having success the rest of this season, and those two returning will eventually do wonders to lengthen the lineup and improve the team’s defense. With the club still mired around .500 and the Brewers perpetually one good series away from widening the division lead, Joe Maddon and company will need to be creative in their roster management. Losing Schwarber hurts, but the slugger returning with confidence and a solid approach will complement the returns of the injured in returning the team to full strength. Until then, though, the Cubs are going to have to cobble together a solid outfield from a stable of solid, but flawed, players.

Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchell—USA Today Sports

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