As far as position players go, the Chicago Cubs’ outfield represents the position(s) with the most amount of intrigue. There is a possibility for turnover at all three outfield spots, with the possible exception of right field, where moving Jason Heyward’s contract looks to be extremely difficult. As Albert Almora Jr. failed to lock down a permanent spot last year, and others could be on the move either through trade (Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ) or free agency (Jon Jay), it looks like there’s going to be some new personnel at the position no matter what. Should the Cubs choose to pursue an outfielder on the trade market, centerfield could be a focal point, with Christian Yelich representing perhaps the most well-rounded option to fit the Cubs’ needs moving forward.
2017 Stats: 695 PA, .282/.369/.439/.807, 19.7 K%, 11.5 BB%, .156 ISO, .292 TAv, 115 wRC+
How He Fits: The Cubs could use some stability in centerfield. Jon Jay and Almora made for a nice platoon, with Jay performing steadily all year and Almora catching fire against lefties towards the end of the year. The team had six different players appear in center last year, with those two, Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, Leonys Martin, and Kris Bryant all logging time in the middle of the outfield (albeit just six innings total for Bryant). Yelich would fill two spots of need for the Cubs, as he not only spent the entire year in centerfield last year, but he also has a healthy amount of experience in the leadoff spot.
The Cubs lacked a true table-setter with the departure of Dexter Fowler, and it was noticeable throughout the year. Although Yelich primarily hit in the no. 3 spot for Miami last season, he has almost 800 career plate appearances to his name out of the leadoff spot. In those 774 plate appearances, he’s hit .282, reached base at a .359 clip, with FanGraphs having him at a wRC+ of 116. He’s a guy that makes regular contact, with his 79.6 percent contact rate ranking 11th among qualifying outfielders in the National League last year, and 21st among outfielders across Major League Baseball. His walk rate, at 11.5 percent, ranked 13th overall among league outfielders, and it’s a mark that has gone up in each of the last three seasons.
In terms of his fielding, he brings a just about average glove to centerfield, something that would likely benefit from playing next to Jason Heyward, should the Cubs fail to move his contract (if they even try to do so). As far as Yelich is concerned, we’re looking at a player who checks a lot of boxes. He can play center. He can slide over to left if needed. He can hit at the top of the order. He has a track record of sustained success at this point, serving as an above average bat in each of the last four seasons, including a season of .318 in the TAv department in 2016. As far as outfield options go, Yelich is among the most enticing.
Why It Won’t Work: On paper, this would appear to be a perfect fit. But like a lot of the Cubs’ potential trade targets, it could come down to the price simply being too high. This is especially true when you consider the contract aspect of this. He’s signed to a team-friendly contract, which maxes out at $14 million, through 2021, with a club option for 22. The Marlins don’t have to deal Yelich either. And with a number of teams likely in on him, the price will likely be driven way up. Could it reach a point where the Cubs aren’t willing to pursue him anymore? Absolutely. In fact, it almost seems likely. This is the type of deal where Addison Russell or Kyle Schwarber or Ian Happ would be a lock to be included. Miami may even ask for more than one of them, with additional prospect depth in the deal.
From a personnel standpoint, it’s difficult to see this not working out, though, if it were to come to fruition. Yelich is too ideal a fit, given the Cubs’ needs. It’s all about the price.
Alternatives: Our own Russell Dorsey recently covered Jackie Bradley, Jr. as a potential option in centerfield, and should the Cubs fail to acquire Yelich, JBJ would certainly represent a wonderful alternative. It’s possible that he’d cost less to acquire, but it’s also important to consider the fact that he doesn’t present the offensive upside that Yelich does, at least after a below average 2016. He also wouldn’t bring the ability to hit at the top of the order that Yelich does. His defense, however, certainly grades out as superior to the Marlins centerfielder.
Lead photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing—USA Today Sports