Following the departure of their leadoff man and a fan favorite, the Chicago Cubs approach 2017 with questions in centerfield. Luckily, they’ll feature a number of ways in which they can answer those exact questions.
Former Chicago Cubs outfielder, Dexter Fowler‘s exit in free agency left a pretty tremendous void at the top of the lineup, as well as in center. He represented the ideal leadoff man with an elite approach but had also seen his defensive metrics improve in his two years in Chicago as well.
As of now, the Cubs appear set to transition Kyle Schwarber to the top spot in the order, but someone like Ben Zobrist could also slot in there if needed. Ultimately, the Chicago Cubs have a host of guys with high on-base skills that should suit them well there.
Our larger immediate concern is how the Cubs plan to fill the void in the field. This has not been laid out in quite as finite a manner.
With legitimate center fielders and a notably versatile lineup, though, it’s not as if the Cubs are exactly hurting for available players for the position. Nonetheless, it’s worth exploring how things could shake out at the position before it’s eventually determined in the spring.
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As things stand now, Albert Almora is the guy. Or, at least, the Cubs are hoping that he’s the guy. The organization would love nothing more than for Almora to latch onto that starting gig and showcase enough offense to run away with it.
Should he struggle to provide consistent production, though, Jon Jay was signed to a one-year deal as a fourth outfielder/Almora insurance. Of course, it’s important to mention Jason Heyward as a viable third option, with any of Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, or Ben Zobrist taking his slot in right should that become necessary.
Let’s run them down.
Almora: The Preference
The reason that the Cubs felt comfortable allowing Fowler to walk, other than the massive contract that he signed, was the looming presence of one of their top prospects. There isn’t any question what he provides in a couple of respects.
His defense features elite upside, both in regard to his glove and his arm. If anything, he’s an upgrade over Fowler in that respect. He’s also an exceptional baserunner. He’s always graded out well on the basepaths, but we hadn’t seen that really in motion until his tagging up on first base in Game 7 of the World Series.
There are questions about the bat. Albert Almora Jr. has never demonstrated a particularly great approach and isn’t a high walk guy. His walk rate in 117 big league plate appearances last year was just 4.3%. There’s some pop there, which will be intriguing if his contact rate can come along enough for him to demonstrate it regularly.
Regardless, if he can provide even league-average offense (which was indicated in at least one regard with a 101 wRC+ in his small sample of PAs), it’ll justify his presence in the lineup. He doesn’t have to be Dexter Fowler with the stick. He just has to be consistent and maybe show a little bit of growth.
Jay: The Platoon Option
Jon Jay is here to provide depth. That could turn into a role as a complement or a fallback. In terms of what he brings to the mix, he isn’t anything particularly special. His defensive metrics are unimpressive, but neither were Fowler’s upon his arrival (or during his 2015). He likely performs better than those numbers indicate, though he doesn’t have anywhere the arm that Almora does.
Offensively, he should return to his favorable contact numbers, as his 79.4% contact rate in 2016 was a career low. He doesn’t provide a lot of pop, as a .097 ISO guy, but has always demonstrated quality contact and good OBP skills. As far as the entire skill set, he’s exactly what you’d like from a fourth outfielder. He’s serviceable but far more valuable as a supplementary piece rather than someone you have to rely on consistently.
Heyward: The Emergency Option
Should Almora struggle or something else happen, the Cubs also have the option of deploying Jason Heyward in center. However, the hope is that this might be something we see on occasion, rather than anything consistent. While Heyward can provide above average defense in center, his elite presence in right is far more valuable.
This would, however, allow the Cubs to get the bats of Bryant, Zobrist, and Baez into the lineup together. That’s intriguing enough, but Joe Maddon will likely find other ways to ensure that he can utilize that combination. But outside of some spot starts, the team likely prefers to deploy a combination of Almora and Jay there.
Essentially, it breaks down like this. Plan A is Albert Almora as a full-time centerfielder. He’s a potentially elite defender who should be a capable option if his bat can be even average. Plan B features some sort of platoon between Almora and Jay. Jason Heyward’s presence in center won’t likely be more than a once-in-a-while type of event, but it’s an option.
The good news is that neither one has to be stellar with the bat. They’re not trying to replace Dexter Fowler’s offense quite to the extent that he provided last season. The return of Schwarber and continued growth of Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, Baez, etc. should be able to do that.
The hope, first and foremost, is that the combination of Almora and Jay can continue to allow the Cubs to live up to the defensive standard that they’ve set forth. If they can continue to do that, then the even average offense would be acceptable. Regardless, though, it’ll be an interesting situation to watch this spring and as the season gets underway.