Chicago Cubs: Breaking down the center field situation

Feb 15, 2017; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs outfielder Jon Jay takes batting practice in a batting cage during a Spring Training workout at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 15, 2017; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs outfielder Jon Jay takes batting practice in a batting cage during a Spring Training workout at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

After losing Dexter Fowler via free agency, the Chicago Cubs will likely employ a platoon approach to answering the center field question in 2017.

About this time last year, Dexter Fowler surprised his Chicago Cubs teammates in Mesa after hammering out a one-year deal with Theo Epstein and the front office.

He brought that same level of excitement to the field on a near-daily basis for the Cubs, leading the league in on-base percentage for much of the season before heading to St. Louis this winter as a free agent.
Chicago now turns the page on its center field playbook; without a clear-cut choice, Joe Maddon is likely to utilize a variety of pieces in the outfield this season. One might even say there isn’t a ‘regular’ lineup we’ll see for much of the season given the pieces in motion.

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Center field options for the Cubs include Jason Heyward, who seems more likely to control right field given his Gold Glove-level defense there, Jon Jay and Albert Almora.

Jay joined the Cubs via free agency this offseason after finishing an injury-plagued 2016 campaign in San Diego. Almora burst onto the scene with some impressive postseason plays last October.

Before one can assess the center field position, though, the corner outfield spots must be figured out. Kyle Schwarber will spend the majority of his playing time in left field, per Maddon. An outfield spot will open up on the rare occasion where he’s behind the dish, allowing someone like Ben Zobrist to shift into such a role.

Setting the lineup – or at least trying to

The difficulty in assessing how the Chicago Cubs will take the field on any given day lies in their sheer versatility. Both Zobrist and Javier Baez can play virtually any position on the diamond, while key players like Kris Bryant also know their way around both the infield and outfield.

For the sake of this article, let’s assume the following: Schwarber is going to receive his fair share of rest this season given the severity of his injury last year. Expect Zobrist from Bryant in left when he isn’t in the lineup. Whichever of the two isn’t in left will likely play in the infield alongside Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo and Baez.

Jason Heyward is a right fielder. He’s the best at his position by almost any measure and the lion’s share of the value he brought to the team last year during the regular season came defensively. It seems unlikely they’ll move him off that position given how good he is there.
Rizzo and Russell are the only other locks at their respective positions. Both are Gold Glove-caliber defenders and are in the lineup daily.

Which brings us back to where we started: center field.

A rookie hoping his bat comes along quickly

Let’s start with Almora, who is entering his first full season in the big leagues. Last year, he ranked as a better left fielder than center fielder, but he’ll get plenty of looks in camp this year up the middle. In his first taste of Major League pitching last year, the 23-year-old batted .277/.308/.455 with three homers and 14 RBI.

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Chicago Cubs

Plate discipline seems to be his most glaring weakness: since 2014, Almora has not posted an on-base percentage north of .330 in a single season.

Defensively, he brings a high degree of value to a roster. He ranks as an above-average outfielder, but a below-average bat. And that’s exactly what PECOTA expects from him in 2017.

Projections estimate a .255/.277/.386 slash-line from Almora this season across some 200 or so plate appearances.

He projects as a league-average baserunner and a plus-defender; nothing different from what we’ve grown accustomed to as he worked through the system.

Quality lefty who hits without splits

It’s because of his weak bat that Jay will likely be the team’s everyday starter in center. In addition to adding another left-handed bat to the lineup, he carries no significant splits over his career. In fact, Jay hits right-handers to a tune of .288/.352/.394 and lefties an almost identical .284/.352/.355.

Apart from a slight power drop-off, he gets the same results regardless of matchups.
Defensively, he’s not as solid as Almora in the outfield. Jay has improved with the glove over the course of his career, but still ranks as league average. When you take into account Fowler projected as a sub-par option heading into 2016, there’s reason for optimism here.

Jay will be flanked on one side by Heyward, arguably the best defensive outfielder in the game today, which cuts down on the workload for him in terms of range. Left field is expected to be sub-par for the Cubs in terms of defense, but when the other seven positions are average or above-average, it hardly seems a reason for concern.

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On a daily basis, we’re going to see countless combinations on the diamond under Joe Maddon. In a four-game series, you may very well see four different defensive combinations.

But, by and large, Jon Jay will likely see more reps in center field this year. He brings too much to the table with his bat to spend three-quarters of the season riding the pine.