Chicago Cubs: Winter Meetings and options for center field

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

After two days of Winter Meetings, the Chicago Cubs are still looking for an option in center field.  What are their internal, free agent, and trade options?

When the Theo Epstein decided not to retain Dexter Fowler after the 2016 World Series, the Chicago Cubs lost both a center fielder and a player to hit in the one spot.  They are still looking for that guy heading into the fourth season since 2016.

Internal options aren’t there

Albert Almora was the heir apparent to take over center field duties. His glove, range, and arm were not in doubt.  Even after a terrible one year drop off in defensive performance in 2019, Almora still has a better than league average career fielding percentage of .900, three defensive runs saved above average, and a positive UZR-150.

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Unfortunately, Albert’s bat never materialized.  From 2016 when he came up to 2018, his bat showed promise, but in 2019, as with the fielding, it all came apart.  Almora posted a -0.4 oWAR, and 64 wOBA, and ended up in AAA to trying to pull it together. It didn’t work.

Jason Heyward shifted to center field when Nick Castellanos joined the team in August.  While the five-time gold glove winner was serviceable in center field, he’s much better in right field. A lot better.

The third internal option is 25-year-old Ian Happ.  Happ was a first-round pick in 2015 and was called up in 2017 after having accrued fewer than 980 professional plate appearances, and only 116 at Triple-A Iowa.  He wasn’t ready.

Ian struggled so phenomenally in 2019 Spring Training that he remained down in the minors until July 26th.  Let this be a warning to those wanting to elevate Nico Hoerner to the Show in 2020. Happ had twice the plate appearances Hoerner does right now.

Happ did seem to pull it together towards the end of 2019, slashing .311/.348/.672 for a 1.021 OPS in September.  However, this was when many teams were employing September pitching call ups.

Almora and Happ are two first-round picks who are on the bubble this season.  2020 is a make or break season for them, assuming the Cubs don’t deal one or both as part of a package.

But whether one or the other breaks out, neither projects as a productive one spot hitter in the line-up.

Looking outside for that elusive piece

The free-agent pickings for center field are thin.  A few have a positive WAR, led by 36-year-old Brett Gardner (3.6 WAR).  The Yankee free agent still roams center field effectively, compiling a .995 fielding percentage in 98 games last season, and a respectable 3.1 UZR-150.  Also, his speed, usually in decline by the mid-thirties, remains a vital part of his game.

But the clock is ticking, and Gardner won’t come as cheap as you’d think a 36-year-old might.  He’s not a leadoff spot hitter and would he be willing to take a one or two year deal with an option?

Just before the Winter Meetings, the Pirates announced that Starling Marte could be a trade piece for a catching prospect.  Interestingly enough, the Cubs are stacked with catching prospects, including P.J. Higgins (if he isn’t lost to the Rule 5 draft), Jhonny Pereda, and Miguel Amaya.  Marte had a rebound year at the plate, slashing .295/.342/.503 with a .845 OPS.

It was a tougher year in the field in 2019. Nonetheless, Marte remains a lethal hitter, and the two-time Gold Glove winner has been quite useful in center field over his career.

In Japan, 31-year-old Shogo Akiyama has been made available to MLB teams.  This is an intriguing opportunity and could be more cost-effective than Starling Marte‘s $11.5 million in 2020.

With a career .376 OBP that he has exceeded every season since 2015 and leadoff spot potential, Akiyama could be the plate discipline, contact hitter that the Cubs have been searching for since 2016.

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The pickings are thin all the way around for center field this offseason. But these two options in Marte and Akiyama could fit the need.