Chicago Cubs: Examining the outfield free-agent market

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs have a problem. They have not had a center fielder or at least a productive one since Dexter Fowler left after the 2016 season.

The upcoming free-agent market is loaded with outfielders, and the Chicago Cubs should be interested. Currently, Albert Almora Jr and Ian Happ are slated to platoon in center field, and Jason Heyward also fills in when needed. Dexter Fowler was also a tremendous leadoff hitter. And the Cubs have not been able to replicate his production out of the leadoff spot–as well as the defense.

The first two names that come to mind are Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts. These two were part of the last draft that Theo Epstein took part in as a member of the Red Sox in 2011. Bradley went in the supplemental first round, and Betts went in the fifth round. Betts has only won an MVP, three Silver Sluggers, four straight Gold Gloves, a batting title, and won the World Series in 2018.

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Betts is not a natural center fielder, but he has the speed and athleticism to play there, though. He was the full-time center fielder in 2015 and played it sporadically the past couple of seasons. Wrigley Field is smaller than Fenway Park, and Betts should have no problem with the transition.

Bradley would not be an upgrade offensively, his career 90 wRC+ doesn’t jump off the page, but he can get to anything in the outfield, and would be the best outfield defender the Cubs have. The apparent front office connections make them the best choices to fill the void, but it’s all about whether the Cubs can afford either one. Jon Lester potentially comes off the payroll, but that’s about it for next season.

George Springer is another prominent name that will be highly sought after next winter. Springer can lead off, will hit 30 home runs, and play decent center field. Springer’s career 133 wRC+ is enticing, and he’s had three 4.5+ WAR seasons, including a career-high in 2019 of 6.5. He also set career highs in home runs and RBIs in 2019 with 39 and 96, respectively.

Springer gets on base 36 percent of the time throughout his career. However, he will be 31 by the time the 2021 season starts, coming to the end of his prime, and he could slow down at any point. The question will be whether the Cubs will want to commit that much money and time to somebody on the potential downturn of his career.

Some of the smaller names the Cubs could target include Kevin Pillar, Michael Taylor from the Nationals, or even Starling Marte. Pillar and Taylor are no better than Almora offensively, and Marte will be 32 at the end of the season. Marte has back-to-back 20 home-run seasons and is steady offensively but posted a -9 DRS in center field in 2019, which may steer teams away.

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Maybe the platoon of Almora and Happ works, or maybe Happ works, and Almora becomes a full-time bench player, or perhaps neither work and the Cubs need to find a replacement. If a replacement is necessary, some dynamite options will be available.