Position by Position: Center Field

Albert Almora Jr. in the World Series (MiddleTown Press)

When it became clear that Dexter Fowler’s career year and impending free agency meant that it was highly unlikely that the offensive catalyst of 2016’s historic run would return, the Cubs brass had two options – stand pat and put Albert Almora in position to be their everyday center fielder and Opening Day starter before he turned 23, or add a veteran to replicate an outfield platoon similar to the one that will be employed in left field this season, albeit smaller.

Signing Jon Jay for $8 million acted as a stopgap, anticipating that Fowler would indeed eventually cash in and sign elsewhere for a price the Cubs weren’t willing to pay. It’s worth questioning, as this FanGraphs piece does, what exactly Jay brings to the table, when there remains a significant production gap in Fowler’s absence, considering the former Cubs leadoff man had the third highest WAR total on the team behind only Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

A career .287 hitter in seven seasons, Jay had a line of .291/.331/.389 with the San Diego Padres last year. He is a tick above replacement level offensively with a 0.5 fWAR mark. Collectively, the numbers don’t inspire much confidence in this position group at the plate, collectively managing just 1.1 fWAR between Jay, Almora, Jason Heyward, and Jacob Hanneman, whom Fangraphs included in their projected depth chart. To Jay’s credit, he did post an oRAR (offensive runs above replacement) of 17, which puts him in the neighborhood of Max Kepler and C.J. Cron. Being a left-handed bat certainly doesn’t hurt, as it gives manager Joe Maddon the opportunity to play the matchups as often as possible.

Jon Jay playing for the Padres in 2016 (Alex Gallardo/AP)

But just as Fowler is almost certain to regress to the mean in 2017, Heyward’s dismal 2016 leaves plenty of room for upward mobility, which would take a lot of pressure not only off of major run producers like Bryant, Rizzo, and Schwarber, but also lessen the load on Jay or Almora.

The Cubs haven’t seemed very interested in playing Heyward in center, and it will likely remain that way unless injuries make that necessary. Pittsburgh moved Andrew McCutchen from center to right to accommodate a better outfielder in Starling Marte this offseason, and now with Jay to split time with and/or spot start for Almora as he matures, there’s really not much of a case for shifting Heyward away from right field.

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How much Almora will play remains to be seen, but the biggest question with him is what kind of impact he’ll have this year. Forecasts from ZiPS and Steamer have Almora at .269/.298/.396  and .270/.300./.398, which is respectable for a guy with less than 50 big league games under his belt. His plate discipline may give the Cubs headaches initially, but this is just a part of the growing pains of developing young prospects. Much was made about Fowler playing deeper last season and his improved playing the outfield, but the thought that should reassure Cubs fans this season is the notion that Almora’s ceiling as an outfielder is already much higher than Fowler’s ever was.

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Position by Position: Left Field

(AP)

The wait is over. Cubs fans will get to see Kyle Schwarber for a full season in left field after missing all of the 2016 regular season. We all got a sneak peek of Schwarber in the World Series, when he returned from an ACL tear in time to hit .412 in 17 at bats and even steal a base.

It looks as if Kyle Schwarber will be getting the nod in left field for the majority of the games in the upcoming season after the Cubs traded outfielder Jorge Soler for relief pitcher Wade Davis. However, Schwarber is still recovering from a serious knee injury and he’s only played 85 games in his Major League career, postseason included. Schwarber won’t start all 162 games, and he probably won’t get close to a full season. Other players who will play in left field include Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora Jr, Wilson Contreras, and Matt Szczur.

Kyle Schwarber, born in Ohio in 1993, will be playing in his age-24 season in 2017. He was drafted fourth overall in 2014 by the Cubs as a catcher out of Indiana University-Bloomington, and made his debut in the following season. In 273 at bats in 69 games during his rookie season, Schwarber slashed .246/.355/.487 and hit 16 home runs while drawing 36 walks. The success continued for Schwarber in the postseason, where he hit 5 homers in 27 at bats in the Wild Card, NLDS, and NLCS. In just 78 games, he was beginning to make a name for himself in the North Side, and there were high hopes for him in 2016.

On April 7, during a regular game against the Diamondbacks, Jean Segura hit a line drive to left-center field. There was miscommunication between Schwarber and the center fielder Dexter Fowler, which ultimately resulted in a nasty collision between the two. Sources said it was only an ankle injury for Kyle, but it ended up being a torn ACL, leaving Cubs fans speechless.

(Ezra Saw/Getty Images)

He was supposed to be out for the entire season, but despite numerous statements saying Schwarber would not return for the postseason, he returned for the World Series! He still didn’t look too great and wasn’t able to play in left field, but having his bat in the lineup for the games in Cleveland provided a boost for the Cubbies. In 17 at bats as a DH and pinch hitter, Schwarber slashed .412/.500/.471, driving in two runs and walking three times. If Schwarber can hit off the likes of Corey Kluber (whom he went 3 for 4 against) after missing an entire season, then can’t he hit off of anyone?

The Schwarber return not only helped the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years, but also provided a ton of optimism for Cubs fans regarding the young left fielder. In a small sample size, he proved that he could still see the ball well, and that the injury wouldn’t set him back as much as some were saying. He might not be able to play behind the plate, but it looks like he’ll be able to be the slugger he was in his rookie year.

Thar being said, Schwarber is far from perfect. He’s not very good defensively (-3 DRS in LF in 2015) and his ACL tear won’t help. He has really bad splits against lefties (.143/.213/.268 slash line in 61 career PA). That’s worse than Jake Arrieta’s line vs lefties (.240/.269/.360). He can also work on his relatively high strikeout rate (career 28.4 K%).

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(FanGraphs)

Schwarber also has a tendency to hit the ball to the right side, as you’d expect from a left-handed slugger, and the shift will be in play for most of his at bats in 2017. Hitting the ball to the opposite field should help Schwarber improve next year.

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I’d expect Schwarber gets the majority of the starts in left field when there’s a righty on the mound for the opposition, as his slash lines vs righties (.272/.392/.544) is great for such a young hitter. In fact, 14 of his 16 home runs in 2015 came off of righties and he hits for more power against them.

When Schwarber doesn’t get the nod, however, Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant will be the next in line. Zo played 127.2 inning in left in 2016, and Bryant played 353.1 innings at the same position. Playing one of the two in left field will open up a spot in the infield for Javier Báez, who would replace Zobrist at second or Bryant at third when one of the two plays the outfield. Other options for left field include recent acquisition Jon Jay, who has played 339 innings in left in his career, as well as sophomore player Albert Almora Jr, who played in a few games in left in his rookie year. The Cubs also have Matt Szczur, who played over 200 innings in left in 2016, and Willson Contreras can also man left field, but he’ll primarily catch in the upcoming season. All are solid options, but we likely won’t see Jay or Almora there unless all other options are off the table.

Joe Maddon has several intriguing options for left field in 2017, and it will be interesting to see how the position is managed. Kyle Schwarber should get the majority of the starts in left, but after that  Maddon has plenty of options and can have fun with it.

Position by Position: Shortstop

As Spring Training begins, Talk Cubs is starting a series highlighting each position on the Cubs, from First Base to the Bullpen. Talk Cubs will be posting a new position each day, and each preview includes last season’s stats, projections for 2017, and possible injury replacements. Position by Position gives fans a better idea of what the 2016 World Series Champions will look like in 2017 as Spring Training unfolds.

Russell’s Grand Slam in Game 6 of the World Series (Sporting News)

When Addison Russell (presumably) makes the start for the Cubs on Opening Day at shortstop, he’ll be younger than Kris Bryant the day Bryant made his debut. Let that sink in. Kris has already won Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and a World Series. Russell still has two years to do all of that (although he’s already accomplished the last one)!

The reigning starting shortstop for the NL All-Star team does have some accomplishments of his own, however.

Russell, who was drafted 11th overall by the Oakland Athletics in 2012, quickly made a name for himself in the minors. In 2013, he was rated the #22 overall prospect by Baseball Prospectus, and in 2014, he made his way all the way to seventh on the list. Then, on July 5 of 2014, he was dealt with Billy McKinney and Dan Straily to the rebuilding Cubs for Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija. He quickly made a name for himself, and got called up in 2015 at the age of 21.

In 2015, Russell slashed .242/.307/.389 in 142 games, and posted a 3.3 WAR. Not too shabby for a 21-year-old! There was definitely room for improvement, and improve he did. In 2016, he posted a slash line of .238/.321/.417, and a WAR of 4.3. He was the starting shortstop for the National League All-Star Game, and even received 5 points for the 2016 NL MVP, good for 19th.

With a career wRC+ of 93, and 66 defensive runs saved (44 at shortstop), Russell has been more of a defensive first shortstop in his first couple seasons. He’s a little below average with the bat (-9.5 batting runs above average), but makes up for it with his glove (28.7 fielding runs above average) at one of the hardest positions to play in baseball. His 95 RBI in 2016 may be a little deceptive, as hitting behind Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Ben Zobrist definitely shows. If you believe in “clutch”, Addi has that too, putting up a .271/.342/.421 slash line in 244 high leverage situations in his career.

(Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Addi is one of four shortstops in MLB history to accumulate 5.0+ defensive WAR through age 22. The three others (Travis Jackson, Rogers Hornsby, Rabbit Maranville) all have a plaque in Cooperstown. That’s pretty impressive.

However, Russell is even more known for his postseason heroics in the Cubs’ 2016 World Series run. He joined Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb as the only players to drive in nine runs in the World Series before turning 23. He became the first player in Major League history with 6 RBI in a potential elimination World Series game (which he did in the first three innings of Game 6!). Those heroics even made him the sixth most Googled MLB player in 2016.

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So, what can Cubs fans expect from Addison Russell in 2017? Steamer projects him to slash .247/.321/.418, a 1 point improvement in the wRC+ category (going from 95 to 96). My personal biases expect a little more from him, because I’d expect his walk rate to improve with experience and his strikeout rate to drop. As for defense, I’d expect we’ll see more of the same excellence Addi brought in his rookie and sophomore seasons. He’s a permanent shortstop now, as opposed to his rookie season which he split between second and short. When looking at his spray charts from his first two seasons, you can definitely see his offensive improvements.

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(FanGraphs)
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(FanGraphs)

 

He’s been getting more hits to the left side, as he’s hitting it further into left field. However, a major source of doubles for Russell in 2015 came from hitting it into deep right-center, something he didn’t do much the following season.

It’s easy to be excited when talking about Addison Russell and his future, but what do the Cubs have behind him just in case?

Javier Baez, the Cubs’ super role player, looks to be lacking a starting spot in 2017. He’ll get the nod at short when Russell gets a day off, and if Russell is out for an extended period of time will likely take over the shortstop position. I bet a lot of teams would take Baez as a starting shortstop. Baez played 194 innings at short in 2016, and has played 494 innings there in his career, worth 1 DRS.

Kris Bryant, while he looks to be staying at third more in 2017, can handle shortstop if necessary for the Cubs. It’s obviously not his natural position, and he won’t be the defensive presence like Russell or Baez, but he could probably handle it. Bryant has played one inning at shortstop in his career, but did not handle any chances there.

Ben Zobrist, who looks to be the Cubs starting second baseman in 2017, can also man the shortstop position. He, like Bryant, likely wouldn’t be above average at the position, but Zo has surprisingly played 1766 innings there in his career, worth -10 DRS.

Addison Russell is the future of the Cubs organization at age 23, and it should be fun to see what he does for the North Siders in 2017.

Position by Position: Second Base

As Spring Training begins, Talk Cubs is starting a series highlighting each position on the Cubs, from First Base to the Bullpen. Talk Cubs will be posting a new position each day, and each preview includes last season’s stats, projections for 2017, and possible injury replacements. Position by Position gives fans a better idea of what the 2016 World Series Champions will look like in 2017 as Spring Training unfolds.

(Sports Illustrated)

A tough decision lies ahead for Joe Maddon and the coaching staff as they will try to figure out who will be pairing with Addison Russell in the middle of the infield this year. Who do they want to start at second base? The 2016 World Series MVP? Or the 2016 NLCS MVP? For most teams, that person would be the same player, but with the depth the Cubs have in the infield, both Ben Zobrist and Javier Báez are competing for the spot. Both are equally deserving: Zobrist has an incredibly reliant offensive track record and Báez has a high ceiling, not to mention spectacular defensive ability. So who should get the majority of starts at second?

Zobrist and Báez took different paths to the majors. Zobrist, an Illinois native, was selected in the 6th round of the 2004 amateur draft by the Astros but didn’t debut until 2006 after he was traded to Tampa Bay. He struggled his first three years in the majors, accumulating -0.4 fWAR in 145 games in the majors. He had a breakout season in 2009, slashing .297/.405/.543 and hitting 27 homers while driving in 91 RBI. He achieved his first All-Star selection, placed 8th in AL MVP voting, and was worth an outstanding 8.6 fWAR. Over the next seven seasons, Zobrist averaged 4.62 fWAR per year, received two more All-Star selections, and won two World Series in five trips to the postseason. Before the 2016 season, he signed a 4 year $56M contract with the Cubs through his age 37 season.

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Zobrist uses all fields extremely well (Baseball Savant)

Báez, on the other hand, was the 9th overall pick of the 2011 draft, a remnant of the pre-Epstein regime. Báez spent the better part of his first four years in the minors, but he arrived in the majors with a splash when he homered in his debut to give the Cubs a win. He has the flare of a first round pick and the strikeout rate (29.9% in MLB) of a High-A slugger. Across three years in the majors, Báez has appeared in 222 games, though only recorded 759 PA’s, and has swatted 24 home runs. 2016 was by far his best season, where he played in 142 games (450 PA’s) and slashed .273/.314/.423 while accumulating 2.7 fWAR. His real contributions in 2016 came from his defense, where he was within one DRS of the second base leader Dustin Pedroia. While Báez had 11 DRS to Pedroia’s 12 DRS, Báez did it in 30% fewer innings. If Baez played a full season at second and kept up the same rate of saving runs, he would have saved over 33 runs last year, surpassing last year’s DRS leader Mookie Betts.

Báez in the NLDS (Sporting News)

So who would the Cubs rather have at second for most of the season? The grizzled veteran who puts up reliable offensive numbers but does not rate well defensively (-3 DRS at 2B last season) or the young stud who strikes out too much but plays some of the best defense in the league? The answer might be a little simpler than previously thought.

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Think about it. A second base platoon where one player provides excellent offense and the other outstanding defense. With Báez and Zobrist, this platoon could not only be possible but could be extremely effective. So how do we decide who starts against whom? Though not necessarily a primarily offensive powerhouse, Báez hit lefties very well last year. Though he only had 122 AB’s against lefties in 2016, his batting average was 53 points higher against lefties, not to mention that his wRC+ (runs per plate appearance, scaled to 100) was significantly better against lefties (124 wRC+ with 100 being average) than righties (82 wRC+).

Zobrist, meanwhile, had a lower batting average against righties, 40 points lower in fact, but had more power against righties, hitting 10 more home runs last year. The fact that Zobrist is a switch hitter provides more value, as pitching changes would affect Zobrist less than Báez. In fact, Zobrist might actually do better against a lefty reliever. While his wRC+ was lower against righties (123 against righties as opposed to 129 against lefties) Báez’s outstanding defense and significant splits in favor of hitting lefties would counteract what Zobrist loses by only hitting righties.

(CSN Chicago)

In Báez, the Cubs have an excellent defender who hits lefties well and has good K% (18.4%) and BB% (8.1%) against them, while Zobrist has more power against righties, even if he does have a significantly lower batting average. As a result of platooning them, each player would be used somewhat regularly. Using them regularly could increase the effectiveness of defensive changes in games (Báez coming in for Zobrist with a lead) and offensive changes (Zobrist coming in for Báez when they need to get going at the plate) which gives Maddon more moves to make late in games. While the lefty-righty platoon would help Báez the most, Zobrist would still stand to benefit against righties with his increased power.

In the end, the Cubs are in an excellent position at second with two potential All-Stars, not to mention the depth in the minor leagues with Ian Happ and others. If either Zobrist or Báez were injured, the replacement at both the major league level and minor league level would be excellent, and second base looks like one of the strongest positions for the Cubs going forward.