I’ve not been what you would call the most vocal advocate for Cubs outfielder Chris Coghlan this year. In fact, I feel as though I’ve sort of been the driver’s ed instructor riding shotgun with my foot poised over the auxiliary brake as folks started getting a little too high on the former Rookie of the Year.
That’s not because I don’t like the guy or because I don’t think he can be a valuable piece of the team moving forward though. I just feel that Coghlan would best serve the team as a fourth or fifth outfielder, a solid veteran bat off the bench who knows his way around and isn’t going to lose games for you.
As Theo Epstein said recently, this team has the core talent necessary to compete and it’s now time to start adding some pieces to turn that core into something more than an 89-loss team. And if he’s serious about that, if the Cubs are really to contend for the NL Central title as soon as next season, I’m just not sold on the fact that Chris Coghlan is an integral part of making that happen.
That said, the value the Cubs derived from the erstwhile Marlin was incredible. After requesting and being granted his release from the Marlins, Coghlan signed a one-year deal with the Cubs for only $800,000 dollars. While that kind of pittance represents a little less than the typical bar tab for a Cubs Insider meet-up, it becomes even more absurd when viewed relative to the offensive numbers Cogs put up.
When the Cubs initially signed him, though, that sub-million figure almost felt like overpaying. They certainly didn’t expect him to put up the numbers from his award-winning rookie campaign (.321/.460/.850 with 9 HR and 47 RBI in 128 games) but even the .250-ish hitter from the subsequent four seasons would have earned the deal.
What the Cubs got was a guy who, fully healthy for the first time since an ill-fated pie-in-the-face prank, forced his way into an everyday role by raking all summer. On the season, Coghlan hit .283/.352/.452 with 9 homers and 41 RBI in 125 games. Not quite on par with his first season, but pretty darn good for what he was being paid.
Part of the reason for his great rookie performance was an absolutely sparkling BABIP of .365, which is to say that 36.5% of the balls Coghlan put in play fell for hits. The trouble with that high a number is that it’s unsustainable for all but the best hitters in the game. Consider that over the last 10 years (min. 1000 PA’s) only Yasiel Puig has a higher BABIP (.365).
For the sake of comparison to other active players, Starling Marte carries a .361, Mike Trout a .361, and Joey Votto a .355. As for the Cubs, Starlin Castro’s .325 leads the way; Anthony Rizzo’s .288 is quite a ways on down the list.
So Coghlan was bound to fall back to Earth to some extent, though just how hard and how fast surprised a lot of people. Injuries and inconsistent play resulted in rehab assignments and demotions galore and Coghlan played in fewer than 92 major league games over four seasons from 2010-2013.
But in the aforementioned glut of games this season, Coghlan was able to establish a rhythm, as evidenced by .337 BABIP. This might still be a bit high in terms of an expectation for future performance, but it’s not abnormally so. Also of note is his OBP of .352, second on the team to Rizzo’s .386; on a team populated with high-strikeout, low-OBP sluggers, a guy who can get on base is a nice asset.
I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t take a least a passing glance at Coghlan’s defense. Never a strong suit, his interesting routes to the ball often made for some interesting moments in the outfield in 2014. In reviewing UZR, which reviews a fielder’s defensive contribution in terms of theoretical runs above or below average, Coghlan put up a -1.0. That is, he was 1 run worse than an average OF.
If we’re just looking at the number in a vacuum, his defense with the Cubs was far better than in his time with the Marlins, during which he averaged a -4.6 UZR. But despite the “improvement,” Chris Coghlan is still a below-average defensive player who is in the declining years of what has already been an injury-riddled physical prime.
Tommy Cook assessed Cogs’ performance a little more bluntly, saying: “He had one of the worst defensive seasons I’ve ever seen; that can’t fly when you’re a 4th outfielder. He was basically replacement level and his butchery out there knocked out almost all the production at the plate.”
My point in all this is that Coghlan is unlikely to maintain his 2014 performance moving forward. But we’re not here to talk about the future, as only the current season is up for evaluation. And we’re grading on a curve too; low expectations, low salary, and general dearth of elite talent surrounding him move Coglan closer to Dean’s List than dunce list.