If Cubs Need An Outfielder, Look No Further Than Zobrist, Aoki

The Cubs 40-man roster is filled with players who can each make a case to be on the big league squad after Spring Training. This can be said largely regarding the current situation the Cubs are facing in the outfield, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The Chris Denorfia signing added depth, but they still have some questions in center field and also at the top of their lineup.

Currently, Arismendy Alcantara looks to be the starter in center. Last year he was called up to fill in for Darwin Barney due to an injury in mid-July and some wondered if Alcantara was there to stay. Well, Barney was DFA’d a few days later and the then-22-year-old Alcantara finished the season with the Cubs. He played in 70 games and slashed .205/.254/.367 with 10 home runs and 8 stolen bases.

A problem surrounding the young switch-hitter, along with many other young call-ups, was his strikeout rate. Alcantara struck out 31% of the time in his first small stint, falling victim to Major League pitching. He managed to walk 5.6% of the time, but that number needs to be improved. At only 23 though, he still has plenty of time to do that.

Don’t get too caught up in the bad numbers though; Alcantara has the skill set to put together a pretty special career. His bat speed and surprising pop suggests that he could hit close to 20 homers a year while using his foot speed to stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples. Alcantara can play pretty much anywhere in the field and the fact he is a switch hitter makes him even more valuable.

In an article written by Bruce Levine, an NL scout he spoke to had good things to say about the versatile Alcantara.

I love his fluid play and enthusiasm. The swing-and-miss factor was a bit alarming (93 strikeouts in 278 at-bats), but it is too early to say he can’t modify his swing. He has excellent speed and surprising power for a guy that may be 160 pounds dripping wet. He will be around for a while, because he is a switch-hitter and plays multiple positions.

The real issue here is in putting the burden of everyday playing time in center — a position Alcantara learned last year in the minors — on a 23-year-old with only 48 games played in the outfield. It could be a bit overwhelming and could hurt his development. That’s why the Cubs are kicking the tires of some outfielders like Colby Rasmus, Coco Crisp, Denard Span and Ben Revere. 

Rasmus is an interesting name and probably the most realistic of the above bunch, but his career has been erratic to say the least. It really wouldn’t make sense for the A’s to deal Crisp and for the Cubs to pick up his newly-signed two-year, $22.75 million contract. The Nationals want to win, so they would be wary to deal the Cubs Span unless Theo Epstein made a rather significant offer. Ben Revere is pretty much Juan Pierre; I’ll pass on him.

This brings me to Ben Zobrist, the prized outfielder reportedly being made available. Like Alcantara, Zobrist can play anywhere; the difference between the two is that Zobrist is 34 and established as one of the best utility men in the game. I won’t get too deep into why he would be a great fit with the Cubs, but I’ll make it short and sweet. He’s a veteran, he has history with Joe Maddon, he can hit, he can field, and he can improve this Cubs team by three-to-five wins with his production.

If Zobrist was a free agent, this would be a no-brainer signing. Unfortunately, the Rays have him under control for one more season and he’s owed $7.5 mil — a number the Cubs can surely take on if they decide to deal for him. But will they? Reports indicate the Cubs are among the teams “seriously interested” in Zobrist and Tampa is looking for both a top and mid-level prospect in return. Are the Cubs willing to deal from their coveted farm system for one guaranteed year of service time from Ben Zobrist?

In my humble opinion, given the circumstances for the Cubs going into 2015, the best I could do for the Rays is Dan Vogelbach, a 22-year-old power-hitting first basemen who suits an American League club as a potential DH, and Billy McKinney. If the shoe fits, it wouldn’t be terrible if the Cubs managed to throw Welington Castillo in that mix as well. Zobrist would take the Cubs from a fringe team, to a sure-fire playoff threat.

While Zobrist is the prize, another intriguing option is Nori Aoki. It’s a shame to call the latter a consolation because he has a ton of value himself, but if the Cubs decide to not go the Zobrist route, adding Aoki would provide stability at the top of their order and in the outfield, as well as consistency.

The Cubs harp on a hitter’s ability to work the count, make consistent contact, and get on base. That is evident by the Tommy La Stella acquisition. On top of Aoki’s impressive 2014, in which he slashed .285/.349/.360 with 22 doubles and 17 stolen bases, he almost never struck out. In fact, he went down on strikes just six more times than he walked and his K rate of 8.9% ranked fifth best in all of baseball last season.

On top of his impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio, Aoki ranked seventh in all of Major League Baseball last season with a contact rate of 90.8 percent (compared to Alcantara’s 70.2%); he swung and missed only 9.2 percent of the time. His BABIP also ranked above league average. Nori Aoki is a perfect hitter to man the top of the Cubs’ lineup, especially since reports suggest they prefer a left-handed-hitting center fielder.

Defensively, Aoki Holds up with a career .990 fielding percentage. Though he has only played 21 games in center in his career, the adjustment should not be a dramatic one seeing as how he has 402 games of experience in the outfield.

Among the bunch of outfielders the Cubs currently have, it looks as though Soler, Denorfia, and Coghlan are guarantees. There is, however, a lot of uncertainty surrounding each of them in terms of production. Soler needs to stay healthy for a full season and who knows if he can mash like he did late in the season last year. Coghlan took over as the Cubs’ everyday leadoff man, but that was after struggling in his first two months of 2014. Anyone who believes Denorfia acts as an everyday starter is kidding themselves.

With Aoki, and of course Zobrist as well, there will be a stronger sense of consistency added to the lineup and in the field. If reports are correct, teams are only offering Aoki two-year deals that should not go over $20 million. That’s easy money if the Cubs decide to go in that direction.

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