Exploring The Cubs Outfield Situation After Addition Of Dexter Fowler

Depth and flexibility in the roster were two key topics Cubs manager Joe Maddon addressed during his “Meet the Coaching Staff” panel at the Cubs Convention. He has both in the outfield this season. As it stands, a case could be made for each of the outfielders on the Cubs’ 40-man to make the opening day roster. The list looks like this:

  • Chris Coghlan
  • Chris Denorfia
  • Junior Lake
  • Jorge Soler
  • Ryan Sweeney
  • Matt Szczur
  • Arismendy Alcantara

And, according to multiple confirmed reports, the Cubs have acquired Dexter Fowler from Houston in exchange for Dan Straily and Luis Valbuena.

Alcantara was slated to be the Cubs starter in centerfield before Fowler’s acquisition. Now, however, the addition of Fowler adds stability to the outfield and allows Alcantara to flourish as a super-utility man. In following through with what reports have been suggesting for the better part of a month, the Cubs added an everyday outfielder to the roster, which makes the competition for a spot on the 25-man even tougher.

One of the main reasons the Cubs want a consistent outfielder like Fowler is because they don’t know what they are going to get with Alcantara in center. Though he did well last year in 48 major league games, centerfield is still a relatively new position for the 23-year-old year old who only learned to play it for the first time last year. That doesn’t mean he can’t have success at the position, just that Fowler is a better option for the immediate future.

The exciting part about this Fowler move is that it makes the Cubs even more flexible than they were before his acquisition. Fowler, who turns 29 in March, is the switch-hitting, top-of-the-order bat the Cubs have been looking for. He’s an average defensive outfielder who may have fallen victim to bigger parks in Colorado and Houston, but his offensive production is what makes him valuable. Fowler hit .276 last year with 21 doubles and eight home runs, and boasts a career .366 OBP. Based on raw stats, this is a great addition to the Cubs lineup.

Fowler’s addition means five spots on the Cubs’ 25-man roster will be taken up by outfielders: Denorfia, Coghlan, Soler, Alcantara (though he can be considered a utility man) and, of course, Dexter Fowler himself. Thanks to Alcantara’s versatility, the Cubs may opt to add a sixth outfielder, who may very well be Ryan Sweeney, who will likely be competing for that final outfield roster spot against Junior Lake and Matt Szczur.

The soon-to-be 30-year-old Sweeney has nine years of big league experience and offers stability in the outfield, as he can play all three positions. Also, being a left-handed option at the plate doesn’t hurt his chances, either. Sweeney has slashed .258/.313/.391 in 147 games with the Cubs and is a servicable defender, but for some reason he can’t avoid the injury bug. He’s been hurt a lot throughout his career and has missed many games in two seasons with the Cubs because of it.

As for Lake and Szczur, they both have options remaining and the Cubs will likely choose to invoke them, at least to start the season. Szczur impressed many in limited time last season and he looks to be a decent bench option plus a strong defensive outfielder for the Cubs down the road. He slashed .226/.273/.335 with two home runs in 66 plate appearances last year. At the moment, I would rank Lake and Sweeney ahead of him.

Junior Lake came out swinging in his first stint in the big leagues and saw a lot of success at the plate that brought about excitement throughout Cubdom. Unfortunately, he regressed last year and was exposed rather badly at the plate by major league pitching. The strikeout-to-walk (110/14) ratio stands was pretty ugly, but his approach isn’t as bad as the strikeout rate says. Its just that he swings and misses a lot. 

Lake’s eye at the plate is actually considered quite good, but his extremely aggressive approach is often the reason for his demise. Lake owned a 74% swing rate on fastballs in the zone, compared to a 38% swing rate those out of the zone, which is league average. He just cannot make contact; his very high swing/whiff rate on all fastballs stood at 31% last year. Against breaking and offspeed pitches, his overall story is the same. He recognizes what pitches are in and out of the zone, but his staggering 49% swing-and-miss rate on breaking balls, and 55% against offspeed pitches is unacceptable.

Major league pitchers are good, and they know how to get players out, so it shouldn’t be shocking that a player as aggressive as Lake struggled in just his second stint in the big leagues. Sample sizes are still small for him though, and we know his eye at the plate isn’t necessarily the main problem. He simply needs to make more contact, along with increasing his walk rate.

With all that said, there is still reason to believe Lake can have success in the majors. At 24, he has room to grow and adjust. In the Dominican Winter League this year, Lake is shoring up his approach at the plate. He’s taken his fair share of walks in a good chunk of games this winter, and he has been one of the more successful hitters in that league. Though the competition in the DWL is not what he’d be facing in Chicago, Lake is making it a point to adjust areas in which he struggled at baseball’s highest level.

Lake taking walks is not the only change in the young slugger, as his stance looks a bit different. Thanks to a tweet provided by Stan Crewsett, you can easily visualize the difference in Lake’s stance from 2012 to now.

He went from a straight-up base to lower and lower over the last three years. His new stance may prove to be a major contributing factor for future success if it helps eliminate his wild swing habits that exhibit a lot of whiffs.

Junior Lake has an opportunity this season to open many eyes and convince upper management that he can be a reliable piece in the outfield and at the plate. He’s a good player to keep an eye on during Spring Training this year, and if he indeed starts the year at Triple A, he may not be there for long.

All right, now that that little rant is over, we can move right along. I wanted to address the questionable options first because the locks are pretty much set at the moment.

The signing of Chris Denorfia adds stability and depth to an outfield that was otherwise lacking the former. All signs point to a Coghlan/Denorfia platoon in left, but Denorfia isn’t a game-changer by any means. He adds a veteran presence the Cubs have made a point of obtaining throughout the offseason, as well as a solid glove in the outfield. At 34 years old, the Cubs are pretty much going to take what they can get from him at the plate. Last year he slashed .230/.284/.318 with three home runs.

On the flip side of the platoon, the Cubs are hoping Chris Coghlan produces like he did from July onward last year. He filled the big hole at the top of the Cubs’ lineup after Bonifacio was dealt and ended the season sporting a decent OBP. Coghlan surprised a lot of people with his consistent performance in the second half of the season, but the former Rookie of the Year has qualities that make him a valuable piece for the Cubs to have in their current outfield predicament.

From one corner outfield spot to another, the main concern for big-time prospect Jorge Soler is his health. If he can manage to stay relatively healthy for an entire season, he can make a run for Rookie of the Year. Soler, who turns 23 in February, burst on the scene last year, hitting .292/.330/.573 in 24 games and finished with a triple, eight doubles, five home runs — including one in his first-ever big league at-bat — and 20 RBI. Soler may be the most complete prospect the Cubs have at this point, and he could very well turn out to be the most productive of the bunch, which is a scary thought.

On that note, let’s talk about Kris Bryant, shall we? The sky is the limit for Bryant, who’s won nearly every award available at the collegiate and minor league levels. He is as close to major league ready as can be with an opportunity to land an opening day starting spot, whether it’s at third or in the outfield. However, there is strong reason to believe the Cubs will start him at Triple-A Iowa for a short period to gain another year of control of the number one prospect in baseball.

But fret not, Kris Bryant lovers (myself included), he should get a call up as early as mid-April. Bleacher Nation’s Brett Taylor suggests that Bryant needs only nine days in the minor leagues in order for the Cubs to gain another year of control.

I can handle nine games. But who will man the hot corner in the meantime? Mike Olt is a likely candidate, as well as Alcantara, who owns 51 games of experience at third base in the minors, and Tommy La Stella. Now that Valbuena and his bat flip are gone (sigh), it gives the Cubs a chance to let Bryant do his thing at third once the time is right for his call-up.

Now, after all that, it looks like the Cubs outfield will consist of Chris Coghlan (who can play CF as well) and Chris Denorfia occupying left, Dexter Fowler in center, and Jorge Soler in right, with some combination of Sweeney/Lake/Szczur possibly helping out and Alcantara manning every other position besides pitcher and catcher.

*stats on Junior Lake’s approach courtesy Brooks Baseball

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