Will Chris Coghlan Be Back in a Cubs Uniform or Nah?

Chris Coghlan has been a really nice player for the Chicago Cubs over the past two seasons. They picked the former Rookie of the Year up on a minor league deal with an invitation to Spring Training after he was non-tendered by the Marlins following the 2013 season. While not spectacular, Coghlan’s .265/.346/.447 slash line has been better than expected and is outstanding for a guy who you’re really only counting on to be the Cubs’ 4th or 5th outfielder. Why, then, is there such a healthy debate over whether or not the Cubs will/should bring him back?

Well, part of it comes down to value. When the Cubs signed Coghlan, it was for a relative pittance: $800K base with another $250K in potential incentives. That salary climbed to $2.5 million this season, but that’s still an incredible value when you consider that the average MLB salary for 2015 was $3.95 million. Coghlan is arbitration-eligible this offseason and MLB Trade Rumors projects him to get a raise to $3.9 million, still under an average that could well creep north of $4 million. So I ask again, why so many conflicting views of Cogs’ place on the team?

Well, the primary reason is that Coghlan isn’t a core player. He’s a nice guy to have as your 4th or 5th outfielder, but he’s not going to play CF and he’s not going to start over either Kyle Schwarber or Jorge Soler at either corner. Some of his value this season, however, came from the ability to play multiple positions though. Coghlan played 1B (5 games, no starts), 2B (15 games, 11 starts), and 3B (3 games, one start), along with both corner spots, making him sort of a poor man’s Ben Zobrist.

And, despite his reputation as a butcher in the field, Baseball Reference actually had Coghlan as a perfectly adequate field in 2015. The infield stats are drawn from too small a sample to be very accurate, but BRef showed him with 3 total runs above average in the outfield, only the second time (2010 being the other) he wasn’t below average with the glove in that regard. Likewise, he had a positive UZR according to Fangraphs, but that’s the first time in the last 7 seasons we could say that.

The bigger issue may be that Cogs is a platoon guy who only hit lefties at a .116 clip this season. That’s a little misleading, as his career mark is .232, but the best you can say is that he’s inconsistent in that regard. And with young guys needing as many AB’s as possible moving forward, playing time is going to be harder and harder to come by. I even theorized that Javy Baez could see time in the OF, which, along with his already-established infield chops, would take some time from Coghlan. Of course, the elder Cub is a lefty, which does give him a nice niche. Well, sort of.

Cogs found himself on the bench quite a bit down the stretch, and for good reason. If given the choice between him and War Bear, you’re going with the latter every day of the week, absent the occasional rest day. They’re both lefty hitters, so there’s no platoon advantage. And you can just put Kris Bryant out at a corner OF spot when a lefty is on the bump. Or maybe Baez. Or whatever other replacement player you end up having on the bench.

I think Joe Maddon’s usage of Chris Coghlan as the season progressed really tells us a great deal about the player’s role with the team moving forward. Coghlan played in 99 of the Cubs’ first 101 games (98%), amassing 335 PA’s (3.38/game) and slashing .248/.338/.429 with 11 HR, 24 RBI, and 36 runs. That was good for 108 wRC+, which means he was about 8% better than the average hitter. That was before Schwarber really started getting regular run in left though.

It wasn’t until the second month of August that the stout slugger saw his role shift from that of a part-time catcher and pinch hitter to regular left fielder. As such, Coghlan saw a diminution in his own playing time. Over the Cubs’ final 61 regular season games, the former Marlin played in only 49 (80%), racking up 168 plate appearances (3.42/game). He made the most of that time, however, slashing .253/.345/.473 with 5 HR’s, 17 RBI, 28 runs, good for a wRC+ of 123. So his stats were actually better, relatively speaking, as his role got smaller. This is really where opinions on what to do with Coghlan diverge.

Those in favor of keeping him see the offensive numbers and argue that they’re far better than can reasonably be expected from another replacement player. And at only $4 million, he really only needs to be worth about .5 WAR (assuming $8 million as the incremental value of a win) in order to “earn” his salary. That’s not a very lofty goal for Coghlan either, especially after putting up 2.4 and 3.3 WAR in two seasons in Chicago. That is a really nice option to have on your bench, particularly given the depth you need over the course of a season.

I won’t argue against the idea that Coghlan did a really nice job this year, but I think he’d be better served in a role with a team than can give him more starts and innings. The Cubs would do well to find another team that has relief arms to spare and that is looking for an inexpensive outfielder. Perhaps a team like Kansas City, faced with the potential losses of both Alex Gordon and the real-life Ben Zobrist, would be a fit. Or maybe Coghlan could be part of a package for a mid-rotation starter.

I do believe the Cubs are going to need to see significant return value in order to pull the trigger though. And that’s really the rub in this whole thing, the value. Is Chris Coghlan worth more as a veteran lefty bat off the bench or as a trade chip to bring back something the Cubs see as a need? He’s a decent contact guy and is a little above average in both strikeout and walk rates, all things the Cubs desire. The defense is pretty meh, but that should be somewhat mitigated by what should be decreased reps. So again, it comes down to what the Cubs know they already have vs. what they think they need and can get. But there’s one more thing to consider here.

Coghlan was already vocal about his displeasure over the reduced playing time he saw down the stretch. Well, putting it that way might not really be fair. Cogs wanted to be out there in those pivotal games, felt he should have been, and he said as much.

“At the end of the day it’s only about winning,” Coghlan explained prior to the Cubs’ Wild Card game against the Pirates. “Do I think I give our team the best chance to win in the wild-card game against Gerrit Cole? Yeah, I do. I feel like I’m one of the best eight guys out there.”

“I don’t try to read into it,” the outfielder went on. “[Maddon] has his reasons for doing things. I learned early in the year not to try and think on the same wavelength. It’s not really possible. It’s been a weird year. I haven’t been playing all of a sudden. I don’t know why.”

Things didn’t improve for Coghlan when the playoffs rolled around, either. Over the course of the Cubs’ 9-game run, the veteran found himself making only 2 starts. He also came on to pinch hit 4 times, which got him to 12 total postseason plate appearances. But while the new starter in left was busy setting records for club (most by rookie) and MLB (most under age of 23) playoff home run records, Cogs went 1-for-12 with 4 strikeouts. It was a small sample, but indicative of his place on the team.

While I can’t foresee a situation in which Coghlan would demand a trade, it’s possible that we saw the seeds of discontent being sown. And when it comes to tending the fruits of dissent, few men have greener thumbs than Coghlan’s representative. Having Scott Boras, a man who might like to exact a pound or two of flesh from the Cubs over the way they handled Coghlan’s homophonous (which is different from Daniel Murphy’s views) teammate. His primary concern, of course, is his client’s well-being. But if Boras thinks his guy is better off in another situation, he could try to pull some strings.

Admittedly, that is getting into some speculative deep waters and I can barely pull off a dog paddle. I don’t wish to cast Coghlan in a poor light here either, so please don’t take it as such. Rather, I just want to examine the various factors involved in this whole situation. Definitely not black and white.

So, in conclusion, let’s review things again. Chris Coghlan has been a really good player for the Cubs over the past two seasons. He’s ideally suited to being a backup outfielder, which is exactly what he’ll be in Chicago barring any injuries or maybe a trade involving Soler. What’s more, that backup role could be even smaller than it has been over the last two seasons, which may not necessarily sit well with a veteran who’s now past 30 and might think he merits more playing time and/or money.

Keeping in mind the value of a solid bat over the course of a long and unpredictable season, I still think Coghlan ends up in a different uniform before the Cubs break from Mesa in 2016. I see another team thinking highly enough of his potential to give up something the Cubs need in order to land him. At least, that’s what the tea leaves are telling me. But given the sketchy nature of my precognition, it’s entirely possible I’ll be proven wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time.

So what do you think? Will Chris Coghlan be back on the North Side? Should he be? Why or why not?

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