My immediate reaction to the Chris Coghlan trade was that the Cubs would need to go out and pick up another outfielder, ideally a backup-type* who could play center and maybe mop up in the corners as needed. I thought they were going to re-sign Austin Jackson. Instead, they shocked the baseball world by convincing Dexter Fowler to elope with them. Like a runaway bride, Fowler left Dan Duquette and the Orioles standing at the alter with a hang-dog look and echoes of “Trader!” ringing like discordant wedding bells across the void of social media.
The scene at Sloan Park was like a Julia Roberts movie, only without her nails-on-a-chalkboard laugh and an incredibly predictable plot. Now that I think about it, the shocking twist of Dex strolling out to the field in his civvies made Thursday morning’s festivities more like an M. Night Shyamalan flick. Except, of course, that no one knew the twist was coming, so you didn’t have the attendant disappointment of said director’s post Sixth Sense efforts. Ugh, fine, Fowler’s return wasn’t really like a movie at all. Well, maybe the Crying Game, but…nah, let’s just move on.
So the thing is, Ajax could have come aboard without rocking the boat, but Fowler’s addition causes Joe Maddon to strengthen his grip on the rudder and put a little more effort into steering this thing into port. I know MLB and the players union just ratified some rule changes, but adding a fourth outfielder was not among the alterations. Can you imagine? Kyle Schwarber already resembles that dude who spends five or six nights a week trolling the local softball complex in the hopes of picking up an extra game or three before his double-header tips. How beautiful would it be to put War Bear and Jorge Soler at the corners with Fowler and Jason Heyward between them? But that kind of talk is just silliness.
The Cubs have only three available positions, but they’ve got four legit starting outfielders, not to mention guys like Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist who had been expected to fill a few innings out there over the course of the season. Oh, and then there’s the Matts, both Murton and Szczur. How many high hopes for The Big Murt and Hail, Szczur were crushed like so many empty beer cans when Fowler rode in on his white horse in his white t-shirt? Probably just two or three, but still.
Rather than spend a lot of time plumbing the deep cuts of organizational depth, though, I wanted to examine how Fowler taking a seat will affect the uber-competitive game of musical chairs in the Cubs outfield, as well as how it impacts the team as a whole (Brandon Gitles took a look at this as well). This move makes the team better, but it also puts more pressure on Joe Maddon to make things work and to ensure that the right players are getting the right number of at-bats throughout the season.
The sure things
Fowler will be the starting center fielder and Heyward slides over to right. While the latter will still get some run in the former’s position, we know these two are pretty much going to be locked in on a daily. That’s a good thing for both in terms of performance and comfort level, and it should improve the Cubs’ defense and provide a little more insulation for whoever happens to be patrolling left on a given day. Speaking of…
The kid(s) from left field
Heyward moving back to right displaces Jorge Soler, a prospect I had believed would push the Cubs to move the young slugger. Turns out they will be, but only across the outfield and not to Tampa or Cleveland or San Diego. Soler will basically fill the role vacated by Coghlan, which means he’ll be the fourth outfielder. In terms of potential, this is a huge upgrade. It also allows Maddon to protect his oft-injured charge.
That means Kyle Schwarber will be the primary left fielder, which makes sense. Soler will probably be out there against lefty pitchers, though the Cubs are going to need to get War Bear AB’s against Southpaws and not just completely shelter him. His performance against lefties (.143 AVG, 2 HR in 56 at-bats) was pretty abysmal last season, but he’s shown the ability to hit them in the minors. Yeah, yeah, I get that it’s a different deal here. But an .838 OPS against LHP’s at Double-A isn’t shabby. And his christening of the Schwarboard came against Kevin Siegrist, a pretty solid lefty reliever.
Man, I’ll never get tired of that. Anyway, you know Maddon is going to keep that bat in the lineup as much as he can, which means…
War Bear catching more
Just a few days back, I wrote about the possibility that Schwarber could be paired up with a specific pitcher in much the same manner David Ross works with Jon Lester. This idea gains a bit more credence, at least in theory, with Fowler’s addition and the need to find room in the lineup for all these guys. It also serves the dual purpose of saving Miguel Montero’s body from the nagging injuries that have beset him over the last few seasons.
If the Cubs believe Schwarber can be better than just a fire hydrant with a catcher’s mitt back there, he may end up getting more run than what I’d initially thought. And given the age of the two guys ahead of him on the depth chart, there’s always the possibility that a significant malady will press him into more regular action. Either way, he figures to be one of many multi-positional threats this team boasts. But when it comes to a kid with a sick bat who’s being pushed to learn new positions, you have to discuss…
Baez playing some first base too
With Fowler’s arrival effectively ending the Javy-in-CF idea, at least for now, Maddon has said that his slick-fielding free-swinger will be Anthony Rizzo’s primary backup. We’ve already seen him at the other three IF spots and he figures to get plenty of run there as well, but opening up the right corner of the diamond enables Baez to squeeze in a few more at-bats. The comparison has already been thrown out, but Baez is basically becoming a younger version of the guy the Cubs signed to replace Starlin Castro. As such…
Zobrist basically full-time 2B
The Zorilla made his name as a jack-of-all-trades, but he’s likely going to be master of one in Chicago. Not only is the outfield a bit crowded, but so are all the other spots. Besides, his bat will play better at second as he ages, thus preserving his value. Sure, he may move around as needed in a pinch, but while other players around him improved their versatility, Zo looks to be a bit more static. He also looks to be out of the running for…
The lead-off man
If there was one real question about this Cubs team heading into the season, it was about who would hit at the top of the order. With the return of last year’s lead-off man, that question has now been answered. Given how much he loves to adjust lineups for opponent and ballpark, it’s unlikely we’ll see anything concrete from Maddon, but just think about this:
- Fowler – S
- Zobrist – S
- Schwarber – L
- Bryant – R
- Rizzo – L
- Heyward – L
- Montero – L
- Pitcher – who cares
- Russell – R
That can be a really lefty-heavy lineup, but the two switch hitters give you more opportunity to play with things a bit. That brief exercise was really the first I’d actually written a lineup out and…woah. And just think about a game in which Schwarber’s catching and Soler is in there too. Or when they open in an AL park. Oh my. Jorge Soler could be hitting 8th. Hell, any of those guys hitting late in a lineup is scary good. Chills.
So the return of Dexter Fowler was pretty cool, but it does create a few problems. But those problems are — say it with me now — good…problems…to…have. When your primary concerns with the offense are how to get 10 or 11 guys enough plate appearances, things are going pretty well for you. I think Joe Maddon’s biggest struggle will be keeping everyone in the clubhouse happy with his role, but that’s also where this team’s evident camaraderie comes in.
Look at what happened last year with the Nationals, a team with plenty of ego and a crippling communication breakdown. I’m not saying the Cubs are completely immune to a little emotional chafing here and there, but these guys all know the deal and Maddon has their implicit trust and is more than able to articulate exactly what he’s doing and why.
I’d recently been lamenting the dearth of excitement, at least from a storyline perspective, that accompanies the start of Spring Training. I’d also been wondering whether the Cubs could possibly do anything to match or exceed the fun of the 2015 season. And then Theo and Jed came strolling out to the practice field flanking Dexter Fowler and my questions evaporated.
“Now that’s a surprise, that’s Godfather sh*t. Nothing will top that,” Epstein crowed in the wake of Fowler’s return.
Well, Theo, I can think of something that might top that, but we’re going to have to wait about seven months to find out.
*No sooner had I prepped this piece for publication than word came down that the Cubs had signed the Flyin’ Hawaiian to a minor league deal with an invite to big league camp. On the surface, this doesn’t appear to do too much for them, as it’s easy to forget just how good Shane Victorino was. Injuries have limited him to 101 games over the past two seasons, but this is a guy who averaged 3.8 fWAR over eight seasons from 2006-13. At 35, he’s certainly lost a step or two, but he’s got the ability to play all three outfield positions and has always been a good baserunner and a contact hitter. Not bad for a fifth outfielder, particularly when your other options are Szczur and Murton. I think Victorino making the team would also signal the end of Tommy La Stella’s tenure, as it’s pretty evident this team wants to have as many relief arms as possible. For now, the Cubs are just filling the cupboard with outfielders and I love it. Load up early and see which of these guys can really play.