Another way to state my thoughts on how the 25th spot on the Cubs roster will be filled is to say I’m putting Johnny Drama in his place.
Don’t take the negative intonations to heart, though, I’m a big yes on Shane Victorino. After all, what’s not to like about a 35-year-old who’s only played 101 games and tallied exactly 0.0 fWAR for the Red Sox and Angels over the past two seasons? Huh, when you put it that way, I guess there’s a whole lot not to like. So why do I like this guy again?
Maybe it’s the fact that he boasts four Gold Gloves and can play all three outfield positions and that he’s done so for two World Series champs. Listen, I don’t want to overstate the value of character and experience, but I don’t want to completely overlook it either. We can all agree that this Cubs team has young talent to spare, but I’m a big fan of having a few been-there, done-that guys tucked away in the corners. In Victorino, the Cubs can add just such a player without committing significant money or time.
And if we see even a standard-definition version of the well-traveled former Philly, the acquisition could be a huge coup for the Cubs. Given that he’s been the literal embodiment of a replacement player over limited action the past two seasons, it’s easy to forget just how good Victorino was. Between 2006, his first full season, and 2013, the Flyin’ Hawaiian averaged just under 3.9 fWAR per season. His best campaign in that stretch actually came in 2013 with Boston, when he put up 5.9 wins above replacement in only 122 games.
Age can’t be discounted, as Victorino is two years removed from that performance and isn’t necessarily in what most people consider to be the prime of one’s athletic ability. On the other hand, such worries should be largely mitigated by the veteran’s limited role. Even with a couple steps lost to Father Time’s five-finger discount, we’re looking at a very solid defensive player and a decent contact hitter. He’s also an excellent baserunner, giving him a nice little trifecta of coveted assets.
We know how concerned the Cubs are with baseball math, but they’e also enamored of science, namely chemistry. In Victorino, they’re adding a player who has won both the Lou Gehrig Memorial — given to the player who best exhibits character and integrity on and off the field — and Branch Rickey — exceptional community service — Awards. He’s already familiar with some of his new teammates, having worked out with Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant in the latter’s batting cage in Las Vegas this winter. And get this: dude’s an Eagle Scout. A flippin’ Eagle Scout, I tell you.
Pedigree and personality aside, the real key to this whole thing may be health. Back and hamstring injuries not only limited Victorino’s playing time, they forced him to abandon switch-hitting* as well. Batting only from the right side diminishes his value a bit, but, again, we’re not talking about an everyday player for whom that would really be an issue. If the physical maladies are behind him, this is a guy who could really provide some value.
Of course, there’s also the matter of whether the Cubs want to carry an extra outfielder or keep Tommy La Stella around to back up Ben Zobrist at second. La Stella provides a lefty bat and is known as an excellent contact guy, but he’s got several factors weighing against him. First, Javier Baez is nothing short of a lock for a roster spot and is able to back up all four infield positions. Then you have to consider that, between Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Miguel Montero, and Jason Heyward, not to mention switch-hitting Zobrist and Fowler, the Cubs really don’t need another left-handed hitter.
And while a split-conscious manager might not be too stoked about having limited options when it comes to his subs, Victorino’s occasional spot starts would mean that either Schwarber, Heyward, Fowler, or Montero would be available to pinch-hit. It’s nice to have a lefty to bring in against right-handed relievers, but it should be noted that La Stella has been a reverse-split hitter in his short career, slashing only .246/.318/.318 (.636 OPS, 81 wRC+) in 362 plate appearances vs. righties (.292/.370/.400 with 122 wRC+ in 73 PA’s vs LHP). Victorino, on the other hand, has hit righties at a .254/.317/.389 (.706 OPS, 93 wRC+) clip in 312 PA’s as a right-handed batter. Neither is a large sample size, but it’s enough to start forming an argument that the advantage of the lefty bat here might be negligible.
In the end, though, this isn’t necessarily a binary either/or situation. The Cubs don’t have the ability to switch Javy back to lefty (he writes with his left hand and legend has it he used to swing from that side until it bothered his hip) or to put Victorino in a time machine, but La Stella’s still got options remaining and can be shuttled to and from Iowa should the situation call for it.
I’ll admit to being a little bit of a homer here, as I’ve always had a soft spot for Hawaiian players. My aunt has lived out there for 25 years or so and I like see guys from the islands succeed, whether it’s Benny Agbayani, Scott Feldman, or Charlie Hough. What’s that? Kolten Wong is Hawaiian? Okay, I like seeing most guys from the islands succeed. Seriously, though, I have long admired Victorino as a player and person and I think he’d be a great fit on this Cubs team.
The last couple spots on the roster, whether it’s the one being discussed here or the bullpen competition, are really going to draw a lot of interest as things warm up this spring. As such, I’m putting my money on the guy from the tropical locale who now makes his home in the desert.
*While only time will tell whether or not it keeps up, Victorino has said that he feels healthy enough to return to switch-hitting. If that’s indeed the case, and if he’s able to maintain that health and perform well in Spring Training, the arguments against him making the team pretty much go right out the window. When batting against RHP’s from the left side, Victorino has slashed .266/.328/.398 (.726 OPS and 93 wRC+) in 3,272 plate appearances. I’d say that’s a solid enough sample size upon which draw some pretty solid conclusions.