The inevitable comps to Nick Castellanos aren’t fair to Steven Souza Jr., who ostensibly replaced the instant fan favorite as the Cubs sought to fill the roster at a decidedly lower cost than last season. They’re not the same player and Souza wasn’t brought in to mimic the borderline absurd statistical boost the Cubs got following last season’s deadline deal, but he might be able to give his counterpart a run for his money in the emotional leadership department.
Big Nick Energy almost single-handedly pulled the Cubs into the playoffs, tugging the team like a strongman towing an airplane, but it wasn’t just about his 154 wRC+ and 16 homers over two torrid months. He was an absolute dynamo in the clubhouse as well, infusing the team with a hunger that hadn’t been felt in years. Being traded from Detroit gave him the chance to break the surface after being underwater and his excitement was evident in all facets of his game.
That’s sort of what joining the Cubs is like for Souza, who missed most of most of 2018 with a recurring strain in his right pectoral muscle and then sat out all of last year after suffering a catastrophic knee injury. Maybe he and Kyle Schwarber can exchange notes on what it’s like to lose a season in that manner at Chase Field. Souza’s was a total freak occurrence, as he tore his ACL, LCL, PCL (partial), and posterior lateral capsule when his left foot slid awkwardly across home plate.
In any case, the 30-year-old outfielder is ready to show that his 2017 season with the Rays was no fluke. By far his most successful campaign in the majors, Souza smacked 30 home runs and posted a 121 wRC+ over 617 plate appearances. And he did it playing playing for a sub-.500 team in a venue often criticized as the worst in baseball.
“I’ll tell you what, that was one of the things that brought me here, the fans and the environment,” Souza told NBC Sports Chicago’s Cam Ellis. I’m super pumped,” he said. “And no offense, but I’ve played in Tampa and Arizona and those aren’t the greatest markets in the league. I’ve always enjoyed going to Wrigley, and I’ve had some good success at Wrigley, and I know the Cubs fans bring it every day and I’m looking forward to that.”
Sure enough, Souza has a .333 average with an .820 OPS in his new home ballpark, just don’t ask about the sample size. If you’re big on box score numbers, you might also want to avoid looking at his career .233 average and the fact that he strikes out three times more than he walks. And with a 10.6% walk rate, dude can work a pretty good plate appearance.
If you’re expecting Souza to be Castellanos on the field, you’re going to be disappointed. If, however, you view him as a righty platoon bat to offset the Cubs’ lefty-heavy corner outfield spots and bring a little edge, you’ll probably find your expectations met with ease. He seems to have some of that same hunger everyone saw in Castellanos, a desire to take full advantage of this new opportunity.
“Personally, I don’t believe in accidents,” Souza said of his injury. “I believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t know what that reason was, but I know that I’m stronger for it. Mentally, I think if there’s a silver lining, it’s that I got to spend a full year with my son and my newborn daughter. As we all know, in this game, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with our families. So it was a huge blessing and I’m looking forward to moving on from that.”
Taking a break and stepping back can indeed be for the best, whether it offers a little break or helps to reshape our perspective on things. Souza had to spend an extended time away from the game, but being in the fold in Chicago means he can give his corner outfield teammates more abbreviated periods of rest. That could really help Jason Heyward, whose overall offensive performance suffered a great deal from 120 plate appearances against lefties.
Take away his 45 wRC+ and .242 wOBA when facing southpaws and Heyward suddenly becomes a well above average hitter. As in, 115 wRC+ and .350 wOBA. The disparity isn’t as stark for Schwarber, but shifting some of his 124 PAs against lefties over to Souza would likewise boost his production. What’s more, Souza has been nearly split-neutral over the course of his career and could serve as an everyday player should such a need arise.
Again, he isn’t Nick Castellanos and was never meant to be. But for a max of $3 million, the Cubs got a guy who may be able to provide a similar boost while serving as an excellent complement to the starters in right and left. Who knows, he might even surprise a few folks this year.