A third place finish in the National League Central was something few in Chicago anticipated for the 2019 Chicago Cubs. Just three years removed from one of the all-time great performances in World Series history and with the solid, young core of that team still mostly intact, the team clearly underachieved this past season. One of the bigger needs is in the Cubs outfield.
With the decision to not re-sign manager Joe Maddon, the Cubs organization, through President Theo Epstein, has more than hinted at some substantial shake-ups for the North Siders.
Here’s a look at what The Cubs have going into the 2020 season and what they will need to pick up to make it a rebound year.
Jason Heyward is the only sure thing when it comes to Chicago’s outfield next season, in part because of his clubhouse leadership, but mostly because of a widely-bashed 8-year contract signed prior to the 2016 season that still owes him $88 million over the next four seasons and will make him impossible to move.
Heyward’s offensive numbers have been subpar throughout his Cubs career and sometimes brutally subpar. He leveled off to merely borderline unacceptable in 2019 with a .251 average and 21 homeruns, 62 RBI.
The needs and necessities of the team forced the 5-time Gold Glove right fielder to play center field for much of the 2019 season and, unless a key component is added in center during the offseason, he may be back in that spot again. The 30-year-old is a solid defender in center, but not the defensive asset he is in right.
Kyle Schwarber will also likely be back in 2020. The 26-year-old left fielder and converted catcher used to play the position exactly as a converted catcher would be expected to play left field. With limited range and fielding the position as if wearing a frying pan instead of a glove, Schwarber was a defensive liability in his first few years in the majors. To his credit, though, the former number one draft choice has improved defensively and has fine-tuned his outfield instincts to make up for some of his physical deficiencies in the field. A strong, accurate throwing arm has also served him well in his defensive improvement.
Offensively, Schwarber slowly seems to moving on from being a feast-or-famine all-homerun .220 hitter to someone more well-rounded with the bat. Finishing the season with a .250 average and 38 homeruns with 92 RBI, he hit a blazing .350 in the final 30 games of the season.
Although there have been fan theories about the Cubs possibly dealing him to an American League team where he might flourish as a designated hitter, the organization seems enamored with him and the entirety of what he could bring to the club. Unless there’s some unbelievable deal on the table, Schwarber will be back in left field next season.
The Free Agent
The biggest question mark in the Cubs outfield is Nick Castellanos, the all-offense corner outfielder acquired by the team from the Detroit Tigers at the trade deadline. A free agent after this season, Castellanos won the hearts of Cubs fans with his big offensive production and overall plucky, game attitude.
His .321 average and 16 homeruns (with 21 doubles) in just 51 games is likely well above what can be expected of him over the course of a full year, but it’s hard to argue that he flourished in Wrigley Field, playing for passionate fans during a divisional title race. The presence of a contact-minded “tough out” in the slot ahead of batters like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber was felt and provided some stability to an offense that had been running hot and cold all season.
Given his offensive production and how much the fans have already embraced him, the question is whether the team, with publicly-expressed money concerns, will pay him what Castellanos agent Scott Boras will surely demand. A conservative estimate for the 27-year-old, who made just under $10 million last season, is $45 million over three years, but, given Castellanos’ age, Boras is likely to explore a much more grandiose $100 million over five years or $120 over six years.
Although a slightly subpar defender, Castellanos brings a lot of fire to a team that had been playing with little and is an asset the Cubs should work to keep. Nick C, himself, has expressed his love for the city and the organization, so, hopefully, that will go a long way in having him return.
The Question Marks
Beyond the top 3, there’s hopes, wishes, and crossed fingers.
The 24-year-old switch-hitting Ian Happ is versatile and is defensively serviceable at all three outfield positions (as well as second base, third base, and first base), but it’s questionable whether he’s ready for full-time starter status. If he can live up to his full potential at the plate and deliver consistently, the organization would be overjoyed. Happ has shown signs of putting it all together after starting the season at Triple A, but could also be used as trade bait in a deal for a more impact-making major league presence.
25-year-old Albert Almora Jr. was once projected as a Jim Edmonds-type player, but has yet to live up to those assessments. An inability to make hard contact, draw walks, bunt for hits, and steal bases when actually on base cost him the leadoff position the organization had all but gifted him the last two seasons. Usually an above average defensive centerfielder with highlight reel moments, Almora’s glove work suffered in 2019 in conjunction with his irregular playing time. Maybe new field leadership will help him fine tune his all-around skill set and he can get things back on track—or he might be traded and get a second chance at stardom on another team.
Kris Bryant can play the corner outfield positions, but should probably not be there as much as Joe Maddon put him there. Tony Kemp, if still on the 2020 roster, can play a little outfield. Ditto with retirement or free agency-bound Ben Zobrist, who played solid corner outfield throughout his time with the team, but looks unlikely to return next year. Rookies Nico Hoerner and Robel Garcia got one-game looks in center and left, respectively.
And that’s about it.
The Offseason Priorities
Anyway one slices it, with no minor league saviors in their immediate future, the Cubs will need to pick up at least one solid glove-proficient outfielder this offseason—and if Castellanos doesn’t re-sign, they’ll need two. There won’t be a whole lot on the free agency market this year, although the Diamondbacks’ Jarrod Dyson and former Cubs Jon Jay and Austin Jackson might be good fits if Castellanos is back on the team next year and only a fifth outfielder is needed. Otherwise, someone will have to come over in a trade or be culled from the batch of discarded players during spring training.
As of right now, not taking free agent Castellanos (and any other free agent acquisition) into account, the Cubs outfield is Kyle Schwarber in left; Jason Heyward in right; and, likely, Ian Happ in center, with Albert Almora Jr. coming off the bench. With Castellanos aboard, it’ll be Schwarber in left; Castellanos in right; and Heyward in center with Happ and Almora coming off the bench.
Is this a World Series outfield? Probably not, but a very important offseason awaits and one gets the feeling that something big may be in the works for a Chicago Cubs organization that sees its World Series follow-up window of opportunity closing quickly.
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