I’m going to start with a baseline thought: Good baseball teams score more runs than they give up. How they get to that goal, especially in today’s game, can be skinned many ways. Trick question: At which position did Max Muncy log the most defensive innings in 2019? Yep. 2B. He actually played 120 more inning sat 2B than 1B. Max Muncy isn’t exactly Roberto Alomar over there and The Dodgers were a pretty good team in 2019.
This is to say that thinking about roster makeup in any conventional sense seems to be pretty obsolete. Under Joe Maddon, the Cubs used their players in all sorts of ways and at all sorts of situations. The most interesting of these was back in 2015/2016 when Maddon would deploy Baez and Bryant at various positions, depending on starter. Lester on the mound meant more RHH in the opposing lineup and with Lester’s GB ways, it meant the optimal lineup had Bryant in LF and Baez at 3B. In 2016, this sort of lineup construction flexibility led to a historically great defense. And, by the way, the Cubs were next to last in shifting in 2016.
So, how do we think about the construction of the 2020 Cubs?
We’re in a pretty interesting time of Cubs baseball. Change is certainly afoot and the Cubs are certainly still in their competitive window. There’s no reason to think the Cubs won’t be really good in 2020 but it also means the right moves have to be made. Taking all the above into consideration, I just don’t think the Cubs will, or need to, go the traditional route to find their CF. And they certainly need a CF (their CFers last year accumulated a 1.2 fWAR — 11th in the NL).
The free agent pool this year is very underwhelming when it comes to 1st division CF options. The best of the bunch seem to be Brett Gardner, a 36 year coming off a nice come-back season but isn’t exactly a good CFer and Adam Jones, who is much in the same boat as Gardner.
So, the Cubs simply need to be creative.
Assuming no trades of core players like Bryant, the Cubs can really put their positional flexibility to great use. Signing someone like, oh, Anthony Rendon or Josh Donaldson can move Bryant out to RF and move Jayson Heyward to CF. Not ideal but, with the goal of simply outscoring your opponent, it adds more runs to the offense ledger than to the given up side. There are certainly also corner OF options, including Marcel Ozuna and Nicholas the baseball masher. And, there’s the excitement that comes with the relatively unknown entity here — Yoshitomo Tsutsugo from the NPB. He’s a 27-year old who will be posted this year by his Japanese League club. Frankly, I think he may be left for others, as signing him will also carry a 20% posting fee due to Yokohama DeNA BayStars.
Turning to the trade market also provides little help, too, mostly because who knows who might be available or what the teams would want for those players. Again, understanding that the Cubs are in a win-now window, the player has to be an impact player.
Starling Marte only has two option years left on his Pirates extension. He might be a trade candidate and it’s not like the Cubs and Pirates have never traded together. He’s an interesting hitter who doesn’t walk but also makes pretty good contact (16% K-rate is well below the ~20% MLB average). He’s certainly the type of hitter the Cubs lineup needs but he’s also 31. I would also assume the Pirates will want to cash in on their assets so they may ask for a lot. Would two years of a 31 year old CF who is in a pretty clear decline phase be worth, say, Brailyn Marquez? I’m not saying no but it’s something to consider.
Of course the 800lb gorilla in the room is Mookie Betts. He’s very clearly looking forward to the bidding war that would surely ensue for a free agent reaching the market in his absolute prime as one of the 3 or so best hitters in baseball. The Red Sox are currently without a general manager and, surely, the path for 2020 may not be set till they get one. I also think the bidding war for a year of Betts may get into uncomfortable territory pretty quickly. For example, would the Twins give up Buxton plus more for Betts (knowing they have Alex Kirilloff coming in 2020 or so and can move Kepler to CF)? Would the Cubs even consider anything like that?
The Red Sox do have another interesting trade/non-tender candidate…Jackie Bradley Jr. The problem here is that he hasn’t been a league-average hitter since 2016 and his defense doesn’t really make up for that anymore. Let’s just pass.
If it’s back to the international market we look, Shogo Akiyama is a 31-year old center fielder who’s been an on-base machine in the Japanese Pacific League for the Seibu Lions. He’s a free agent who won’t have any posting fees attached to and is a 9 year veteran. The Cubs haven’t been exactly quiet out east but they’ve definitely stuck with the amateur ranks to sign players. Akiyama is an interesting player but his age is concerning. He’s had 5 straight strong OBP seasons and has a little bit of pop. His decline may be forthcoming and if there’s any sort of interest (I would think the Mariners, Yankees, and maybe the Red Sox to be in play), his eventual team may be paying a good bit of money to take the age risk.
Understanding that, for better or worse, the resources available for payroll are limited, perhaps it’s best to use those resources on other roster spots (cough, cough…Gerrit Cole). Frankly, this may be my favorite option. And this really begins and ends with Ian Happ. First, his fielding. He hasn’t logged a whole lot of time in CF but his defense hasn’t been awful. He’s been up and down, but, again, these are fairly small sample sizes. With the Cubs analytics department that’s headed for seeming upgrade, I’m confident that they can put Happ in situations that will give him every opportunity to succeed.
But it’s Happ’s offense where we can get the most improvement for the Cubs in 2020. He went down to Iowa to work on his K-rate, knowing that if he makes more contact, the Cubs can certainly tap into his plus power. Making more contact also means that he gets to use his speed and make great use of his plus plate discipline and get a 280/380/500 player into the lineup. That would be huge. Alas, it is that K-rate that still needs work. When Happ first came back from Iowa, the work looked like was paying off. His second half K-rate was 25%, more than 10 points lower than in 2018. His BB-rate stayed consistent with his MLB career numbers and all of that added up to a 132 wRC+. He certainly still has work to do to reach his ceiling but that’s a really exciting proposition. If he can figure out to lower his GB% from his current 46% to somewhere in the lower 40s, MLB average is somewhere around 44%, he may even tap more into his power — his ISO was still .300 last year!
So, there you have it. I know the Cubs can certainly use an upgrade in CF but I would be very pleased if that upgrade came internally and they bet on Ian Happ’s improvement and continued development. Of course, this also assumes that they use their resources elsewhere, like for Gerrit Cole or Zach Wheeler and more.