CHICAGO -- Now that a reunion with Nick Castellanos is no longer possible, given that he has agreed to a multiyear deal with the rival Reds, the Cubs' strategy for their 2020 outfield appears to be getting the most out of a collection of parts.
The club hopes that Kyle Schwarber's second half (.997 OPS) is a sign of things to come for the left fielder. It will count on comeback campaigns from a center-field duo of Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. And Chicago will try to use right fielder Jason Heyward (.831 OPS vs. righties in 2019) in a way that maximizes his offensive production.
For that last aspect of the Cubs' outfield, the team has landed free agent Steven Souza Jr., who signed a one-year MLB contract with the North Siders, the team announced on Tuesday. Souza will have a base salary of $1 million with another $2 million possible via roster and performance bonuses, a source told MLB.com.
On Friday, the Cubs outrighted left-hander CD Pelham to Triple-A Iowa after the reliever cleared waivers, opening a spot on Chicago's 40-man roster. The Cubs claimed Pelham off waivers from the Rangers on Nov. 27, and they plan on giving him a look this spring as a candidate for the bullpen.
With a healthy Souza, the Cubs have a right-handed-hitting complement in right field, where he has been a plus defender over his MLB career with the Nationals, Rays and D-backs. This is where it is necessary to note, however, that the 30-year-old Souza has not played a Major League game since 2018.
Near the end of last Spring Training, Souza slipped on home plate in an exhibition game for Arizona, a misstep that required season-ending surgery to repair an ACL tear, LCL tear, partial PCL tear and posterior lateral capsule tear in his left knee. That lost 2019 campaign came after Souza was limited to 72 games in '18 due to more injury issues.
Souza's last full season -- also his best in the big leagues -- was in 2017, when he hit .239 with 30 homers, 78 RBIs and 16 steals in 148 games for Tampa Bay. He had a .351 on-base percentage to go with a .459 slugging percentage in the batter's box, while posting seven Defensive Runs Saved and a 5.4 UZR/150 in right field.
During that 2017 season, Souza struck out at a 29 percent clip (under his 31.2 percent career rate), but he also managed a 13.6 percent walk rate. He hit .262 (.785 OPS) against lefties, compared to .230 (.819) against righties in '17 as well. For his career, Souza has logged a .756 OPS and 108 wRC+ off lefties, versus a .733 OPS and 101 wRC+ off righties.
The potential tandem of Heyward and Souza in right field threw more water on any talk to re-sign Castellanos, who agreed to a four-year pact with Cincinnati on Monday. Prior to Castellanos' decision, the only realistic path to that reunion would have likely involved trading one of Chicago's stars -- Kris Bryant or Schwarber atop the list -- to accommodate both payroll and roster obstacles.
Right now, the Cubs' payroll projects to be just north of the first luxury-tax threshold ($208 million), so a trade (either this offseason or prior to the July 31 Deadline) would be needed to get under that bar. That situation has continued to fuel rumors about Bryant, though the Cubs are still awaiting the outcome of his service-time grievance, which would impact whether the third baseman is a free agent next offseason or after 2021.
Bryant helped out in the corner-outfield spots last season, especially against lefties. If new manager David Ross takes a similar approach, Bryant could spell Schwarber in left on occasion, with David Bote playing third base. What is clear is that the addition of Souza helps balance having two left-handed-hitting starting outfielders in the corners.
Castellanos could have played either corner position, but Schwarber is locked in for left, and the Cubs' preference is to keep Heyward in right rather than shift him to center on a full-time basis. During last weekend's Cubs Convention, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein also emphasized the importance of Happ as a key comeback candidate this season.