Around the Horn: Cubs eye boost from OF crew

Happ, Zobrist lead backup options behind Schwarber, Almora, Heyward

January 23rd, 2019

In the weeks leading up to the start of Spring Training, will go Around the Horn, examining each facet of the Cubs' roster. This week: Outfield.

There are certainly still some Cubs fans holding out hope that superstar free agent might take his talents to the Friendly Confines this season. Maybe it is time to focus on what Chicago has in place in the outfield, because that looks like the most realistic source of improvement.

That also continues to be the message from the front office on down.

"Even if we could, or even if we did," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said of adding a blockbuster free-agent hitter, "I think the greater fix comes from getting the most out of the talent on the roster that we have."

Overall last season, Cubs outfielders combined for a .268/.349/.418 slash line with a 107 weighted Runs Created Plus (7 percent above MLB average). The group was solid defensively (22 Defensive Runs Saved) and had a good knack for getting on base (10.9 percent walk rate, third in the National League), but also played a large role in the team's second-half offensive collapse (.705 OPS after the All-Star break).

So, there is plenty of potential, but also ample room for improvement. With all that in mind, let's take a trip around the Cubs' projected outfield.

Left field

called left field home for the bulk of last season and took another step forward in his development both as a hitter and as a defender.

Were there flaws in Schwarber's offensive campaign? Sure. It should be pointed out, though, that he not only raised his OPS (.823 in '18 vs. .782 in '17), but saw incremental gains in walk rate (up 3.2 percent) and strikeout rate (down 3.4 percent) last year. Schwarber launched 26 home runs, posted a .356 on-base percentage and ended with a 115 wRC+, indicating he was 15 percent above average as a hitter.

In the field, a trimmed-down Schwarber also showed improvement. He logged 943 2/3 innings in left field, where he had two Defensive Runs Saved and a 14.0 UZR/150. That was much better than '17, when he had a minus-9 DRS with an 8.8 UZR/150.

Where manager Joe Maddon will be challenged is finding the right time to give Schwarber a day off. The outfielder's platoon numbers (85 wRC+ against left-handers and 121 wRC+ against righties in '18) make it logical to spell him some against southpaws. On those days, Maddon could turn to either or (both switch-hitters) or move third baseman out to left. Utility man is a backup option, too.

Center field

The Cubs' top two options for center are Albert Almora Jr. and Happ. Given the backdrop of last season, it will be interesting to see how Maddon approaches handling their respective workloads at the outset of the upcoming season.

While Almora is the superior defender (nine DRS in 918 1/3 innings in '18, compared to minus-7 DRS in 403 2/3 innings for Happ), Happ ended the year as the better hitter (114 wRC+, compared to 89 for Almora in '18). Almora also struggled mightily in the second half, when he posted a 45 wRC+ to go along with a .546 OPS. Happ, on the other hand, labored against lefties (69 wRC+) and performed well against righties (118 wRC+).

Given Almora's platoon splits (101 wRC+ vs. LHP and 84 wRC+ vs. RHP in '18), it might make sense to play Happ more against right-handers and Almora when southpaws are on the mound. Or begin a game with Happ and bring in Almora in the later innings to improve the defense. Either way, Almora and Happ provide the Cubs with a mix of skill sets that give Maddon a number of approaches to consider.

The third option for center is , who manned that position for 154 1/3 innings (three DRS) last season. If the Cubs were able to make a push for Harper, Heyward would probably move to center (assuming he was not traded to clear payroll space). That is putting the proverbial cart way too far ahead of the horse, though.

The best-case scenario would be to have Almora bounce back and look more like the hitter he was in 2017, when he hit .298 (.782 OPS) and had a 103 wRC+. That is about MLB average hitting-wise, but when that is combined with plus defense out of center field, that is great value for a team.

Right field

Barring the unexpected, Heyward will be Chicago's regular right fielder again this year.

At this point, Heyward is what he is as an offensive player. His 99 wRC+ last season was an upgrade over '17 (88 wRC+), while his peripheral numbers stayed relatively constant. There were slight improvements in OBP (.335 in '18 vs. .326 in '17) and OPS (.731 vs. .715), but nothing jumps off the page as dramatically different. Defensively, he was strong again, posting three DRS in both right (851 innings) and center.

Last year, Zobrist turned in the second-most innings (424 2/3) in right field, followed by Happ (122 1/3) and Bryant (75 1/3). The way the Cubs' roster is structured, Zobrist will likely split time with at second base to open the year, so Happ is probably second on the depth chart behind Heyward in right. Happ could wind up being a regular part of the lineup but without a set position, as he bounces around the outfield and offers even more depth for second and third.

If returns as the shortstop in May -- following the completion of a 40-game suspension -- would likely slide back to second from shortstop. That is when Zobrist may begin to see more action in the outfield. Last year, the veteran utility man played both left (43 games/10 starts) and right (61 games/52 starts) when he was not helping the infield.