In 2014, center field was arguably the Cubs worst offensive position. After seven total players failed to establish themselves, the front office traded for Dexter Fowler and received an immediate uptick in numbers. Center field managed an overall .252/.345/.411 line with 18 home runs, 53 RBI and 22 stolen bases. Let’s take a look back at the position and where the team may go as they look to remake the position again in this offseason.
Dexter Fowler was an immediate revelation and the table setter, the Cubs’ young lineup needed to keep the offense going. In total, he batted .252/.348/.415 with 17 home runs, 46 RBI, 20 stolen bases and 102 runs scored. Manager Joe Maddon had a saying regarding Fowler for his offense, “You go, we go.”
Unfortunately, despite the overall numbers that wasn’t always the case with Fowler. He posted OPS’ below .700 in May (.670), June (.641) and September (.640), a little too streaky for a leadoff man. Also, Fowler posted a -1.2 UZR/150 rating, just below average for the position. While it was the best overall rating in his career, with the front office said to be looking to improve its outfield defense, it’s not so surprising that the team offered him a qualifying offer and did not sign him to an extension. Fowler has since rejected that offer and will test free agency. The Cubs have said they’re still in the mix, but reports have Fowler looking for four years around $16 million per, a daunting figure for a 31-year old outfielder who relies on his speed.
With that in mind, the team will need to find a replacement. Internally, six other players patrolled center field last season: Chris Denorfia, Kris Bryant, Matt Szczur, Austin Jackson, Quintin Berry and Junior Lake.
Like Fowler, Denorfia and Berry will also likely not return, but if they do it will likely be in a bench role as opposed to the starter.
Matt Szczur is probably more in line for the fifth outfielder role, but could serve as a platoon partner against lefties depending on who the front office chooses to fill the position. Szczur has experience in the corners as well and managed three hits in 16 at bats in center, with one of them being a solo home run.
Bryant has been suggested as a possible place holder depending on the status of prospect Albert Almora Jr., who many believe could be ticketed for the role sometime this season. Bryant played just seven games in center field, but metrics suggest he was way below average there. However, scouts said the same about his abilities at third going into the season and he ended up being above average defensively. Bryant has said that he is most comfortable in center of all the outfield positions and his athleticism suggests he could be decent out there with the right instruction. It all really depends on where the front office seems him going forward.
Austin Jackson is probably the best option, but the Cubs will have to contend with everyone else as he is currently a free agent. Jackson was acquired at the waiver deadline in August and ended up filling a defensive replacement role for the last month of the season. Jackson was second on the team with eight appearances in center field and batted .350 with three doubles, five RBI and two stolen bases in just 20 at bats. Jackson has always been a solid fielder, but is even streakier than Fowler at the plate as he has a penchant for strikeouts and rarely walks. If the front office truly is intending to keep a spot open for Almora Jr., Jackson can likely be had on a one- or two-year deal at around $8-10 million per, but the team would likely need to have a leadoff replacement.
In addition to Jackson, two other free agents could likely fill the void in Gerardo Parra and Denard Span. Parra was profiled in our left field preview. He’s better defensively in the corners and considered below average in center. However, he could make sense as a nice depth player, who could hold it down for a year if needed.
The left-handed Span could also make sense on a short-team deal and has been a player the team has coveted since last year. In 61 games last year, Span batted .301/.365/.431 with five home runs, 22 RBI and 11 stolen bases. He suffered a few injuries last year including a sports hernia and core muscle surgery that started his season late and a hip injury that ended it early. At 32, he carries some further injury risk which is why he will likely have to sign a one- to two-year pact to show teams he can last a full season at around $8-10 million. If he can, the Cubs could get a solid defensive player who could set the table like Fowler did.
This is of course all assuming that the front office still believes that Albert Almora Jr. is still their center fielder of the future. His stock has been up and down over the past couple of seasons due to inconsistent results. Last season, in 106 games at Double A Tennessee, Almora Jr. batted .272/.327/.400 with 26 doubles, four triples, six home runs, 46 RBI and eight stolen bases. A strong August, in which he batted .352, helped salvage his season. Almora Jr. has shown to be Major League ready defensively, but will need to prove he’s ready with a strong effort in Iowa. If he can, he’ll likely find his way to the big club in September.
Of course, he could also be part of a trade to acquire starting pitching or even another more Major League ready centerfielder. The Cubs have recently been linked to Jackie Bradley Jr., of the Boston Red Sox. Bradley Jr, like Almora has a strong defensive reputation, but hasn’t shown it with the bat yet. He has just a career .213 average in the majors, but put it together somewhat last season with batting .249 with 10 home runs and 43 RBI in 221 at bats.
A wild card in the center field derby could also be Javier Baez. The front office has made mentions lately of how comfortable and natural Baez looks on the practice field shagging fly balls in the outfield. It’s something that bears watching depending on the moves the front office makes going into Spring Training.
As with other positions we’ve profiled, center field could go a number of different ways this off-season. The front office could re-sign Fowler, go with a short-term free agent or make a trade for a young asset to fill the role. It’ll be interesting to see what direction they decide to go in.
Cubs 2015 Position Reviews
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