It’s amazing the difference a year makes. Going into last season, the Cubs left field picture consisted of a platoon of Chris Coghlan and Chris Denorfia. The club was still in the midst of a transition season and the veteran duo had the potential to produce enough to be useful, while keeping the position open for upcoming impact young players. As the season progressed, the team got that in spades with the emergence of top hitting prospect Kyle Schwarber. Let’s take a look at left field and the current possibilities.
Earlier in the season, much of the attention revolved around Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant who were carrying the Chicago Cubs offense on their backs. In June, fans caught a glimpse of burly Kyle Schwarber’s offensive brilliance. By July, the lefty hitting Kyle Schwarber joined the team for good and the city fell in love. He had his national coming out party during the playoffs thanks to mammoth home runs and shaky outfield defense.
Overall, Schwarber batted .246/.355/.487 with six doubles, one triple, 16 home runs, 43 RBI and three stolen bases in just 232 at bats. While his numbers were impressive, if you dig a little deeper, there were a few alarming trends. First of all, Schwarber struggled greatly against same handed pitchers. He had just eight hits in 56 at-bats, however two of those hits were home runs. Secondly, he started to struggle as the season progressed and pitchers got more tape on him. In June and July, he batted .323 and in August and September, he batted just .216. The extremes in batting average may have been due to luck though. BABIP is a statistic that measures how often a ball goes for a hit, with .300 being normal. Schwarber’s BABIP in June was .538 and .379 in July well above usual. His August was .226 and September was .244. Considering that his strikeout rate fluctuated from month to month, it’s reasonable to assume that Schwarber’s batting average should normalize to the .260 range if his BABIP rate does as well.
On the defensive side, Schwarber certainly needs some work. Reports say he has slimmed down in an attempt to be a little more athletic in the outfield. His UZR/150 rating had him at -4.1 which was about below average, but not as bad as some had tagged him. The front office seems to believe he’s not a liability as he saw time in right field in the playoffs and during the season as well thanks to a strong arm. In addition to working on his outfield defense, Schwarber is still tagged for starts at catcher so he may not necessarily be the full time starter in left. Consistency on both sides of the ball will be the key for Schwarber this season and the main thing to watch this spring.
A host of others could be patrolling left field depending on the matchup including active roster members Chris Coghlan, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler or Matt Szczur or non-roster invitees Matt Murton, Jesus Guzman, Juan Perez and John Andreoli.
Chris Coghlan was the player that Schwarber replaced last year thanks to his strong start and needs at second base during July. The utility player’s total numbers were actually not that much different than Schwarber’s. He hit .250/.341/.443 with 25 doubles, six triples, 16 home runs, 41 RBI and 11 stolen bases. Similarly to the season before, Coghlan was much better in the second half with a .825 OPS versus a .752 OPS in the first half. Coghlan greatly improved his outfield defense in left field and his UZR/150 rating of 18.8 was well above average. Depending on the roster makeup, Coghlan could be Schwarber’s defensive replacement or face right-handers he has had some success against in the past.
Against tough left-handers Ben Zobrist could get the call. The veteran free agent signee has a career .290 average against lefties and could spell Schwarber if he continues to struggle against same handed pitchers. Zobrist is also an excellent defender in the outfield corners and could also be a defensive replacement if needed.
Kris Bryant could be another option in left field, most likely against lefties when Zobrist is at second base. He played in eight games there last season and actually started there during the Wild Card game. His defense grades out as above average and could keep him fresher as third base can be a physically demanding position.
Other possibilities against left-handers could be Jorge Soler and Matt Szczur who will be profiled further in our next two installments. Depending on the alignment of the outfield, Soler could find himself in left if Jason Heyward earns the start in right or if his defense continues to disappoint. If Szczur makes the roster, he’s another option as a defensive replacement for Schwarber.
Of the non-roster players, Murton and Guzman have the most experience in left field, but are still long shots to make the Cubs.
Matt Murton hasn’t played in the majors since 2009 having spent the last six with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan. In 2010, Murton set the record for most hits in a season in Japan’s NPB league with 214 besting Ichiro Suzuki’s old record. Before leaving for Japan, Murton held a career batting line of .286/.352/.436 and his patient approach is something this team currently needs. Although his defense grades out as above average in left, his inability to play center further hurts his chances to make the team. At 34, it’s debatable how much he has left in the tank, but this spring is his chance to show other teams as well. He’ll probably be stashed in Iowa and mentor young hitters like Albert Almora Jr., or be released should a better opportunity present itself.
Jesus Guzman also did not play in any Major League affiliated baseball last year. He played 68 total games split between the Japan Central League and Venezuelan Winter League. As a Major Leaguer, he owns a career .247/.316/.390 line over 5 seasons, last playing for the Houston Astros in 2014 where he batted just .188. His average has declined every full season since 2011, but has shown value as a pinch hitter with a career .242 batting average. With no true backup at first base, Guzman could be an option there as well as he has been an above average fielder there. He’ll likely fill that role in Iowa and could be called upon if the Cubs need an additional bench bat.
It’s been a recurring theme that the Cubs have many positions with enviable depth and left field is no different. Kyle Schwarber is expected to get the lion share of starts thanks to his power bat. While his moon shots have already caught attention this spring, it’s his defense that will probably be watched closer by fans. If he can pull it together, he’ll be another name added to the core. If he can’t, there’s a host of others lining up to take his place.
2016 Cubs Spring Training Previews
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