[Ed. – The following is another guest post from freelance reporter and ESPNChicago.com contributor, Sahadev Sharma. With the Winter Meetings in full swing, Sahadev wanted to offer some thoughts on the Cubs’ outfield situation. Have I mentioned that Sahadev and I do a podcast? We’ll have a new episode for you tomorrow, but you can check out our previous episodes – and subscribe – here.]
As the first day of the Winter Meetings wound down, reports surfaced that the Cubs may be targeting a right fielder and plugging their center field hole with David DeJesus.
That struck me as a little strange, considering the strong players available via trade or free agency that can play center field, all of whom are better defenders than DeJesus. DeJesus is adequate (advanced statistics suggest he’s below average) in center field, but considering how much teams value up-the-middle defenders, this potential move seems odd. Perhaps the Cubs are trying to increase DeJesus’ value. Or maybe the rumor is simply being misinterpreted in that the Cubs are just considering right fielders in addition to center fielders. Which would make perfect sense, why not increase your pool of candidates by not limiting yourself to center field?
As for that hole in center field, it does appear rather gaping. In 44 games in 2012, Brett Jackson proved he could handle the position defensively, and, while he showed solid patience at the plate (15.5% BB%), his shudder-inducing 41.6% strikeout rate left much to be desired. The Cubs have already stated that Jackson will be starting 2013 at AAA and while I may be one of the few that still believe he can improve his approach enough to be a valuable major-league player, the Cubs are going to need someone to roam center (or right) to start the season.
There are already three names that made sense for the Cubs to pursue that are off the market: B.J. Upton (Braves, $75M/5 years), Denard Span (Nationals, acquired for pitching prospect Alex Meyer) and Angel Pagan (Giants, $40M/4 years). Without going into too much detail, Span seems like he would have been the best fit (will be 29 for 2013 season and on a team-friendly contract), but the Cubs weren’t a good match with the Twins who were seeking young pitching in return. Upton would have been my second choice due to age and the slight chance, however unlikely, that he is still tapping into his potential. Pagan would have been last, since he’s 31 and that type of money doesn’t seem wise for a player who will be on the downswing of his career when the Cubs will realistically be competing again.
That said there are still plenty of solid candidates for the Cubs to choose from to fill their hole in center field.
Josh Hamilton – To be frank, it’s not happening. There are those that insist the Cubs should aggressively pursue the likes of Hamilton and Greinke on high-priced, short-term deals. These people contend that, at the very least, the Cubs need to check if these free agents are willing to sign shorter term deals at a higher per year value. First of all, to suggest that Theo Epstein and his staff haven’t thought of this idea is laughable. Epstein is one of the most meticulous executives in all of baseball; it’d be a surprise if he hadn’t checked in on every free agent and every player that may be on the trade market in some fashion. Secondly, there are almost no free agents that would pass up the highest dollar amount, meaning total contract value. Both the agents and players association enjoy seeing those big, long-term deals. The deal Cliff Lee signed with Philadelphia a few years ago is a rarity in this game.
Despite an awful June and July and a subpar September, Hamilton still managed an impressive .285/.354/.577 line with a career high 43 home runs on the season. The bat is to be feared, but his defense in center field leaves much to be desired.
Money, years of commitment, injury concerns and personal issues all add up to Hamilton not making sense for a team that’s still a couple years from realistically contending for a World Series.
Michael Bourn – Bourn appears to be a more logical choice than Hamilton since he’s a gold glove caliber defender in center field and is a year and a half younger. Bourn also would give the Cubs a solid lead-off man, bringing a respectable OBP (.348) and tremendous speed (42 stolen bases at a decent, though not spectacular 76.4% success rate) to the table. However, the cost issue comes up once again as I expect Bourn to sign a deal that tops Upton’s, in both years and annual salary. Again, Bourn isn’t an ideal target for the Cubs, despite rumors of their interest, considering he’s a player whose value during his next contract will be highest in the first two seasons.
Dexter Fowler (trade) – At first glance Fowler seems like the perfect target for the Cubs. At 6’-4” and 190 pounds, Fowler is a physical specimen. Fowler, 26, had a breakout season in 2012, putting up an impressive .300/.389/.474 line and a very attractive 12.8% walk rate. However, a closer look at the numbers tells a different story. Fowler was aided by a .390 BABIP (he’s always had a higher BABIP, but 2012 trumped his previous high by 36 points) and doesn’t play center field nearly as well as you’d think looking at his athletic frame. What’s most concerning are Fowler’s home/away splits. At home, Fowler is hitting a robust .332/.432/.553, but away from Coors his numbers plummet to .262/.339/.381. The massive drop in slugging is a classic sign that a player numbers are the product of playing at Coors Field. Fowler may turn out to be a very productive player away from Denver, but with the Rockies asking for a hefty return in a trade, it’s a gamble I’d be unwilling to take.
Peter Bourjos (trade) – Bourjos is arguably one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. In fact, he’s one of the few players that can move Mike Trout to left field and not result in the manager being admitted to a psych ward for making such a decision. Bourjos only needs to be average with the bat to be a very productive player in the big leagues. However, with an OPS+ of 73 in 2012, Bourjos was a mess at the plate. Although he battled a wrist injury all season, which likely inhibited any success he may have had with the bat if healthy. Bourjos is a year younger than Fowler and would cost significantly less in a trade. The biggest hurdle may be that the Angels aren’t aggressively shopping Bourjos. Obviously, an unwilling trade partner makes consummating a deal a little trickier.
Coco Crisp (trade) – Crisp is a fit as he’ll cost only $7.5M for next season and has a $1M buyout for a 2014 option also at $7.5M. He’s available because the A’s have four starting quality outfielders with their recent acquisition of Chris Young. Crisp plays solid defense, is a great base runner (39-for-43 in stolen bases last season) and at age 33 would provide another strong, veteran leader to a Cubs’ team lacking in that department (save for Alfonso Soriano).
Shane Victorino – Victorino is coming off a terrible season at the plate in which he set career lows in all three slash stats (.255/.321/.383). He appears to be a perfect target for the Cubs as someone coming off a subpar season who could be signed at a very reasonable price. At 32, Victorino would provide value in many of the same areas as Crisp. If Victorino is looking for a one-year deal to up his value in 2014, he could be a fit with the Cubs. However, if he can sign with a team more likely to compete in the immediate future, Victorino would probably head elsewhere.
If the Cubs do target right fielders Nick Swisher (read the last sentence of my Bourn analysis for why he doesn’t fit), Cody Ross, Ryan Ludwick, Scott Hairston and Ryan Sweeney could all be added to this list. Whatever the Cubs decide to do, it appears that they’ll have plenty of legitimate option to fill that hole.