Prompted by yesterday’s piece on Ryan Kalish and the plausibility of dreaming on him as a decent bench option, as well as a recent analysis of the Chicago Cubs’ projected outfield on FanGraphs from a fantasy perspective (which understandably uses a lot of phrases like “not drafting this guy in the top 40 outfielders” and “might be a good fifth outfielder”), I thought it worth discussing the Cubs’ expected outfield situation in early 2014. It’s kinda weird.
Thinking about the outfield mix, I’m struck again by something we’ve known for a while, but haven’t explicitly discussed: the Cubs don’t have a single obvious full-time starter in their outfield plans. Perhaps it was because of the way the offseason played out – maybe they’ll make another move! the Cubs clearly need another outfielder! – but we haven’t really addressed the simple fact that the Cubs will use a variety of platoons and rotations in the outfield this year as much out of absolute necessity as out of planning.
Because it’s extremely difficult to roster six outfielders, because there’s not a single clear full-time starter on the roster, and because of the unique makeup of the Cubs’ outfielders, it’s hard to argue that the impending platoon outcome has been entirely the product of design.
Consider that, among the four guys obviously making the team: the Cubs have two lefties for center field and right field (Ryan Sweeney and Nate Schierholtz), but only one righty who can definitely play those positions (Justin Ruggiano). However, Ruggiano projects to be the best of the four, if he were made a full-time starter. Junior Lake, who will hopefully see some time in center field, figures to be the least productive member of the outfield, but is the one whom you’d like to see getting the most time in a lost season (since he’s actually got some long-term upside to dream on). Since he’ll likely be starting most of the time in left field, the Cubs will have to bench one of Sweeney, Ruggiano, and Schierholtz regularly, even though there isn’t going to be an obvious, strict rotation that makes sense depending solely on the handedness of the pitcher (i.e., you’d want Sweeney and Schierholtz in there against righties, and Ruggiano against lefties, but you’d also want Ruggiano in there more than once or twice a week, and you’d rather not start Sweeney/Schierholtz against every lefty).
I’m not saying this is a problem - there will be another outfielder on the bench, too, to help – but this is going to be a constant shuffling process for new manager Rick Renteria. I don’t think there’s going to be an obvious, regular rotation at play here. I think Nate Schierholtz will almost always start in right field against righties, and I think Ryan Sweeney will start a whole lot in center field against righties. But, if you’re trying to win, you’re going to want Justin Ruggiano in there as much as possible – not just against lefties – and if you’re trying to find out if Junior Lake is the rare player who “plays up” at the big league level because of his athleticism and tools, you’re going to want him in there as much as possible, too.
If the fifth outfielder is a righty (like Casper Wells or Josh Vitters), at least the plan against lefties becomes clear (unless, of course, neither Lake nor the fifth outfielder can play passable right field). If the fifth outfielder is a lefty (like Kalish or Coghlan), the rotation is clarified further only if RR is content to sit Lake and Ruggiano against most righties. Is he really going to do that?
Good luck, RR.