Among the Chicago Cubs’ stated objectives this offseason is the desire to pick up some veteran influence while simultaneously “lengthening” the lineup/roster. Although you’d love to do that in the form of a clear, impact, starting positional player, the Cubs may have some room to accommodate a veteran reserve in the outfield.
To that end, there are a couple suggestions floating around out there to discuss, which then frames a broader discussion of the Cubs’ outfield bench options: Bruce Levine suggests 39-year-old Torii Hunter, while Jesse Rogers points to 33-year-old Jonny Gomes (and also mentions Hunter).
A short burst on each guy as a possible target. First, Hunter:
- Turned 39 in July, and is coming of a two-year, $26 million contract with the Tigers.
- Hit very well over his 586 plate appearances in 2014: .286/.319/.446, .335 wOBA, 113 wRC+.
- The problem is that his defense has deteriorated rapidly in the last few years. Despite that offensive line, he contributed just 0.3 WAR to the Tigers thanks to brutal right field defense (his -20.1 UZR/150 was the 4th worst for any player in baseball last year). I haven’t observed Hunter personally, so I can’t comment whether the slide, which appears to have started in 2013, is tied to something particular to his moving to Detroit, and/or is something that could be ameliorated in left field, as opposed to right.
- For his career, Hunter has a decent platoon split, with a .342 wOBA/111 wRC+ off of righties, and a .365 wOBA/126 wRC+ off of lefties. That relative split was about the same in 2014.
- Hunter may be best suited now to a reserve role or even part-time DH duty, because the bat will still play, even if the defense won’t.
- Turns 34 in November, and is coming off of a two-year, $10 million deal with the Red Sox (subsequently traded to the A’s).
- Had a down year in 2014 after three very solid reserve/platoon seasons between the A’s and Red Sox. In 2014, however, Gomes’ power evaporated (0.95 ISO versus .198 career mark) and his strikeout rate ticked up to 27.4%.
- Defensively, Gomes can play either corner outfield spot passably, but noticeably below average.
- For his career, Gomes has always had a pronounced platoon split, with a .373 wOBA/133 wRC+ against lefties, and a .314 wOBA/91 wRC+ against righties.
- In 2014, the split was unbelievably strong, with Gomes posting a .334 wOBA/112 wRC+ against lefties, and a scant .232 wOBA/40 wRC+ against righties.
- Gomes still looks like a solid platoon outfielder on the bench, especially if he comes at a low price. But, to be most effective, his role would have to be very limited.
- (Gomes bonus, depending on your laid-back-ness: he wore this when the Red Sox went to the White House.)
Going into the offseason, the Cubs have a great deal of flexibility in their outfield, as only Jorge Soler looks locked into a starting spot at one of the corners. Chris Coghlan could be a starter, but need necessarily be considered a guaranteed starter. Ditto Arismendy Alcantara. The Cubs have Justin Ruggiano and Ryan Sweeney (and Junior Lake and Matt Szczur, if you wanted to lump them in there) under control, though neither is guaranteed to be on the Cubs coming out of Spring Training next year. If he makes the team, Mike Olt may also figure into the reserve corner outfield mix, if he shows the ability to play there in addition to the corner infield spots.
In other words, the Cubs have a whole bunch of guys who can do a whole bunch of things with respect to the outfield, but don’t necessarily have a whole bunch of guys who are dead-bang starters as we sit here today.
We’ll see if the Cubs use that as an opportunity to bring in a clear starter, or if they’ll instead commit to Alcantara in center and Coghlan in left (at least until the plan for Kris Bryant becomes clear.)
When it comes to these reserve outfield options, cost and handedness could figure significantly into the equation. Consider that, if the Cubs were to start Luis Valbuena at third next year, Chris Coghlan in left, Arismendy Alcantara in center, and Anthony Rizzo at first base, they would have a nicely balanced starting lineup, in terms of lefties and righties. The bench, however, could be limited in lefty options if the Cubs retained Justin Ruggiano and opted for a guy like Gomes or Hunter as the fifth outfielder over, for example, Ryan Sweeney. Instead, the Cubs could balance out a bit by non-tendering or trading Ruggiano, who could make $3 million in arbitration next year, and replacing his spot with one of Gomes or Hunter for a similar cost (though, to be sure, Hunter would likely seek more to keep playing).
I’m not saying that’s the right approach, because there’s a lot to like about Ruggiano (and, unless Gomes is less expensive, Ruggiano might be the better overall player between those two). But it’s hard to see the Cubs adding a reserve outfielder like Gomes or Hunter, and still keeping all of Chris Coghlan, Justin Ruggiano, and Ryan Sweeney. Arismendy Alcantara’s infield-outfield versatility would allow them to do it, mind you.
You’d probably rather see the Cubs limit that group of reserve-ish outfielders to three so that the Cubs have space to add an impact starter in the outfield, if the right opportunity arises. Maybe that means Ruggiano (because of cost and handedness) or Sweeney (because of his tough-luck 2014 season) is squeezed out.
All of this is to say: I can see why the Cubs might consider some veteran, reserve options in the outfield this Winter, but, if they do, expect it to effectuate some turnover on the bench/in the outfield.
(By the way: if you’re looking solely for a right-handed veteran with great leadership skills, diminished defensive ability, and some pop off of the bench … Alfonso Soriano is a free agent. Just sayin’.)