Chris Coghlan has been something of an unsung hero the last couple years. Or, perhaps more aptly, he is one of the most under-discussed, savvy acquisitions the front office has made in their time with the Cubs.
Consider that, after the 2013 season, the Miami Marlins non-tendered Coghlan, making way for the Cubs to swoop in and sign him to a minor league deal. That minor league deal ultimately led to very little time in the minors and a whole lot of production in the majors.
In his two years with the Cubs (2014-2015), Chris Coghlan has amassed 935 plate appearances. During which time he slashed .265/.346/.447 with a 10.4% walk rate and 18.7% strike out rate. He was an offensive breakout performer two years in a row, as evidenced by his .345 wOBA and a 119 wRC+, and he split time at four different positions (second base, third base, right field and left field), improving on his defense throughout. The guy was cerebral about his approach to improving, and got legitimately and measurably better by studying the numbers and adjusting his game.
Chris Coghlan – the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year, non-tendered Miami Marlin, Cubs minor leaguer and eventual Cubs starting left fielder – was worth nearly 6.0 WAR in his two seasons for Chicago … and he might not have any place to play regularly in 2016.
Heyward is a better overall player, was signed to a monster deal, and was brought in to be the center fielder. So, then, there certainly isn’t room for Coghlan as a regular in center. Soler and Schwarber haven’t proved their skills as long as Coghlan now has, but each has been brilliant in the past and offer far more upside potential, and cost-controlled years. Absent an injury or some particularly unforeseen ineffectiveness, I doubt we see Coghlan getting a majority of starts at any one of the three outfield spots.
But, then, might Coghlan still figure prominently into a Maddon-inspired rotation?
Probably yes, but, once you dig into it, this is tricky, too. The Cubs have created a wealth of versatility that, while great for the overall team, might make it difficult for Coghlan to play a prominent role.
Given that all of Coghlan, Schwarber, and Heyward bat from the left side of the plate, spelling either of the latter two might not always make a ton of match-up sense. And, to be quite clear, Coghlan’s profile and most direct path to playing (lefty hitter, best against righties with average defense in left field) is essentially the exact same profile as Kyle Schwarber. If Schwarber’s not going to be doing a ton of catching this year, left field against righties is almost always going to feature Schwarber.
Furthermore, Javier Baez (and his right-handed bat) has been practicing in the outfield, and has, by most accounts, been performing well. He could be, at some point soon, a better defensive option in left or right field than Coghlan, with plenty of offensive upside to offer, as well. Of course, none of this even mentions both Ben Zobrist and Matt Szczur (or any other defensively-inclined right-handed outfielder the Cubs pick up), who can both bat from the right side, and are capable of spelling both Heyward and Schwarber, as needed, against lefties.
I do suspect Coghlan will tap out Jorge Soler against particularly tough righties throughout the season, especially because that might actually be a net-positive defensive switch. Still, I expect Soler to get a vast majority of the starts based on the bigger picture and his enormous upside. Perhaps if he really struggles, the Cubs will be willing to make a switch, but I suspect Soler will have a fair bit of rope.
Is the guy that posted a 3.4 WAR last year really just a bench bat, to be used in case of injury or ineffectiveness? Will he really just get a few at bats per week? It feels like the answer should be “obviously not,” but when you really dig in, you have to go with “maybe.” We’ve discussed this before, but really good teams have really good players. And, every season it feels as though one of those teams has guys that you just can’t believe don’t have starting jobs. But that doesn’t mean they can’t play a hugely important role in a rotation or off the bench, or, more importantly, in place of an underperforming or injured player. So while Coghlan might be bummed to lose a starting spot, you should be somewhat thrilled as a Cubs fan.
The front office does understand the maximization of assets, though, and you can bet that both they and manager Joe Maddon will not allow Coghlan’s value to be wasted with 5-10 plate appearances a week. Whether that means a trade is explored, or, more likely, just an aggressive resting plan for other starters, I trust the men in charge to figure it out. Plus, injuries do happen, and the Cubs look to have one of the best outfield insurance policies in all of baseball.
Coghlan agreed to a $4.8 million deal for 2016, avoiding arbitration, and is beginning his last year before free agency in 2017.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.