“I love it here, I can’t deny that. I absolutely love it here.”
That’s what free-agent outfielder Jon Jay had to say about his one-year stop in Chicago this past season, and the comments led many to wonder whether his time in Chicago is really coming to an end. (Oh yeah … it’s a should-the-Cubs-bring-back-Jon-Jay offseason post – you knew it was coming.)
This question will be a bit easier to answer once the transaction part of the offseason kicks off (after the World Series) and salary/contract expectations become more clear, but it’s still something we can discuss in the abstract, even now.
First, lets consider the value Jay provided for the Cubs.
On the one hand, Jay led off for the Cubs a lot during the 2017 season and even throughout the playoffs. And although that was mostly because no one else stepped up to take the job, it’s not like he didn’t have the right skill set (.296 batting average, .374 OBP, 3.94 pitches per PA). On top of that, he bats left-handed, but isn’t completely neutered by left-handed pitching, and can run the bases well. Oh, and he had the “best at bat all season by anyone anywhere”.
Defensively, Jay provides a quality presence at all three outfield spots, can sub in late in games, or kick things off from the get-go. He’s not a world beater out there, but he’s very steady, and occasionally pulls off a stunner.
Ultimately, Jay wound up hitting .296/.374/.375 (101 wRC+) and posting a 1.6 WAR over 433 plate appearances in 141 games. He was a perfectly solid complementary player on a deep roster.
On the other hand, Jay’s line was seriously propped up by a BABIP (.368) that was extremely high, even for him (.340 career mark coming into the season). Jay hit for almost no power in 2017 (.079 ISO, .330 SLG), falling far below his pre-2017 career marks in those categories (.097, .384). Indeed, his offensive potential is sufficiently capped by a lack of power that he’s not even an everyday starter in a lineup that has plenty of it. And, of course, Jay will be a year older in 2018, so it’s fair to wonder if a (completely normal/age-related) loss in bat speed will further deteriorate whatever offensive potential he has left.
From a roster standpoint, there are in-house options aplenty in the outfield. Jay would be battling for playing time against a group of youngsters the Cubs would love to see succeed (Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora), as well as two older, but pricey free-agent types (Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist). In other words, in terms of guys you’d most want to see lock up an outfield job outright in 2018, Jay is probably near or at the bottom of a six person list.
Is that the kind of gig Jay will want to target in free agency coming off a successful season?
And which way will the Cubs lean?
Well, I think that depends a lot on what type of job Jay is looking for. If he’s comfortable taking another 1-2 year deal wherein his role will be limited to 5th outfielder/pinch hitter/pinch runner/defensive replacement-like duties, then I think there’s a fit. As a complementary veteran piece on a reasonable deal, Jay is great. If, however, he’s looking to cash in one last time on a true starting opportunity (he’ll be 33 next year), then another team might be willing to give him a bit more of a look (and perhaps more money).
Then again, if the Cubs finally move some of their positional redundancies this offseason like Theo Epstein has suggested they might, Jay might be a nice guy to have around (like he was this year). And not that it’s everything, but he was reportedly very well-received by his teammates and quite clearly by manager Joe Maddon. That stuff does matter and have an impact.
For now, I don’t think there’s a clear answer to this question, because there’s quite a bit still up in the air about the offseason approach. In the right scenario, there’s a fit for a return. In other perfectly plausible scenarios, it’s best for both sides not to re-up.
On the whole, if Jay is willing to take another one-year deal (or a modest two-year deal that won’t burn you in year two if he falls off the table in 2018), it’s probably worth keeping him around for the value he provides in a 4th/5th outfielder role. Although the Cubs do have a number of players on the roster ready to play in the outfield, the upper levels of the minors may not provide immediate quality reserve options if there were a rash of injuries.
We’ll get a better sense soon after the World Series concludes and free agency opens up, though I’d imagine internal conversations have already started.
Until then, Jay’s future with the Cubs is worth discussing. What do you think? Should the Cubs bring him back?
UPDATE: For what it’s worth, here’s what Jay just put up on Instagram:
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.