Joe Maddon‘s boundless creativity is well-known, and there was no outlet which he used it more than his outfield.
An area of the team roster usually forgotten about, the Cubs employed 15 different men throughout the outfield grass in 2016. Most notable was during one late June night when Maddon sent three different pitchers to man left field.
Something like that probably won’t be seen again this year, but let’s take a look at the ones who will consistently be spending time patrolling left, right, and center.
There is only one player that we know will be starting almost every day in the same outfield position, and that’s Jason Heyward. After signing the biggest contract in Cubs history, Heyward had an absolutely dismal 2016 season. His batting average dropped 0.63 from the prior year and he hit nearly half the amount of home runs. A season to forget while being paid millions of dollars certainly alienated him among the fans, but a bounce back is likely.
Heyward’s defense in right field is gold glove worthy, which makes him a solid starter alone, but if he even has an average season, he’ll make a fantastic starter. I see Heyward cementing his spot in the hearts of fans with an amazing season.
In terms of center field, there will two different players sharing time. Albert Almora is a top prospect with stellar defensive ability, and has shown flashes of solid offensive production with a .277 batting average and three homers in his 47 appearances with the Cubs in 2016. However, as he’s new to the league (2017 will be his rookie season), he’ll be splitting time with new free agent signing Jon Jay (nicknamed “The Federalist” – get it?).
Jay isn’t new to Cubs fans as he played with the St. Louis Cardinals for six years. He’s best known for hitting and getting on base without any power; he boasts a .287 career batting average and a .352 career OBP but drags along a well under-average .737 OPS. Either way, the Cubs already have power and need someone to get on base, which fits Jay’s exact profile. As Jay is a lefty and Almora is a righty, it’s very possible we’ll be seeing some sort of platooning (Jay plays when the opposing starting pitcher is a righty and Almora starts when it’s a lefty), but I’m very intrigued by both players alone and would be happy with either one starting. The two could prove to be a powerful duo when all is said and done.
Left field is where there really is no obvious starter. Kyle Schwarber started there in his one game in the National League (in other words, when he wasn’t the DH), and appears to be in line to start there most games in 2017. Unlike his right and center field counterparts, Schwarber is a massive liability defensively. That being said, his offense makes it worth the risk.
Schwarber isn’t going to start every game in left as he is also a catcher and there are a plethora of others that have the ability to take his spot. 2016 National League MVP Kris Bryant has played plenty of innings out in left and both Ben Zobrist and Willson Contreras can (and probably will) step in to help as well.
The Cubs also have depth in the form of Matt Szczur, someone who has flip-flopped back and forth between the major leagues and the minors so much that the Cubs have run out of options with him and, to keep him a Cub, must keep him on the major league roster. Szczur had his best season yet in 2016, but still only posted backup worthy numbers with a .259 average and 5 homers in 200 plate appearances throughout the season. He’s proved his worthiness as both a backup and a solid pinch hitter, and since the Cubs would almost certainly lose him if he wasn’t on their major league roster, you’ll definitely be seeing him playing in 2017.
Also on the 40-man roster is prospect Jacob Hanneman. Hanneman has excelled at A-Advanced Myrtle Beach, but has had nothing but struggles at the Double-A level. Despite this, he was recently added to the roster to avoid him being taken in the Rule 5 Draft this past December, and it’s possible that he sports Cubbie blue at some point late in the season.
We’ll see if Maddon continues his wacky trend with his outfield, but this year’s outfield could be both an offensive and (half) defensive powerhouse.