State of the Cubs: Big questions in center field
The 2023 season is over and after narrowly missing out on the playoffs, the Cubs are staring down a pivotal winter. Before the stove starts heating up, we analyze the Cubs depth chart at each position and how Jed Hoyer’s front office might address the team’s needs.
Next up: Center field
1. Pete Crow-Armstrong
2. Alexander Canario
3. Mike Tauchman
4. Christopher Morel
The center field position hinges greatly on a player not listed above: Cody Bellinger.
Will the Cubs bring him back? And if he does return to Chicago, will it be as a first baseman or a center fielder?
The Bellinger question is not only the biggest query at center field this offseason but with the Cubs in general. For a team that finished just outside the playoff field, the Cubs need to improve their roster and that starts with finding a way to replicate Bellinger’s production from 2023 (26 homers, 97 RBI, 20 stolen bases, .307 AVG, .881 OPS, 4.4 WAR).
The best course of action, obviously, would be to simply re-sign Bellinger to a long-term contract. (He technically has a $25 million option for 2024, but he will undoubtedly decline and seek a big deal in free agency.)
The Cubs have made no secret about the fact that they are interested in bringing Bellinger back and already began conversations in the season.
“We’ve had really good dialogue throughout the whole year,” Jed Hoyer said at his end-of-season press conference. “And he loves Wrigley Field, he loves the fans. I think his experience was fantastic, and obviously our experience with him was fantastic. We’d love to bring him back; we’ll have a lot of conversations with him.”
If the Cubs are able to bring Bellinger back, he could play center field but also provides stellar defense at first base — another hole on the roster.
Long-term, those within the organization and around the game view Crow-Armstrong as the center fielder of the future.
He provides elite defense, great speed and a left-handed bat to a Cubs team that could use all three assets. While Crow-Armstrong struggled offensively in his brief cup of coffee in the majors, he had a stellar season in the minors — .283/.365/.511 (.876 OPS), 20 homers, 82 RBI, 98 runs, 37 stolen bases.
He doesn’t turn 22 until March 25 and is the No. 12 prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline.
Behind PCA is Canario, a fellow top prospect who provides right-handed power and an ability to play all three outfield spots. Morel can also play the outfield and saw a lot of time in center in 2022 (57 games) before mostly serving as the DH or playing the infield in 2023.
Tauchman is another interesting case as the soon-to-be-33-year-old journeyman found a home in center field and atop the batting order for his hometown Cubs. He posted a .363 on-base percentage, 2.3 WAR and played solid defense in center throughout the year.
MLB Trade Rumors projects Tauchman to earn $2 million in arbitration next season, which is a modest price tag for veteran depth across the outfield. However, if the Cubs are confident in their young outfielders (or they re-sign Bellinger as further outfield depth), they may not necessarily want shell out a $2 million deal for a role player like Tauchman.
Among all position groups on the Cubs roster, center field has emerged as one of the most intriguing spots on the diamond.
While Crow-Armstrong is widely viewed as the center fielder of the future, the question becomes: Will he be on the 2024 Opening Day roster or will the Cubs want him to get more seasoning in Triple-A to start the year?
He went 0-for-14 to start his MLB career, drawing 3 walks with 7 strikeouts.
“Having that experience where I think he’s going to take that to heart and go make those changes is really important because he’s going to be a good and very impactful player in this league for a long time,” Hoyer said.
Regardless of whether Bellinger is back or not, there is no guarantee Crow-Armstrong will be on the 2024 Opening Day roster. And even if he does start out in center, it’s not a guarantee that he would be on the roster all year so the Cubs will want to have some depth behind him.
That’s why bringing back Bellinger makes sense from a defensive standpoint (even if he initially returns to play first base) and is a good reason why it might behoove the team to have Tauchman on the roster again next year.
It’s difficult to predict exactly how things will shake out this winter, but expect Crow-Armstrong to spend the majority of time in center field in 2024 and beyond.
State of the Cubs series